Installation shows scale of Moldova's $1bn bank fraud

Installation shows scale of Moldova's $1bn bank fraud
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest February 23, 2017

The ten huge blocks in the hall of the B.P. Hasdeu National Library in Chisinau are made up of 10mn pieces of paper the size of dollar bills, each representing $100. The installation by local artist Stefan Esanu is intended to give the abstract notion of $1bn - the amount that disappeared from three Moldovan banks in 2014 - concrete representation.

Esanu's contemporary art project illustrates the sheer scale of the frauds, which resulted in losses equivalent to around 10% of Moldova’s GDP.

News of the frauds rocked Moldova when it was revealed that the central bank had extended MDL13.6bn ($1bn) in emergency loans to three banks, which were later liquidated. Last year Moldova’s government issued bonds to compensate the central bank for the loans. This means that ultimately the cost will be borne by Moldovan taxpayers, as the bonds will be repaid from the public purse over the next 25 years.

Esanu says he wants people to visualise the exact volume of the fraud. "The figure is very abstract in people's minds. Nobody has seen $1bn," he says, adding that people are astonished by the quantity when they see it. The ten huge blocks have a total volume of 11.3 cubic metres.

The installation has been named "La datorie", which in Romanian has two meanings, one being "debt" - a direct reference to the debt the Moldovan citizens now have to repay. The second meaning is "on duty", which Esanu says refers to the duty Moldovan citizens feel towards their country.

"Somebody stole the money and we, the citizens, will have to repay it ... It is both a financial debt and a duty towards the country," the artist explains in a telephone interview with bne IntelliNews.

"I wanted to emphasise people's feelings because they are not reflected in polls, only in mass explosions, such as protests," Esanu says.

Apart from the blocks of paper, the project also includes 33 interviews where Moldovans talk about what financial debt and duty towards their country means to them.

The idea for the installation came to Esanu shortly after the scandal erupted, and he started working on it in September last year. The initial plan was to have the installation ready before the November presidential election, won by Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon. The artist believes this would have probably made people "weigh things better before casting their vote". However, due to financial constraints, the launch was postponed.

Other problems also arose. Finding a place to exhibit was not an easy job. Both the National Museum and the Brancusi Gallery in Chisinau refused to host the installation, which Esanu speculates might have been due to fear of the authorities’ response. "Some people still live with that mentality that they can lose their job,” he says. Potential sponsors, including private companies operating in Moldova, were reluctant to have their names associated with the project. 

Although several investigations have been launched to try to recover the money, Esanu has little hope that it will ever be found. However, he hopes his project will make people more aware of the importance of civic activism. 

It’s not clear whether the installation will have a political impact. It has received positive reviews from visitors, but has not been visited by any Moldovan politicians so far.

Esanu says he has not yet decided what will happen to the fake dollar bills when the exhibition ends, and is considering throwing the question open to the public. "There are many ideas,” he says. “I was thinking of a time capsule, to bury the billion and take it out in 30 years, there were ideas that we could recycle it, burn it, maybe we will give it to a school to use as biomass, we will see.”