ORHEI, Moldova — Starved of natural gas from Russia and electricity from Ukraine’s missile-battered power grid, Moldova has been so unsettled by skyrocketing utility bills and occasional blackouts that, according to the mayor of a small city in the north, residents can barely contain their anger.
“They stop me on the street and ask: ‘When can we go to another protest?’” said the mayor, Pavel Verejanu, of Orhei, describing what he called public fury at the pro-Western central government and its failure to secure a deal with Russia for a steady supply of cheap energy.
But there is another reason people are so eager to protest: They are paid to join the noisy weekly rallies that have been held since September in the capital, Chisinau, calling for the removal of Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, a former World Bank official pushing Europe’s poorest country out of Moscow’s orbit.
The paid protests against the president and her Westward tilt are organized by the mayor’s political party, a vociferously pro-Russian force led by his predecessor, Ilan M. Shor, a convicted fraudster and fugitive who, officials say, is working to turn an energy crisis into a political crisis that threatens the government.
Anger at high energy prices has been bubbling across Europe for months, offering Moscow what it sees as its best hope of eroding public support for Ukraine and pressuring Western governments to back away from their condemnations of Russia’s invasion.
Russia-friendly activists on the far-left and far-right have helped mobilize protests over high energy prices in the Czech Republic, Germany and other European countries. But those demonstrations have been less frequent and far less well-funded than the weekly rallies and often daily flash mob protests in Moldova, a country that is particularly vulnerable because of its longstanding political, economic and linguistic cleavages.
Russia has not only created public discontent in Moldova through a squeeze on energy supplies, but working through local allies like Mr. Shor, has also pushed this discontent onto the streets, trying to unseat the pro-Western government.
“It is obvious these things are all connected,” said Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu. The energy crisis, he added in an interview, is “very, very serious,” and “it is legitimate for a lot of people to feel unhappy.”
But he scorned Mr. Shor’s role in organizing and bankrolling protests as “an attempt to manipulate and ride the negative effects of the war in Ukraine.” The result, he said: An energy crunch engineered by Russia and exploited by groups that “openly support Russia” to “destabilize the government.”
A tiny but strategically important country sandwiched between Romania — a member of NATO and the European Union — and Ukraine, Moldova has been caught since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, of which it was a part, in an intense geopolitical tug of war between East and West.
Local politicians backed by either Moscow or Washington and the European Union have traded power in a long series of unstable governments in Chisinau. Mr. Shor’s party won just six of 101 seats in Parliament in elections last year, while Ms. Sandu’s party won a big majority over those seeking close relations with Moscow.
Russia’s February invasion of neighboring Ukraine pushed this perennial struggle into a tumultuous new phase.
It sent shock waves and, on at least two occasions, missiles crashing onto Moldovan territory. The missiles, the second of which was found on Monday, landed in northern Moldova near the border with Ukraine, further rattling a fragile country already grappling with inflation of nearly 35 percent. Gas prices in Moldova have increased sevenfold and electricity prices have increased fourfold in the past 12 months, Ms. Sandu, the country’s president, told CNN on Saturday.
Though not a direct party to the war, Moldova, whose Constitution commits it to neutrality, has felt Russia’s fury through sharp cuts in energy supplies.
“Russia’s objective is clear,” said Andrei Spinu, a deputy prime minister in charge of Moldova’s frantic efforts to patch together alternative supplies of electricity and gas. “They want to change our government, and change our geopolitical choice toward Europe,” he said, sitting in a gloomy office in central Chisinau lit only by thin winter light coming through the windows.
All the lights in his office have been turned off to save electricity. He uses a cellphone flashlight to navigate the darkened corridors of the main government building. Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s power grid, which used to provide Moldova with a vital backup source of electricity, left the whole country without power late last month.
The wide boulevard outside his office has been a frequent site of the protests organized by the Shor Party. Its leader, Mr. Shor, directs them from his refuge in Israel. He finances the demonstrations and speaks by video link to each gathering chanting for Ms. Sandu’s removal.
Warning of a “tough winter” ahead without Russian gas, Mr. Shor recently used his Facebook page to call on supporters to “come out en masse” for street protests. “We must do everything we can to get rid of this incompetent government and hold early elections.”
He did not respond to requests for an interview through his spokesperson.
In October, the United States imposed sanctions on Mr. Shor, his Russian pop-star wife and seven others for involvement in “persistent malign influence campaigns” by Russia in Moldova.
That same month, the police conducted nighttime raids on 55 offices, vehicles and residences connected to him and his party. Investigators seized 20 black plastic shopping bags stuffed with local currency worth $89,000, which prosecutors say represented a week’s outlay on protests and other activities aimed at unseating the government.
“A lot of effort and money has been put into destabilizing the situation in our country,” Veronica Dragalin, Moldova’s anticorruption prosecutor, said in an interview.
Many people, including American officials, suspect that some of the Shor Party’s cash comes from Russia, which would be illegal, but Mr. Shor has denied it. He has also appealed his 2017 conviction and seven-and a-half-year sentence over his role in the theft of nearly a billion dollars from Moldovan banks, insisting he is the victim of a corrupt justice system.
Proving illicit political financing is difficult because it rarely flows through legal, traceable channels, said Ms. Dragalin, a Moldovan American who worked previously as a prosecutor in California. “It doesn’t arrive in a huge bag marked ‘cash,’ ” she said.
Paying people to protest is not illegal. But by amplifying genuine discontent it creates an impression that the country is falling apart — a message, analysts say, that has been promoted with glee by Russian news outlets.
Mr. Shor’s party also routinely exaggerates the size of its protests, claiming, for example, that 45,000 showed up last week outside the prosecutor general’s office. The real number was a few thousand.
The spectacle of a political party’s echoing Kremlin talking points on the war and organizing paid protests over an energy crisis generated by Russia illustrates one of Moscow’s favorite tactics for asserting its influence across the former Soviet Union: Stoke a crisis and then, either directly or through local proxies, offer a solution that requires acceptance of Russian hegemony.
The pattern first played out three decades ago when, just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russian separatists in the Transnistria region of eastern Moldova took up arms against the government of the newly independent nation. Moscow vowed to quell the violence and sent in troops, allowing Transnistria to operate ever since as a quasi-state haven for Russian influence and black market trade.
The pattern repeated in 2014 in eastern Ukraine, where Russia orchestrated an armed rebellion against the central government in Kyiv, and then offered to help curb the mayhem provided that Ukraine accept terms entrenching Moscow’s influence. After that failed, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered a full-scale invasion in February.
With Russian troops flailing in Ukraine, nobody expects the Kremlin to send its battered military into Moldova any time soon. A small Russian force remains in Transnistria, but most of the troops are ill-trained local recruits, and they are sorely underequipped. Ukraine closed its borders with Transnistria at the start of the war, severing supply lines.
Its military options limited, Moscow has instead hammered Moldova with its energy weapon, delivering less than half the natural gas stipulated in contracts.
Many supporters of Mr. Shor, the fugitive millionaire, in Orhei, where he served as mayor for four years before fleeing to Israel in 2019, acknowledge that he may be a crook.
But pointing to his tenure as mayor, when he built sidewalks, installed lights and improved Orhei markedly, they see him as a Robin Hood figure whose wealth, no matter its source, will bring benefits to ordinary people.
His other big selling point is that, unlike the current government, he has close ties with Russia and can use them to end the energy crunch.
Indeed, soon after Russia’s energy behemoth, Gazprom, began cutting gas deliveries to Moldova in the fall, a move that threatened a long, cold winter ahead, Mr. Shor sent several of his party’s legislators to Moscow to find “solutions to provide the Republic of Moldova with natural gas this winter at affordable prices,” the party said in a statement.
Mr. Shor claimed that Russia would soon start providing cheap gas to the region around Orhei. That never happened, not least because delivering Russian gas only to Orhei is technically and legally impossible.
Thousands of protesters have, nonetheless, gathered every week since in support of his appeal for better relations with Russia.
Mr. Shor recently acknowledged paying protesters — after an independent Moldovan newspaper, Ziarul de Garda, published an investigation written by journalists who had posed as protesters and received money.
Natalia Zaharescu, one of the journalists, said in an interview that she had boarded a bus provided by Mr. Shor’s party to travel from Orhei to Chisinau. A week later, she said, she received a phone call from a party organizer and went to collect her payment of 400 lei, about $20.
Mr. Verejanu, the mayor of Orhei, said no more than half the protesters were paid, and only those too poor to buy food and drink during the trip to and from Chisinau.
At a Shor Party rally last week outside the prosecutor general’s office, protesters blocked the main boulevard and denounced the president and government ministers as corrupt thieves blind to people’s economic pain.
Maria Muntiu, 80, insisted she had not been paid to attend and had come out because she wanted to express her anger at being unable to afford heating.
Moldova, she said, needs a “real president like Putin” who will put the country’s interests ahead of “geopolitical games by America” and provide cheap energy. Ms. Sandu, she said, “is trying to freeze us into silence.”