Bank Heist Magic Tricks and Public Discontent in Moldova


Poor, small, post-Soviet, and on the periphery of Europe, Moldova is easily overlooked.  Yet, that does not mean that nothing is happening here.

Hollywood conceptions of bank heists may involve shootouts, car chases, and romantic twists, but the largest real life bank robberies often fail to provide this kind of excitement.  Instead they rely on manipulating modern banking technology, generating countless transaction to create onion-like layers of complexity, and political connections.  This appears to be the case in tiny Moldova.   

Last year it was discovered that approximately $1 billion of funds had disappeared in a matter of days from three Moldovan banks, one of which is state-owned.  In a world in which $100 billion dollars worth of assets may be traded on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day, this seem may not seem so large.  However, this is in a country where the GDP is $8 billion.  In a matter of days someone or some group stole the equivalent of a month and a half’s income for the entire country’s income.  There are no clear answers on how this happened or who is to blame.  In a country with a historical corruption problem this has ignited popular discontent.  

Marchers in Chișinău

Large scale anti-government protests began earlier this month as citizens began camping in front of government buildings in central Chișinău, the capital.  Depending on the source, between 20,000 and 50,000 protesters marched yesterday calling for the government to resign and an end to oligarchy in Moldova.  The current government is strongly pre-Western and has worked for closer ties with the European Union.  This scandal serves as a huge blow to the both those in power and dreams of further Moldovan-European integration.  Pro-Russia political factions are leading these protests and the scandal has been a policial boon for them after failing to gain control in elections last year.

Poster promoting the initial protests at the beginning of September

The disappearance of $1 billion has led to the disappearance of support for the government.  It remains to be seen where this will lead.  With Russia becoming increasingly assertive on the international scene, particularly in regions it sees as traditionally falling in its sphere of influence, an opportunity may exist for Vladimir Putin to wrest this former Soviet republic from the embrace of the West.  The Moldovan government thus far has appeared to move little in response to the protests.  Organizers say the camping and marches will continue until their demands are met.

The man whose name leads the list of suspects in the theft has gone into politics himself.  Ilan Shor, a 28-year-old businessman popularly described as an oligarch, served as chairman of one of the banks involved in the swindle.  Though he denies any connection, he was placed under house arrest earlier this year, but was released in order to run for mayor in the town of Orhei.  He won that contest and has since showered the town with gifts such as a new fleet of buses.  For the time being, Shor appears to have escaped legal procedures.

The situation in Moldova is precarious.  Geopolitical consequences have yet to play out, though countless scenarios could be envisioned.  Perhaps it’s time to start paying attention to Moldova.