Someone stole $1 billion from Moldova. That's an eighth of its GDP

Carsten Koall | Getty Images

When thousands filled the streets of Moldova's capital on Sunday in the little country's largest protest in years, their complaint was pretty significant.

Late last year, about $1 billion disappeared in an apparent banking scandal that's mystified Europe's poorest country.

To put that sum into perspective, it's an eighth of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). In United States terms, that portion of the economy would add up to more than $2 trillion.

The money reportedly vanished in a series of murky loans dealt out last November by three major banks — one of them state-owned — to as yet unknown recipients.

Officials wised up to the scheme only earlier this year.

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Investigators — including the US auditing firm Kroll — are looking into the matter, but officials have kept the details quiet. And a great many Moldovans are mad about it.

They say it's symptomatic of the widespread corruption that's plagued their country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That's also why Sunday's protest was about more than just missing money. It drew at least 10,000 demonstrators, police said. If that sounds unimpressive, consider that there are just 3.5 million people in Moldova.

Despite the growing prominence of pro-Western politicians who pledge to pull Moldova closer to Europe, critics claim the authorities have done little to clean up corruption.

Igor Botan, a political analyst and a member of the grassroots movement that organized Sunday's protest, believes the pro-European ruling coalition was complicit in the crime.

"Our country is a poor and agrarian country," he told GlobalPost on Monday. "But it's home to decent people who want their country to flourish, to be closer to European standards, and for it to find its economic niche alongside the European Union."

The last time protests this big rocked the capital, Chisinau, was in 2009. Back then, critics say fraudulent parliamentary elections helped thrust the Communist party — which remains influential there — into power.

Some observers are wondering whether the protests can reach critical mass, just like in neighboring Ukraine.

For now, that seems unlikely.

But Moldovans are no doubt hoping a speedy and successful investigation will return their missing cash, however far-fetched that might seem. If not, that'll mean a hefty tab for taxpayers to cover.