His critics say he's a secretive oligarch who pulls all the strings in a country caught between Europe and Russia, while his supporters say he's a just a successful businessman-turned-politician with his country's best interests at heart.

Who is the man whom many call Moldova's "Puppet Master"? And what lies behind allegations of blackmail, hitmen, and a billion-dollar bank fraud?

In advance of Moldova's recent general election, we sent filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Viktoryia Kolchyna to find out.


FILMMAKER'S VIEW

By Glenn Ellis 

I arrived in Moldova during a snowstorm. In Chisinau, the nation's rundown capital, it was minus five when the plane landed, strangely appropriate for a former Soviet republic that sometimes appears frozen in time.

Other countries in Eastern Europe have made big strides since the days of communism, but there has been little progress here - where a bitter civil war with pro-Russian separatists in the 1990s and a more recent billion-dollar, state-crippling bank fraud scandal have left scars that have yet to heal.

Economically marginalised, beset by corruption, and trapped in a strategic no-man's land between the EU and Vladimir Putin's Russia, this is a country with more than its fair share of challenges.

I was here to make a film about Moldova's February 2019 general election and a man with a sinister-sounding nickname and a somewhat unsavoury reputation.

Moldova's capital, Chisinau [Glenn Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Eastern Europe is awash with governments dominated by controversial figures who are neither prime minister nor president - take Poland's Jarosław Kaczynski or Romania's Liviu Dragnea.

A less well-known member of this select club is Moldova's Vlad Plahotniuc, an oligarch and politician otherwise known as "The Puppet Master", who some say has been pulling the strings here for more than a decade without ever being in official charge of the government or holding office.

I was keen to find out more about him.

'What makes Plahotniuc powerful? Our fear.'

I quickly discovered that getting his fellow citizens to explain the reasons for Plahotniuc's influence would not be straightforward. On the face of it, he is just another public figure, a leading light of the country's Democratic Party, which has been part of a governing coalition here for some time.

He's rich and powerful to be sure, an oligarch who turned his attention to politics and clearly is adept at getting his way in that and other fields, but at first, I couldn't understand the awkward but palpable sense of unease I encountered when I asked people about him.

A chill would come over the conversation. People would lower their voices and look over their shoulders to see who was listening. Many I approached would only speak off the record, others were too afraid to talk to me at all.

So, what is it about Plahotniuc that makes people so uncomfortable?

As I explain in this film, clues to such disquiet may lie in some of the lurid, even bizarre, stories in circulation about him. I heard murky claims of alleged connections to blackmail, bank fraud, bribery and intimidation, of an attempted "assassination" in 2014 his critics dismissed as a fake, and the real shooting of a business associate in London that a convicted hitman later claimed he'd carried out at Plahotniuc's behest…

Needless to say, these are all claims that Plahotniuc routinely and vehemently rejects but, according to Stella Jantuan, a former member of the Democratic Party who left when it fell under the oligarch's control, over the years the stories have had a cumulative effect.

"Mr Plahotniuc has become a collective vision, a character of the fears and complexes people are attributing to him. What makes Plahotniuc powerful? Our fear."

'Smile. You're on hidden camera.'

Someone who says she's had first-hand experience of what it means to incur the Puppet Master's wrath is Natalia Morari, Moldova's most famous investigative journalist. I met her shortly before she went on air for her nightly talk show on one of the few media outlets here outside the oligarch's control.

Morari has never made much of a secret of her concerns about Plahotniuc's stranglehold on Moldovan affairs but her defiance has been costly.

In 2016, she published an open letter to him containing the following sentences: "You will never become the one you always wanted to be - the legitimate leader of Moldova. In the shadows - yes. Surreptitiously - yes. But never legitimately."

Shortly thereafter, she says, she received threats of blackmail from a Plahotniuc associate. "He told me that in the next couple of days they will publish a sex tape with me, me making sex with my man."

To convince her that the tape existed, she was sent a copy. She told me she then realised to her horror that the video must have been recorded on surveillance cameras covertly installed in her apartment.

Morari decided to go public with the threat and received nationwide sympathy when she appeared on her talk show wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Smile. You're on hidden camera".

I heard many similar stories during my visit. According to Stella Jantuan, "Anything that happens with political opponents of the Democratic Party or enemies of the leader of the Party is in no way is a coincidence."

Lilia Carasciuc is the director of the NGO Transparency International in Chisinau and one of many Moldovans deeply troubled by the direction her country has taken.

"Corruption has always been a big problem for Moldova," she told me. "But right now, political corruption is on a special scale. It's not so much about corruption as about state capture. One oligarch controls all three branches of state power. And this allows him to have no limit in his behaviour. I'm speaking about the oligarch Plahotniuc."

Another critic is Alexei Tulbure, Moldova's former permanent representative to the UN, "Plahotniuc is the man who captured the state institutions, starting from the parliament, government, prosecutor office, national bank, the centre of combating corruption, and he's using the state for his own interests."

These were all strong claims and I was keen, not to mention obliged, to get Vlad Plahotniuc's response. But despite repeated attempts, neither he nor his Democratic Party associates responded to my questions or requests for an interview.

A perceived invincibility 

What is undeniable is that Plahotniuc exercises a remarkable degree of influence over Moldovan political life. In 2017, for example, despite widespread fears that it would lead to gerrymandering, he pushed a controversial "mixed" electoral system through parliament that virtually guaranteed him a parliamentary seat despite his widespread unpopularity - a move that was heavily criticised by the EU.

He also oversaw legislation that made it practically impossible to recover money stolen in a 2014 billion-dollar bank fraud that crippled Moldova's state finances. According to Transparency International's Carasciuc: "They came with a draft law that has been proposed as an attempt to help businesses. But in reality, it was an attempt to free from legal liability people involved in the bank fraud."

I wondered to what extent the perceived invincibility of the Plahotniuc brand would feature in the upcoming vote. Was he indeed the all-powerful Machiavellian character often portrayed?

Andrie Nastase, joint leader of Moldova's pro-European ACUM party [Glenn Ellis/Al Jazeera]

When I raised this with Andrie Nastase, joint leader of Moldova's pro-European ACUM party, he politely disguised his impatience at the obviousness of the question and instead recalled an incident during the Chisinau mayoral election in June 2018.

"They used a TV programme by Al Jazeera [Arabic] for the purposes of fake news - a report which they re-edited, suggesting that if I were to win the election and become mayor of Chisinau, I had already promised the Yemeni authorities that they could lease Chisinau for 50 years."

Nastase showed me a copy. Whatever its origins, the video had clearly been doctored; the subtitles seemed unrelated to the original Arabic commentary as shown on Al Jazeera and, as he had described, pictures of Nastase had been clumsily edited into the report.

When Nastase convincingly won the election, despite the fake news smear, the country's Supreme Court then inexplicably declared the result void. "He has two important weapons against the citizens and against the opposition in Moldova," Nastase told me. "The general prosecutor is in his right pocket and the rest of the justice in his left pocket."

Whatever the truth of it, the incident caused international outrage and incredulity. Indeed, the EU subsequently froze an important aid package and described Moldova as being "a state captured by oligarch interests".

Eliminating what cannot be controlled  

It was time to meet Moldova's president, Igor Dodon. Some view Dodon, from the pro-Russian Socialist Party, as the last check on Plahotniuc's power. Others are less convinced and hinted to me that his relationship with the oligarch was less straightforward than he might like it to seem. Nonetheless, Dodon is the country's titular head of state and I was curious to hear what he had to say. On the face of it, he seemed disarmingly frank.

"Vladimir Plahotniuc controls all the institutions of power in Moldova except for the institution of the president," he told me. "And since they can't control it, they have limited the president's authority as much as possible. They say openly that it's necessary to eliminate the institution of the president as they can't control it."

Maia Sandu campaigning [Glenn Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Dodon, a friend of Vladimir Putin and regular visitor to Moscow, took office two years ago following an election seen as a choice between pro-Russian and Pro-European candidates - often the most useful handle to grasp when trying to understand the political fault lines in this country.

His opponent had been Maia Sandu, joint leader of ACUM with Nastase. When it looked like Sandu might win the vote, a fake news story suggesting she was planning to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees was widely reported across Plahotniuc's media empire. It was never established who had planted the story, but it undoubtedly helped swing the result for Dodon.

Ever since then, I was told, Dodon's Socialist Party had voted with Plahotniuc on key legislation.

If anyone in Moldova was hoping that the February 2019 election would resolve some of these complications and contradictions, they were about to be disappointed. When the results came through, the three main parties, the Democrats, Socialists and ACUM, all got between 25 and 30 percent of the vote. Negotiations are ongoing, but what happens next is anyone's guess. Some think the previous coalition of Plahotniuc's Democratic Party and the Socialists will continue in power. Some hope that rumours about a possible tie-up between ACUM and the Socialists will prove to be true.

Either way, I suspect that the Puppet Master will find a way to play a central role in whatever goes on. 

Source: Al Jazeera