Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

December 18, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: MoldovaRussiaEuropean UnionVladimir PutinRomania

Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

Europe's poorest country is torn between Brussels and Moscow.

Half the size of Scotland, tucked between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is the least-visited and poorest country on the European continent. Life centers on the sat, the “village.” The road into each is marked by a Soviet-era sign that spells out its name in cement block letters of red or grey. Many lack piped water. Steel buckets are chained to communal wells, shielded from crop dust by pitched roofs of bark. Ribbed horses bring in the harvest, still often the work of scythe and cart. At major intersections you are likely to confront a bony Christ hanging off a cross; beneath his toes, votive candles smolder in a cabinet of smoked-out glass. There are few public monuments. In a town called Florești, a rusted-out SU-15 fighter jet has been impaled on a three-story cement spike. A Lenin statue in Sukleia was beheaded the year after the Soviet Union fell; five years ago, Lenin was given a new head, too large for his torso. Now and then on a country road you hear the revving of a tricked-out BMW or Mercedes, the prize of a parvenit, a “profiteer”—one of the Moldovan boys who fled school, went to Russia to make his fortune and returned home loaded with cash.

Moldova was recently ruled by one Vlad, has fallen largely under the control of two Vlads, and is now coveted by a fourth Vlad. The first is Vladimir Voronin. In 1993, Voronin—a KGB attaché in Moscow throughout the late 1980s—returned to Chișinău, Moldova’s capital. Out of the ruins of the Soviet Communist Party, banned in Moldova after 1991, he erected a new party, the Moldovan Communists. It surged into parliament in 1998. Three years after that, Voronin won Moldova’s presidency. Gradually his allegiances tacked from Moscow to Brussels, which began funding public works in Moldova in 2005 in order to lay the groundwork for European Union accession, which is today all but unthinkable. “A friendly calf sucks two mothers,” Voronin answered his anti-EU critics, borrowing a line from Dostoevsky. To the seven in ten Moldovans who favored EU integration, Voronin’s rhetoric bore too little in practice. In April 2009 he was ousted, the work of a light revolution: Thousands of Moldovans packed National Assembly Square in Chișinău, demanding recall elections after Voronin secured his fourth consecutive parliamentary majority—only, the claim went, by distributing multiple ballots to his supporters. WikiLeaks later revealed that Voronin offered a ten-million-dollar bribe to a rival politician in a bid to preserve power. Protests turned violent. Demonstrators hurled furniture through the windows of state offices, which were scaled and draped with EU flags. Moldova’s 1991 Declaration of Independence was incinerated. There were cries in the crowd for unification with Romania—a broken dream of many Moldovans who see no other way toward a European future. Voronin’s sympathizers, overwhelmingly Moldova’s Russian-speakers, saw the situation differently: Europe’s fascists were upending Moldova’s Communists. For the next three months of 2009, Moldova existed without a government. Recall elections were held in July. Vlad Voronin was out.

Enter a pair of billionaires who despise one another. Their names are Vlad Plahotniuc and Vlad Filat, but Moldovans just call them the Vlazii, “the Vlads.” They are upstarts, unconnected to the old Soviet nomenklatura. Each is in his forties, identifies as an ethnic Romanian and comes from a tiny farming village in the Bessarabian plain. Technically they wield no more power than any other Moldovan politician—Plahotniuc doesn’t actually hold an office—but virtually nothing can be done in Moldova today without them. Slowly under Voronin, with fervor after his collapse, these two carved out their own zones of authority within the state: each privatized a political party out of his own pocket, and each used that party to seize personal control of different government sectors. Plahotniuc runs Moldova’s Judiciary and its National Anti-Corruption Center; Filat opted for its Customs Ministry. These are now the nodes through which every reform, law or political decision must pass in Moldova.

The Vlads’ early years in Russia and Romania, told to me in bits and pieces in my discussions in Moldova, are a goulash of shady, opportunistic, often ruthless acts, often recounted with equal parts awe and fear. Truth and lore here can be difficult to separate. What is clear is that power was amassed, and around the same time that Voronin took power, the Vlads pivoted back to Moldova. They shopped for old state assets. Plahotniuc started collecting TV channels and banks. Of Moldova’s five news networks, he owns four. He has a controlling interest of Victoriabank, Moldova’s third-largest bank. Filat went for border posts, from which he sends truckloads of unstamped Ukrainian cigarettes across the Prut River into Romania. Between the hotels, casinos and nightclubs of downtown Chișinău, little now falls outside the control of the Vlads. A Moldovan joke: “I hear Vlad Filat plans to buy Moldova today,” one villager says to another. “Impossible!” runs the reply. “Vlad Plahotniuc’s not selling it.”

The fourth Vlad is Putin.

Moldova is the murkier front between Putin and the EU. His strategy is to prevent Moldova’s EU accession by capturing the state softly, from within. In late 2013, after Chișinău ratified an EU Free Trade Agreement, Putin began pouring money into Moldova’s Socialist Party—a band of Communists defected from Voronin and led by Igor Dodon, a Putinist purist. The party now controls one in four parliamentary seats. It is a legislative ram with which Putin could federalize Moldova into a collection of regions that hold veto powers over one another. In Ukraine, where Putin has pursued a similar strategy, he used armed incursion to create potential territories out of Donetsk and Luhansk. In Moldova such territories are already lying in wait: the country’s two biggest Russian-speaking enclaves became autonomous in the 1990s. One is Transnistria, a self-governing rust belt splayed along the banks of the Dniester River. The other is Găgăuzia, a swathe of the Black Sea steppe inhabited by 160,000 Oghuz Turks who converted to Christianity in the later years of the Ottoman Empire.

In late May I took a bus to Comrat, capital city of Găgăuzia, a bleak, undulating stretch of plain. The Gagauz are tough people—Romanians call them răzeşi, “men of the earth.” In August 1990, an insurrection of Gagauz farmers brandishing machetes was crushed when Chișinău dispatched busloads of peasants, emboldened by vodka, to the region. Today, endemic poverty has driven many Gagauz teenagers into rural gangs. Last February, weeks before Crimea’s annexation, the Gagauz held a referendum. Yuri Yakubov—a Moscow tycoon who claims to have Gagauz origins—paid for the printing of ballots. Members of Russia’s Duma travelled to Comrat to ensure a fair electoral process. 98 percent of the Gagauz voted in favor of regional integration into the Russian Customs Union; in the event of Moldova’s entrance into the European Union, or of Moldova’s unification with Romania, they said they would declare their independence from Moldova. That spring, an unknown number of Gagauz youths made their way to the conflict in Ukraine. One was found among the dead anti-Maidan protestors in May’s Odessa clashes. Anatoli Cara, a former minister of sport in Găgăuzia, went to Rostov-on-Don to build camps for Gagauz men to train. At least one hundred Moldovans are known to have attended them.

This past March the Gagauz voted in a new başkan, “chief,” a woman called Irina Vlah, a close associate of Dodon. “Ms. Vlah wasn’t elected,” Oazu Nantoi, the former Moldovan presidential candidate, told me. “She was installed.” Nikolai Valuev, the seven-foot-tall boxing champion that Putin dispatches to Crimea to rouse up crowds, came to Găgăuzia to campaign for her. So did Anatoly Karpov, the Russian former world chess champion. On my second morning in Găgăuzia, three black SUVs rolled slowly through the center of Comrat. Men streamed in from the fields to watch with curiosity as the yabancilar, the “outsiders,” stopped outside town hall. The door of the lead car opened; out came a tall Tatar in a well-cut suit and gold-rimmed glasses—Farit Mukhametshin, Russia’s ambassador to Moldova. Next came Aleksei Alexeyenko—spokesman for Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s phytosanitary surveillance agency. An entourage of advisors floated behind them. The men moved with heavy purpose into the town hall, past a cast-iron statue of Lenin leaping into a train carriage.

Başkan Vlah, dressed in a teal blue suit, sat at the head of the table. Three small flags dangled in front of her: those of Găgăuzia, Moldova and Russia. She introduced us to her cabinet: sixteen Gagauz in suits starched with sweat, along with two big men in uniforms—“Gagauzian security officials.” The Gagauz were interested in mechanizing their farm equipment. The Moscow delegation had come to help.

“Our two peoples share the same values: land, labor, Orthodoxy,” Mukhametshin told the room. “Sure we’d like to get some machines to you. Găgăuzia is small enough that Moscow could send technicians to every single one of your fields. But what’s necessary is getting private investors interested in this cozy little country of yours.”

“Găgăuzia’s autonomy gives us the ability to write our own tax codes,” the başkan said. “We can offer your investors incentives no other place in Moldova can.”

After the meeting there was a ceremony. Dozens of Gagauz peasants had been driven in from the countryside to meet the officials from Russia. Mukhametshin surveyed them from the top of a staircase. Vlah, a few steps below him, called out different individuals from the crowd. First was a deaf woman, Angelina, from a village called Tomai, who approached the stairs uncertainly. Mukhametshin reached into his breast pocket, took out a hearing aid and handed it down to her. Maria from a village called Besalma was called out next. Her son’s leg had been ripped off by a chainsaw. Mukhametshin directed her gaze to a wheel chair being unloaded from a van. Maria broke down in tears. The parade of gifts—strollers, heart monitors, icons of Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of the Gagauz—went on for half-an-hour. “Russia has a special relationship with you,” Mukhametshin concluded, sweeping his hand over the peasants huddled below him.

Găgăuzia’s referendum has triggered calls for referenda elsewhere in Moldova. Two Russian-speaking towns near the Black Sea coast, Tărăclia and Tvardița, will deliberate their autonomous status early next year. Bălți, Moldova’s third largest city, goes to the polls this December. In June, the city elected a man called Renato Usatîi as its mayor. A decade ago, when he was twenty-six, Usatîi left his tiny village of Fălești for Russia. He got involved in Solntsevskaya, the deadly branch of the Russian mafia; he came to coordinate supplies for Russian Railways, then headed by Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin. Usatîi was possibly behind the March 2013 assassination attempt on the Russian banker German Gorbuntsov in London. His seizure of Gorbuntsov’s former bank, Universalbank, would probably have been illegal in every place except Moldova. Usatîi returned to Moldova last summer. “No one in the country had ever heard of the guy,” a marshrutka driver told me. “Immediately he began buying up apartments for all his friends.” Usatîi zipped around Chișinău in a striped Rolls Royce. A pro-Russian political party, Patria, was established; it works together with Dodon and the Socialists but pushes more extreme proposals: The American embassy should be turned into a nightclub; a replica of the Great Wall should be built along the EU border. Last November, Patria was declared illegal by the Moldovan secret service for its conspicuously foreign funding and its gang connections. Usatîi flew to Moscow. This marked the end of Moldova’s ability—or willingness—to control the situation. On May 6 Usatîi returned to Chișinău, scoffing at warnings that the entire Moldovan police force had deployed outside the airport for him. They hadn’t.

I was with Usatîi the day he became mayor of Bălți. He spent the morning tearing through cigarettes, black Ferragamo loafers kicked up on a table. A TV played reruns of Golos, the Russian talent show. On campaign posters Usatîi looks a bit squeamish: an uneven pair of eyebrows sits behind thick rims; he’s giving the camera a toothy grin and a thumbs-up. But this is the wrong impression. Dodon is Putin’s politician in Moldova; Usatîi, who is massive, is his thug. He likes to scare news correspondents by whipping assault rifles out from the underside of his desk in the middle of interviews. He glides around Bălți with one hand on the steering wheel of a black Range Rover. Together we rode to Lucian Blaga elementary school, where he voted for himself, then promptly returned to watching Golos. Six big Russian men came with us. They form a ring around Usatîi nearly every place he goes in Moldova. Pakhan, “boss man,” is what they called Usatîi outside his Pushkin Street headquarters, plastered with photos of campaign celebrities. One was of Iosif Kobzon, the singer who does concerts for the separatist battalions in Donetsk.

Officials I met in Chișinău all said that the Gagauz referendum—and those being proposed elsewhere—should not have been allowed to happen. They also acknowledged there was little they could do about it either way. Moldova’s problem is not that it’s a failed state. It’s a state where almost nothing has ever actually worked. In 2013, forty EU judges journeyed to Chișinău to observe how different state institutions functioned. They didn’t. Jobs that ought to be off-limits to political appointments—heading the banks, overseeing the police—are the specialty of political appointees. Four in five Moldovans profess no faith in the rule of law. Ninety percent of judges may be convicted of corruption when tried, but only last year, for the first time in Moldovan history, did one go to jail. Moldova is a state that cannot even pretend to control the real estate it calls its own. Roads are in disrepair if they’re paved at all. The national rail system is single-track—two trains cannot simultaneously operate in opposite directions. The complete lack of national interconnectedness is most evident in the presence of the notorious baroni locali, the “local bosses” who govern largely beyond Chișinău’s reach. Justice in Soroca, a town in the north, is meted out by a bulibaşa, a gypsy king called Artur. Oleg Bădărău, the mayor of a village called Bahmut, was hauled to trial in 2012 when he was discovered to have raised his own private militia.

A state this brittle and decentralized is in no position to confront its in-built polarization. Moldova’s 1990 independence reignited a debate—the Bessarabian Question—that once commanded the same notorious thorniness as the Macedonian Question. Who are the Moldovans? The search for an answer made the postindependence situation in Chișinău unique from that in Baku or Kiev or Tbilisi. First, surging nationalist elements weren’t crying out that Soviet rule had stifled an indigenous “Moldovan” culture. Their claim was instead that “Moldovan” had been a fiction all along: Moldovans were Romanians, and Moldova was Romania’s provincia pierduta, “lost province.” Violent outbreaks against identification with Romania resulted in the special statuses afforded to Găgăuzia and Transnistria, the bastions of Soviet agriculture and industry, respectively. It also resulted in a Slavic minority dispersed throughout Moldova that, to this day, has never felt any real association with its independence. One in four of Moldova’s Russian-speakers has still never learned the state language—still technically called Moldovan for fear of upsetting these people. The failure to incorporate any of these groups into the state has also kept vast segments of Moldova’s population locked in Soviet-era conceptions of statehood. It’s a nostalgia that has made for strange contradictions of late. Polls showed that a majority of Moldova’s ethnic Ukrainians actually supported Russia’s seizure of Crimea, for instance.

The EU’s ongoing failure in Moldova has leaders on both banks of the Prut River resurrecting that old idea: an enlarged Romanian state. They point to Germany. “A decade ago it was impossible to argue the case for merging with Romania,” Moldova’s former prime minister Ion Sturza told me in Bucharest. “Today, many see that unification may be Moldova’s only way forward.” Putin’s ties to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban—a Moscow-Budapest axis that, from the west, is stirring up the Hungarian minority in Ukrainian Transcarpathia and challenging Romania’s claims on Transylvania, and from the east is threatening the Budjak, the Black Sea coast around Odessa that’s home to tens of thousands of Romanian-speakers—only deepen feelings among hundreds of thousands of Moldovans that their natural protector can only be Romania, not the EU. One consequence of Romania’s increasing involvement in Moldova is that Russia is able to program its political rhetoric there—as it has done in Ukraine—with terms lifted from the 1930s: “cultural autonomy,” “minority rights.” No Russian-speaker in Moldova has been allowed to forget that Romania’s last attempt to incorporate the country was the work of Ion Antonescu and the Iron Guard. In southern Moldova I met Russian-speaking peasants who couldn’t read the Latin alphabet but who knew this. Of course Russian propaganda had all but formed their opinions; in Găgăuzia, for instance, farmers have been distributed leaflets detailing Romania’s different preferred methods for seizing land: “Romanian gendarmes are coming back! So are their priests!” In Chișinău, more than forty Russian nongovernmental organizations—AntiFa, Social Shield, Restruct Moldova, Russian Legion, New Legion—push the same line. Romania’s interest in Moldova plays so perfectly into the Kremlin’s narrative about European fascism that a handful of analysts I met believe that Putin is covertly funding Moldova’s pan-Romanianist movement, “Acţiunea 2012.” In Iași I met its leader, a Romanian called George Simion whom Chișinău, lest it provide Putin with even more ideological fodder, has banished from the country.

There’s no better proof of Chișinău’s failure to implement statehood and of the embers-still-lit appeal of the USSR than the existence of an entire parallel state within Moldova. Transnistria is, in many ways, a genuine Soviet fossil, a police state par excellence. It’s the only place in Europe where the KGB was never dismantled. Its officers still sit guard over the Dniester bridgeheads where makeshift local militias routed the Moldovan army in June 1992. You have to check in with authorities within twenty-four hours of arriving in Transnistria, where government buildings fly hammer-and-sickle flags. Three armies occupy the region, two illegally—Transnistria’s and the Russian 14th Guards Army—as well as a peacekeeping force comprised largely of Russians and Ukrainians currently using the same mess halls. Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital and Moldova’s second-largest city, is the seat of its own elected government, postal system, legal code and passport control. Transnistria’s banks are unregulated and unrecognized; the Transnistrian ruble, printed locally and tacked to the American dollar, is arguably the greatest vehicle for money laundering on earth. Transnistria is even run by something bizarrely approaching a command-and-control economy. Sheriff, a small grocery store founded by two Gagauz KGB officers in 1993, was coopted by Tiraspol’s elites in the 1990s and now reigns over every service in Transnistria: gas stations, mobile and internet services, cognac stores, yoga studios, the Tiraspol soccer team. Sheriff, by far the greatest employer in Transnistria, even pays its workers in Sheriff discounts, not rubles. Transnistria does not recognize the authority of a single international body, which has made regulating the region all but impossible. Estimates of the amount of undocumented weaponry in Transnistria—most of it explosives withdrawn from East Germany in the early 1990s—range upwards of 21,500 tons.

I arrived in Tiraspol the week Ukraine began its formal blockade of Transnistria’s eastern frontier. Local officials were convinced that the plan was the work of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president during the 2008 war with Russia, who had just been appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast. Nina Shtanski, Transnistria’s foreign minister, took to TV with claims that Ukrainian soldiers were digging a trench along the Transnistrian border, across which the Ukrainian Army and the Russian 14th Guards mimicked one another’s exercises. Relieving the Russian 14th Army, previously supplied by trucks running through Ukraine, was becoming problematic for Moscow. Reinforcements were now being flown through Chișinău’s civilian airport. Reports came daily of Russian men having their suitcases rifled through at customs declaration; at least two were discovered with fatigues and bandages and were sent back to Moscow. “This blockade is a crucial mistake,” Vladimir Yastrebchak, Transnistria’s former foreign minister, an ethnic Ukrainian, told me. “Moldova and Ukraine fail to realize how much experience everyday Transnistrians have in law enforcement and the army. ‘Peacekeeping,’ they call it. We can play at that, too.” What was Russia going to do? Bălți, which has its own airport, presented one possible solution. After all, Usatîi was now its mayor.

Beyond implementing vast financial and judicial reforms, Moldova’s EU integration can only become possible again when Transnistria has been restored to Chișinău’s control. Its police and army must be completely dismantled. Yastrebchak told me this would never happen. But the Transnistria issue was at least one more reason why the EU viewed Voronin’s overthrow in 2009 optimistically. His commitment to reform was always lackluster, but he was also the wrong man to handle Transnistria: He came from Transnistria. In the autumn of 2009, the EU turned to Moldova’s emergent new political class—young, Romanian, ambitious—of which the Vlads were both leaders and exaggerated representatives. “We took their talk of change at face value,” Pirrka Tappiola, the EU ambassador to Moldova, told me. Disaster ensued. For the last six years the Vlads’ pro-European alliances have refused to do almost everything Brussels has asked of them. Europe demanded the creation of an independent judiciary. It never happened. Calls for the reformation of the Moldovan banking system went unheeded. To root out corruption, the EU and IMF funneled teams of advisers and millions of euros into Chișinău. Corruption increased. The allocation of EU loans for highways and health clinics—approximately six hundred million euros, much of it delivered unconditionally—was never made transparent. This past February EU bureaucrats arrived in Chișinău to arrange the terms of a new European alliance. They refused to leave the airport, warning the Vlads that their incompetency threatened to bring Voronin back to power. This had to be prevented at all costs. Yet one month later, the Vlads had brought the Communists back into power willingly, ousting the pro-EU Liberals from their coalition and welcoming Voronin into their coalition as an external partner.

This past April, one billion euros, an eighth of Moldova’s GDP, vanished from national coffers. In 2012, hundreds of millions of euros in loans were extracted from three banks: Banca de Economii, Banca Sociala, and Unibank. The money was siphoned off to offshore accounts. The loans themselves were nonperforming. Last November all three banks began a rapid financial collapse. Those involved muscled the National Bank of Moldova into using currency reserves to keep the banks afloat. Ilan Shor—an Israeli-born businessman who was elected mayor of a city called Orhei in June despite being under house arrest—was convicted in May. In late October, the involvement of Vlad Filat became known after Renato Usatîi made public a conversation in which Filat admitted his role in the heist. Usatîi, who promised to buy a Mercedes for any police officer who arrested Filat in the parliamentary chamber, was himself arrested days later for having illegally wiretapped Filat’s phone-lines. Vlad Plahotniuc’s involvement in the theft, though probable, remains unproven. With Filat out of the way, his monopoly over the Moldovan state is now all but complete.

“Our concern is that Moldova could remain Europe’s ‘black hole,’ lying as it does in a dead angle of vision between the Balkans, Central Europe and the former Soviet space,” a NATO diplomat, Catherine Guicherd, once worried. Fifteen years later, Moldova’s future is no longer as Europe’s black hole. Whether the state is entirely destroyed by its own political class, or whether it’s effectively captured by a resurgent Russia, its future may no longer be European.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist who lives in Kiev. His work has appeared in the Balkanist and the Times Literary Supplement.

Image: Alexander Clapp