An Intricate Web
Question: What connects one of the largest Soviet-era arms dumps in Europe, with the War in Ukraine, some of the cheapest counterfeit cigarettes on the planet, a $1 billion bank heist, the attempted murder of a Russian banker in London, and Stalin’s Gulags? The answer, of course, is organised crime, more specifically, organised crime and corruption in Moldova, with links to the Russian Mafia.
While the Russian Mafia has existed in some forms since the 18th Century, the gangs that formed the roots of today’s mafia have their origins in the Gulags and labour camps of Stalinist Russia. When many prisoners were released from the Gulags after the death of Stalin, the gangs that had existed inside prison suddenly existed outside, spreading across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union cemented the Mafia’s position, giving it unprecedented access to government assets and private businesses.
Moldova & Transnistria
The fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union had other long-reaching consequences. When Moldova became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, one region of Moldova, Transnistria, declared unilateral independence, with the short conflict between the two states ending in a stalemate that continues to this day. Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is an unrecognised self-declared state within Moldova, and today houses one of the last Russian garrisons in Eastern Europe.
While part of this garrison serves as peacekeepers, another major duty is to guard the leftover stores of the Russian 14th Army – some 20,000 tons of infantry and artillery ammunition and military equipment remains in the arsenal of Cobasna, inside Transnistria. The Transnistrian government is heavily within the Russian sphere of influence, even going so far as to appeal to Russia in 2014 to absorb the region. Transnistria is also an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian port of Odessa, a major transport hub.
Organised Crime in Moldova & Transnistria
Transnistria has historically occupied a strange place, legally speaking. It was legally within Moldova, and therefore had easier access to Europe, but also, through porous borders with Ukraine and Russia, had access to Odessa, the Black Sea and Russia. Moldova and Transnistria, therefore, became a hub for illegal activity of all kinds – in 2002 the region was described by a report for the EU Parliament as “A “black hole” in Europe, in which illegal trade in arms, the trafficking in human beings and the laundering of criminal finance was carried on”. In Ukraine, a shipment of 500 packs of Transnistrian cigarettes costs as little as $50, or 10 cents per pack – one of the lowest prices in the world.
Enter Ion Druta and the Patron Gang
In 2014, Ion Druta, also known as Vanya Pisateli, attempted to sell a reporter for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project an RPG, and semi-automatic pistol, while they were in Moldova; it was supposed to be a sample of a larger shipment of RPGs and pistols. Druta also offered to sell large numbers of Kalashnikovs. Deutsche Welle claims that the weapons originated in Transnistria, and while there is no direct evidence linking the weapons flowing from Transnistria to the arms dump at Cobasna, there is at the very least a possibility that this is the case – that Ion Druta was able to source weapons from a Russian-held Soviet-era arms dump.
Druta was part of the Patron Gang, headed by Ion Guşan, known by his alias, Nicu Patron. Other than weapons trafficking and smuggling, the gang was involved in illegal cigarette manufacture, and contract killing. The gang (before being caught in 2016) had two illegal cigarette factories, capable of producing 260,000 cigarettes in four hours. The Patron gang was also afforded rank within the Russian Mafia’s rank structure, with Ion Guşan having the “Thief in Law” title; he has links to the Russian organised crime.
Botched Killing of a Russian
Ian Guşan also allegedly hired the killer involved in the attempted assassination of the Russian millionaire banker, Gherman Gorbuntov, in London, 2012. Gherman was shot several times with a submachine gun but survived. Gherman is wanted in Russia over several different charges, and some of his assets were seized by the Russian state and was also allegedly involved in defrauding Moldovan banks. The would-be assassin, hired by the Patron gang, claimed that Vladimir Plahotniuc ordered the killing.
The Last Threads in the Web
Vladimir Plahotniuc, depending on who you ask, is a Moldovan businessman, politician, philanthropist, oligarch or criminal. Until recently, he was the “man behind the throne” within Moldovan politics, quietly directing and influencing the course of events using his wealth, his connections within Justice and government, and also quietly running many of the major media outlets in Moldova.
Plahotniuc was also accused of being involved one of the biggest bank frauds in history, the $1 billion heist from several Moldovan banks. Much of the stolen money was laundered internationally, half of in through three Russian banks, including none other than Gazprombank. Plahotniuc is also allegedly linked to a prominent branch of the Russian mafia, the Solntsevskaya Brotherhood.
The man likely to be responsible for the heist, Ilan Shor, has since been released from prison pending another trial, and in 2019, became a member of the Moldovan Parliament, after serving as a Mayor. Ilan and Plahotniuc both fled Moldova through Transnistria, thus evading Moldovan border control, later in 2019.
What can be drawn from this complicated web of intrigue, vested interests, crimes and history?
Certainly, the role of organised crime and corruption is crucial within Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. If Ilan, the man believed responsible for the biggest theft in Moldovan history, can be set free, run as a Mayor, and then successfully run as a Member of Parliament, and then flee the country, then nearly anything is possible – the laws do not apply to the rich, it seems. Organised crime is also key to understanding the economy and human geography of the region.
Lastly, though this should be news to no-one, organised crime is a highly international endeavour – the Patron gang likely imported firearms through Transnistria, operated cigarette factories in Romania, attempted to kill a Russian banker in London and had links to organised crime within Russia.