Tens of thousands of protesters rallied on Sunday in the capital of Moldova to demand the resignation of the president and early elections after $1 billion disappeared from the country's banking system and rapidly depreciated the Eastern European country's currency.
The protesters streamed into the capital of Chisinau from all regions of the small, largely rural, ex-Soviet state to demonstrate in a central square outside the main government building.
Police put their numbers at between 35,000 and 40,000 — bigger even than mass anti-communist protests of April 2009 — though the organizers estimated the turnout as nearly three times that many.
The protesters called for the resignation of President Nicolae Timofti, who has presided over a pro-European Union leadership since early 2012. The crowd chanted, "Victory! Bring the one billion back home!"
In addition to Timofti, protesters called for the resignation of several members of the government, including the bank governor and the general prosecutor, per the Associated Press. Photos posted on social media showed protesters erecting new tents out side the prosecutor general's office after police started to tear down an encampment that had been set up recently.
In an incident that has exposed endemic corruption and highlighted the power of oligarch groups in the country of 3.5 million, $1 billion — roughly one eighth of Moldova's gross domestic output — disappeared from the banking system.
The fraud has caused a rapid depreciation in the national currency, the leu, stoking inflation and hurting living standards.
It has also tarnished the image of the pro-Europe ruling class for ordinary Moldovans, many of whom struggle by on a family income of about $300 a month, though many protesters carried pro-EU flags indicating they were not against the country's policy of European integration.
Protesters directed much of their verbal fire at the country's super-wealthy oligarchs who control key sectors of the economy, and threatened to stage a non-stop demonstration in central Chisinau until their demands were met.
"Dictatorship does not sleep. It is quaking with fear, doing everything it can to stop people from all regions coming here to the capital, Chisinau," said organizer Valentin Dolganiuc.
In addition to the massive rally, the protesters in tents are expected to remain outside the prosecutor general's office as a visual reminder of the fraud. Organizers reportedly started to raise funds for tea and food to sustain the camped out protesters.
EU and other Western officials based in Chisinau say that successive pro-Western governments have done little to halt gross economic mismanagement and stamp out widespread corruption in the political system.
The banking scam has also shaken the confidence of Western allies and international lenders, which help keep Moldova's economy afloat. EU budgetary support for the country has been put on hold until the affair is cleared up.
One prime minister, Chiril Gaburici, resigned earlier this year in a bizarre row over the validity of his school diplomas that was linked to the banking scam.
The mass rallies will be a setback for current Moldovan Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet, who was appointed in July to succeed Gaburici. Initially, his appointment opened the door to renewed dealings with international lenders, including the IMF.
In an interview with Reuters in August, he said Moldova would step up efforts to try to trace the missing $1 billion and bring the money back to Moldova from bank accounts abroad.
On Sunday, Strelet appeared outside the government building and said he would study the demands put forth by protest leaders.
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