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Ilan Shor: The Kremlin's New Man In Moldova

Moldovan Oligarch Ilan Shor (file photo)
Moldovan Oligarch Ilan Shor (file photo)

In June, as the EU mulled and finally granted Moldova candidate status for membership in the bloc, small anti-government protests began in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, amid creeping unrest and anger over rising energy costs, fueled in part by Russia's unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The protests were organized by the Shor Party, a populist Moldovan political party, whose founder and leader, Ilan Shor, was convicted of fraud in 2017 over the theft of $1 billion from three Moldovan banks in 2014, dubbed the "theft of the century."

In addition to serving as president of the Banca de Economii, one of the three banks involved in the scandal, Shor was once best-known as the director of Dufremol, the country's biggest seller of duty-free goods, a firm founded by his father, the late Miron Shor in 1994. The elder Shor brought the family from Israel to Moldova when Ilan was two years old. Leveraging his father's wealth, Shor has bought local TV stations, an insurance company, and the Moldovan soccer team, FC Milsami Orhei.

While the fortunes of Russia's previous man in Moldova, former President Igor Dodon, are waning, the 35-year-old Shor's star is rising. With protests sporadic but continuing, he is reputed to not only have close ties to the Kremlin but is alleged to be on the payroll of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which is eager to stir up unrest in Moldova.

Moscow has seen its influence slip after Maia Sandu was elected president in 2020 after vowing to steer the impoverished country of 2.6 million on a pro-Western course and rid it of corruption.

As Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, there was even talk that Russian President Vladimir Putin could invade Transdniester, a breakaway Kremlin-friendly region of Moldova where some 1,500 Russian troops have been based for decades despite repeated calls by Chisinau for them to leave.

Moscow has also exploited Moldova's dependency on Russian oil and gas in an attempt to bring it to heel. On October 1, Moldova said Gazprom had cut gas supplies by 30 percent.

Despite the Kremlin upping its campaign of subterfuge and tightening its energy vice on Moldova, Sandu has held firm, pledging on a visit to Romania on November 1 to keep Moldova on a pro-Western path, despite struggling with what she called Russia's energy and political "blackmail."

Deep, Dubious Pockets

If politics loves a vacuum, then the time is ripe for Shor. Dodon was president from 2016 to 2020, when he lost the presidential election to Sandu. A year later in 2021, Dodon's electoral alliance of communists and socialists polled poorly in parliamentary elections. In May 2022, Dodon was placed under house arrest on suspicion of treason.

Dodon has "lost his power" inside his Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, explains Cristian Vlas, a political analyst, adding that Shor, with his deep, dubious pockets, offers much more. "The Kremlin knows that Shor can follow through with destabilizing actions by having the money for that and by having some voter base that does not question the source of the money," Vlas told RFE/RL. Shor's political opinions are vague and hard to pin down.

In September, parliament members from the Shor Party traveled to Moscow where they met the chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, who praised Shor and his party as Russia's "reliable partners," fueling further speculation about the Kremlin's possible role in the protests in Moldova.

The U.S. Treasury was taking notice. Shor, who reportedly now lives in Israel, was included on a list of nine individuals and 12 entities sanctioned by the Treasury on October 26 to counter what it called Russia's "persistent malign influence campaigns and systemic corruption in Moldova."

Also named was Shor's wife, a Russian pop star, Sara Lvovna Shor, as well as Vladimir Plahotniuc, another shady Moldovan businessman also implicated in the 2014 bank heist.

Shor, however, brushed aside the fresh U.S. sanctions, posting on Facebook that they were aimed instead at saving "the image" of Sandu, while accusing U.S. Ambassador Kent Logsdon of interfering in the internal affairs of Moldova.

Just two days after the U.S. Treasury announced the sanctions, on October 28, The Washington Post reported that Shor was not only on the FSB's payroll but was also the key link in a chain of pro-Kremlin oligarchs in Moldova.

"The FSB has funneled tens of millions of dollars from some of Russia's biggest state companies to cultivate a network of Moldovan politicians and reorient the country toward Moscow," Catherine Belton wrote, noting that the Kremlin was betting on Shor and largely abandoning longtime ally Dodon.

The U.S. Treasury also sanctioned Igor Chayka, who it said worked with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Chayka is the son of Yury Chayka, a member of Russia's Security Council who was designated for sanctions by Washington in April.

Igor Chayka brokered an alliance between supporters of Shor and Dodon, who now heads the Moldovan-Russian Business Alliance, allegedly a conduit to disperse Russian cash to willing Moldovan politicians and parties, according to a report by investigative journalists from RISE Moldova and the Dossier Center, a unit funded by the exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russia also used Chayka's companies as a front to funnel money, the U.S. Treasury said.

In the wake of The Washington Post report, Moldova's Prosecutor-General's Office announced on October 31 that, along with the Intelligence and Security Service, it would investigate the claims that the FSB spent millions of dollars to cultivate a network of Moscow-friendly oligarchs and reorient Moldova toward Russia.

The sanctions and allegations against Shor and other Moldovan oligarchs allegedly doing the bidding of Moscow come amid a fresh spike in tensions between Russia and Moldova, as the two countries exchanged diplomatic expulsions on October 31. That tit-for-tat move came just hours after a Russian missile shot down by Ukrainian air defenses fell on a village in northern Moldova. Residents of Naslavcea said they were shaken by the explosion, which caused damage but no casualties.

FSB agents have been active inside Moldova for years, especially in the wake of Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, the RISE Moldova and Dossier Center report found.

"The main regional headquarters of the FSB is located in Transdniester, outside Moldovan-controlled territory. Here, they train and coordinate agents for illegal work in the region, especially in the south of Ukraine. Since this separatist region is off-limits for Moldovan and Ukrainian security services, it is possible to collect data about the region and prepare sabotage groups. It's also possible to mobilize people in case Putin's troops succeed in the Mykolayiv and Odesa regions," a member of the Moldovan secret service told the RISE Moldova and the Dossier Center.

Shor has apparently already proved himself eager to please Moscow. Ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections, "Shor worked with Russian individuals to create a political alliance to control Moldova's parliament, which would then support several pieces of legislation in the interests of the Russian Federation," according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Although the efforts to influence Moldova's 2020 and 2021 elections failed to achieve the desired result, the Kremlin continues to organize efforts to return a pro-Russian government to power, the U.S. Treasury said.

By June, Shor had received "Russian support," according to the Treasury, and "was coordinating with representatives of other oligarchs to create political unrest in Moldova."

On June 13, the director of Moldova's National Anti-Corruption Center, Iulian Rusu, announced all assets held by Shor in the country had been seized. "The seizures applied by the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency reached the amount of 1.5 billion lei (about $78 million). These are properties from Moldova," Rusu told Moldovan TV.

According to Rusu, Shor also had assets abroad valued at "several hundred million lei," adding that Moldovan anti-corruption officials were working with their foreign counterparts to seize these assets as well.

Energy Woes

Against the background of seized assets, sanctions, and FSB scheming, Moldova's energy woes deepened on November 1 when Transdniester stopped supplying the rest of Moldova with electricity.

The Moscow-backed separatist region is home to Moldova's largest gas-operated power station -- the Cuciurgan power plant -- which supplies about 70 percent of the country's electricity needs.

The power supply interruption followed an earlier announcement from Moldovan Infrastructure Minister Andrei Spinu that the state power company, Energocom, had failed to sign a November contract with the plant due to a 40 percent cut in deliveries of Russian natural gas.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu addresses the Romanian parliament on November 1.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu addresses the Romanian parliament on November 1.

Addressing Romanian lawmakers in Bucharest on November 1, Sandu said, "Providing electricity for the country is a daily challenge.... Moldovan families now spend about 75 percent of their income on energy…. We risk being without gas and electricity during the coming winter."

Sandu also accused pro-Russia political forces in Moldova of "cynically exploiting people's hardships and the discontent…[to] generate chaos and turn us back from our European path."

Romania has already thrown Moldova an energy lifeline, agreeing in October to deliver 30 percent of Moldova's monthly electricity needs, replacing Ukraine, which has stopped such deliveries due to Russian bombing of much of its energy infrastructure.

As of November 2, Romania had agreed to meet 90 percent of Moldova's electricity imports.

"Half of the worst is done. Moldova is not importing power from Ukraine anymore," explained Dionis Cenusa, a visiting fellow at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center. "The next challenge will be the supply of gas. If Russia cut it off for Ukraine, Moldova will have to quickly turn to Romania and other European supplies," he told RFE/RL.

Moldova faces the double challenge of ending its "dependency on Russian gas and electricity from the [Transdniester] separatist region," Cenusa said.

If it doesn't cut its ties with Moscow, Cenusa predicted, street protests could grow as bills become more expensive. He added that an emboldened opposition -- populists like Shor but also those with no love for the Kremlin -- could become "proactive" once again.

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