If you want to identify one person who is seeking to capitalise on the uneasy political situation and become ‘Moscow’s man’ in Moldova, it’s Ilan Shor.
Ask anyone to point out Moldova on a map and many would have difficulty—except staff in Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Somewhere in that vast building will be a map of Moldova, pinned on the walls, showing arrows of a planned invasion.
Like its neighbour, Ukraine, the small country of Moldova was part of the Soviet Union and became independent when the USSR collapsed on 25 December 1991. A sizeable proportion of its 2.6 million population is also of Russian descent, whom President Vladimir Putin may find it necessary to “liberate”—out of a sense of duty of course.
In fact, the “liberation” process actually began back in the 90s, when Russia helped Moldovan separatists carve out that part of the country bordering Ukraine, which they called Transnistria. This breakaway region contains the country’s second largest city, Tiraspol, just a few hours’ drive from Ukraine’s port city of Odessa. As in the Donbas region of Ukraine and the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of Georgia, the Kremlin used the age-old technique of triggering a military skirmish, which then required the “assistance” of Russian soldiers to establish peace. Using this phony excuse, some 20% of Georgian territory is still under Russian military occupation, while 1,500 Russian troops remain in Moldova’s Transnistria 30 years later. As for the Donbas—the world knows what’s happening there.
Since the mid-90s, Russia has spent a considerable amount of money trying to subvert this tiny country, squeezed between Ukraine and Romania. A report in the Washington Post last week, claimed to have documents proving that Russia’s security service, the FSB, has funnelled tens of millions of dollars from some of Russia’s biggest state companies to cultivate a network of Moldovan politicians with the purpose of reorienting the country towards Moscow. There is real fear in the Kremlin that Moldova might join the European Union, and the last thing Moscow wants are former Soviet countries on its borders becoming democratic with a flourishing economy. After all, people in Russia might want the same. Better do something to prevent it.
So when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine to prevent it from joining the EU, now more than eight months ago, the government in Moldova feared that it would be just a matter of time before Russian tanks streamed across its border after the expected fall of Odessa, just 40 miles away. But with Russia’s invasion failing and its forces having huge problems in defending the Ukrainian territory captured in the early days of the war, the immediate military threat to Moldova has receded. Now, the Moldovan government is grappling with different pressures from Moscow. The most immediate problem is getting a reliable source of gas for the oncoming winter, as currently Russia controls all supplies to the country. Then there’s the tricky problem of combatting Moscow’s sinister attempts to cultivate a network of pro-Kremlin politicians in Moldova.
In October, Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas monopoly, cut supplies to Moldova by 30% and is threatening further reductions this month. Matters were made worse by Russia’s recent airstrikes targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, as Ukraine traditionally supplies Moldova with 30% of its electricity. With nothing coming from Ukraine, Moldova has had to turn to neighbouring Romania instead, and there are reports that the power lines are already bulging at full capacity. To make matter worse, the power station supplying the remaining 70% of the country’s electricity needs lies in Transnistria, the area controlled by Russian troops. Last week, the self-appointed leader of Transnistria declared that because of Gazprom’s cut-back of gas supplies, electricity volumes would be reduced even further, leaving Moldovan authorities scrambling to make up the deficit.
With gas prices soaring, Moldova’s inflation rate hit a record high last month at 34%, so it’s no surprise that there were virtually non-stop protests on the streets of the capital, Chisinau, better known to some by its older spelling, Kishinev. Just as Moscow had planned, by reducing gas supplies to the country, Moldova’s pro-reform and pro-EU government has taken a serious beating in the opinion polls.
If you want to identify one person who is seeking to capitalise on the uneasy political situation and become “Moscow’s man” in Moldova, it’s Ilan Shor, a 35-year-old businessman and member of the Moldovan parliament since 2019. Shor was still in his early 20s when he inherited the family business and gained not only wealth, but power and influence. But Shor’s career seemed set to come to an early end in 2014 over what has been called “the theft of the century”, when more than one billion dollars disappeared from three Moldovan banks. One of these was Banca de Economii, where Shor sat on the board. He was placed under house arrest after a US investigative consultancy concluded the beneficiaries of the heist had been companies linked to Shor’s businesses. Despite having been convicted of fraud in 2017, which he denies and is still appealing, Shor launched a massive election campaign and at the age of 28 was elected mayor of the city of Orhei, north of the Moldovan capital. Nevertheless, Shor decided to flee the country after his conviction and now lives in Israel, but this has not prevented him from using social media and press releases to maintain his connection to his target electorate in Moldova, who are generally elderly and socially vulnerable people.
Shor is referred to as “the young one” by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and has become a leading figure in the Kremlin’s efforts to subvert its former Soviet Republic. Management control of Moldova’s two main pro-Russian TV channels was transferred to a close Shor associate at the end of September, according to Moldova’s oversight council, providing him with a major platform to advance a Moscow-aligned agenda by broadcasting Moscow’s propaganda Channel One. At the same time, a company that sold advertising for the Moldovan segment of the Russian social networks Odnokiassniki, VKontakte and Mail.ru also came under the control of the Shor team.
In the Washington Post documents, intercepted communications show that the FSB recently sent a team of Russian political strategists to advise Shor’s party, proving the close relationship which Shor denies. In a report to the FSB, one strategist said that Shor’s party will be “positioned as a populist party, changing people’s lives for the better”. The FSB also recently oversaw a deal in which a Russian oligarch acquired one of Shor’s main assets, to shield it from the Moldovan authorities.
What is becoming clear is that, as Russia faces further losses and military setbacks in Ukraine, the Kremlin is intensifying its efforts to subvert Moldova to help its cause and save face. It’s an easier target than Ukraine. And one way of covering the Kremlin’s embarrassment over the failure of the “special military operation”, is to find success somewhere else. Using the twin instruments of gas and illicit financing, the Kremlin is conducting a shadowy operation of influence in Moldova by using the allegedly corrupt Ilan Shor. As a senior Moldovan security official said recently, “the Russians are very good at exporting two things: one is energy, the second is corruption”.
And it’s working. “People are protesting because we can’t afford to live”, said a pensioner in Chisinau recently. “Gas prices have gone up five times and pensions and wages remain the same. Shor gave us presents on national holidays. And these guys in power have just shown us their fists”, she added. Alarm is growing in western capitals, as well as in Moldova, that Shor-backed protestors have turned to increasingly aggressive tactics in the past two weeks as the country’s energy crunch intensifies.
So, the staff in Russia’s Ministry of Defence can take down that invasion map of Moldova from their wall, as Ukraine demonstrates to the world that Russia isn’t very good at invasions. In any case, the Kremlin has plenty of other cards to play. It could just cut off Moldova’s gas and then wait to see if a popular uprising emerges by itself. Pro-Russian politicians could then stand up and say “vote for us and we will join the fight against Ukraine and get plenty of gas at a very low price”. Alternatively, Russia could just hold the country to ransom until its economy collapses, its population freezes from winter cold and the government is overthrown, leading to elections and a new Prime Minister—Ilan Shor. Unlike the catastrophe in Ukraine, as far as Moldova is concerned, Vladimir Putin can sleep soundly.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.