Today is International Anticorruption Day and The Foreign Policy Centre published a detailed story from the ZdG Executive Alina Radu on how to fight corruption in the poorest country in Europe.
When you are a journalist from the poorest country in Europe, you have to write stories about poverty. When you see the poverty deepening for years, while the state elite becomes rich, you have to start investigative reporting. And you have to follow the money. That is the way you discover that money from the poorest people in Europe flies into rich capitals, including London. Is this for the sake of ordinary people? No, it isn’t.
It is not easy to find the money of the Moldovan poor hidden by the Moldovan rich in London. To do that, a reporter has to go through many challenges: from finding the databases, to paying for the databases, to then finding the money to pay and having enough to pay for the time needed to do the research, and at the end of it to find out that the entity in London was created by another two to three entities in offshore areas where reporters do not have access to the data.
Where is Moldova? And why is this important for London? Well, it is a tiny corrupt state and yes, it might be dangerous for the British. Let me give an example. At a distance of 2,500 km from London, there is a small village named Pitushca. A beautiful, green location, with sunny weather, hosting some 3,000 nice people that are growing juicy vegetables, the sweetest grapes, and are baking that puffy crispy bread. It is the village of my childhood and I have only the best words for its people. Why might it be dangerous for the British?
Imagine you reside happily on Byng Street at Canary Wharf in London, a luxurious and safe area, in one of the wealthiest and safest countries, Great Britain (GB). One evening you come back from the office thinking about dinner and the calm evening you could have after a busy day. You step down from the taxi, open the door of the building and someone nearby shoots you and gets away. This is what happened in 2012 exactly on that street on 20 March 2012. Later investigative reporters wrote that the man with the gun was from Pitushca, Moldova, and his name was Vitalie Proca. And it was not an accident, but a long-time planned and well-organized operation. Why did a Moldovan man come 2,500 km to kill someone in London? Because of big Moldovan money and Moldovan people in GB.
The man who was shot in March 2012 survived and later told his side of the story. He is a Russian national, with a controversial CV full of financial scandals, but this was the way he got to control the Universal bank in Chisinau, capital of Moldova. Maybe you have heard about this bank if you heard about the stolen billion from Moldova. Universal bank is one of those three Moldovan banks that washed the money from Moldova through some Latvian banks and yes, through British business entities to some unknown private accounts.
I remember working with my colleagues on this story and the feeling of being in an informational cage. The billion-dollar theft was completed in 2014, but already in 2013, we were publishing articles about strange financial operations between Chisinau, Moscow, and London. Already at that moment, we were writing that the main Moldovan bank got under control of a Russian business that is controlled by a dormant company in London. Could we learn more about that dormant company? No, it was a British offshore company. And the bank was Moldovan.
We continued to write stories and to find a lack of information in British registers. Finding out that a Latvian citizen was managing about 50 offshore companies in Great Britain involved in the washing of money from Moldovan banks was the only information we could have access to. Normally, as reporters, we talk to people that are accused of anything, just to give them a voice and to have all parts of a story exposed. The frustration is that people from British offshore companies never accepted the request to answer to a Moldovan reporter while accepting to operate with a huge amount of Moldovan money. You cannot have their contacts, opinions, voices, you cannot have the correct information. And by this, you never know the whole truth and you cannot inform society on topics of the highest interest.
That stolen billion in 2014 was not the only billion brought from the poorest in Moldova to London. And now, we have to go back to Pitushca, to that sunny village with the sweetest grapes and peaceful residents. Vladimir Plahotniuc, the most known Moldovan oligarch was born in Pitushca. And he got to visit London and to have important discussions with British experts in the name of the Moldovan society, about democracy and development.
But he also got properties and businesses in London. Why is this a problem? Because now he is wanted by Moldovan prosecutors but he fled the country in June 2019 and never came back to give answers about the accusations of stolen money and many other illegal activities. However, before leaving Moldova, back in June 2019, he first opened a business in London in his name. It seems legal for everyone to create a business and it is good to have access to this data. But when you look at the data as a reporter, sometimes you have more questions than answers. Documents relating to this British business states that he is a Czech national and was born in February 1966. According to his Moldovan passports he was born in January 1966.
Could a person have different birthdays? Could it be a different person? A reporter should have the possibility and capacity to check information and to inform societies correctly. And when a person is accused of financial crimes and opens businesses in other countries it should be made easy for societies to be informed and for justice departments to make investigations. In this case, it was not possible.
We understand that any entity has the right to be protected by law, and this is a sacred right for anybody who opens a business or buys a property in Great Britain, including a Moldovan. But there are examples where the British authorities decided to reveal information about the luxury and exuberance of some Moldovans who spend huge amounts of money in London. A prime example is that of the colorful story about the young son of a former Moldovan Prime Minister spending more than £1,000 a day, which would not have been possible without this press release from the National Crime Agency (NCA). “Freezing orders for three HSBC accounts held by 22-year-old Vlad Luca Filat were granted in May 2018 – under new forfeiture provisions introduced by the Criminal Finances Act 2017 – after NCA financial investigators suspected the funds derived from illegal activity by his father, Vladimir Filat, the ex-Prime Minister of Moldova”, says the press release. Did that money come back to Moldova? Not yet. Is this the only kid of rich corrupt officials from Moldova that is offered expensive goods in Great Britain? No. Journalists have published various stories of children of oligarchs, judges, etc., but so far we have had only one press release of this kind from the NCA.
One of the funniest (and very sad) stories of money circulation between Great Britain and Moldova happened recently in 2020. Moldovan border officials discovered 1.6 million euros hidden in a truck. It is a huge amount of money, and according to the law, it should be declared, not hidden. I would say that in the modern world it is not necessary to carry money in big bags when there are bank accounts and tiny cards. The driver said to authorities he does not know where the money came from, and after that, the authorities should confiscate it. But then, surprise, a London based young man said that the money was his. He is 32 years old and he says it is a small part of what he earned. After investigative reporters had a look through his story – it is full of manipulations, previous penal problems, and obscure angles. The Moldovan justice system has not reached an end with this case yet, which speaks also about the capacity of its judicial system.
All the aforementioned stories are just a few insights into the efforts reporters make to reveal the phenomena of washing money, and crimes that reach from Moldova to GB. However, they did not reveal the stressed life, all the troubles and difficulties doing this job creates. Firstly, reporters in a poor country face financial and economic constraints: no healthy market, no advertisement, poor circulation of newspapers, political control on TV licenses, very limited access to information. But, that is the easy part. Investigative journalists face so many forms of threats, from physical attacks, smear campaigns by trolls on social media, hateful attacks stemming from media controlled by politicians, DDoS attacks, and lots of court cases where corrupt judges are suing journalists because of complaints of corrupt officials. Then there is the lack of response from police and prosecutors to complaints from reporters. There is a permanent feeling of insecurity and lack of protection.
Such an endless list of problems may discourage people, but not investigative reporters. In 2020, we cover more and more stories about Moldovan money kept by corrupt local officials in British businesses, including in offshores jurisdictions. Access to offshores information is not possible other than through offshore leaks. But it is time to make deep changes in communication and access to information, for the sake of both societies. While corrupt people in Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Great Britain cooperate so easily, being creative in doing bad things to democracy everywhere, why should civil society, investigative reporters, and government officials not cooperate and work to reveal all those crimes? The money is stolen from Moldovans but Brits are paying the price as well: impoverished Moldovans leave the country and migrate, some of them to Great Britain as well. Many of them are working honestly to save themselves and their families left at home in Moldova, but for many, the British state has to contribute with social payments, education, and other forms of support and inclusiveness. We should work for transparency for every step of that long journey from Pitushca to London.
Alina Radu is the Manager of the biggest investigative reporting group in Moldova -Ziarul de Gardă (ZdG). ZdG is affiliated to GIJN (Global Investigative Journalism Network), WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers -through Moldovan Association of Independent Press), SEEMO (SouthEastEuropean Media Network), RLNE (Russian Language Media News Exchange). ZdG covers Moldova, Romania, former Soviet countries, conflict areas, corruption, and human rights –worldwide.
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