Washington, Kiev and the presidential election in Moldova

Opposition accuses Ukrainian president of political persecution in favor of Moldovan oligarch

By Valeriya Ivashkina, Strana.ua

On Sunday, October 30, presidential elections will be held in Moldova. For the first time in 20 years, the people will choose the head of state – previously the position was appointed by Parliament. In a country that a few years ago signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, the candidate with the greatest chance of winning is a supporter of the Customs Union. He is opposed by a candidate who appears in election agitation materials beside Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk.

The campaign is fueled by criminal cases with obvious signs of political persecution, in which, as it turns out, Ukraine is involved.

Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and
Ukrainian oligarch / President Petro Poroshenko.

Pro-Russian opposition candidate

“Oligarchs captured the state.” So said Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland of the current situation in Moldova, in an interview with The New York Times a year ago. This was due to the concentration of power in one man’s hands — oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who for many years has been the unofficial leader of the country.

For voters in Moldova, there are two important principles determining their sympathy: the geopolitical orientation of the candidates and the degree of their proximity to Plahotniuc. Politicians are trying to distance themselves from the controversial oligarch, vying to accuse each other of having links with the “great and terrible.” But for those who really are not connected with him, criticism comes at the price of retaliation. 

Renato Usatii
Chisinau District Court on Monday ordered the arrest for 30 days of the popular opposition politician Renato Usatii. He is suspected of attempting to assassinate the banker Hermann Gorbuntsov. This happened six days before the election, in which, however, Usatii is not running: with the introduction of direct presidential elections, MPs raised the age limit for candidates from 35 to 40 years. The 37-year-old Usatii can’t run. His “Our Party” put forward another candidate, Dmitry Chubashenko. He is running in third place.

Usatii, meanwhile, works as the mayor of Balti, where he was elected with a record (for Moldova) 73 percent of the vote. But for a while the city is beheaded: to avoid arrest, Usatii left for Moscow immediately after the court decision. The capital of Russia is the most expected destination for a political exile with his program. During his term, Balti signed a sister city agreement with Nizhny Novgorod, areas of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and one of the campaign promises of “Our Party” was a referendum about the geopolitical path of Moldova.

“Plahotniuc told me the following: Get half a million dollars and leave the country for a few months for health reasons. I am preparing one of the greatest frauds in the history of the country for the presidential election – I quote. Either you leave the country and come back later, or I will destroy you and another opposition politician on the right, Andrei Nastase, before the new year,” said Usatii Wednesday at a press conference in Moscow.

Pro-European opposition candidate

The “destruction” of Andrei Nastase, who until last week was a candidate for president of Moldova, was not long in coming. A year ago, prominent lawyer Nastase led the “Dignity and Truth” Platform – a pro-European party that arose from street protests in Chisinau.

Its success was the result of criticism of the authorities, pro-European rhetoric and support from the channel “TV Magazine,” funded by the émigré businessmen Victor and Viorel Topa. A few years ago, when Moldova’s “captured law enforcement agencies” filed a criminal case against them, their lawyer was Andrei Nastase.

Last week, Nastase received a call from the Ukrainian National Police in the Odessa region and was invited in for questioning — “for now, as a witness.”

“I never had any business in Ukraine in general or Odessa in particular, my law practice has never been connection with that country. … The call from Odessa was absolutely incomprehensible to me. They declared that they wanted to see me as a witness in a case –mysteriously stressing, so far, just as the witness. At the same time, they refused to provide even minimal information.

“However, a few days ago I received information from Ukraine. Honestly, I thought that Plahotniuc had exhausted all of his ugly methods in the struggle with me. But what I read on one website shocked me. Someone in your country, using the police, is trying to fabricate a dirty and false case of pedophilia against my businessman friend, and at the same time to immerse me in this shit,” Nastase told “Strana.”

“Strana” confirmed with police in Odessa that Nastase had been summoned.

“I can’t comment on the article, because it may harm the investigation. Yes, the fact is, he was contacted by the staff of the Investigative Department of the Police in the Odessa region, and invited to appear before the investigator to testify as a witness. [On the matter of abuse of minors], I can’t confirm,” said the press service of the department, adding that in case of failure to appear, Nastase will not be declared wanted.

It’s not the first time law enforcement bodies of Ukraine have played this role in combatting the Moldovan opposition. This summer, banker Vyacheslav Plato was arrested in Ukraine and extradited to Moldova — despite the presence of Ukrainian citizenship (and Ukraine, as we know, will not extradite its citizens). Shortly before, Plato stated that there was undeniable evidence of Plahotniuc’s involvement in the so-called “theft of the century” — the most high-profile political crime in Moldova, during which nearly a billion dollars disappeared from the country’s banking system.

Poroshenko and Plahotniuc
Curiously, several criminal proceedings have also been opened against Renato Usatii in Ukraine.

“Plahotniuc and Poroshenko are business partners for many years: they are co-owners of the ‘Detsky Mir’ store in Chisinau, they have been in business together since Soviet times, they have a factory for the production of confectionery products called ‘Bucuria,’ and many other businesses,” says Usatii.

“Today in the Odessa region, near Chisinau, there are proceedings against me, which Plahotniuc uses to avoid being accused of trying to destroy the opposition. At the invitation of [Crimean Prime Minister Sergey] Aksenov, I visited an economic forum in Crimea, and the first charge in one of my criminal cases is ‘an illegal visit to the occupied territory.’ And second — it turns out, I was also there doing some kind of subversive activities. Although I have been there many times before, unfortunately or fortunately, I do not visit Ukraine,” Usatii said at the press conference on Wednesday.

Despite political differences, on the issue of using Ukrainian law enforcement agencies to prosecute the Moldovan opposition, Nastase agrees with Usatii.

“I, unfortunately, have good reason to assume that the Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies are involved in the dirty political game and help carry out a political order to put pressure on me. The purpose is to get me to play by Plahotniuc’s rules in the current presidential campaign and future political processes,” Nastase told “Strana.”

Anyway, Nastase will not participate in these elections. After the publication of the candidates’ ratings, it became clear that the main contenders for victory in the presidential election were, from the left-wing forces, pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon, and from the center-right, pro-European politician Maia Sandu. Last week, Nastase announced his withdrawal in favor of Sandu. The fight became even fiercer.

Candidate Maia Sandu

The campaign for the presidency revolves around the geopolitical vector, said a representative of the Center for Investigative Journalism, Victoria Dodon (no relation to the politician – Ed.). The highest-rated pro-European candidate was the ex-Minister of Education of Moldova, Maia Sandu. Prior to joining the government, Sandu worked as Advisor to the Executive Director of the World Bank in Washington, DC, and was a coordinator of UN development programs.

Maia Sandu
“Maia Sandu is the candidate affiliated with Western institutions, which she worked in for quite a long time before joining the pro-European government. As Minister of Education, she’s remembered for rigid austerity, closing one third of Moldovan schools. Today the U.S. is promoting Sandu to replace the oligarch’s regime, which they have been fed up with for a long time. Sandu will not ask for much, but will fulfill the will of the financial institutions that lend to the Moldovan economy, and act humbly before the foreign bosses,” said journalist and former member of the Communist Party of Moldova Pavel Grigorchuk.

On Wednesday evening, Marian Lupu — the candidate with pro-European rhetoric who is said to be close to Plahotniuc – withdrew in favor of Maia Sandu. He also made the statement of withdrawal from the race (and support of Sandu) in the company of Plahotniuc. The ex-minister called it a false statement and an attempt to discredit her. Sandu’s chief opponent, Igor Dodon, immediately chimed in, saying that Washington and Plahotniuc agreed on Sandu’s candidacy for president.

Candidate Igor Dodon

But experts agree — Dodon is also close to Plahotniuc. A popular online video shows a meeting of the Parliament, where Dodon gets up to greet the passing Plahotniuc, who patronizingly puts his hand on Dodon’s shoulder, saying, ‘sit.”

Igor Dodon
“The regime has discredited the idea of ​​European integration with its rule, but for security it created a pocket opposition in the person of Dodon. Other opposition, from both left and right, has been subject to political prosecution, arrest, withdrawal of candidates from elections, bans on media and opposition parties. For Dodon, it’s the opposite – the regime of oligarch Plahotniuc has created very comfortable conditions: licensed two television channels, eliminated all the most likely competitors for Dodon on the left, etc. However, Plahotniuc, who is nicknamed the ‘puppeteer,’ has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to discard his puppets after use without any regrets,” said Grigorchuk.

However, even if he wins the election, Dodon is unlikely to change the geopolitical direction of Moldova, believes political expert Igor Kaldare.

“Under the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova, the president has authority only if he has a simple parliamentary majority, because we are a parliamentary republic. Dodon will make PR in Moscow, will say — I tried, but it didn’t work out. On the other hand, if Maia Sandu wins, she will get administrative resources, which will allow her party to get a quarter of the seats in parliament in 2018,” he concluded.

Consequences of the Moldovan choice

Indeed, the president in the parliamentary republic of Moldova has mostly representative functions. Major changes in government policy will not follow as a consequence of this election, no matter who wins. All power in Moldova remains concentrated in the hands of Parliament, most of which, according to local experts, is controlled by various factions loyal to Plahotniuc, who wants to negotiate with the West and with Russia, and with Poroshenko.

The history of the current government’s election clearly demonstrates this. In the parliamentary elections of November 2014, the Democratic Party, dominated by Plahotniuc, took 19 seats of the 101-seat unicameral Parliament of Moldova. However, by January 2016, 57 deputies spoke in favor of a government personally led by Plahotniuc. Under pressure from mass protests, the tycoon was forced to abandon his ambitions, but the same number of deputies voted in favor of the government of Pavel Filip – a protégé of Plahotniuc.

So the victory of a pro-Russian or pro-European candidate will have a rather symbolic value.

“Imagine that the president will be pro-Russian candidate Dodon,” said the representative of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Victoria Dodon. “Of course, this does not mean that in a day or week, for example, the Association Agreement with the EU and visa-free regime will be cancelled. He signs agreements establishing relations with external partners, represents the state abroad. He can initiate a public debate on the adoption of a specific external vector. But no president can make a decision on integration into any international organization. It is a very complex process.

“In addition, since 2009, we have had such silent presidents that we do not even know what the real powers of the president are. It only remains to wait and see with our own eyes how far a new president can go. This time the leading candidates — Dodon and Sandu — are much more unpredictable.”


Translated by Greg Butterfield

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