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The Real Deal?

A political party in Moldova says its network of stores offers lower-priced food to those in need, while some wonder if it’s just a way to recruit potential voters. From Ziarul de Garda. by Anatolie Esanu 19 May 2017

In 2015, after he was elected mayor of Orhei and while he was under house arrest for fraud in the banking sector, Ilan Shor opened his first four “community stores” in Orhei. During the fall 2016 election campaign and over the following few months, the initiative was extended to a few other cities in Moldova, and today there are 14 stores in total. In the early hours of the morning, elderly people stand in line at these shops to buy the famous bread for two lei (50 U.S. cents). Except for the bread, unfortunately, prices for the other products in these community stores are the same as average market prices, and even sometimes more expensive.


The community stores, opened by the Shor Party, are called “Merisor” (“Little Apple”). Only pensioners, veterans, and handicapped people are able to make purchases there, and even then they must have what is called a “welfare card,” which is distributed by the party. To receive a welfare card, a pensioner must first register with proof of identification, their pensioner’s booklet, or proof of veteran or handicapped status. Sometimes these people register in Shor Party offices, which are located near the shops, as in the case of the store on Dacia Boulevard in Chisinau, where a branch of Ilan Shor’s party can be found on Botanic Street, or the store on Miron Costin Street, near the party’s Riscanovca regional headquarters. After registering, pensioners receive their plastic welfare cards, covered in Shor party logos, and a unique ID number.


According to the National Center for the Protection of Private Information, Magazine Sociale LLC, the company that manages the shops, is registered as a business than handles personal information and can collect data from clients such as their name, date of birth, telephone number, personal ID number, home address, and photograph. The company can also collect clients’ health information and socioeconomic status.


Shor: Just Standard Practice


Alina Sargu, the press secretary for the Shor Party, says that the pensioners’ personal data is only used for their own benefit, and is not used for any purpose connected to the upcoming parliamentary elections (expected in fall 2018). “I answered the Election Commission when [Shor Party candidate] Inna Popenko was excluded from the presidential race [because of corruption allegations]. This information will not be used as a basis for selecting clients. The data is necessary for the card to be issued. The card is registered, so that when someone comes into the store and buys products, the card is scanned, and we can make sure the card is being used by the person whose name is on it. It’s a modern method,” Shargu explains.


Magazine Sociale LLC, the company that owns the Merisor stores in Chisinau at least, was established during the presidential campaign in 2016 by Pentru Orhei, an NGO which is led by Ilona Shor, the stepmother of Ilan Shor. The firm’s legal address is 12 Tigina Street, which houses other companies affiliated with Shor, including Dufremol LLC, the owner of a chain of duty-free stores by the same name.


Shor opened the first four community stores in November 2015 in Orhei, where he is the mayor. One year later, on 20 October 2016, while the presidential campaign was in its most intense stage, the party’s candidate, Popenko, hosted the opening of the fifth such store in Orhei. That same day, the Central Election Commission turned to the Chamber of Appeals, requesting that Popenko be removed from the presidential race on the grounds that she used undeclared financial resources during the campaign. They also charged her with attempting to buy off potential voters by giving out welfare cards to senior citizens in Chisinau, who would then be beneficiaries of the first community store that opened in the capital.


Despite being taken out of the race, Popenko and the Shor Party continued to open community stores as if they were manufactured in an assembly line. On 25 October, one of Shor’s shops was opened in Ceadir-Lunga, and three days later another one popped up in the Riscanovca district of the capital. In December, Merisor stores appeared in Calarasi and Caluga. In 2017, two more stores were established in the Botanica district, and one store each popped up in Buiucani, Cecani, and, as of 3 April, in Comrat. 


In total, there are 14 such stores at the moment. There are also 22 villages in the Orhei region where so-called “mobile community stores” – camper-style vans – travel around and sell pensioners the “famous” two-lei bread and other food products. According to Shor Party press releases, over 37,000 pensioners and people with special-need housing have welfare cards, and the party promises to open over 100 stores in Moldova over the next two years. Concurrently, the mobile community stores will reach every village “where the standard of living for pensioners and people who have particular financial needs is lower than the minimum living standard,” says the party.


Every morning, tens of people flock to buy items at 'discounted' prices.


While Shor Party representatives maintain that they open these stores to help those who need it, the party’s press releases reveal their focus on campaigning. “By 2018, when Shor will be participating in parliamentary election campaigns, there will be over 100 community stores across the country,” a party pamphlet says. Shargum, the party’s press secretary says that the phrasing is meant to remind people that the Shor Party is fulfilling the promises made when the pit was formed. “This is a Shor Party project, and we decided that there would be 100 community stores operating before the parliamentary elections. We, as a party, do not just speak without acting on it,” she said.


How Cheap is Cheap


The Merisor community stores sell, in part, food staples and domestic supplies. The party’s press releases emphasize each time that the shops give pensioners with a meager income “the opportunity to acquire high-quality products at prices over 20 percent lower than in other stores.” In reality, however, some products in the community stores are actually more expensive.


The most well-known product in these shops is, without a doubt, the bread for two lei. This low price is accented in every Shor press release about the community stores. Aside from the bread, however, products that are much cheaper than the market price can be counted on one hand. The prices are usually the same, negligibly lower than market price, or more expensive. Sugar, for example, is sold for 14.4 lei ($3.48) per kilogram in Shor’s shops and 14.25 lei in Chisinau’s central market. “We have a higher concentration of sucrose in our product than other manufacturers do. That is not insignificant,” Shargu says, explaining the price difference.


Chicken can also be bought for less money outside of the community stores: a kilogram of frozen chicken meat costs 27 lei in Shor’s shops, whereas you can buy a kilogram of chicken thighs for 25.9 or 26.25 lei in the central market.


Dairy products are, in fact, cheaper in Shor’s community stores by 10 to 45 bani (cents). In a community store, a packet of 10 percent sour cream, from one manufacturer, costs 10.9 lei but 11.35 lei in the central market. The same product costs 11.3 lei in several supermarkets – 40 ban more than in Shor’s shop. A liter of milk and a packet of kefir is 35 and 25 ban cheaper, respectively, in the community store. A few meat products are less expensive than market price, but they are manufactured by small companies who do not supply many stores and, therefore, we were unable to thoroughly compare costs.


If we compare the community stores with bulk or wholesale food retailers, then we see that certain products are much more expensive in the former. In a community store, a 300-gram can of stewed meat costs 17.5 lei when the same product, from the same manufacturer, costs 10.17 lei when sold wholesale. A can of sardines in oil is 15.5 lei at Shor’s, and 13.96 lei wholesale – 1.54 lei less. A 425 milliliter-can of peas is about 1.17 lei less expensive in a bulk store as well.


In response to the question of why prices for certain products are higher in community stores than other retailers such as the central market, representatives for the Shor Party press office say that the difference arises because of the “quality of the food products, the storage methods, and other norms that are violated by businesspeople trading at the market.”


“First of all, to reiterate, the products for sale in community stores meet all sanitary and storage requirements,” explained the Shor Party representatives. “Furthermore, every good has a certificate of quality and each customer gets a receipt, guaranteeing that the food product’s expiration date is accurate, unlike the examples that you mention. Also, today our colleagues went to the central market and purchased a can of peas for eight lei, not 6.50 lei as you suggested. And, they bought a rack of ribs for 26 lei, but when they asked for a certificate of quality, they were made to leave. Our colleagues were not given a receipt, which confirms that the vendors do not pay a VAT tax, and the quality of the product is not guaranteed by competent institutions. In addition, the scales we use are electronic, unlike the ones on the market, and have been quality-assured so that customers can be confident that the salesperson cannot deceive them. We would also like to direct your attention to the fact that our products are purchased directly from the manufacturers – they are not smuggled in conditions that adversely affect customers’ health.”

This article was written by Anatolie Esanu, and originally published on Ziarul de Garda, a news and analysis site based in Moldova. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. 


Translated by Anna Bisikalo. 

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