Moldova Weekly #5: Diplomatic voyages, anniversary of a kidnapping, the neverending billion
Prime Minister Maia Sandu trip to Washington got postponed because of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s busy schedule. The winner in this situation was President Dodon, who travelled first to Moscow, then to Brussels and took the reins of Moldovan diplomacy in his own hands, at least for a couple of days. In Moscow, Dodon pushed as usual for the relaxation of Russian restrictions on Moldovan agricultural exports and claimed some moderate success. However, he apparently failed to obtain the promised gas discount from Gazprom and instead announced that Moldova risked a price hike of 40%-50%, but he would do his best to keep prices at the current level. A couple of days later, Economy Minister Vadim Brînzan was speaking in Brussels about an emergency loan for Moldova to stockpile gas for the winter, in case Moscow and Kiev fail to reach an agreement on Russian gas transit via Ukraine.
On the occasion of Dodon’s Russian trip, the press also learned that the president’s brother, Alexandru, joined Russian head prosecutor’s son Igor Chaika with a 10% stake in an industrial and radioactive waste-processing company. Earlier this summer, the two became associates in a real estate company. Chaika is a quite controversial businessman and is also known for mining cryptocurrencies in separatist Transnistria.
In Brussels, outgoing head of EU diplomacy Federica Mogherini warned Dodon that Moldova needs to continue reforms in the justice sector and the fight against corruption. She demanded tangible results if the EU were to resume its macro-financial assistance to Chișinău. President Dodon, who came to power on a Euroskeptic pro-Russian platform, spoke in favor of continuing the implementation of the Moldova-EU Association Agreement. He duly compensated for this at the meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, where Dodon insisted that Moldova will never join NATO and demanded international guarantees for the country’s permanent neutrality.
Joseph Daul, head of the European People’s Party, came to Chișinău to meet the leaders of PAS and PDA, both parties being affiliated to the EPP. As expected, Daul encouraged them to carry out reforms and implement the Association Agreement, which will unlock more European funds for Moldova. He also got angry at a reporter who provokingly asked Daul if he had received gifts from former Prime Minister Vlad Filat.
A plan for Transnistria
Der Spiegel published an interview with President Dodon this week, in which he claimed that he was working on a concept for solving the Transnistrian conflict, which included “strong autonomy” for the region. The news was received coldly by his coalition partners. Prime Minister Maia Sandu said she wasn’t aware of the president’s concept and that the time is not right for such discussions. Minister of the Interior Andrei Năstase expressed hope that Dodon will not present another recycled Kozak plan stipulating some form of federalization for Moldova.
Last week, after Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu told Igor Dodon that Russia is ready to start destroying its ammo in Transnistria, political analyst Vladimir Socor told Radio Free Europe that Russia may be trying to move from confidence-building measures to political negotiations. However, Socor fears that Moldova is not ready to discuss a political solution for the conflict. The analyst added that US diplomats under Barack Obama had pushed Chișinău to make several conciliatory concessions towards Transnistria and praised the Trump administration for putting an end to this policy.
Ready candidate one
The lists of candidates that will run for mayor of Chișinău is growing every week. Andrei Năstase, who won the previous elections but was stripped of his mandate, all but confirmed he will run again. He avoided a clear “yes”, but said that the situation was “clear for everyone” and thanked PDA and PAS their support. Fortunately, his ACUM bloc co-president Maia Sandu was more straightforward and unambiguously confirmed Năstase will be the bloc’s candidate.
Meanwhile, civic activist Victor Chironda, currently a municipal councilor on PPEM lists, also announced his intention to run. Chironda has built quite a reputation online, thanks to his studies abroad and the renovation of the Chekhov Theatre Square. He promised to be a “technocrat, apolitical, progressive mayor”. Given that he is unlikely to collect the required signatures to run as an independent, it is safe to assume he has some party backing him, although he didn’t say anything on the subject.
Back to Andrei Năstase, his party nominated his older brother Vasile to run for his MP seat in constituency 33, in the suburbs of Chișinău. The seat got vacated after Andrei Năstase became Minister of the Interior. He claims he had no say in it and that his party colleagues informed him of this fait accompli.
The current Cabinet cancelled four decisions of the previous governments that lead to the leasing of the Chișinău Airport to Avia Invest, who ended up in Ilan Șor’s hands and now in Nat Rothschild’s. The ministers put forward two arguments: that those decisions didn’t comply with two Constitutional Court rulings and that they were taken by caretaker governments that had no powers to take such decisions. Nethertheless, the CC rulings at the time were just temporary suspensions and, in the end, the constitutional judges said the matter wasn’t within their jurisdiction. The second argument has more to it, but two of the cancelled decisions had been taken by a Cabinet with full powers.
A parliamentary commission is also looking into the privatization of Air Moldova and heard several former officials. According to chairman Igor Munteanu, the airline had accumulated debt for years and then was sold for pennies. He finds it suspicious that the government at the time didn’t try to restructure or refinance the debt and didn’t even commission an audit of the company. As such, Munteanu wants a complex audit now to check with the private investor is fulfilling its duties.
Air troubles of a different kind
The big mystery in Chișinău over the last couple of weeks has been: where’s the stench coming from? Unfortunately, it took a while until it reached the authorities’ noses as well. The Environmental Agency’s analyses show that the concentration of some chemicals in the Bîc river is 50 times higher than the maximum allowed level. The wastewater treatment station seems to be the main culprit, but it laid part of the blame on some of the factories alongside the river. One of the concerned companies, Zernoff, quickly reacted by organizing an “open tour” of the factory for a couple of journalists and experts, which then said that the factory produced no waste whatsoever. Instead, they blamed the wastewater plant’s geotubes. Former mayor Chirtoacă defended the geotubes and said that the plant’s politically-appointed manager irresponsibly took the sludge out of the geotubes and spread it to dry in the open air. The police and prosecutors said they are on the case.
Anniversary of an ordinary kidnapping
One year ago, seven Turkish teachers working in Moldova were kidnapped in broad daylight and sent to Turkey, where they are accused of being affiliated to Fethullah Gülen’s terrorist network. The Moldovan authorities at the time contradicted themselves, couldn’t explain what happened and the ECHR later ruled that Moldova should pay reparations to the teachers’ families.
After the new government came to power, a parliamentary commission investigated the issue and its head Chiril Moțpan presented the commission’s conclusions on Thursday. He labelled the operation an “ordinary kidnapping” and put the blame on Vasile Botnari, former head of the Security and Intelligence Service, his deputy Alexandru Baltaga, and former Speaker Andrian Candu, who, by law, coordinated all anti-terrorist efforts. Even though the President’s Office building was renovated as a gift from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Moțpan said he found no evidence of Igor Dodon being involved in the affair. Moțpan also failed to link the operation to other cases in which Turkey forcefully retrieved its citizens from abroad.
On Friday, the prosecutors formally charged Baltaga and the chief of the Bureau for Migration and Asylum Olga Poalelungi with abuse of power. The former was arrested for 72 hours, while the latter was suspended from office and banned from leaving the country.
The neverending billion
Anticorruption prosecutors acted on the Slusari Commission’s request to investigate four former officials for their role in the “theft of the billion”: Minister of Economy Andrian Candu, Minister of Finance Anatol Arapu, Prime Minister Iurie Leancă and National Bank governor Dorin Drăguțan. The prosecutors also say they have assessed the investigation and merged 22 separate cases into a single one. Alexandru Slusari (ACUM/PDA) previously said he had information that the theft from the embezzled banks continued after 2014.
Slusari’s party boss Andrei Năstase also asked prosecutors to look into Democratic Party deputy leader Vladimir Cebotari’s role in the banking fraud. Năstase accused Cebotari’s companies of being involved in a litigation with Banca de Economii in 2013, a year before BEM’s bankruptcy. According to him, the Prosecutor General should ask the Parliament to strip Cebotari of his MP immunity.
Earlier this week, US Ambassador Dereck J. Hogan introduced Năstase to FBI legal attache David Varner. The American officials promised the US would assist Moldova in the investigation of the banking fraud and other high-profile cases.
Better late than never
This week brought news about other investigations that might be a bit too late. Acting Prosecutor General Dumitru Robu reopened the investigation regarding the import of electricity via intermediary parasite companies, which led to higher prices for end consumers. Somewhat surprisingly, activist Sergiu Tofilat who denounced the scheme in 2016 says the investigation is only make-believe, because the scheme ended in 2017.
Meanwhile, Robu sent to the anticorruption prosecutors the files regarding the illegal wiretapping of opposition journalists, civic activists and politicians by the previous government.
Igor Munteanu, head of the commission investigating the privatization of Air Moldova and the leasing of the airport, seems to have had enough of offshore companies. He registered a bill that, if passed, will ban offshore entities, companies with offshore-registered shareholders, associates, employees, etc. from participating in public procurement, public-private partnerships, privatizations and the leasing of public assets.
Although the ACUM bloc promised an European prosecutor during the electoral campaign, the reform announced last week didn’t include anything of the kind. It was generally assumed that the Socialists blocked this idea. Nonetheless, this week both Prime Minister Maia Sandu and Justice Minister Olesea Stamate backtracked on their promises. The latter said that bringing a foreign Prosecutor General would require amending too many laws, that a foreigner would be hampered by the language barrier and would find it hard to earn the people’s and colleagues' trust. Maia Sandu instead spoke about bringing back Moldovans that work as prosecutors in the EU and the US.