Moldova has been rocked by mass protests for several weeks after a banking fraud scandal saw $1bn (£650m, €890m) of public money disappear from three of the country's leading banks. This prompted the EU, IMF and World Bank to freeze financial assistance to the corruption-wracked eastern European nation.
The protesters have formed two distinct camps; those who look to Europe for answers, and those who support pro-Russian parties. But while they may be separated by aspirations and ideologies, both sides have similar aims; the resignation of the government, the conviction of corrupt oligarchs, and early elections.
Ruslan Molodoi, 46, is from Cahul, a city 130km south from the capital Chișinău, and he falls into the pro-European faction. Speaking at the protest camp in the Great National Assembly Square that demonstrators have dubbed "the town of dignity", he has had enough of rampant corruption in Moldova: "Only through protests can [I] help [my] country and family," he told IBTimes UK.
Molodoi was protesting alongside hundreds of members of the Dignity and Truth movement, formed of journalists, activists and other civil society figures who began protesting on 6 September and have gathered 400 tents in the centre of Chișinău. On 5 October thousands of protesters rallied in the National Assembly Square to denounce the current government, which declares itself pro-European.
"The leaders of the ruling parties are guilty of stealing $1bn from our banks, for compromising the European trajectory of the country, the blocking of the external financing and the impoverishment of the population," said Andrei Năstase, a protest leader from Dignity and Truth.
Popular frustration in Moldova bubbled over in early May 2015 after the release of a report commissioned by the National Bank of Moldova and carried out by a US-based consultancy firm. It revealed that the state-owned bank bailed out three other Moldovan lenders with a $908m pay out after a series of fraudulent transactions by a Moldovan multi-millionaire businessman. The money then disappeared.
The issue highlighted the problem of corruption in Moldova and although the government has promised an investigation, protest leaders have called for a campaign of civil disobedience, a general strike and a refusal to pay utility bills in order to force the resignation of the government.
"These protests must end with the resignation of those who are guilty of stealing our money, because this was the straw that broke the camel's back of the Moldovan population. These resignations haven't followed, criminal cases also were not filed and no one knows what will happen," said Valentin Dolganiuc, a member of the platform and also a MP in the first parliament of Moldova.
For those in the pro-Russian camp, the corruption cases have provoked a crisis of confidence in the European project. Moldova signed an association agreement with European Union in 2013, committing to core reforms, economic recovery, sector cooperation and justice, but anti-European sentiment is growing. An April 2015 poll found that only 39% of Moldovans favoured joining the EU.
A few hundred meters away from the pro-European crowd are the supporters of the Socialist Party, led by Igor Dodon, which has 24 members of parliament. They are flanked by supporters of the Kremlin-orientated Our Party, led by Renato Usatâi, the mayor of Balti, the second largest city in Moldova, which contains a large Russian-speaking minority.
These pro-Russian voices represent a large portion of Moldovans and not just those in the north. The April 2015 poll found that 60% of Moldovans trust Vladimir Putin compared only 44% in Angela Merkel and 31% in Barack Obama. 40% of respondents believe that events in eastern Ukraine – where a civil war is raging – were caused by the mixture of US and EU policy.
They also demand the resignation of key political actors and early elections. On October 4, they blocked Ștefan Cel Mare Street, the most important thoroughfares in the capital. "We blocked the streets to awaken those from the government. It is a signal from us: boys, do not play with us," said Usatâi.
Dodon said that party supporters are determined to continue the demonstrations: "In the end, we will determine the current government to resign. There are several legal and peaceful means to force the current government to leave. You will see, we will [do] it."
The mayor of Chișinău, Dorin Chirtoacă, has called for the tents to be removed from the central boulevard and claimed that not only is the protest illegal, but that it is being fomented by Moscow. He has claimed that Renato Usatâi and Igor Dodon are puppets of Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, embattled Prime Minister Valeriu Streleţ blames his predecessor, Iurie Leancă, for the situation in Moldova: "All [the] top problems happened during the Leancă government," he said.
Having two parties that are so opposed to each other protesting at the same time and place could provoke fears of anger boiling over, but Dolganiuc, the pro-European, claims that there will not be confrontation between the two camps. He does believe, however, that police should ensure that there is an enforced 500 metre buffer zone between them.
Others are more sceptical. Dionis Cenușă, an analyst at Moldovan think-tank Expert Group, is wary that protests could escalate and the two sides could turn on each other. He is equally concerned about the pro-Russian factions in Moldova.
"Those from the Dignity and Truth platform have already demonstrated lack of ability to keep a control on protests. Ultimately, everything depends on the plans of the camp of Dodon and Usatâi and [their] capacity to handle the protests," he said.
As for the influence of Russia, opinion is also divided. Cenușă claims that it is obvious that Dodon and Usatâi involvement in the anti-government protests coincide with Russia's interests to see the pro-European parties outside the government. "This it will mean a stranding of the European agenda and a giant leap back for Moldova's pro-European movement. Moreover, Russia sees this as a blow against the European Union and the Eastern Partnership," said Cenușă.
He added that although Usatâi and Dodon have the financial resources to hold these non-stop protests, "there is little evidence that Russia delivers financial resources to support them."
Dan Dungaciu, director of the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations of the Romanian Academy, based in Bucharest, disagrees. Although the country is clearly in crisis, he thinks that Russia has enough going on in 2015 without worrying about Moldova. "Moldova is in a major crisis [but] I believe that [it] is among the last positions on the Russia's list."
Regardless of the geo-political element, protesters, especially pro-Europeans, know what they want – the recovery of the stolen $1bn, pro-European reforms, and an effective fight against corruption.
As Ruslan Molodoi, the protester from Cahul, explains: "My wife is working for the last 11 years in Europe and earns money for the whole family, because here it is impossible to live decent and to raise happily your children. Therefore, I protest here, in the Town of Dignity for a better and decent life."
Where is Moldova?
Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has, like Ukraine and other former Soviet states, found itself subject to the geo-political push and pull between Russia and Europe.
Moldova signed an agreement with the EU in 2013 and in response Moscow banned imports of wine, one of the stalwarts of the Moldovan economy. In elections held in 2014, the debate between moving towards Europe or Russia was one of the major issues dividing the main parties.
The country gained its independence after the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has traditionally been closer to Romania than Ukraine or Russia. Romania and Moldova's languages are almost identical and two thirds of the population are of Romanian descent.
But there is a prominent pro-Russian sentiment in the north of the country where some 43% of the population are Russian-speaking and where the break-away region of Trans-Dneister straddles the land between Ukraine and Moldova.
Trans-Dneister declared independence in 1991 and voted to join Russia in 2006, although both the poll and its efforts to secede from Moldova have been rejected by the government.