CHISINAU, Moldova—Vladimir Plahotniuc was the richest man in Europe's poorest country. Before he fled, allegedly to the United States, his tentacles seemed to be everywhere. He ran a political party, a bank, a scrap metal business and was inclined, his critics say, to post sex tapes of his opponents on the internet.
American diplomats had cultivated Plahotniuc as a force to stand up against Russia, but law enforcement also accused him of laundering money for Russians.
Whatever the facts of the matter, to millions of Moldovans he embodied the power of the wealthy and corrupt capitalist class—the oligarchs—and seemed like he would keep his grip on their country forever, until suddenly it slipped.
A big smile illuminates the face of Moldova’s new prime minister, Maia Sandu, when she speaks about her government’s plans to cleanse the country of oligarchs, investigate their shadowy schemes and find billions of dollars of stolen or laundered here.
“People want Plahotniuc to pay for all the abuses and crimes he has committed,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “Our people want him in prison and of course the court will decide for how many years.”
Nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, extraordinarily wealthy insider businessmen hold sway in many former Soviet republics. But popular outrage against them has swelled, in a trend of so-called “de-oligarchization.”
Thousands of protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia, marched recently to the residence of the shadowy oligarch Bedzina Ivanishvili demanding anti-corruption actions from the man known as Georgia’s unofficial leader.
Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People party declared new rules for Ukraine’s most powerful billionaires: “If there is a crime, we will imprison,” Zelensky said in a press conference for TV channels last month. “We won’t allow them to be monopolists.”
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin replaced an earlier generation of oligarchs with his cronies, and they have been in power now for decades. But a vibrant anti-government protest movement is growing bigger, in spite of brutal police beatings and thousands of detentions.
But Moldova, so little noticed and yet so strategically placed at the core of Eastern Europe, offers one of the most dramatic and perhaps instructive examples of change.
And what’s especially interesting is the confused, or at least confusing, role of the United States, where the Trump administration and other powerful Republican politicians, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have a conspicuous weakness for a certain oligarch.
In the case of Plahotniuc, he escaped Moldova by a private jet on June 14, a few hours after U.S. Ambassador Dereck J. Hogan visited the office of his Democratic Party.
According to reports in the local press, the 57-year-old oligarch has at least three citizenships—Moldovan, Russian and Romanian—and might be traveling anywhere in the world. Sandu, the prime minister, said she believes he is in Miami. The Daily Beast could not confirm his whereabouts independently.
A shift in political alliances forced him out. Sandu told The Daily Beast that her “intuition” pushed her to make a coalition with Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon. Surprisingly, American, European and Russian diplomats wound up supporting the coalition and the new government.
This appears to have been diplomacy practiced far below Trump’s radar, and it had a certain inescapable logic. Professionals in Washington, Moscow and Brussels, regardless their competition for sway in the region, realized that if Plahotniuc and his Democratic Party stayed in power, Moldova risked becoming a failed state.
Sandu said that the United States, though it had aligned with Plahotniuc before, might be willing to give him up now. “The United States have expressed their willingness to issue the extradition, as soon as there is an official request from our prosecution," she said.
Plahotniuc’s ally Ilan Shor and at least three more members of his Democratic Party also hopped on their jets and escaped Moldova, Sandu said. Moldovan police reported on Sunday that Plahotniuc’s close friends businessman Yuriy Lunkashu had shot himself without leaving any suicide note.
Before Plahotniuc's escape, he and his allies controlled Moldova’s media, law enforcement agencies, business and government institutions for more than a decade. “Earlier this year we managed to get ahold of an official order for surveillance on me and my colleagues,” Vladimir Solovyev, the founder of Moldova’s online publication Newsmaker, told The Daily Beast.
Journalists complained of Plahotniuc’s secret agents spying on their private lives, shooting videos with hidden cameras to try to discredit them and locking opponents in jail. “State companies financed his business empire, he tried to create a gray zone out of Moldova, while our banks channeled laundered billions coming from Russia to many countries around the world,” Sandu said. “Plahotniuc took businesses from people, persecuted critics, put several men in prison.”
Sandu, a 47 year old Harvard educated economist, looked casual and youthful in her pants and sneakers as she quickly walked into the government building in downtown of Chisinau last Sunday. She’s a petite woman often underestimated, to their regret, by many rich and powerful men.
Sandu has the spirit of a revolutionary reformer. She says she is convinced that one day Moldova can be a healthy and wealthy European state. “But before that we need to track down the stolen billions, recover at least some of the disappeared money and put in prison the guilty ones,” she said.
“Every day we are astonished to discover new cases of corruption involving Plahotniuc in banking, scrap metal, media and communication sectors, criminal schemes for billions of dollars, involving several countries,” Sandu said.
The money laundering schemes amounting to more than $15 billion dollars involved Russia and several European countries. Moldova’s entire GDP is only about $8.1 billion.
Russia has opened three criminal cases against Plahotniuc including one for drug trafficking. In 2017 Romania’s Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism began to investigate the oligarch, too. “Currently this multi-billion theft is too huge for us to investigate on our own,“ PM Sandu told The Daily Beast. “We need help from the international community and it is encouraging that at least one Western country indicates readiness to investigate the assets of our corrupt politicians.”
Yet Sandu said she had to keep the name of that country secret for the benefit of the investigation. “We know exactly where the corrupt assets are,” she added.
The revolt against Plahotniuc started four years ago, when nearly $1 billion disappeared from three Moldovan banks, causing an economic and banking crisis. Shadowy schemes flourished. Just last year Moldova started selling dozens of Moldovan passports, which could allow any crook to travel to Europe without a visa.
The U.S. supported Plahotniuc, at least until recently. Back in 2016 Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State responsible for Eastern Europe, received Plahotniuc in Washington. “Continue at the current pace, and we will support you,” Nuland told Plahotniuc, who at the time did not hold any political post but still controlled Moldova from the shadows.
Plahotniuc and his allies deny all the allegations. “Vladimir Plahotniuc will come back, when people call for him and not just the Democratic Party. I don’t doubt that people will call for him,” parliament member Vladimir Chebotar told journalists on Thursday.
So far no Plahotniuc supporters are seen on the streets of Moldova’s capital. There are plenty of witnesses willing to speak in court against him, however. One of them, former member of parliament Kirill Luchinsky, said that he was a victim of Plohotniuc’s after turning down a huge bribe. “People coming from Plahotniuc offered me $2.5 million dollars in cash, an immense sum of money for Moldova, as a bribe for quitting the Liberal Democrat party—in other words for loyalty,” Luchinsky told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Plahotniuc should be on trial for usurpation of power; the entire people of Moldova will act as witnesses.”