CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Police in Moldova said they foiled a plot by groups of Russia-backed actors who were trained to cause mass unrest during a Sunday protest against the country’s new pro-Western government.
The head of Moldova’s police, Viorel Cernauteanu, said in a news conference that an undercover agent had infiltrated groups of “diversionists,” some Russian citizens, who allegedly were promised $10,000 to organize “mass disorder” during the protest in the capital, Chisinau. Seven people were detained, he said.
Separately, police said they arrested 54 protesters, including 21 minors, who exhibited “questionable behavior” or were found to be carrying prohibited items, including at least one knife.
The protest Sunday is one of several held in recent weeks organized by a group calling itself Movement for the People, which is backed by Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party, which holds six seats in the country’s 101-seat legislature.
The demonstrators are demanding that the government fully cover the costs of winter energy bills and to “not involve the country in war.” They have repeatedly called on President Maia Sandu to step down.
Police said that four bomb threats on Sunday, including one at the capital’s international airport, had been registered, which they called “an ongoing part of the destabilization measures” against Moldova, a former Soviet republic with a population of about 2.6 million.
Moldova’s border police also said Sunday that 182 foreign nationals in the last week have been denied entry into Moldova, including a “possible representative” of Russia’s Wagner Group, the private military company that is fighting in Ukraine, Moldova’s war-torn neighbor.
The police announcement Sunday comes just days after U.S. intelligence officials said they have determined that actors with ties to Russian intelligence are planning to use protests in Moldova, a European Union candidate since last June, as a basis to foment an insurrection against the country’s government.
On Saturday, Moldova’s national anti-corruption agency said that it has seized more than 220,000 euros ($234,000) during searches in a case of alleged illegal party financing of the Shor Party by an organized criminal group.
The agency said that car searches of “couriers” for the Shor Party discovered the money stuffed into envelopes and bags in various currencies, and that it was earmarked to “pay for the transport and remunerate people who come to the protests organized by the party.”
The Shor Party’s leader, Ilan Shor, is a Moldovan oligarch currently in exile in Israel. Shor who is named on a U.S. State Department sanctions list as working for Russian interests. The United Kingdom also added Shor to a sanctions list in December.
Moldova’s interior minister, Ana Revenco, said the protests “aim to shake the democracy and stability” of the country and that “the voice of the people does not mean violence and betrayal of the country.”
“I warn the traitors of our country that they will soon be brought to justice, no matter how much money and assistance they receive to destroy our country,” Revenco said in a Facebook post.
Cristian Cantir, a Moldovan associate professor of international relations at Oakland University, says that while it’s difficult to determine how the alleged plans to topple Moldova’s government would play out, “Russia has always sought to undermine pro-European governments.”
“I think the concerns are legitimate, it’s difficult to tell what the exact nature of the threat is and how dangerous some of these groups might be,” he told The Associated Press, “but it’s absolutely a realistic concern.”
The Shor Party also organized a series of anti-government protests last fall, when Moldova’s government asked the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Shor Party illegal, in a case that is ongoing. Around the same time, anti-corruption prosecutors also alleged that the protests were partly financed with Russian money.
Last week, authorities in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which has close ties to Moscow and hosts Russian troops, claimed it had thwarted an assassination attempt on its president allegedly organized by Ukraine’s national security service, the SBU, but did not provide evidence.
The SBU rejected the allegation, saying it “should be considered exclusively as a provocation orchestrated by the Kremlin.”
Stephen McGrath reported from Warwick, England.