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Moldovan Anger Over 1 Billion-Euro Theft Finally Reaches Boiling Point. Now What?

Moldovan Protesters Dig In
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WATCH: Protesters demonstrating against corruption vowed to camp out in the Moldovan capital's main square until the country's president resigns. (RFE/RL's Moldovan Service)

CHISINAU -- Dozens of tents have been set up in the center of the Moldovan capital following a street protest that drew tens of thousands as public frustration over rampant corruption has reached the boiling point.

But the question of what comes next remains unanswered.

"Until their demands are met, the protesters say they will not leave the square," says journalist Natalie Morari, who writes a blog for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "They will remain on the square and they are not willing to compromise."

The September 6 protest -- which dwarfed even the 2009 uprising that brought down Moldova's Communist government -- was the biggest in the country's post-Soviet history. Organized by a public organization called Dignity and Truth (DA), the demonstrators have demanded the resignation of Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti and the heads of various financial agencies responsible for combating corruption -- as well as early parliamentary elections to be held in March.

They are also calling for the direct election of the president, who is now elected by a two-thirds majority of the parliament.

Although the protesters rallied under European Union banners as well as the Moldovan flag, the demonstration could well bring down the fragile, pro-European-integration ruling coalition.

"These governments have distinguished themselves with several corruption scandals, among which I would mention two -- the privatization of the Chisinau airport, which was carried out in a very opaque way, and the scandal in the banking system that resulted in the loss of about 1 billion euros from the national bank," said Dignity and Truth organizer and political analyst Arcadie Barbarosie. "All this has affected the quality of life in the country, on the strength of the Moldovan lei [and] its purchasing power, which has fallen by about one-fourth."

The public organization Dignity and Truth was formed at the beginning of the year by a coalition of public activists from across the political spectrum. Its strength and attraction, says analyst Morari, lies in the fact that it is not a political organization.

"The current political system is thoroughly discredited and the public no longer believes in any party -- at least none of the parties currently in power," she says. "They have so thoroughly discredited themselves that it is unlikely that such a large number of people would have come out to the square if they had been summoned under some party's banner."

PHOTO GALLERY: Tens Of Thousands Protest In Chisinau

The weekend demonstration was the fourth that Dignity and Truth has organized, and it was the largest.

That could be because the effects of the 1 billion-euro theft, which became known in late 2014 and for which no one has been held responsible, are now being acutely felt by the general public. Rates for electricity were recently hiked by about 35 percent.

"It is clear that the people have had enough, particularly after the rate hikes for electricity and natural gas," says popular columnist Nicolae Negru. "The billion that was stolen is being paid for out of the pockets of ordinary citizens. So people have legally turned out to protest and it is a good thing, too, because our officials can't be persuaded by logic and will not act in accordance with their legal obligations."

But can anyone tap into the electorate’s frustration and motivation if the government concedes to the protesters' demands and agrees to early elections?

Civic Platform

Political analyst and Dignity and Truth organizer Igor Botan says that the protest leadership has no plan to transform itself into a political force, despite the political nature of its demands.

"Our platform will remain civic," Botan told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It will remain an informal organization, nongovernmental, that will try to always be on guard so that those who come to power in place of those who leave and who we will initially consider to be an improvement, don't get off track and return to oligarchy and corruption."

Botan says Dignity and Truth will not put forward electoral candidates and will not endorse anyone. The current changes in the country, he says, will bring forward people "with good qualities."

"We are not a nursery for potential leaders and we won't go out and say, ‘This guy is good -- support him,'" Botan says. "They must prove themselves."

The September 6 demonstration seemed at one point to indicate support for former Education Minister Maia Sandu, a popular and charismatic politician of the Liberal Party who failed earlier this year in a bid to become prime minister. However, Botan insists Dignity and Truth is not looking to her as a potential replacement for Timofti.

Columnist Negru backs this approach, saying that the best way Dignity and Truth can "defend the interests of the people" is by "remaining outside the political struggle."

Fellow Dignity and Truth organizer Barbarosie, however, thinks the situation is not so simple.

"I think that the logic of events will force the organizers of this action to move ahead with the formation of a political party," he tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "Now it is very important that such a party is formed on healthy principles and that it tries to avoid falling into the traps that the existing parties are in, where the leader decides everything."

Some observers have noted that the protest could ultimately benefit the main opposition party, the Socialist Party headed by Igor Dodon, or the relatively new Patria (Homeland) party of businessman Renato Usatii. Both parties have openly pro-Russia and pro-Eurasian Customs Union positions and have expressed support for the September 6 protest.

But Morari cautions against assuming that the protests are being guided by Moscow's allies.

"Over the last few months there have been efforts to discredit the civic platform through the mass media that are under the control of local oligarchs," she says. "In the first part of the year, the main accusation was that the [protest organizers] are unionists -- that is, they want to unify Moldova with Romania. But this idea didn't gain traction with the public, this bugbear didn't catch on, so the new bugbear is that the platform is controlled by agents of Moscow."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on September 7 that Moscow is watching developments in Moldova "with a wary eye."

Journalist Leonid Litra, in a blog post for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, writes that the government cannot ignore such a massive protest.

"Those who are in power -- and those who are behind them in the shadows -- must meet the demands of the protesters and not just make statements about how much they understand them or how much they respect the right to protest," Litra wrote. "The stolen billion must be returned and those who are responsible must be punished. Everyone says that the billion euros are lost -- but in reality, no one has tried to get them back."

Robert Coalson, RFE/RL's Russian Service, and Current Time TV contributed to this report

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