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Pro-Russian group pays protesters in Moldova

Vitalie Calugareanu | Robert Schwartz
October 15, 2022

Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova is under increasing pressure as the war next door wears on. Amid energy shortages and a violation of airspace by Russian missiles, protesters are being paid to sow unrest in the capital.

Protesters stand amid tends and flags in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau
Protesters against Modova's pro-European government are even sleeping outside parliamentary officesImage: Veniamin Demidetsky/IMAGO

A pro-Russian group has been organizing demonstrations against Moldova's government for well over a month now. The protesters are demanding the removal of pro-European President Maia Sandu and blame Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy for the war in his country. They also condone the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and criticize neighboring Romania, the European Union and the United States for supporting Moldova's Ukraine.

Protesters are being bussed to the capital, Chisinau, from all over the country and setting up tents outside parliament. They're reportedly being paid the equivalent of €20 ($19) per day and €80 per night. Moldovan journalists have posted dozens of videos in which demonstrators, some visibly intoxicated, speak openly about the sums they've received.

A demonstrator wearing a "Russia" jacket at a protest in Chisinau
The president has accused pro-Russian criminal entities of being behind the protests in Chisinau Image: Viorica Tătaru

Protest organizers accuse President Sandu of refusing to travel to Moscow and placate Putin to secure cheap gas for Moldova, which is almost entirely dependent on Russian supplies. Russia has been taking advantage of this dependency and is now charging four times for gas more than it did before it invaded Ukraine at the end of February.

Since then, inflation in Moldova has increased by 35%. To make matter worse, there is also a risk that Russian energy giant Gazprom will cut off supplies completely this winter.

President blames 'criminal groups'

Sandu strongly criticized the protesters during a press conference held earlier this week. "Criminal groups want to create a conflict situation in order to overthrow public order and gain power so that Russia can use our country in war," she said, according to the state news agency Moldpres. The public prosecutor's office has begun an investigation.

Pro-European Moldovan Maia Sandu in front of the EU and Moldovan flags
Pro-European Moldovan Maia Sandu has condemned the protests, which are now under investigationImage: Dursun Aydemir/AA/picture alliance

The Shor opposition party, named after party leader Ilan Shor, is said to be behind the protests. Shor fled the country in 2019 just before the collapse of the oligarch regime under Vladimir Plahotniuc. Shortly thereafter, prosecutors began investigating him over a series of banking scandals.

Shor and Plahotnuic allegedly worked in tandem from 2016 to 2019 to cheat the country out of hundreds of millions. Through corruption and bribery, Plahotniuc had secured a majority in parliament, the government and the judiciary. Most of his cronies now live abroad, many of them in London. Plahotniuc himself said to be in Turkey, a country with which Moldova has no extradition treaty. As for Shor, he is also immune to extradition, as he lives in Israel and holds citizenship there.

Shor recently appeared on a large video screen during the protests. Speaking not long ago to Russia's Ria Novosti news agency, he said that being on Russia's side would make Moldova "happy and successful."

Shor has been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison in Moldova for bank fraud. Now Moldovan authorities accuse him and other fugitives of jointly acquiring TV stations and online portals there, along with cultivating "geopolitical relations" with the Kremlin. Authorities say Shor and his allies aim to overthrow the constitutional order in Moldova.

The "attempts to destabilize the situation in the country are becoming more frequent" and are perpetrated by "those who want war and chaos,” Sandu said during the press conference. "Thieves involve people to achieve their goals." These people had promised Moscow that they would remove the country's pro-European leadership and establish a new one that would allow Russia to involve Moldova in the war, she said, adding, "Don't be under any illusions, you won't succeed. Treason will be severely punished."

A European map highlights Moldova's location

Big challenges for a small country

Debate over the country's neutrality has reignited against the backdrop of protests, along with the growing threat of Russian missiles violating Moldova's airspace as they did on October 10. During her press conference, Sandu condemned the missiles' crossing of Moldovan airspace and demanded that the country's borders and neutrality be respected, a sentiment echoed by Igor Grosu, Moldova's parliamentary president and a member of Sandu's Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS). 

”When deadly missiles fly over our country, we are obliged to protect our airspace — alone or with the help of our friends and neighbors," Grosu told DW. It is not enough to call oneself a neutral state, he said: "Neutrality must be defended!"

Moldovan parliamentary president Igor Grosu
Igor Grosu, parliamentary president and a member of President Maia Sandu's pro-European PAS partyImage: Simion Ciochina/DW

By early October it was already clear that that EU members — especially neighboring Romania but also Germany — are taking the situation in Moldova seriously; Moldova was granted EU candidate status this summer along with Ukraine.

During a visit to Chisinau on October 1, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht promised to help Moldova modernize its army. Bucharest and Brussels have also pledged support.

The same applies to the energy sector. Starting on October 14, Romania plans to supply electricity to Moldova after Ukraine stopped delivery because of the destruction of its infrastructure caused by heavy Russian shelling.

In addition, Romania will provide €10 million in financial aid to prepare for the coming winter.

The EU also aims to increase its support. At an informal meeting of energy ministers in Prague on October 12, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said that in addition to supplying Ukraine, the EU has "also been actively working to ensure stable electricity and gas supplies to Moldova, that is facing serious security of supply challenges."

"I welcome that commercial exchanges between Romania and Moldova have been activated ... and would like to thank the romanian minister for his support,” she added. "There are also emergency supply contracts in place that Moldova can rely on."

This article was originally published in German.