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Give back the billion

After a billion dollars went missing from Moldova’s banking system last year, people have turned out on the streets to protest the country’s oligarchic regime. на русском языке

‘We can say that the protest movement in our country is reborn.’ This was the message of Igor Bocan, a member of the Demnitatea și Adevăr (Dignity and Justice) platform, speaking atop a makeshift platform to people gathered near the government building in Chişinău. The reason? The theft of a billion euros from Moldova’s banking system, which, in the words of Bocan, has led to the ‘devaluation of the national currency, a rise in prices and poverty for a people who are already poor.’

On Sunday, Chişinău saw an unprecedented number of protesters gather: more than 100,000 people according to the organisers, 40,000 according to Moldova’s Interior Ministry.

‘Theft of the century’

‘Theft of the century’, that’s what the media calls the disappearance of one billion dollars from three Moldovan banks. This theft is already the subject of an investigation by American company Kroll, which, after the news broke, won the National Bank’s tender for an initial investigation at the end of 2014.

‘Theft of the century’, that’s what the media calls the disappearance of one billion dollars from three Moldovan banks.

Indeed, the National Bank’s tender received only one proposal— from a consortium of Steptoe & Johnson LLP and Kroll. The next stage of the investigation involves finding and returning the stolen money, which was removed from three Moldovan banks.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s meeting turned into a sit-in protest on the initiative of the organisers. ‘They’re waiting for us to come along, shout a bit and then go home,’ says Alex Kozer, a young journalist, to a crowd of DA supporters. ‘We went home after the last three protests and what did we get in return? Nothing.’

According to organisers, over 100,000 people turned up to protest in Chişinău on Sunday.

‘I ask you all to stay here, on National Assembly square, until we are heard.’ Later that evening, a tent city was erected in front of the government building. At first, there were just 20 tents. But by dusk, there were 50.

DA demands the creation of a government of confidence to carry out urgent parliamentary elections before March 2016 and direct presidential elections. Currently, the head of state is elected by parliament. If these demands are not met, the protesters intend to blockade state institutions.

There’s demands for the west, too: the leaders of the civic platform have called on their development partners to declare leaders of the political elite and top public officials persona non grata. This list includes Dorin Drăguțanu, governor of the National Bank, and Vladimir Plahotniuc, oligarch and vice-president of Moldova’s Democratic Party.

‘They have disappointed us on almost everything’

By and large, Moldovan citizens currently demanding the resignation of the governing Alliance for European Integration coalition are the same ones who helped put an end to the communist government six years ago, after the events of April 2009.

Sergei Kozhokar, a student currently on National Assembly square, went out to protest fraudulent elections in April 2009, and thus defend the fate of Moldova’s European development—he supported the liberal democratic parties now in coalition government. ‘Yes, I voted for them in the past,’ Sergei says. ‘I was on the square on 7 April.’

‘I made the wrong choice back then,’ Sergei admits. ‘The people we voted for, unfortunately, did not fulfill our expectations. They have disappointed us on almost everything. The final blow came when they stopped European integration. They say that they support integration, but all of their actions testify to the reverse.’

Sergei spent Monday night in a rented apartment in Chişinău—there wasn’t enough space for him in the tent city. There were no tents left to buy, anyway.

Valeriu Streleț, the prime minister, meeting with DA leaders.

People of all ages, and from different regions of Moldova, have set up camp in the tent city. Vadim, 22, is from Ştefan Vodă, 125km from Chişinău. ‘I’m staying because otherwise we won’t get justice,’ Vadim says. ‘Let the authorities realise we haven’t just come out for a day or two. They’ll raise the prices on everything. We have to stay here until the government listens to the people.’

When asked whether he sees a connection between what’s happening in Moldova and EuroMaidan in neighbouring Ukraine, Vadim answers that protests in Chişinău will be peaceful. ‘No one wants anyone to get hurt,’ he explains.

When I ask Fedor Keyanu, from Trushena, a village near , about the relevance of Maidan, he says that activists in Chişinău have an easier task—the weather conditions are better. ‘We were discussing this topic just this evening. It’s easier for us, autumn comes early. The Ukrainians protested in winter.’

‘No one wants anyone to get hurt.’ 

Fedor isn’t sure that the protesters will be able to stay on the square for a long time. ‘There’s one thing I don’t like. We know that the government’s on holiday at the moment, we need to change strategy. People can’t stay here for three or four months. Perhaps people will stay, perhaps they won’t.’

'But we need to change our tactics,’ Fedor says. ‘What have they said today? No one knows anything, we don’t know where anybody is, or where the parliament is.’

The authorities and opposition stand separate

On Sunday, activists demanded that the government enter into negotiations with them. However, Valeriu Streleț, the prime minister, was the only person to meet with DA leaders. With journalists present, Strelet told them that he’d spoken to President Nikolae Timofti and Adrian Candu, speaker of parliament, but that ‘they wouldn’t be able to meet with the protesters today’.

Streleț proposed a meeting with civic leaders in the Ministry of Agriculture building, but DA leaders didn’t show, demanding negotiations on Chisinau’s central square instead.

‘It seems likely they came up with some reasons as to why they couldn’t start a constructive dialogue with the country’s leadership,’ Streleț commented.

A tent city has been erected on National Assembly Square in Chişinău.

The leaders of the coalition parties have largely remained silent over the protests in Chisinau. Only the opposition communist and socialist parties have chosen to speak out.

Štefan Füle, former European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, stated in an interview to Radio Free Europe that the Chisinau government should take protesters’ demands seriously.

‘Any demonstration, any free expression of opinion, any attempt to demand an answer from the authorities through direct dialogue – these actions are useful for democracy. The most important thing is for the people to be able to express themselves freely, and the authorities – to analyse the accusations seriously and, if necessary, carry out a serious investigation.’

Towards emergency elections

The DA civic platform was created in February 2015, and included pro-European political analysts, rights activists as well as former journalists and politicians. So far, DA has held four demonstrations, including the current one.

The platform’s leaders don’t hide their desire to run in possible early elections in order to become, as they describe, an ‘alternative political force’ at those elections. But other voices can also be heard from within the protests, such as Igor Bocan and Marianna Kalugin, who have come out against these scenarios.

Members of the ruling democrat and liberal democrat parties say, though not on record, that Moldova is likely to hold early parliamentary elections in spring 2016—when Nikolae Timofti’s term as president runs out.

These protests have hit the image of the democratic party, which is controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc, hardest. Indeed, it is the name of Plahotniuc that has been on the lips of protesters demanding the resignation of the ‘oligarch regime’ these past few days.

All photographs courtesy of the author. 

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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