Inside the Uprising Against Moldova’s Donald Trump

Pro-democracy crowds are rising up to challenge Vlad Plahotniucan, the shadowy oligarch who controls much of Europe’s poorest country—and a key player in Washington’s Russia strategy.

01.27.16 6:26 PM ET

CHISINAU, Moldova — Europe’s poorest country, Moldova, has one very rich problem. Everybody you talk to, from a taxi driver to the speaker of parliament to a hipster at a coffee shop, says that the government is controlled by one shadowy man, the widely, wildly hated Vlad Plahotniuc. (Nickname: Plaha — The Scaffold)

He is Moldova’s Donald Trump, Chisinau’s Berlusconi—a billionaire with big appetites for power, money and women, and no sense of limits.

Plahotniuc owns four national television and three radio stations, private security forces, luxurious hotels. Nobody knows exactly how much he is worth. Meanwhile, he leads the Moldovan Democratic Party, although his official status is vice chair. He likes to be able to change his frontmen.

Like Trump or Berlusconi, Plahotniuc seems to have no sense of limits, or decency. One of the country’s leading television journalists (the Megyn Kelly of Moldova, one might stay) got a call warning her he was about to release a sex tape of her and her lover, filmed inside her apartment.

Washington and Europe, playing at realpolitik, ignore the political realities here, making deals with Plahotniuc’s pawns in Moldova’s parliament who present themselves as pro-Europe, pro-West, and anti-Russian. The result is a deep sense of hopelessness and frustration among those on the ground actually working to build civil society.

Last week, a new government was formed when 58 deputies voted for it in the dead of night. On Monday, Moldova’s parliament speaker, Andrian Candu, admitted in an interview with The Daily Beast that Plahotniuc had “provided the majority.”

It was a dirty, shameful fight, and in the aftermath, one of most popular television news programs, Politics, tried to invite Plahotniuc to appear, and to offer his explanations about the vote.

When there was no response, the show’s anchor, Natalia Morari, one of Moldova’s most celebrated TV journalists, wrote an open letter to the oligarch and published it on social networks.

“You will never become the one you always wanted to be—the legitimate leader of Moldova. In the shadows—yes. Surreptitiously—yes. But never legitimately,” Morari wrote.

Retaliation came the same day. Morari received a phone call from one of  Plahotniuc’s associates, whom she knew well. “They told me to be prepared, since very soon they will release a ‘horribly scary’ video of me having sex with my lover, that they have secretly recorded in my bedroom several years ago,” Morari told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.

“That seems to be Plahotniuc’s favorite style to discredit people,” said Morari. “We interviewed officials, who told us that in the 1990s he owned a sauna, where he provided businessmen and even diplomats with young prostitutes; Plahotniuc kept a collection of videos to blackmail people and push them to certain deals.”

This is the regime, then, publicly supported by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland last week when she called a “pro-European government.”

In Moldova, in fact, America must choose between pushing for democratic values or pushing back against Russia.

On Tuesday the U.S. European Command issued an “updated theater strategy” document highlighting Russian aggression as a top concern. “Russia is presenting enduring challenges to our allies and partners in multiple regions; therefore, it is a global challenge that requires a global response,” the report said. Apparently, Washington wants Moldova to fit into that strategy.

In reaction, on Wednesday pro-Kremlin activists put out a banner on a building across the street from the U.S. embassy with a caricature of U.S. President Barack Obama branded as a “killer.”

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In Moldova ordinary people aren’t thinking about geopolitics, they are trying to survive on an average salary of less than $200 a month in a country where officials rob them again and again.

So, increasingly, they are taking to the streets.

On Sunday more than 15,000 Moldovans, some with pro-Western and some with pro-Russian political views, joined an opposition rally in front of the government buildings here in the capital.

Protesters were particularly angry about the rushed appointment of Pavel Filip, Plahotniuc’s longtime associate, as prime minister. The reorganization took place about two months before the current president’s mandate is set to expire, so the new government gets to schedule the next national elections.

“The cabinet was appointed without debates,” said Vladimir Soloviev, editor-in-chief of Newsmaker, an independent Moldavan online publication supported by Western grant money.

Widely believed stories circulated, and were repeated to The Daily Beast by parliamentary officials and investigative reporters, to the effect that bribes from $200,000 to up to $2 million were offered to deputies from opposition parties to get them to vote for the coalition.

The protesters the night of the vote were in a ferocious mood.

“Deputies changed into police uniforms and escaped the parliament, so the crowds outside would not tear them apart,” said Soloviev. “No European country would ever allow such a shameful appointment of the government.” The new cabinet was established by midnight Thursday in a great hurry. “But the U.S. position had been already announced, and now the country associates Nuland’s words with this situation.”

Was Nuland aware of the anti-democratic processes taking place in the country? Did she know of the shady reputation of Plahotniuc?

One knowledgeable Moldovan government official, speaking on background to The Daily Beast, said that as long ago as last June Nuland delivered Washington’s guidelines to Plahotniuc: Provide us with the pro-Western majority and withdraw yourself from the parliament. So the deal is done, and the oligarch, like a puppet master, stays behind a curtain.

Parliament Speaker Candu told The Daily Beast on Monday that Moldova’s leadership could not afford early elections that carried with them the risk of losing power to pro-Russian political parties. So the elections have not been scheduled yet.

In the early ’90s, Moldova lost a part of its territory—the pro-Russian Transnistria region—and during the last two decades has built military bases occupied by some 2,000 troops on the border of the unrecognized republic. Since the Crimean crises two years ago, Moldova’s authorities have lived in fear that pro-Russian militia might attack from the breakaway Transnistria and that Russia might try to annex the separatist region, which also borders Ukraine.

During the few months left before the elections that are supposed to happen sometime this year, the new government has to demonstrate that it can perform, officials told The Daily Beast. To do that, it must publish an investigative report about the stolen money, establish a national anti-corruption institution, find loans in the West to slow the economic crises, and maybe even prosecute at least one corrupt oligarch. Otherwise, “if we do not succeed,” Candu told us, Moldova would fail Nuland’s expectations.

As Washington’s emissary in post-Soviet countries, Nuland has played the role of tough fixer and an enforcer of pro-U.S. interests.

During the pro-Western “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine, for example, she became famous for playing the role of fairy queen and handing out cookies to protesters. She is also remembered for her strong “Fuck the EU” comment in a leaked phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in 2014. After suggesting that “Yats,” current Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, would be the best man to lead the new Ukrainian government, Nuland concluded, “So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, fuck the EU,” which she apparently felt had been equivocal in its support for the uprising.

There’s no doubt politics is a rough game in this part of the world. The popular Moldovan politician Renato Usaty told us that, yes, he has a house and a business in Russia, as well as “connections and friendships at all levels, from managers of Russian oil companies to the FSB [secret service] or police officers.” And Usaty sees Plahotniuc as his personal enemy: “I am concerned that my life is under threat,” said the pro-Russian politician.

Last week authorities banned several journalists from entering the country and covering the events. On Thursday, angry crowds broke into the parliament, shortly after the lawmakers voted for the new cabinet, demanding early elections.

The vote now could be a problem for the West, as pro-Russian parties grow more and more popular in Moldova and where democracy was a victim of the geopolitical game. Two of the opposition’s party leaders, Usaty and Igor Dodon, are supporters of Moldova joining the Russian-led Customs Union of ex-Soviet states.

The greatest affliction and risk to Western democratic values in the arc of former Soviet countries from Moldova to Latvia is corruption, which could cause the local elite to turn to Russia.

 “Moldova is trapped,” says Maya Sandu, a Harvard-educated reformist politician, “and this country is in danger. We need to build democracy from scratch.”

The problem, Sandu insists, is that the current Western-backed government is in fact far from being pro-European. As Moldova’s minister of education from 2012 to 2014, she says she saw corruption and unprofessionalism in the government with her own eyes.

“Everybody is tired of the oligarchs,” she says. “If I had a chance to talk with Plahotniuc, I would tell him to leave the country.”