Two weeks ago, Moldova marked the 25th anniversary of the Republic’s independence from the Soviet Union. But what was meant to be a day of pride, celebration, and solidarity turned into anger, protest, and tear gas-ridden clashes with police.
There is no doubt that the right future path for Moldova is European integration. The poorest country in Europe desperately needs the support of a free market and the safeguards and regulations that come with it. But that is not where the country is headed. Less than two months away lies a historical occasion for Moldova -- the first direct presidential elections since 1996 -- and the country finds itself at a crossroads.
Shaken and rattled by systemic corruption and events that led to the disappearance of $1 billion from the Moldovan Central Bank’s reserves, the people have simply lost faith in the pro-EU government that currently governs and are increasingly leaning toward pro-Russian political parties. This is what those responsible for the heist wanted all along.
The missing funds were funnelled out of the central reserves in under three years through three of the most prominent Moldovan banks and laundered through a web of offshore entities so intricate that two years later, not a single cent has been recovered. This, shockingly, is not even the worst part of the scandal. The most frightening fact is that the whole thing was organized, coordinated, and perpetrated from the inside. As the former deputy head of the Prevention and Combating of Money Laundering Service within Moldova’s National Anti-Corruption Center, I saw the moving parts come to light and tried to do something – until I was pushed out.
What do you do when an already vulnerable and disadvantaged country is drained economically from the inside out, and the ones who are supposed to help are the very ones responsible?
With nowhere else to turn, people today are taking to the streets, protesting both the government and the individual primarily responsible for the theft -- business tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc is Moldova’s top oligarch and the country’s richest man. He has managed to buy influence throughout the country’s political, court, police, and media systems. Thus does he maintain his innocence and his freedom, buying off or threatening anyone who tries to prove otherwise. He is active at the very core of the system, putting even the heads of the National Anti-Corruption Center into his pocket.
To most Western countries, the entire situation sounds like something out of a movie. But it is in fact the reality for 3.5 million people, myself included.
Many Westerners might wonder indeed why they should care.
The problem goes far beyond Moldova’s borders. While two people have been jailed for their role in the theft, a scheme of such proportions required many more to succeed. If the main benefactor and his accomplices are not held accountable, not only will the funds never be recovered; a similar scheme could be replicated in any number of vulnerable countries, particularly those in which corruption is similarly ingrained within the ranks of the political system.
What’s more, Moldova and its people are not the only ones paying the price. The reserves came from the International Monetary Fund, meaning it was also money from European and American taxpayers. Countless citizens are paying for what has happened.
The upcoming presidential elections are indeed historic. They present a chance to truly reform the system -- so that the IMF can guarantee the safety of its funds, and so that the Moldovan people can thrive economically -- so that they can trust the government and those in charge of their well being.
And, finally, so that the Moldovan people can finally take to the streets and truly celebrate their independence.