Moldova anti-govt protesters return amid energy crisis

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Thousands of anti-government protesters returned to the streets of Moldova’s capital Sunday to express their dismay over alleged government failings amid an acute winter energy crisis and skyrocketing inflation.

The protesters converged in the capital, Chisinau, and chanted slogans as they marched toward the Constitutional Court. They called for an early election and the resignation of Moldova’s pro-Western President Maia Sandu.

Moldova, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine with 2.6 million people, has taken a distinctly Western-oriented path over the last year. But in the past two months, a series of protests initiated by the populist Shor Party have rocked the country.

The Shor Party’s leader, Ilan Shor, is a Moldovan oligarch currently in exile in Israel. He is implicated in a $1 billion bank theft and was recently named on a U.S. State Department sanctions list as working for Russian interests.

The U.S. says Shor is working with “corrupt oligarchs and Moscow-based entities to create political unrest in Moldova” and to undermine the country’s push to join the European Union. In June, Moldova was granted E.U. candidate status along with war-torn Ukraine.

On Thursday, Moldova’s government filed a request to the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Shor Party illegal. Moldova's anti-corruption prosecutors’ office is also investigating the financing of the protests, which prosecutors say involves at least some Russian money.

The protests have hit Molodva’s government as it grapples with a serious winter energy crisis and rapidly rising inflation. Russia, whom Moldova relies on entirely for its natural gas, recently halved its supply to Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation.

President Sandu says Moscow’s decision to cut gas supplies was “political blackmail,” and has accused pro-Russia political forces in Moldova of “cynically exploiting people’s hardships and the discontent ... (to) generate chaos and turn us back from our European path.”

On Thursday, E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen paid an official visit to Moldova, where she pledged 250 million euros from the bloc to help the country tackle the energy crisis and support its most vulnerable people.

“Moldova is part of our European family,” she said. “And family must stick together when the times are getting tough.”

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.

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Cristian Jardan And Stephen Mcgrath, The Associated Press