“You have the justice system, we have drums and culture”: Moldova’s grassroots fight against oligarchic corruption

Moldova's recent parliamentary election may have been business as usual, but there are signs that campaigners are gathering momentum in their fight against the country's oligarchic system of power.

Daniela Prugger
7 March 2019, 1.45pm
Activists are stopped on their way to Nisporeni, 23 February 2019.
OccupyGuguță / Facebook.

When Ana-Maria Popa and her four colleagues are stopped by the police, they have barely left Chișinău. There’s only a few cars on the road this early in the morning. It is 23 February, a cold, snowy Saturday, the day before Moldova’s parliamentary elections. The group is driving to Nisporeni, a 20,000-strong city where Vladimir Plahotniuc, oligarch and chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, is to speak to potential voters. Ana-Maria Popa and others want to hold a protest outside the venue, to raise awareness about corruption in national politics. The car’s trunk is packed with drums.

“Do you have papers for these drums?” the policeman asks. “These are our drums,” the driver responds. “Where are the papers with the names of the owners?” The discussion continues for more than half an hour. A second, third and fourth police car arrives. One of the activists films the scene. In the days that follow, this Facebook video will receive more than 2,400 comments, 286,700 views and 6,000 shares.

Only when a second group of activists, who are accompanied by a foreign TV crew, reaches the scene, do the police leave. But before that, the officers make each of the activists line up in a queue, state their name and declare that they are the legal owner of the drums. “This is ridiculous,” one user comments; “Let’s vote,” another.

The video serves its purpose, provoking a reaction among the people who watch it. After all, that is what the activists want.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

“I would describe Moldova’s political situation as oligarchic authoritarianism,” says Popa, a 26-year old translator. “The Democratic Party doesn’t only control a big part of the country’s enterprises, but also the judicial system, the ministries. They use blackmail to gain supporters, they intimidate the opposition. People are really afraid of them, they are scared to get fired from their jobs for expressing other political views.”

On election night, Popa sits in a crowded Chișinău restaurant called C51, where the activists tend to hang out. The results are constantly updated on a TV at the back of the restaurant. But even though the results aren’t final yet, Popa and her colleagues are already preparing for the next protest.

“No one of us expects that our actions will have a big impact. It is more like we know that our efforts must continue,” says Popa. They write slogans on cardboard: “All the Porsches in MD [Moldova] belong to PD [The Democratic Party]” and “You have the justice system, we have drums and culture.”

Popa belongs to a group of local activists who call themselves OccupyGuguță. With more than 100 people now involved, this is a rather new development for Moldova, a country, that is mostly described as one of the poorest and most corrupt in Europe.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of emigration in Europe: young and educated people leave for countries with higher salaries and higher living standards. Today, between 15 and 25 percent of Moldovans work abroad. Unlike many others, Popa decided to return from Poland — she felt the need to change something. “My frustration about how enormously absurd the political situation was growing.”

“My parents didn’t leave the country because they wanted a fancy, better life or career. They couldn’t survive financially in Moldova”

By coincidence, Popa participated in one of the first events organised by OccupyGuguță last summer, shortly after the election of anti-corruption candidate Andrei Năstase as mayor of Chișinău was annulled. The court decided that Năstase had engaged in illegal “agitation” on election day by repeatedly calling people to vote. He received 52,57% of the vote and had called on people to vote in general, rather than for specific candidates. But according to the court, only the electoral commission is entitled to do so, despite the fact that Moldovan politicians have done so in the past. Today, however, this electoral law does not exist anymore.

Andrei Năstase
CC BY-SA 4.0 Andy.redbrick / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

“We were very angry about that,” says Popa as she recalls the revoking of Năstase’s victory, recalling that many young people decided to protest, one by one, independently of each other as a result. Shortly after, the news that an old city cafe (“Guguță”) was to be demolished to make way for a large hotel, brought people together again.

Among them was Popa, who suggested they draw from the “rhythm of resistance” movement, a transnational and anticapitalist network of percussion bands that uses music as a political tool. Soon the group was meeting in an old city museum for weekly drumming sessions. Around 20 people — students, architects, graphic artists and translators — practised playing their instruments as blue and green dreamcatchers spiralled above them in the middle of the room.

The demolition of OccupyGuguță's camp by police in summer 2018. Source: plop andrew.

One of the movement’s supporters is 29-year-old Aliona Rotaru, who is the co-founder of the restaurant where the Guguță crowd meets regularly. After the Năstase decision, Rotaru felt as if her right to vote had been abused: “I feel unsafe here, unprotected and very unstable as a small entrepreneur. There is no consultation from the state, no media support, and lots of bureaucratic work instead.” According to Rotaru, she wanted to support “OccupyGuguță” from the beginning, but couldn’t afford to support them financially — so she hosts them instead.

Rotaru herself has, perhaps, a typical Moldovan family history. When she was 13, her parents left the country in order to work in Italy, leaving her and two younger sisters behind. Rotaru partly grew up at her aunt’s place. “My parents didn’t leave the country because they wanted a fancy, better life or career. They couldn’t survive financially in Moldova.”

The night before the election, Rotaru, together with a friend, organised a spontaneous vigil for Moldovans abroad in the city centre. They asked people to bring their relatives’ shoes and place them on the street — a symbol of their absence. “I brought 16 pairs, but it should have been 45-50,” she tells me. “I wanted to show my relatives that I am still here and that they should care about the elections.” According to the International Organization for Migration, in recent years, more than 750.000 people are thought to be living abroad. Today, Moldova has about 3.5 million residents, as many as Berlin. “We have to change something, soon there won’t be enough people left in Moldova,” Rotaru says.

Aliona Rotaru_c_Clara Abdullah.JPG
Clara Abdullah. All rights reserved
(c) Daniela Pruger. All rights reserved.

The mayoral election debacle has not only roused people in Moldova. Across Europe, Moldovans protested outside their embassies, exchanging contacts and energy. Several people eventually started a diaspora movement, “Free Moldova”.

“We were all angry about the same thing. The annulling of the election [of Andrei Năstase] was like a statement by the government to show us that they can do whatever they want,” says Alex Mihailenco, a 32-year-old startup developer living in London, and one of the UK group’s chairmen. The organisation brings together people from all professional fields, from IT to construction in eight countries, and counts around 70-100 active people.

Like other members of the movement, Mihailenco returned to Moldova for the election. He took time off work and helped organise what has come to be known as the “caravan”, whereby activists drove around potential swing districts, distributing calendars and self-made newspapers which contain information on the country’s numerous corruption scandals. Activists warned people about the ruling Democratic Party, the pro-Russian Socialists and the party of Ilan Shor, a Moldovan businessman whose name figures in the so-called “theft of the century”, when one billion dollars vanished from three Moldovan banks.

1_Free Moldova and OccupyGuguta teaming up_Alex Mihailenco is the second from the left_c_Daniela Prugger.JPG
Free Moldova and OccupyGuguță combine forces ahead of the election. Alex Mihailenco is centre.
Daniela Prugger

For many people, this leaves only one alternative: ACUM, a pro-European and anti-oligarch alliance that ran for the first time, and which includes former World Bank economist Maia Sandu and Andrei Năstase.

When I asked Mihailenco about ACUM, he says “Free Moldova” aren’t allied with ACUM — they are and will remain independent. “We are a civic movement,” he says, stating the importance of bringing more opposition politicians into parliament. “We talked to ACUM, we listened to them, we asked them uncomfortable questions.” And so far, Mihailenco says, he liked what he heard.

In the week before the election, “Free Moldova” and “OccupyGuguță” teamed up and supported each other logistically. “Free Moldova” has not had as much trouble as the local activists. “They are targeted by the police and judicial structures,” Mihailenco says, whereas diaspora activists are less inconvenient for the Moldovan authorities, because they don’t live in the country. Nevertheless, it was part of the strategy of “Free Moldova” to hold back information about their projects, plans and locations. “If they knew earlier and more about the caravan, we would have probably been stopped,” he says.

After the 24 February vote, Moldova’s Central Electoral Commission counted 1,416,359 valid votes. The pro-Russian Socialist Party received 18 seats, the pro-European ACUM 14 seats, the former ruling Democrats 13 and Ilan Shor’s party - 5. At the time of writing, coalition negotiations continue.

“I am not going to analyse the results,” Mihailenco writes on Facebook, posting a picture of himself wearing a black sweater with the slogan “Protest Permanent”, made by “OccupyGuguță”. “But I want to mention something worth mentioning: the beautiful people who make Moldova a better place to live.”

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData