ORHEI, Moldova (AFP) — On the campaign trail, the Israeli-born businessman Ilan Shor insists corruption is Moldova’s most pressing issue, despite having been convicted in a fraud case local media dubbed “the crime of the century.”
Shor, 31, was handed a seven-and-a-half-year jail term in 2017 for money laundering, fraud and abuse of confidence.
But he remains free pending his appeal — and is still eligible to run for office in the weekend’s parliamentary elections, under his self-named Shor Party.
His critics say the fact that he is allowed to run despite his conviction is a damning indictment of Moldova’s political system.
But Shor and his supporters insist he is driven by a desire to improve the lives of the people in this poor ex-Soviet nation nestled between Romania and Ukraine.
Going into Sunday’s election, the three main groups are the pro-Russian Socialist party of President Igor Dodon, the ruling Democratic party, and a pro-European alliance.
But if the Shor Party itself is lagging behind in the polls, Shor’s personal chances are good. Under the terms of a new voting system he is all but guaranteed to win a seat in his constituency — the central town of Orhei, where he has been mayor since 2015.
“Nobody will regret having voted for Shor,” the candidate said of himself during an event in the southern city of Comrat.
Shor was born in Tel Aviv to Jewish Moldovan parents. The family moved back to the country when Shor was a toddler and he grew up in Moldova.
In July 2018, Moldova’s Sports Minister Octavian Țicu attacked Shor as a “thief” and as a foreigner, and the country’s Jewish community came to Shor’s defense.
Huge bank fraud
For a while in 2015, Shor was placed under house arrest as part of the probe into the huge bank fraud that eventually led to his conviction.
Prosecutors described a scam involving fraudulent transactions worth one billion dollars between three Moldovan banks. And Shor at the time was chairman of the board of one of the banks.
A report by the international security agency Kroll commissioned by the Moldovan authorities put Shor at the center of the web of organizations involved in the fraudulent transactions.
Several politicians were reported to have benefited, and the money was never recovered.
As a 2017 World Bank report put it, this was “a massive banking fraud in 2013-14 that led to losses of about 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” in what is Europe’s poorest country.
The case helped reinforce Moldova’s reputation as a haven for money laundering.
According to World Bank figures, nearly $20 billion of dirty money has passed through the nation’s banks in recent years.
At a campaign event in Comrat, Shor worked the crowd.
“They want to turn me into a scapegoat, but they will not succeed,” he told his audience, mainly pensioners.
Shor promised to “develop the whole country” if he wins a seat.
His achievements so far and his promises for the future are what interest people here — not his criminal conviction.
“Mr. Shor has done all he promised — he’s paved the streets, built playgrounds, provided heating,” said 68-year-old Raissa, an inhabitant of Orhei, who declined to give her last name.
“If he had been guilty, he would have fled the country,” she added.
Lena, 63, agreed: “His sentence is unfair, we support him.”
Speaking to the locals in Russian, widely used in this part of Moldova, Shor told them: “Corruption is Moldova’s biggest issue.
“It particularly affects judges,” he added, saying he would rather be tried by a “people’s tribunal.”
But some in Orhei, where he is mayor, are less convinced about what he has done for the town.
“Mr Shor stole a billion and gave a little bit to the town,” said Andrei, a 30-year-old activist who had come to protest what he said were “anti-democratic” parties.
Culture of ‘impunity’
Lilia Carasciuc, director of Transparency International in Moldova, accused Shor of being a “tool” of more powerful politicians.
The authorities turn a blind eye to the money he lavishes on Orhei, and support the development of a chain of duty-free shops he controls, she told AFP.
The EU last year reduced its financial aid to Moldova, citing a “deterioration of the rule of law.”
Brussels urged the country to “expedite a thorough, impartial and comprehensive prosecution of the banking fraud.”
It called on Moldova to “recover the misappropriated funds and bring all those responsible to justice, irrespective of any political affiliations and without further delay.”
But Carasciuc has no illusions when it comes to Moldova’s culture of “impunity.”
“In Moldova, justice does only what (it) is ordered to do,” she said.