WASHINGTON -- A former top Moldovan anticorruption official has alleged that the massive banking crisis roiling that tiny former Soviet republic was the result of "economic sabotage" committed by those seeking to destabilize the country and keep it from moving closer to Europe.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Mihail Gofman also suggested that a billionaire former legislator who sought to become prime minister was the main beneficiary of the $1 billion theft from Moldovan banks, a stunning amount totaling nearly one-eighth of the country's GDP.
The comments by Gofman, who was the deputy chief within the Office of Prevention and Control of Money Laundering until he was pushed out in 2014, are the latest twist in the murky saga that has prompted a political crisis pushing Europe's poorest country closer to collapse.
Speculation has swirled in Moldova, which is wedged between Romania and Ukraine, about the perpetrators of the theft and whether Russian banks, crime groups, or even security agencies had a role. The country in recent years has been yanked between political factions wanting either to pull it closer to the European Union or closer to Russia.
The details of the bank theft first emerged in a confidential report commissioned by the country's central bank and conducted by international investigative firm Kroll. The report documented how companies and individuals tied to a 28-year-old businessman took control of three major Moldovan banks between 2012 and 2014 and then allegedly issued massive loans to the businessman's companies during a three-day period in November 2014.
The public anger stoked by the report has been leveled not only at the businessman, Ihon Shor, but also the country's entrepreneurial elite, including Vladimir Plahotniuc, a billionaire and a former legislator whose nomination to be prime minister was rejected in January by President Nicolae Timofti.
"What I'm now showing, examining this theft of the century, which I consider to be economic sabotage -- who's to blame, and how it came about -- we're still going to have to reckon with it," Gofman said. "And without the creation of, let's say, a group of international investigators, I don't foresee any resolution to this question."
Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc (file photo)
Gofman alleged that Plahotniuc was a beneficiary of the theft along with another businessman and former pro-European prime minister, Vladimir Filat. He also suggested wider involvement by top government officials who he said could have enacted stricter financial monitoring controls or even transfer taxes. That, he said, could have kept Moldova's banking system from becoming tainted by laundered money from Russia or elsewhere.
Gofman had largely been out of public view since leaving his post in 2014; he said he was fired because his superiors didn’t want him digging deeper into the banking theft. His public remarks this week, which included a news conference at a Washington think tank and an interview with a well-known host of the Moldovan channel TV7, have prompted questions about the timing of his comments and his motivations.
Asked specifically by RFE/RL why he was speaking publicly now, Gofman said he had been sharing details of his investigations all along -- just not in a public forum.
Gofman's allegations against Plahotniuc echo those that have appeared in Moldovan media for months, though with little in the way of solid proof.
'Moldova's Richest Man'
Adding to the murky nature of the scandal, the classified Kroll report was leaked last year to the blog of Andrian Candu, who is currently speaker of Moldova's parliament and an ally of Plahotniuc.
Shor is currently in pretrial detention, after being placed under house arrest after the report's release.
Plahotniuc, who is vice president of the pro-Western Democratic Party, has vigorously denied accusations of involvement in the theft. Forbes magazine has called him the wealthiest person in Moldova.
Filat, meanwhile, was sentenced last month by a court in Chisinau to nine years in jail on corruption charges related to the banking theft. He has denied the accusations and called the prosecution politically motivated.
The country is scheduled to hold a presidential election in October, though with the theft continuing to reverberate throughout the political systems, there is growing doubt about whether the vote will be held.
Moldova has been pulled for years between Moscow and the West. Russia maintains a 1,400-strong contingent of troops in Transdneister, a tiny strip of land whose separatist leanings sparked a brief war in 1990. Moscow also covers an estimated 70 percent of Transdniester's budget through direct or indirect aid.
But Moldova shares a border with, and has close linguistic and ethnic ties to, Romania, which is a member of the European Union and NATO.