Ukraine claims it thwarted assassination of Moldovan oligarch Plahotniuc

Ukraine claims it thwarted assassination of Moldovan oligarch Plahotniuc
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest April 10, 2017

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and chief of police Sergey Knyazev announced at a joint press conference on April 7 that Ukrainian and Moldovan law enforcement bodies carried out a joint operation to stop an attempt to assassinate the president of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova (PD), Vlad Plahotniuc.

The case remains unclear, but it coincides with rising tensions related to the Moldovan separatist republic of Transnistria, which faces major economic pressure as Ukraine and Moldova cooperate on a series of measures including border control. As the next step, the Moldovan authorities might claim full control of some assets on Transnistria's territory – namely the electricity transport grid – after the separatists asked for a transit fee for electricity purchased from Ukraine. 

The border service and police in Ukraine and their Moldovan counterparts are working together, Knyazev underlined, with those involved in the attempt arrested in Kyiv and Chisinau. The assassination was ordered by two individuals whose identity has not been revealed yet, he added. One of them was located in Moscow, the other in Moldova. The involvement of the Russian intelligence services was alleged by Ukrainian officials.

The state border service of Ukraine provided details of the operation in a statement on April 8, which identified the target of the plot as being Plahotniuc and mentioned that the organised criminal group coordinated their actions with “Russian special services”. According to the plan, the criminals were going to hide in Ukraine in an attempt to discredit the law enforcement bodies in Kyiv and damage relations between the two countries.

Ukraine came into possession of information about a crime against a former member of the Moldovan government, currently a businessperson – an apparent reference to Plahotnuic – a few months ago. Those who ordered the crime had already paid $100,000 and promised another $100,000 after the operation. 17 people have been arrested in Kyiv and Chisinau on suspicion of being part of an organised criminal group so far. Members of the group have previously been involved in criminal actions including murder, kidnapping and robbery, the statement said. The operation was started by Moldovan and Ukrainian law enforcement bodies on April 6 when some of the group entered Moldovan territory, bypassing customs points.

Eight people were detained in Moldova (six of them are Moldovan with multiple citizenship and two Ukrainians). Officers found in their possession four RPG-26 grenade launchers, two CZ-75 pistols with silencers and ammunition. Nine other members of the group, two of whom previously fought in Donbas, were arrested in Ukraine.

The Moldovan police confirmed the whole operation at a press conference later the same day, but the statement issued by the Moldovan officials does not refer to the participation of the Russian security services, nor does it directly mention Plahotnuic’s name. However, the head of the Moldovan National Investigations Directorate Ion Iachimov and the head of the Anti-Crime Prosecution Directorate Vitalie Busuioc confirmed at the press conference that Plahotniuc was the target of the assassination attempt.

The case occurs at a time when is Ukraine trying to convince Moldova to secure the segment of the border between Transnistria and Ukraine. Recently, Moldova decided to buy electricity from Ukraine instead of Transnistria, a move that will cost a lot to the budget of the separatist republic. 

The alleged involvement of Plahotniuc in an earlier energy deal between Moldova and Transnistria - which was terminated amid disagreements between Chisinau and Tiraspol about the intermediary firm Energokapital - might explain the origin of the plot against the Moldovan oligarch. Transnistria is believed to have simply wanted Energokapital, allegedly controlled by Plahotniuc and former Transnistria President Evgheni Shevchuk out of the deal, but Moldova switched to Ukrainian electricity.

Another possibility is that it was a plot prepared by Plahotniuc himself, as suggested by his rival Renato Usatii speaking to from Moscow where he fled to avoid arrest by Moldovan prosecutors. Usatii pointed to the very low sums of money involved in the plot ($200,000) and the small amount of weapons found.

Irrespective of who was behind the plot and what the motive was, tensions related to Transnistria are rising. Border control is a hot topic that Russia wants to see on the agenda of talks in the 5+2 format for settlement of the Transnistria conflict, while Ukraine and Moldova officially claim it is a bilateral issue. 

Ukraine has suggested that Moldova close a number of checkpoints after the two countries decided to gradually take control of all of them. In a relevant development, the Moldovan authorities blamed Transnistrian officials for refusing to negotiate within the Unified Control Commission on the the normalisation of the situation on the internal border of the separatist republic.