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Ilan Shor and the search for Moldova’s missing billion

This small-town “investor mayor” rose to fame in 2015. Now he’s behind bars. But the real story behind the arrest of one of Moldova’s most famous businessmen remains to be uncovered. Русский

July 2015: Ilan Shor wins the mayoral elections in Orhei. СС Churban, Wikimedia Commons.Ilan Shor, 29, is one of Molodva’s most famous businessmen. Married to Russian pop singer Jasmin, he is an up-and-coming figure in Moldovan politics. But Shor recently spent the first, and probably the last, anniversary of his tenure as mayor of the town of Orhei in pre-trial detention at the National Anti-Corruption Centre. 

Shor is accused of participating in “the heist of the century” — he was the head of the administrative council of Moldova’s Banca de Economii (BEM) when, during the autumn of 2014, a number of suspicious transactions resulted in a billion dollars being transferred out of Moldova via BEM. After a report on these machinations was published in May 2015, the businessman was placed under house arrest for 30 days on suspicion of “abuse of office”.

Lying low in Orhei 

Shor’s involvement in the “heist of the century” has been confirmed by US financial investigators Kroll, who were contracted by the National Bank of Moldova to investigate fraud in BEM, Banca Sociala, and Unibank. Kroll investigators found out that the so-called “Shor group” was involved in buying up stock in the three banks in 2012-2014 and in giving out un-returnable loans. 

After being placed under house arrest in May 2015, Shor announced that he would run for mayor of Orhei, a small town north of Chisinau, as a candidate from the pro-Russian “Equality” movement. (Shor became leader of the movement in 2016.) Shor was freed at the end of this arrest period because the Moldovan election code states that a candidate cannot face administrative or criminal charges, be detained or arrested. 

Shor is not given to publicity, and news of his political ambitions surprised many back in May 2015

Violeta Gashicoy, Shor’s solicitor, says this decision by the court was illegal. “Shor was not arrested while he was campaigning,” she says. “He had been a suspect. Moreover, this law has an exception — if a person commits a serious crime while campaigning, he can be detained.” 

Gashicoy points out that the election code does not permit release of persons who are already under house arrest. “According to this logic, everyone under temporary arrest can become an election candidate so they can go free. But this would be illegal,” Gashicoy says.

Shor is not given to publicity, and news of his political ambitions surprised many back in May 2015. 

“Why Orhei? Because it’s my town. I’ve known and loved Orhei since I was a child. Close relatives lived here – they were respected people, doctors and lawyers, who are still remembered today,” Shor’s official statement read. 

Shor was born in 1987 in Tel-Aviv, the third child in his family. When Shor was three years old, his family returned to Chisinau, where his father, Miron Shor, became involved in business. After his father died in 2005, Shor inherited a portion of his business.

Building Europe 

“I’m not running for the mayor’s office to make money. I will come and invest into Orhei. While everyone talks of Europe, I will simply build Europe. In Orhei,” promised Shor, having joined the campaign under the slogan of “an investor mayor.”

Shor won the election in the first round, with 62% of the vote, and on 1 July, 2015, he became mayor of Orhei, a town 40 kilometres north from Chisinau.

One of Shor's election promises was to provide free wi-fi across Orhei.

Over the past year, it became almost impossible to find anyone in town who would criticise Shor. In private conversation, nobody has a bad word to say about him, and it’s impossible to say with certainty how much Shor’s rating has grown — there have been no polls on the subject.

In downtown Orhei, I met 60-year-old Alexander, a taxi driver.

“I respect Shor as a man,” he says. When I ask why, he just smiles. 

“You see,” Alexander says, “I smoke, I smoke so nobody notices, I used to throw the butts on the street, now I carry them to a trash container. [Shor] is working clean up [the town]. The street cleaners sweep the streets, and he raised their salaries, while those who came before them just messed with our heads.”

Alexander doesn’t care if Shor was involved in bank fraud. “Did he play with this money while he was mayor? This happened before our town, before he came to city hall. It doesn’t matter. He works for this town,” Alexander concludes. 

“I voted for him because he has money. Everyone who came before just talked” 

Yephim, 47, from the village of Mana, outside Orhei, was waiting for a friend outside a police station and was eager to talk about his impressions of Shor. “He’s done a lot for this town,” Yephim said. “All the roads, all of the parks — this was chaos before. I voted for him because he has money. Everyone who came before just talked, while he created so many jobs, not just in town, but in the villages. Now people live well, live peacefully. He opened up subsidised stores where you can shop. Pensioners get two loaves of bread for free. For a person two loaves of bread is a lot, they can’t eat that in one day.” Yephim reports with enthusiasm.

Questions about Shor’s involved in “the heist of the century” are not met with understanding. “These people who have money, let them do what they want, as they say. The most important thing is that children don’t go hungry,” Yephim tells me. I insist on the possibility that Shor could be a thief. “This is politics,” the man tells me. “A man who lives wants to live free. Yes, he has money, they say he lent [Vlad] Filat money. Let God sort it out. A peasant does not care.”

Yephim, a resident of Mana, a village outside Orhei: "It's politics. A man who lives wants to live free. Yes, he has money, they say he lent [Vlad] Filat money. Let God sort it out. A peasant doesn't care.”The money that, as Yephim says, was loaned to Filat, Moldova’s former prime minister, totals around $250m. 

When he gave himself up voluntarily, Shor said that from 2010 to 2014 he sent money and expensive cars to Filat in exchange for various services for “comfortable business in Moldova.” Shor stated this during questioning on 13 October, 2015. Within two days, Filat, leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPM), was stripped of his immunity and arrested in parliament. 

On 27 June this year, Filat was sentenced to nine years behind bars for profiting from his administrative resources and passive corruption. Filat’s trial was conducted behind closed doors.

But the jailing of Filat doesn’t look like a win against corruption, it looks like the end of a political war between two oligarchs — Filat himself and Vlad Plahotniuc. The war began in 2009.

The battle of the oligarchs

Both Filat and Plahotniuc were key figures in the Alliance for European Integration coalition that came to power after the communists were defeated in 2009. 

This coalition fell apart in February 2013, when Filat stated that LDPM would withdraw from the coalition agreement. Hinting at Plahotniuc, Filat said that “In Moldova there has begun a campaign to sacrifice government interests in favour of one individual’s interests — he bought his place in politics, now he wants to buy the whole country.” 

This didn’t stop Filat from re-establishing a governing coalition and, in 2014, an Alliance for a European Moldova both with the liberal democrats and the ever-present Plahotniuc.

“I think this is a game of pawns” 

In Orhei, people see the situation in similar fashion. “I think this is a game of pawns. Filat and Shor are the pawns, while everything is controlled by you-know-who, by Plahotniuc. I’m interested to see what happens next,” a woman in the park tells me, declining to give her name. “You know, I don’t get involved in politics. I just say what the people say. I’m a family doctor, I hear what they say. What do pensioners need? Water bills are down, they have cards for subsidised stores, so they get groceries with a discount. Old folks are happy,” she says. 

Getting back to politics, the woman lowers her voices and grows thoughtful. “I don’t think [Shor] will be freed. There is too much in his past… There is a saying, all that is hidden comes to light… I know the Jews are smart, but even [Shor] is now under fire. All of this will be pulled down one by one. At least, while Plahotniuc is in charge. It’s all a political game.”

A resident of Moldova's capital takes a selfie in a local park.We spoke the national language, and I ask how Orhei residents see the language — is it Moldovan or Romanian? “Romanian! We are Romanian,” the woman tells me confidently. Shor’s Romanian is not very good, and for people in Moldova who identify with Romania, the question of national belonging is an important one.

“Shor speaks Romanian too. When he goes to concerts, he speaks it. He was elected, because people wanted something to change. I voted for Shor. I thought – he’s young, he was 28 then, he has money, and he can do everything with that,” the woman explains.

Zurab Todua, a political scientist, tells me that the Shor needed to become mayor of Orhei to restore his reputation. “Clever people advised Shor to run for mayor, so that he could fix his image and have the protection official status awards,” Todua says.

“As mayor, Shor wasn’t tight-fisted and was able to have some successes. Of course, when you consider the terrible state of most Moldovan towns, this wasn’t hard. He just had to organise regular trash pick-ups, regular clean-up, fix street kerbs and so on — just fix it so that city hall performs its most basic tasks, and Orhei residents were instantly impressed.”

"Unire" is the Romanian word for unification, and here it means Moldova with Romania. Pro-Romanian moods are strong in Orhei, though this didn't prevent residents voting in Shor as mayor, who heads up the pro-Russian "Equality" movement.Todua reminds me that scandal has trailed Shor for the last few years. His scandalous reputation was confirmed when Shor testified against Filat, his former business partner.

Later in 2015, an “adult video” featuring Filat was leaked. “People in the know claim that many people in Moldova were not shocked by the video itself, but by the location – the apartments shown are those that, according to the media, are in the ‘Shor guesthouse,’ politicians recognised it, because they’ve all been there themselves,” Tadua said. 

While he was mayor, Shor didn’t give interviews and spoke to journalists only at press briefings. Nevertheless, on 20 June, Alina Shargu, Shor’s press secretary, stated that “the mayor is ready to be interviewed,” though no dates were given. “He has a very busy schedule,” Shargu said, saying that she would call me back. Two days later, Shor was arrested for 72 hours, then the arrest was extended for the next 30 days.

Nobody can say for certain as to the reason behind this latest arrest. On one hand, shortly before he was detained, Shor became head of the “Equality” movement, speaking out about his political ambitions. Analysts said that this was another “Plahotniuc scheme”. Now that Filat is out of the way, Plahotniuc may be using Shor in the presidential election later this year, to weaken candidates on the left, pro-Russian wing. But after Shor’s arrest was extended, this theory no longer seemed likely. 

Violeta Gashicoy thinks that what is happening to Shor is part of a well-planned scenario that isn’t finished yet. “If Shor is no longer useful, and his arrest is extended as many times as Filat’s was extended, and he will be behind bars for over four months in a row, then his mandate will end ahead of time,” she tells me, cryptically.

About the author
Maria Levcenco is a Chișinău-based journalist, presenter and author of the weekly talk show Chestno Govorya on the private television channel RealitateaTV. Since 2013 she has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Russian-language service of Radio France Internationale (RFI) in the Republic of Moldova.

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