“Mr. P” or “VP” — this is what western diplomats in Moldova call Vlad Plahotniuc, the most influential person in Moldova. When I asked one of them why, they simply replied: “There’s an assumption that everything is bugged. It’s just easier and more polite than saying ‘Plahotniuc’.” He promised to tell me more the next day.
The diplomat and I arranged to meet, but a few hours before the meeting, the diplomat cancelled. “I’m sorry, I always try and help journalists, but in this particular case, find somebody else.”
People who have had dealings with Plahotniuc prefer not to talk about him, even under conditions of anonymity
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to deal with this more than a few times. As a rule, people who’ve had dealings with the oligarch prefer not to talk about him, even under conditions of anonymity.
A portrait of “Mr. P”
Vlad Plahotniuc with a delegation from the Latvian ministry of foreign affairs, Chișinău, October 2012: . CC BY-SA 2.0 Ernests Dinka, Saeimas Kanceleja / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Vlad Plahotniuc once declared that he didn’t enter politics for personal gain. “I entered politics with my business in place. I wanted to give something back, not the other way round” he told journalists in the heat of the Moldovan parliamentary election campaign in November 2014. Finding out more about this businessman has been difficult, however.
One businessman personally acquainted with Vlad Plahotniuc agreed to share his observations. “He has a great capacity for work, he sleeps only four to five hours a night. He is very demanding and very pragmatic, though he has a short temper. He lives several parallel lives, and holds tens of meetings on a daily basis.”
“He reads a lot: his office is full of books on psychology, as well as biographies and memoirs of great figures. Plahotniuc has created a rule for himself, which he never breaks: he never strikes first, but his vengeance is terrible. He’s able to lose a battle to win the war. In the Republic of Moldova there are few people of his calibre,” my interlocutor says, asking for his identity not to be revealed.
This man, apparently, has a certain sympathy for Plahotniuc. I ask whether he’s bothered by the oligarch’s practice of collecting dossiers on his opponents, secretly recording their discussions (and intimate moments) in order to blackmail them. “For people on his level, that’s normal,” he answers curtly.
My next question goes down in a similar fashion. Does he not consider it a mistake that one oligarch controls nearly every government institution in Moldova? “The Romanian oligarchs Dinu Patriscu, Dan Voiculescu and Sorin Vîntu controlled Romania. Vîntu, for example, controlled the whole country for three years. Then there came a time when he weakened, and the state destroyed him. At some point that’s how these things always end.
“I think Plahotniuc tries to control everything because he doesn’t trust other people. His team is small: just five to seven people selected from his inner circle. His larger second circle consists of a wide range of people — formally they are on his team, but really they’re out for their own interests. Those are the people Plahotniuc doesn’t trust,” concluded the businessman.
Chișinău, capital of Moldova. (c) Videologia / Shutterstock.
Marin Livardaru, one of the leaders of the extra-parliamentary Progressive Society Party, met Plahotniuc for the first time in 2012. It was also the last. “They told me: Marin, sooner or later you’ll have to meet with Plahotniuc, because everything in this country is decided by him,” Livardu told me.
All rights reserved.“There was a lot of different information about him. Many people who’ve worked with him praise him for his masterful managerial skills: he has six to eight telephones. He works from morning until well into the evening. He’s a man of his word. Other people told various stories suggesting that he had started out as a pimp. There are a lot of rumours about Plahotniuc.”
Livadaru’s meeting with Mr. P was organised by Constantin Botnari, a former deputy of the Democratic Party and common acquaintance close to Plahotniuc. “There were pluses and minuses. As somebody who was raised in Germany, I’m accustomed to punctuality. I’ve met a lot of managers — even the management team of Daimler-Chrysler — but I’d never met anybody in such a high position who could permit themselves to be late,” he complains.
At the arranged time, Marin Livadaru sat waiting in the reception of the Global Business Centre in Chișinău, Plahotniuc’s headquarters in the Moldovan capital. There he spent some 40 minutes, leafing through magazines.
“During the conversation itself, he mostly listened and asked questions,” recalled the politician. “I was also interested to find out more about the man. I decided to speak talk a little about the nineties, as I remember perfectly who was who back then. For about 20 minutes I insisted on having the conversation, but he avoided my questions, saying ‘Marin, let’s leave the nineties for the moment. Let’s talk about the present’.” Livadaru’s questions were never answered.
In one of his very first interviews Vlad Plahotniuc said that he first began to earn money “picking grapes with the guys, making wine and exporting it to Russia”.
In response to a question from Vip Magazin as to why he decided to come out from the shadows, the oligarch responded that everything has its time. “I’m able to arrange my affairs well, and stages of my life in general. Why precisely now? Because a lot of rumours and legends have built up about me, and many have taken on a life of their own. I’ve decided to put an end to this absurdity.”
Six years have since passed. Vlad Plahotniuc remains in the shadows. He doesn’t give interviews to journalists, nor does he take part in televised debates. My questions to the oligarch went unanswered.
From a “success story” to a “captured state”
Today it’s difficult to imagine that Vlad Plahotniuc, the man who they call the “master of Moldova” or the “puppeteer”, was completely unknown seven years ago. Furthermore, during the 2009 revolution, no photos of him circulated in the media — there were none to be found, neither on the internet nor in media archives.
The future “master of Moldova” was born on 28 December 1965 into a teacher’s family in Pitușca, in the Călărași district of central Moldova. Plahotniuc was raised in Grozeşti, a village near the Romanian border. “His father was particularly strict, as he was the head of a family with many children” say villagers in Grozeşti, who told journalists that the Plahotniuc family had six children.
Chișinău. CC kgbbristol / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
By 2009, Plahotniuc had become an influential figure under the ruling communist government. He was introduced to the Romania’s Ion Ilescu alongside the party chairman and then president Vladimir Voronin, a fact which Voronin mentioned only around ten years later.
Shortly after this meeting, Plahotniuc became head of the Moldovan branch of the Romanian company Petrom, dealing in the import, retail and wholesale of petroleum products. Vlad Plahotniuc remained commercial director of Petrom-Moldova until 2010. Since then, he has led the Moldova Business People Association. He has never been listed in Forbes ratings, although local journalists in conversation with openDemocracy estimated his worth at up to three billion dollars.
The oligarch doesn’t hide the fact that he owns a media empire: including Prime, 2 Plus, Canal 3 and the news channel publikaTV. Earlier this month, the Moldovan publication newsmaker.md wrote, based on its own sources, that Plahotniuc owned two more television channels: CTC Mega and Super TV.
After their own investigation, journalists of the rise.md internet portal concluded that the Nobil hotel in Chișinău, the Global Business Center, Codru, the General Media Group holding, and office of the Argus-S security firm all belong to Finpar Invest SRL, and therefore Plahotniuc.
The ownership of several banks in the country is also attributed to the oligarch. “Why does he need television?” asked one economist, asking that his words not be recorded, “if he’s bought the remote for every television in the country.” These words are an allusion to Plahotniuc’s control over the National Bank of Moldova.
A private person
All this time, “Mr. P” has preferred to avoid publicity. During the 2000s, Plahotniuc belonged to the so-called “hunters”, a circle of five businessmen who — voluntarily or not — shared president Vladimir Voronin’s passion for hunting.
“He didn’t enter this company immediately, but thanks to his friendship with the president’s son Oleg, whom he often entertained and with whom he shared many interests. At the beginning he became useful to Oleg, and then to the president” said a former deputy from the Communist Party.
Vlad Plahotniuc with a delegation from the Latvian ministry of foreign affairs, Chișinău, October 2012: . CC BY-SA 2.0 Ernests Dinka, Saeimas Kanceleja / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
During Voronin’s presidency (2001-2009), Plahotniuc was able to win his trust. First and foremost, unlike many others, he was not stingy and lavishly spent his money on Communist Party activities, accepting delegations and supporting party media outlets.
“Plahotniuc soon became known among Voronin's closest friends and confidants as the ‘party's wallet’. For his services, he received preferential treatment in business, and soon nobody but Plahotniuc himself could work out exactly where his money ended and that of the ‘party’s wallet’ began,” explained the former deputy.
In 2009, the communists left power and were replaced by a coalition of centre-right parties. One of them, the Democratic Party, had received financial support from Plahotniuc well in advance. In August 2010, chairman of the Democratic Party Marian Lupu admitted live on air on the Publika TV channel that Plahotniuc had indirectly financed the democrats’ electoral campaign.
When the Democratic Party entered the ruling Alliance for European Integration, Plahotniuc also came out of the shadows. By this time he was already a leading oligarch — directly or indirectly owning scores of firms, companies, holdings and media outlets. Members of the communist party leadership — now in opposition — accused Plahotniuc of taking the party finances with him. Whether or not that was the case is still unclear.
Meanwhile, the oligarch entered politics in a flash. According to the results of the parliamentary elections of 28 November 2010, he became a member of parliament for the Democratic Party, and on 30 December that same year both vice-chairman of the party and deputy chairman of the Moldovan parliament.
The Alliance for European Integration was created to democratise Moldova, pursue European integration and move away from the authoritarian style of rule that had taken shape under Vladimir Voronin. Ministries and departments, in accordance with an agreed “algorithm” were divided among coalition members.
Among others, the judicial bodies went to the Democrats: the constitutional court, the magistrates’ council and national anticorruption centre. The party didn’t hide its control over state institutions, and the division of government portfolios was noted down in the public coalition agreement.
It was assumed, however, that all members of the coalition would work together towards a European future for Moldova. Furthermore, the new government received full support from the USA and EU; Moldova began to receive financial aid, and Chișinău was visited by the heavyweights of international politics, including chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and vice president of the USA Joe Biden. The coalition’s first steps were enthusiastically encouraged by western partners, and following the results of its first year in power, Moldova was named a “success story”.
21 January 2015: protesters assemble in front of Moldova’s parliament building. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
However, within the coalition, serious problems were brewing. Chief among them was the clash of interests between two oligarchs: Vlad Plahotniuc and Vlad Filat, then the country’s prime minister. They competed over the management of budgets, access to foreign credits and control over financial flows.
Ministries and departments under the control of coalition parties began to work not in the interests of the state and society, but for those of Plahotniuc and Filat. Ministers asked for and carried out the instructions not of the head of government, but of their own party leaders. In the case of the Democratic Party, this meant Vlad Plahotniuc.
In spring 2013 this struggle led to the collapse of the coalition. Plahotniuc was removed from the post of deputy chairman of the parliament, and Filat was dismissed on suspicion of corruption.
The conflict between the two oligarchs almost concluded with early parliamentary elections. However, the conflict was subdued with the help of officials such as the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy Štefan Füle and head of the EU delegation to Moldova Dirk Schuebel. A new coalition was formed in May, the Alliance For European Integration-2. Within this coalition the power of Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party only grew, at the expense of Filat and his Liberal Democrats.
More and more state institutions found themselves under the informal control of the Democratic Party, either through the appointment of “reliable” people or by their managers being co-opted into the “Plahotniuc empire”. The “success story” began to fade.
November 2014: Vlad Plahotniuc reveals the reasons for his involvement in politics at the Club of Young Businessmen & Economists, Chișinău. CC: Image still via YouTube. Some rights reserved.
In the course of the following parliamentary elections on 30 November 2014, the Democratic Party held its most ambitious and expensive campaign. According to experts, each of the 19 deputies who ran for parliament for the Democratic Party “cost” approximately ten times more than any of the rest. One of the most illustrative signs of the degradation of the ruling coalition was a resounding scandal in which one billion dollars disappeared from three state banks, an amount which accounts for nearly 13 percent of Moldova’s GDP.
Details of the fraud became known at the end of 2014. Vlad Filat and his supporters were accused of involvement in the transaction. It all ended in autumn 2015, with Filat being handcuffed in the middle of a parliamentary session as the government, led by Liberal Democratic protégé Valeriu Streleț, was dismissed.
The coalition again fell apart and was in the beginning of 2016 with great difficulty and help from the west — or more specifically, the USA. However, this time the coalition was under the complete control of the Democratic Party. Plahotniuc planned to head the government himself, but stood down after protests by the opposition and general public. At the last moment he nominated his protégé Pavel Filip, who is now prime minister of Moldova.
Ruling from the shadows
At the end of March this year, president Nicolae Timofti’s mandate expires. In order to appoint a new head of state, the votes of 61 out of 101 deputies are needed. The parliamentary majority — practically controlled by Plahotniuc — consists of 56 deputies. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Democratic Party, represented by 19 deputies in parliament, could not find another five votes for its candidate.
But why did Vlad Plahotniuc even need the post of prime minister, and why is he possibly seeking the presidency? There are three reasons. Firstly, that Plahotniuc is simply driven by egocentrism. Secondly, that he was asked to do so by the Americans. This was partly confirmed in my discussions with one of the European diplomats: “we have heard since September that Plahotniuc would be better than the pro-Russian Renato Usatii,” he noted. “Ask Ion Sturza: is it true that he gave up the fight after the Americans stopped supporting him?”
It wasn’t necessary to ask Sturza, a former prime ministerial candidate. He has spoken publicly about the involvement of the USA in the approval of the new government of Pavel Filip. “Victoria Nuland landed at Dâmbovița and during consultations at Controceni (residence of the Romanian president) raised the issue of stability.” — said Sturza during a roundtable discussion at the Expert Forum analytical institute on 9 February in Bucharest.
“I became disillusioned when Romania and the west decided from the outset not to get involved. Then they did, and the decision to force a few deputies to vote for Plahotniuc was made at the very highest level in Romania,” declared Sturza.
There’s nothing else left for him but to maintain his status as the shady master of Moldova and fend off attacks from his enemies. On the whole, you can’t envy him.
There also exists a third, and less popular, theory — that the oligarch needed immunity, although not in Moldova but abroad. “Can this man really permit himself to go abroad without taking stock of the risks? It’s not true that he’s so clever, that he never leaves any traces,” noted a member of the diplomatic staff at one of the European missions in Moldova. “Financial traces remain. Always.”
“Down with the oligarchs!” protesters take to the streets of central Chișinău. Photo CC: Bertram Z / wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.
In 2012, Moldovan media reported that Vlad Plahotniuc was wanted by Interpol. This information was denied at a press conference by Plahotniuc’s lawyers. From the submitted documents it was found that there were no lawsuits against him in Cyprus as previously claimed. The American lawyer Val Gurvis said that he received a confirmation from Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon that “his client is not party to any investigation.”
“I have also addressed a letter to the High Courts of Justice in London in the name of Vlad Plahotniuc, requesting a stamp and signature to confirm our query as to whether there are no accusations against Plahotniuc. We have since received such a letter, meaning that our client is not party to any case under investigation,” declared Gurvis. Inquiries in Romania were met with the same result: the oligarch has no criminal record in the neighbouring state.
However in 2013, then minister of internal affairs Dorin Recean confirmed that the Italian bureau of Interpol was interested in Vlad Plahotniuc and suspected him of involvement with the Solntsevskaya Bratva, a criminal organisation from Russia. Plahotniuc himself dismissed this information as conjecture.
Dmitry Chubashenko, who runs the weekly publication Panorama, believes that Plahotniuc seeks the position of prime minister in order to use it as a springboard to the presidency. Why? “So that he can demonstrate that he is an effective manager,” the journalist believes.
“Plahotniuc is faced with a very difficult situation. He is surrounded by enemies on all sides. The west didn’t want him to become prime minister, and doesn’t want him to become president. The main slogan of the protests in Chișinău is “down with Plahotniuc!” After his unsuccessful attempts to become prime minister, a flood of criticism against him was unleashed in the Russian and the Romanian press,” the journalist commented to openDemocracy.
Chubashenko can’t say for sure whether the oligarch will succeed in his struggle for the presidential chair. “Instead, he had to push for somebody from his closest circle. Probably he’ll have to do the same during the presidential elections. All of Plahotniuc’s attempts to take the top positions in Moldova have failed.”
“It turns out that his efforts have only paid off for others. He’s made himself many enemies, both inside Moldova and beyond its borders. There’s nothing else left for him but to maintain his status as the shady master of Moldova and fend off attacks from his enemies. On the whole, you can’t envy him. But it’s obvious that he enjoys playing these games.”