A Chisinau court has issued an arrest warrant for Renato Usatii, the leader of the pro-Russian Partidul Nostru party, after prosecutors started an investigation related to his suspected involvement in the failed assassination of Russian banker German Gorbuntsov.
The timing of the case - just days before Moldova’s October 30 presidential election - supports claims from the pro-Russian opposition that the authorities are trying to intimidate Usatii, who is also the mayor of Moldova’s second city Balti. While he is too young to stand for the presidency, Usatii is popular in Moldova and recently gave his backing to Socialist Party (PSRM) leader Igor Dodon, who currently leads in the polls.
Usatii has been accused of ordering the killing of Gorbuntsov in March 2012, the year after Gorbuntsov’s 80% stake in a small Moldovan bank, Universalbank, had been the target of an alleged raider attack. Gorbuntsov, who had been accused of money-laundering in Russia, was shot and badly wounded in London.
The Russian banker has said he believes Russian interests were behind the shooting. However, Usatii has accused Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, the backer of Moldova’s ruling coalition, of giving the order to the killer.
Moldovan police have already issued an international arrest warrant for Usatii. The Partidul Nostru leader is currently in Russia, where most of his business interests are located, and has said he will not return until after the presidential elections. The second ballot of the presidential elections is scheduled for November 13.
Dodon responded to the news of the arrest warrant by accusing the Moldova authorities of harassing Usatii. If Dodon wins the election he will have the power to appoint Moldova’s new head prosecutor. At present, Plahotnuic is believed to exercise a high degree of control over the Moldovan judiciary.
The relationship between Dodon and Usatii has been rocky; in the past the two have accused each other of collaboration with Plahotniuc. However, Usatii recently said he would support Dodon in the second round of the election, even though Partidul Nostru is fielding its own candidate, in the first round. Dodon is most likely to face Maia Sandu, the candidate for the pro-EU opposition, in the second round.
Usatii was also detained on his arrival in Chisinau on October 23 last year after a brief visit to Russia, when he released audio recordings apparently relating to bank frauds that resulted in losses of $1bn from several Moldovan banks. Two days later, he was freed by a Chisinau court without being charged.
Usatii, a 38-year-old languages graduate of Balti University, started his career at Chisinau Airport and then moved to Moldovan Railways. In 2004, he moved to Russia, where he heads Nizhni Novgorod based metal processing and machinery construction firm VPT-NN, a supplier of Russian Railways.
Usatii was briefly married to the daughter of Constantin Tampiza, the head of Lukoil Romania, who reportedly recommended him to Russian circles when Usatii moved to Moscow.
“[Usatii] is a young, but very cocky guy, backed by great people,” one businessman familiar with Usatii told Moldovan investigative journalism portal rumafia.com.