The heist was brazenly simple. Somebody — or, more likely, somebodies — inserted themselves into the ownership structure of three Moldovan banks. Over the course of two years leading up to November 2014, the banks issued a honeycomb of interconnecting loans. In the words of a leaked report on an investigation into the theft, these loans had, "No sound economic rationale, and ultimately resulted in such a significant deterioration in each of [the banks'] balance sheets that they were no longer viable as going concerns." And so it was that Moldova woke one morning last November to find itself one billion dollars and three banks lighter.
The economic fallout from what could well be the world's largest bank robbery, in which more than one sixth of Moldova's GDP vanished, has been grisly. Prices have rocketed and the national currency, the leu, has depreciated against the dollar by nearly 20 percent since the start of 2015.
In the wake of the disappearing billion, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have suspended financial aid to the country pending reforms to its leaky banking sector. The Moldovan press has reported that without this aid there is a danger of the government defaulting on its national debt, meaning stopped payment of pensions and public sector salaries. These are scary times in a country where the average monthly salary is a little over $200.
Unsurprisingly, the people of Moldova are unhappy. Last Sunday, tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital, Chisinau. They were out to demand fresh elections, punishment for those responsible for the theft, as well as the resignation of the president, the prosecutor general and other officials perceived as having allowed the heist to happen.
Their rallying cry was, "Bring the one billion back home!" The majority of those protesters will not have been direct victims of the theft. As Moldovan journalist Viorel Ignat explained to VICE News over Skype direct from the protest camp, "Most of these people, they are not so rich, they are not even medium, they don't use banks."
What really has the protesters riled is the widespread corruption that allowed the theft to take place in the first place and, more than that, to go unpunished for nearly a year. Transparency International (TI) ranks Moldova as the state with the 103rd highest perceived levels of corruption, in a list of 175 countries around the world. An opinion poll conducted by TI in 2014 found that corruption was among Moldovan citizens' top five concerns, with 60 percent saying they felt the government was not effective in tackling corruption.
Tents were erected outside the prosecutor general's office following Sunday's mass demonstration. According to local journalists and activists, the tents have grown in number every night since, with many ordinary Moldovans donating food and money to the demonstrators. "There are always queues at the places for donations," journalist Marina Shupac told VICE News.
While the anger bringing people onto the streets is real and there appears to be wide public support for the protest, Viorel Ignat told Vice News he is not optimistic about the protests' chances of success, "There is no straight leader, someone you can believe in or someone you can follow. There is not anyone here who you can follow (…) I think it will lose."
Ignat's pessimism hasn't prevented Kremlin mouthpiece media from attempting to paint the protests as an attempted Maidan-style revolution, though. The English-language version of Pravda warned "Riots in Moldova may grow into coup," while Sputnik News invited its readers to ask whether the whole thing may have been staged by the US State Department.
The latter suggestion would seem particularly improbable, given that the currently governing parties first came to power in 2009 on the back of a violent "Twitter revolution" following eight years of Kremlin-friendly Communist Party rule. The current administration, like the majority of protesters on the streets last Sunday, is decidedly Brussels facing. It has implied that Russian media is stoking the unrest.
Moldova has been a hot topic for successive post-Cold War Russian governments thanks to the presence of the tiny breakaway republic of Transnistria along two thirds of its northeastern border with Ukraine.
Transnistria is officially a part of Moldova and its unilateral declaration of independence 25 years ago remains unrecognized by any other country in the world, despite repeated requests by its de facto government to be annexed into the Russian Federation.
In August 1990, wary of Moldovan nationalism and the potential for Moldovan unification with Romania, Transnistria declared itself a separate Soviet Socialist Republic, apparently missing the memo on the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. A conflict ensued between the separatists and Moldovan security forces that lasted until 1992, finally brought to an end through the presence of Russian peacekeepers. Handily, Transnistria had long been the headquarters of Russia's 14th Army, so there was no need to build new barracks for them.
Russia promised that its peacekeepers would leave in 2002. However, it maintains a garrison of roughly 1,350 troops alongside the 14th Army's massive weapons cache, which never made it back to the motherland following the breakup of the USSR.
The presence of Russian troops sitting on top of a massive arsenal of weaponry on Ukraine's southwestern border has been a cause of understandable anxiety for the Ukrainian government — particularly since Russia's annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in the east of Ukraine, which Russian forces are widely believed to be involved in. So anxious is Kiev, in fact, that it has beefed up its defenses in the port city of Odessa, just 60 miles from the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol.
Kiev is not alone in its fears. Last March, General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, warned of the possibility and feasibility of a sprint by Russian forces from Ukraine's eastern border to Transnistria. Around the same time now-President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker cautioned, "We have to steal a march on Putin, he has to know that he cannot do in Moldova what he did in Crimea."
The nightmare scenario for regional stability would likely go something as follows: The protesters are successful in their demands for resignations and early elections. The Kremlin labels the whole thing a coup and decides it has to make the sprint to intervene in Transnistria and protect the rights of Russian speakers there, a la Crimea. Finding itself in possession of a large army 60 miles from Odessa, Putin decides to open up a western front in the Ukraine conflict in a double-or-nothing push to seize Novorossiya, the historically Russian speaking southern portion of Ukraine he's been dropping hints about for the last year and a half. His gamble pays off, stripping Ukraine of its Black Sea coast, drastically tipping the scales of the regional landscape and the entire Ukrainian conflict.
This worst-case outcome, while within the realms of possibility, is pretty unlikely. Russia's economy has been in pretty rough shape for some time now and that double-or-nothing would not be one Putin could afford to lose. That said, tensions between Tiraspol and Chisinau appear to have been rising in recent months. In July, Transnistria mobilized all army reservists aged 18 to 27 and sought Putin's reassurance that he would intervene should the need arise.
All this sabre rattling may well be just that, though. For the time being all that has happened is that people have taken to the streets of their capital to demand their government live up to the European values they were elected on the back of. Basic things like transparency, justice and rule of law. At the moment that government seems fairly unresponsive.
Viorel Ignat told VICE News that there was not currently a viable alternative to the present government, except for the pro-Russian opposition. The government knows this, he said, and has used it to their advantage, refusing to acknowledge the protesters' demands in the latest round of negotiations. In response, the protest's leadership has announced its intention to form a new political party, The Party for Dignity and Truth.
But it's early days. As an answer to the government's unresponsiveness, the protesters, who are reportedly still growing in number, have said they will form a human blockade around government building until their demands are heard. Journalist Marina Shupac said she believes "people are full of energy and [the] will to stay there as long as it is necessary."