Threadbare Moldovan prosecutors take on former top leadership in anti-corruption drive

Tackling corruption from petty bribery to rigging of vast contracts crucial for EU membership hopes

Roughly one hundred prosecutors, police officers, and clerks make up the team charged with taking on Moldova’s heavy legacy of corruption, perhaps the most central requirement in the country’s hopes to join the European Union.

Their working week starts with the whole team gathering to review their progress in an auditorium here in the north of the capital Chisinau, on the fifth floor of a long grey office block with an unreliable lift.

Without fail, a case of corruption within the judicial system will be on the agenda. A typical case might involve a lawyer hired to defend someone in court, who has asked their client for a payment of €8,000 to bribe the prosecutor - the public official who investigates and prosecutes crimes - and the judge.

“We have many cases where that person that’s in that situation, instead of agreeing to pay the money, comes and reports it,” explains Veronica Dragalin, Moldova’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor.

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“That gives us an opportunity to intervene with special tools. A microphone, a camera, to go to record the next meeting. We can capture the evidence of the crime as it’s happening.”

What’s harder to establish however is whether the judge and the prosecutor are in on the racket.

Yet catching these higher up figures within the justice system is essential, Dragalin believes, to unblock progress holding up much larger corruption cases involving senior politicians and former officials.

Successfully securing convictions in those cases is essential for the country to progress towards EU membership, a dream that drew tens of thousands of ordinary people to rally in the streets last month in a sea of EU and Moldovan flags.

“We have to first and foremost eliminate the corrupt prosecutors, judges, officers who are sabotaging,” Dragalin says.

Dragalin (37) is among a generation of Moldovans who have abandoned careers abroad to return to try to build a country that talented young people don’t have to leave.

Another is Maia Sandu, a former World Bank official who led her political party to a solid majority in 2021 elections on a platform of European integration, developing the economy, and rooting out the corruption that has long been a part of life.

Policemen, who earn on average €970 a month, have a reputation among motorists for soliciting bribes under threat of issuing tickets.

Under Sandu, it has become harder to pay off border officials to waive import levies on produce in return for €20, according to one seasoned operative who frequently brings goods into the country. He spoke with regret – it’s now costing him more.

Corruption played a role in the decision of Dragalin’s parents, both mathematicians, to emigrate abroad when she was a child, after her father was offered a bribe at his university to give a student a good grade.

“My father said no,” Dragalin recalled. “But he said to my mom: either we’re going to stay here and be principled and go hungry, or we’ll have to compromise who we are as people.”

Dragalin took up her role last summer, after the government changed the rules to allow the hiring of outsiders who hadn’t come up through the system. She had been working as a federal prosecutor in the United States, and took a 10-fold pay cut to accept the role. She now supplements her €1,300 take home monthly pay with savings from her former life.

Low wages make it harder to hire honest staff and to retain them, Dragalin says. Some employees have already informed her they have applied for green cards or for jobs in the EU.

“It’s very sad to me when I have officers and prosecutors that come and tell me that,” she says. “I can’t hold it against them ... we can’t ask everyone to be a patriot and sacrifice for their country.”

Moldova has wavered between commitment to European integration and leaning towards Russia since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

With the country now struggling with public anger at a cost of living crisis and what its foreign minister has described as “constant” attempts by Moscow to destabilise it, ranging from cyber attacks to interference in politics, its current pro-EU leadership believes it has a narrow window to try to cement its European future.

Last summer was a moment of triumph, when Moldova was granted official EU membership candidate status along with neighbour Ukraine.

But to bring this distant dream closer, the country must fulfil nine recommendations issued by the European Commission. Reform of the judiciary and tackling corruption is central to almost all of them.

One test is whether Moldova’s institutions successfully prosecute high-level corruption, and not just small fry.

Last month, Dragalin’s office charged eight top figures including former Moldovan prime minister Iurie Leanca and an ex-economy minister on corruption charges related to the privatisation of the country’s main airport, which handed control to a company associated with the oligarch Ilan Shor. All have pled not guilty.

In a separate case Shor himself, who leads the populist Russia-friendly Shor Party, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by the court of appeal in April and ordered to hand over €262 million. It was the final chapter in a trial that has dragged out since a vast bank fraud in 2014 siphoned $1 billion out of Moldova’s banks, equivalent to an eighth of the country’s annual GDP.

From exile in Israel, where he was born, Shor continues to play a powerful role in the country, leading a party with six seats in parliament that held a wave of anti-government protests as energy costs surged during the winter.

Still more investigations involve other senior figures, including the former pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and the prosecutor general who was appointed under his watch. Both deny wrongdoing.

Frequent visitors to Dragalin’s fourth floor office are officials from Brussels, there to assess the progress her office has made.

“When I speak to the EU evaluators, I try to explain,” Dragalin says. “In the justice system ... due process, investigation, trial and appeal, all of those things take time ... we can’t show a prison sentence in six months.”

In central Chisinau, where a strip of restaurants and bars are flourishing along a pedestrianised street, a sign on construction fencing urges citizens to hold on. “You will see a difference very soon,” it reads. “It’s a promise.”