Moldova’s political class is discredited, fragmented and unpopular at home and abroad - but is the opposition too divided to challenge the failed leadership of Europe’s poorest country?
"The regime is desperate and is losing power," Ilian Casu, Our Party
"[The Pro-European Government] used the idea of Europe as a screen to steal for five years,” Valentin Dolganiuc, Dignity and Truth
I call the phone number of Ilian Casu, the deputy chairman of Partidul Nostru (Our Party). This is the political movement of 37 year-old Renato Usatii, a flamboyant Moldovan businessman who made his fortune running a railway parts factory in Russia.
I speak in Romanian “Vreau sa vorbesc cu domnul Casu, va rog” [I want to speak to Mr Casu, please]
“Who is this?” comes the reply in mid-Atlantic English.
I explain who I am.
“Come to my tent!” says Casu. “I can offer you some Che Guevara tea!”
As November rain begins to beat down, I turn up at a heavily-patrolled camp of around fifty tents outside the Moldovan Parliament in the country’s capital Chisinau.
Surrounded by police tape and overseen by bored and shivering cops, the Moldovan occupy movement is split into three camps. One is run by the Casu’s Our Party and another, next door, by the Moscow-favored Socialists.
A further camp two hundred metres away, outside the Moldovan Government, is run by pro-European civic activists Dignity and Truth (DA).
Dressed casually in a black North Face jacket, blue jeans and spectacles, American-educated Casu is fiercely friendly - like a lively Ohio geography teacher on a field trip.
He leads me to a former USSR army supply vehicle transformed into a kitchen and introduces me to Alina and Tatiana, two strapping ladies in ski jackets, who are stoking a coal-fired oven and cooking up tea in metal buckets painted with giant strawberries.
“Strawberry buckets - that’s something!” says Casu.
“They’re very Soviet,” I say.
“They’re Soviet and we love them!”
The tea is weak, sweet and fruity and served in plastic cups.
Casu says today the tea is not called “Che Guevara tea”, but “Tea Renato Usatii” after the party leader, who at that point was receiving treatment in Moscow for a mystery illness.
I suggest that it would be better to call it “Renato Usa-tea”.
But Casu is not impressed with this idea and wants to keep calling it “Tea Renato Usatii”.
Our Party launched its camp in mid-September with 100 tents and 100 people sleep over every night, according to the leaders. Casu says his team are “monitoring” who comes in and out of the camp. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden and people only spend a maximum of six days.
Casu says it is "false" that people stay in his camp for the money. "We don't accept cash from anyone," he adds.
“We have lots of businessmen who cannot protest as they will have problems with the regime and tax inspection,” he says. “They donate wood for the oven, eggs, pasta, rice and meat and we have enough to protest for another year and a half.”
‘Our Party’ is the most popular political party in Moldova - capturing 22.8 per cent of the vote, according to a poll in September by the Centre of Sociological Research and CBS Axa.
Its leader, Usatii, is the most trusted politician in Moldova, states a survey by the International Republican Institute - with a 41 per cent favourable rating. Although 49 per cent view him unfavourably.
Usatii runs his own charitable foundation, bearing his name, and has paid for free concerts in major Moldovan cities, with massive posters projecting his face from the stage.
“We are a classically anti-system party based on a protest vote,” argues Casu. “We work on the left, centre and right.”
However many western observers are worried that Usatii is both too close to Moscow in spirit and too close to power in Chisinau.
Moldova is hit by a perfect storm of political and economic chaos.
Prices are rising, wages are falling and the local currency - the Moldovan Lei - is in free fall. For the last decade, Moldova's economy has been dependent on migrant workers sending money back home. But these 'remittances' dropped by 30 per cent this year.
Citizens are disappointed with the pro-European coalition of four centrist parties, who are haemorrhaging support amid accusations of corruption and malfeasance. The Government resigned in October and has since failed to appoint a stable cabinet.
Demonstrations in Moldova attract thousands of sympathisers on a daily basis, making Chisinau a city of permanent protest.
These accelerated recently when energy regulators raised the price of electricity by 37 per cent. The police reaction is solid, but calm towards to protesters.
Here is one example. At a recent demo against tax rises a police riot helmet fell into the crowd. A tall man in his early forties, standing next to me, picked up the helmet.
He then threw it at a cordon of unarmed cops, hitting the officer in charge in the face.
The officer replied with "Who threw that?", and shook his finger at the crowd.
In some countries in this region, the guy who threw the helmet would have, to put it lightly, had the shit kicked out of him.
There is a narrow line between demonstration and revolution, especially with a hungry and impoverished population with little to lose. Protest leaders seem to realise this - and they reiterate from the podium how they must promote only 'peaceful' demos.
At Government level, European-focused reforms have stalled. The International Monetary Fund has canceled its visits to Moldova. Romania has denied the country its agreed loan of 150 million Euro until it can see concrete reforms from Chisinau.
The fear is that Moldova is going bankrupt - and no one wants to give it any money.
Its citizens - who are split in half between those closer to Russia and those to the EU - all blame the pro-European leaders.
“Their actions and behaviour in power were criminal from the start and the west knew this,” says Casu. “But the west supplied them with financial resources because of geopolitical confrontation with Russia. These idiots would go to Brussels and Washington [and say] ‘If you don’t give us money, Putin will come with tanks’.”
Although perceived as allied to Moscow, Casu argues that ‘Our Party’ is not pro-Russian, but pro-Moldovan.
Nevertheless Usatii himself has been caught on tape bragging about his membership of the Russian Secret Service (FSB) - a statement he later retracted. Casu believes the “propaganda machine” of a Moldovan media close to the pro-Europeans “regards Usatii as a pro-Russian politician and Putin’s right hand man.”
He says Moldova is a deeply divided society. “We have preferences - pro-Europe, pro-Russia, pro-Turkey, pro-Mozambique, pro-Argentina…”
“Pro-Cuba,” I say, gesturing to the tea.
“Pro-Cuba! It’s important, but not as important as being a citizen of Moldova.”
Support in Moldova for EU integration has tumbled from nearly 80 per cent in 2007 to 41 per cent last August, according to CBS-AXA/Centre for Sociological Research.
While those against the union have jumped from less than ten per cent to 36 per cent.
The popularity of the EU has become collateral damage in the people’s fight against a corrupt political system which has sported the label ‘Pro-European’.
In October, Usatii was arrested for tapping private conversations between ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat and businessman Ilan Shor, two figures allegedly at the centre of the scandal in 2014 that saw one billion dollars vanish from three Moldovan banks through shell companies in the UK.
The extortion left a hole in the bank’s finances of close to 900 million USD, which the state had to fill.
During the arrest, the Our Party offices were raided by police.
The detention wasn’t legal, says Casu. After three days, Usatii was acquitted and started suffering serious headaches.
“The Moldovan doctors urgently told him to Moscow, to take emergency treatment and tests,” says Casu.
When we speak (in November), Usatii is expecting the results of the medical analysis.
“There is a concern the regime slipped something into the food or water - a substance not made in Ukraine, Moldova or Russia, but from the United States exclusively,” says the Our Party executive.
The suspicion, says Casu, is that the regime locked him up to administer this.
This would be a strong accusation.
“It’s a hypothesis,” says Casu. “It wasn't sugar or honey.”
“Something radioactive? Polonium?”
“We don’t know.”
“I’m not an expert.”
“It’s a big risk for the regime.”
“The regime is desperate and is losing power,” says Casu. “It’s worried about being held accountable for the crimes they committed.”
Two weeks later [29 November] Casu tells me Usatii is "recovering" and they have no results yet from the tests.
Casu does not believe the decision makers in Brussels are seriously considering EU membership for Moldova. Right now in place remains the EU association agreement, which opens an EU vocation for the country.
“When we come to power, in the second day, we would not scrap the EU association agreement,” says Casu.
“Immediately there would be a Maidan [a demonstration similar to those in Ukraine in 2014/2015] in downtown Chisinau and we would be compelled to rule with the army and the police,” he says, gesturing to the Moldovan Parliament behind us, “like they do. That’s not governing Moldova, that’s protecting your butt from your own citizens.”
Casu has problems with the trade and economic side of the association agreement. For example, he wants Moldovan apple producers to freely sell fruit to Belorussia and Russia.
“We will fight for Russian markets for Moldovan apples, because it is in the national interests of Moldova,” he says. “The Dutch sells tulips in Russia, the French sell them goat’s cheese - we can do the same.”
Casu wants to “sit down and renegotiate the trade aspects of the deal”.
Meanwhile more Moldovans than ever now believe that their economy can better develop under a Customs’ Union with Russia and ex-USSR countries than with the EU.
But this enthusiasm is slight, with a percentage point difference of 42 to 41 per cent of the population, according to CBS-AXA, revealing a sharp polarization.
Asked whether Our Party supports the Russian Customs’ Union, Casu says he wants to launch a referendum on foreign policy, where citizens choose between the EU, custom’s union or neutrality - for which only a qualified majority verdict will be respected.
I am sceptical about Usatii’s party’s intentions - but Oleg Brega, an anti-system activist, who deplores nearly all political parties, later tells me: “I do not think even Usatii will go against EU integration.”
As I walk through the camp with Casu, the slogans on the tents reveal: “Renato Usatii - we are together with you”. Another tent is covered in a polystyrene structure, emblazoned with the name ‘Soroca’ - the title of a castle in north Moldova. In the camp, there is a small canteen where people eat, drink 'Tea Renato Usatii', play chess and cards. Around a dozen pensioners are feasting on fat German-style sausages.
Casu shows me his tent - a green one-man capsule of canvass with a sleeping bag and bedding. Five megaphones are on the floor amid scattered pieces of polystyrene.
He sits down and I take his photo.
“It’s like Muhammad Gaddafi,” he says.
Pensioner Oleg Kaminsky, 67, stands in front of Chisinau’s Triumphal Arch, built in 1840 to commemorate Russia’s victory over Turkey, on the Square of the Great National Assembly.
A soft-spoken former construction engineer, he has camped out for two months since September, joining many retirees, activists and Afghan war veterans, as part of the civic platform Dignity and Truth (DA), who have made the central square a home.
“My beard has grown,” he says.
Kaminsky is angry at the low living standards and allegations that Moldovan politicians have used intermediaries to siphon off cash from electricity deals with the country’s breakaway republic of Transnistria.
“Our government has been in permanent corruption,” he says. Economically, he believes the country was in better shape during the Soviet Union.
“What would convince you to go home?” I ask.
“A real program where we become a member of Europe,” he says.
“How’s your health?” I ask
“I had health in my youth,” he says.
He takes me on a tour of the camp, introducing me to the protestors, most of whom are dressed in flat caps and donkey jackets. “What is your religion?” a man in his sixties asks me. I don’t answer.
“Where are you from?”
“So you’re Catholic?”
“No,” I say. “Anglican.”
“Anglican?” he says, subdued, as though unsure whether to believe me.
There are empty mugs and glasses outside a family tent, where two men are slumped on sleeping bags. I ask if they want their picture taken, they refuse.
“It’s a bit like a music festival,” I tell Oleg.
“Yes,” he says, “but a festival in minus two degrees.”
Around 40 protestors withstand the chill here every night, in a symbol of unrest, according to Valentin Dolganiuc, former vice-prime minister of Moldova and founding member of Dignity and Truth.
The civil platform wants a President chosen by the people and to revoke the immunity of elected politicians, plus more benefits for farmers and pensioners. Their aim is to offer a true pro-European movement, unlike the ‘pretenders’ who rule in the building behind the tents.
“They are against the idea of Europe,” says Dolganiuc. “They used the idea of Europe as a screen to steal for five years.”
The ex-politician says the most important mission is to “destroy the pyramid of oligarchs”.
This aim unites the DA’s purpose with that of the other camp, outside the Parliament. However many Dignity and Truth protestors are angry that Usatii and the Socialists have light, heating and electric blankets, while they only have sleeping bags.
“Here, we are the representatives of the people, there are the representatives of Moscow,” says Dolganiuc. “Here are people who are poor, sorrowful and needy - who want a true change and want to live normally in the Republic of Moldova. The Socialists and Usatii promote the interests of Moscow. That [protest] is political - ours is social.”
Renato Usatii’s ‘Our Party’ has resources from the multi-millionaire founder, who’s company, VPT-NN is a Nizhny Novgorod-based supplier of metal goods to state-owned Russian Railways.
Asked if his party is financed directly by Moscow, Ilian Casu tells me: “that’s bullshit”.
But he says he can’t speak for the camp next door, run by the Socialists, under ex-finance minister Igor Dodon, who campaign overtly for a customs’ union [Dodon did not reply to an invitation to be interviewed for this article].
Casu says Our Party is in conversation with Dignity and Truth. “[The protestors] come here and we serve them food and tea,” says Casu.
But they do not support joint actions - and they will continue to launch different demonstrations.
“This is a deeply divided Moldovan society and it’s democratic to have a choice,” says Casu.
But there is another group of protestors.
Talking over tea in a Starbuck's-style cafe in downtown Chisinau, Constantin Codreanu, who speaks perfect English, aims to bring together the disparate groups who advocate the reunification of Romania and the Republic of Moldova.
The Moldovan coordinator of civic platform Actiunea 2012, his political and economic argument is that Romania is heading up and Moldova down.
In 2013 he says Moldova was a success story because of its signing of the Eastern Partnership programme with the EU, cementing its journey westward.
“Now it’s become a horror story,” he adds.
Meanwhile Romania is on a steady path of growth, has a transparent political system and a class of protestors who can effect political change. Recently 35,000 Romanians took to the streets in Bucharest, forcing the Government to resign.
“There are [Moldovans] who say ‘I am not Romanian! Fuck Romania!’. But now after Romania’s anti-corruption department (DNA) put in jail the country's richest man, Ioan Niculae and started to prosecute the [then] Prime Minister Victor Ponta and Mayor of Bucharest Sorin Oprescu, they can compare what is happening in Romania to what is here and in Russia.”
However this kind of information is not well known among the rank and file of Moldova - who mostly consumer Russian television, which does not report often on Romania's successes in locking up its own politicians.
Unification is still opposed by the majority of Moldovans, and almost the entirety of the country's breakaway republic of Transnistria - home to many ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.
However the unionists can bring out 10,000s onto the streets of Chisinau, and represent a fierce and vocal force of protest.
The leaders had some dialogue with Dignity and Truth. In September they installed 15 tents on the main square, naming their camp “Bulevardul Unirii” - Union Boulevard, echoing the street name common to most Romanian cities. They hoisted up a big Romanian flag and stayed for a few weeks.
But soon some of the war veterans harassed them, telling them to take down the flag, says Codreanu. Eventually, they packed up and left.
Privately, some members of the Dignity and Truth told them they want reunification, but now is not the right moment.
Codreanu is sceptical that another group of Moldovan politicians could lead the country successfully.
He believes they are “losing time” and must look to Bucharest.
“You can change the actors,” he says, “but the theatre is the same.”
All photos by Michael Bird