Vadim Ghirda / AP

Moldovans unite in bid to oust government and find missing $1 billion

US and Russia keep watch as unprecedented protests rock Europe's poorest country

CHISINAU, Moldova — Chiril Gaburici pledged to be a new kind of leader for Moldova, an impoverished country pulled between Russia and the West, and now rocked by protests over rampant corruption and the unsolved theft of $1 billion from its banks.

Young, multilingual, and a former CEO of two big telecoms firms, Gaburici became Moldova’s prime minister last February and vowed to run the country like an efficient business, eschewing political intrigue, fighting graft and reviving its push to join the European Union.

But four months later, Gaburici was finished — just days after urging prosecutors to step down for failing to crack the case of the “missing billion,” they launched an investigation into forgery of his academic record, and he resigned.

Gaburici is not blameless — he admits irregularities in his diplomas, which he attributes to the vagaries of Moldova’s 1990s education system — but his guilt pales beside those who have dragged Europe’s poorest nation toward bankruptcy and made skulduggery the political norm, while avoiding prosecution.

“Now that nobody is afraid of me or interested in stopping me” the diploma case has been closed, said 39-year-old Gaburici, adding that as premier he swiftly realized that “the system will do everything possible to get rid of” any threats to its interests.

Now Moldova’s rulers face a major threat, in the shape of a protest movement that has united erstwhile enemies from pro-EU and pro-Russian camps, and brought thousands onto the streets to demand that the government resign and call elections.

The spark for the latest wave of protests was parliament’s unexpected approval of a new government in a matter of minutes last Wednesday, and a swearing-in ceremony held in secret at around midnight the same day.

Critics from across the political spectrum say those events deeply undermined Moldova’s already fragile democracy, and installed a government of dubious legitimacy that will be controlled from the shadows by the country’s richest “oligarch,” Vladimir Plahotniuc.

Addressing more than 15,000 demonstrators in the capital Chisinau last Sunday, opposition leaders told the government to step down and call elections by Thursday, or face bigger protests that could block key roads, rail lines and the city’s airport.

“Perhaps our biggest achievement so far is that, whereas before Moldovans were divided, now we are together,” said student activist Dinu Plingau, a member of the pro-EU Dignity and Truth group that is protesting alongside pro-Russian parties.

“This isn’t about different political parties or leaders — it’s about democratic values,” said Plingau, who last January called on social media for street protests and helped set up a tent camp that still stands outside government headquarters.

The tents are guarded by unarmed Moldovan veterans of the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan, and a 1992 conflict that saw Russian-backed separatists in the Transdniestria region break away from newly independent Moldova.

“No one has been held to account over the missing billion, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – so much more has been stolen that we don’t know about,” said Nicolae Bratushak, a burly 55-year-old veteran who kept watch one freezing night this week.

“Now we have this government that we know nothing about, and politicians doing secret deals with each other as usual. It’s not correct, and we have to stand up for our rights. We will be here to the end, whatever happens — we want to change things peacefully, but we’ll fight if that’s what they want.”

Away from the snowy, potholed streets of Chisinau, where people eke out a living on an average monthly wage of around $200, a government that is already widely loathed by the public has rejected the protesters’ demands and is starting work.

Andrian Candu, speaker of parliament and a leading figure in the ruling coalition, said there was nothing illegal in how the new cabinet took power, and that speed and guile were needed to stop opposition parties sabotaging the process.

If no government had been appointed by Jan. 29, he explained, snap elections would have been triggered — probably handing power to pro-Russian parties.

“There are political powers which would really like to have early elections because of the general mood in society of disappointment,” Candu said.

“They would probably get a majority in parliament, and maybe elect the president afterwards [in a vote due in March]. Some of them openly declare that maybe EU integration is not the way that Moldova should be developed.”

The implied message to Washington and EU capitals is clear — if Moldova’s new government falls, Russia could again become the dominant force in a country wedged between NATO and EU member Romania and a still unstable Ukraine.

“The EU is watching what will happen in the next month or two. … Everyone has questions marks over the government, and whether it is pro-EU and how it will act,” Candu said.

“I believe the United States will take a position based on results and actions. If the government can be professional and efficient, the U.S. will applaud.”

For many Moldovans however, the idea of integration with the West would only be further discredited by US and EU support for a government, which Candu admitted was largely a product of behind-the-scenes deal-making by the oligarch Plahotniuc — who happens to be his godfather.

“It’s naïve to think this guy is pro-European and would not turn to Russia if it was convenient for him,” said Maia Sandu, a former education minister who studied at Harvard, and is one of Moldova’s most popular — and scandal-free — politicians.

During a recent visit to Washington, Sandu says she told representatives of the State Department and Congress that “giving up on democracy for the sake of short-term stability doesn’t help — because in the end you lose both.”

“The costs are going to be much higher in the future, if they underestimate the damage that can be done by keeping and supporting a regime that is undermining the Moldovan state.”

Sandu wants an election this year, but the ruling coalition says that could only happen if parliament failed to vote for a new national president in the spring, or if its work was somehow blocked for three months.

Candu, the parliamentary speaker, insisted there was no more time to waste on political squabbling.

He urged Moldovans and the West to give the government a chance, to show it was ready to restart crucial talks with the International Monetary Fund and other lenders, and serious about fighting corruption and finding the “missing billion.”

He also expressed confidence that much of the money could be traced and the guilty prosecuted, despite the absence of obvious grounds for optimism.

An initial report by U.S. investigative firm Kroll said a key figure in the theft was Ilan Shor, a 28-year-old Moldovan businessmen famed for his wealth and Russian pop star wife.

Shor was placed under house arrest last May, but that did not prevent him from running — successfully — for mayor of his hometown north of Chisinau. He denies any involvement in the disappearance of a sum equivalent to about one-eighth of Moldova’s entire gross domestic product.

Protesters are expected to march through Chisinau again this weekend and, with no sign of compromise from either side, Moldovans fear the potential for violence, after several people were hurt last Wednesday when radical demonstrators briefly forced their way through police lines and into parliament.

With the U.S. and EU determined to keep Moldova on a pro-Western track, and a Kremlin-backed separatist region that hosts more than 1,000 Russian troops just 30 miles from Chisinau, any escalation could quickly take on a geopolitical dimension.

Gaburici now observes his country’s Byzantine politics from a business office high above Chisinau.

“I’m happy to have left politics … and I’m sad we got to this situation,” he said.

“Moldova will change, I am sure of that, but it will happen more slowly than I wanted. This system must change — there is no alternative.”

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