INTERVIEW: Moldova's populist pro-Russian 'hand grenade'

INTERVIEW: Moldova's populist pro-Russian 'hand grenade'
Renato Usatii has lived in Russia after an Interpol warrant was issued against him.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 24, 2017

Oligarch Vlad Plahotnuic has captured Moldovan institutions to such an extent that – short of a revolution – he may not be overthrown for a generation, businessman turned populist politician Renato Usatii claimed in an exclusive interview with bne IntelliNews.

Plahotnuic’s Democratic Party already heads the government, and the oligarch is widely believed to control the judiciary, while media ownership is increasingly concentrated in his hands, as detailed by international watchdog Freedom House. The ruling party is now trying to push through changes to the electoral system that, despite its lack of popularity, could help it stay in power after the next election.

Independent analysts have confirmed to bne IntelliNews the extent of state capture in Moldova, which was described as a captured state by the World Bank as early as 2000. At that time, several oligarchs were vying for influence, but following the arrest of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2015, Plahotnuic reigns supreme.

Usatii, the leader of the opposition Partidul Nostru (Our Party), says the planned electoral changes are an attempt by Plahotnuic to “capture the country for the next 15-20 years”, thereby avoiding being brought to account for the crimes he alleges the oligarch has committed.

“[Plahotnuic] understands perfectly that the materials I presented during the last two years alone would be enough to send him to prison for the next 200 years,” he tells bne IntelliNews. “Vladimir Plahotnuic understands perfectly that if he loses power in Moldova he would go to prison.”

Usatii is referring to the numerous recordings and documents he has posted online or gone public with in television interviews. He describes himself as “a hand grenade for all dirty politicians in Moldova” and he has become a kind of whistleblower in chief in the country (though he himself has also come in for criticism for his business dealings). He uses his personal website or Facebook, saying this is the only way to get around the Plahotnuic-controlled media.

The documentation includes papers displayed by Usatii at anti-corruption protests in Chisinau in October 2015, which he said demonstrated how companies owned by Plahotnuic and businessman Ilan Shor were involved in the disappearance of $1bn from three Moldovan banks. The papers show the new names of the owners of the companies, all of whom are from the Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Plahotnuic denied any involvement in the frauds to bne IntelliNews in 2015.

The previous year, Usatii had been briefly detained by police after he released audio recordings revealing close ties between Filat and Shor, but was later released without charges.

Usatii burst onto the Moldova political scene in 2014, when he returned to his native country after a decade in Russia. The beginning of his story is not so different from those of hundreds of thousands of other young Moldovan men. After losing his job, he moved to Russia in 2004, “sharing a tiny room with six other guys”.

But then the story diverges: Usatii is the head of machinery and metal processing company VPT-NN in Nizhni Novgorod, a supplier to state-owned Russian Railways. He stepped down as president of the company after becoming mayor of Balti, but remains a major shareholder. He was also briefly married to Carolina Tampiza, the daughter of Lukoil head and former politician Constantin Tampiza.

Compromising materials

Usatii didn’t make enough money to propel him into the oligarch class alongside Plahotnuic and Filat, but he is rich enough to be immune to the kind of pressure Plahotnuic has allegedly managed to exert over other Moldovan politicians. When putting together the PD-led coalition in late 2015, the oligarch was alleged to have used a combination of bribery and blackmail to bring together enough MPs to form a majority, accusations that he denies.

Former Prime Minister Ion Sturza publicly claimed at the time that Plahotnuic had attempted to blackmail Moldova’s then president Nicolae Timofti. “Several MPs reported that they were either coerced or paid via intermediaries of Vladimir Plahotniuc, the controversial oligarch and president of the Democratic Party that leads the current governing coalition,” wrote Cristina Gherasimov, academy fellow, Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House. Reports from the Jamestown Foundation and the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) also say the oligarch’s control of the judiciary and connections in Russia and Ukraine give him access to compromising materials on local politicians that have allowed him to cement his power.

Usatii isn’t shy about talking of his own wealth, estimated in the multi-millions. “I wear clothes from Europe, I go to doctors in Baden Baden … I’m not driving a Lada, I’m driving a Mercedes,” he says. He tells bne IntelliNews that before running for mayor of Moldova’s second largest city Balti he bought houses for his children and nephews and a Rolls Royce (he famously owns a Rolls Royce Ghost, for which prices start at $250,000) for himself, so that nobody could accuse him of enriching himself at the expense of the city.

This wealth has allowed him an independence not afforded to other politicians living off their salaries from the state. “Ministers are lying when they say they are living on their €300 a month salary… All these guys have the Mercedes S class, villas in Marbella, Switzerland and France. All these people are lying every day. Even my political enemies don’t say Renato Usatii takes money as mayor,” he says.

That being said, Usatii’s record is not clear of controversy. There have been allegations – which he denies – that he is linked to Russia’s most powerful mafia group the Solntsevskaya gang. Having Russian Railways as his company’s main customer would also indicate he has high-level connections at the Russian rail operator, where there are reports of rampant corruption. However, Usatii points to his own firm’s cooperation with Sweden’s Sandvik Group, which has a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, as evidence of his probity.

Russian banker German Gorbuntsov, who was shot and badly wounded in London in 2012, has accused Usatii of ordering the shooting after raiding his 80% stake in a small Moldovan bank, Universalbank. Gorbuntsov claimed that Usatii paid Vitalie Proca, who is serving a prison sentence in Romania after being convicted in a separate attempted murder case, to shoot him. The attack was the subject of OCCRP’s investigative documentary Killers Inc, which revealed links between Usatii and Gorbuntsov’s influential enemies in Russia. 

Usatii, who was interviewed for the documentary, denies any involvement in the assassination plot, and launched his own investigation into the case in an attempt to clear his name. 

Another rumour is that he is a Russian plant in Moldovan politics. Usatii argues that he doesn’t want to push Moldova towards either the EU or the Russian-led Customs Union, calling instead for a cleanup of political corruption – “we need to rid the country of these spiders” – followed by a referendum on its future direction. He also makes the point that dwindling enthusiasm for the EU in Moldova is largely because European integration has been given a bad name by the oligarchs behind successive pro-EU governments in Chisinau.

"I hate it when I am called pro-Russian. I'm not pro-Russia. I am pro-Moldova," he says.

"I’ve seen what can happen to a country when its politics divides between Russia or the EU: the chaos and conflict in Ukraine is what happens. I don't want that for Moldova.

"Nearly 20% of Moldovans live and work in Russia, so of course any sane politician wants a good relationship with Russia. I want good relationships with both Europe and Russia."

Having said that, he backed the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon in Moldova’s 2016 presidential election, saying the policies of Dodon’s Socialist Party lined up more closely with Our Party’s than those of Maia Sandu, Dodon’s rival from the centre-right opposition.

Usatii himself was unable to run in the election, as he was too young; candidates must be at least 40. He blames Plahotnuic for being behind the decision to raise the age requirement and for blocking his former party Patria (Homeland) from running in the 2014 parliamentary election, as well as using his control over the judiciary to launch numerous investigations against him.

Not in the plan

Moldovan political analyst Mihai Popsoi writes that Usatii’s unexpectedly popularity presented a threat to the new status quo in Moldovan politics, resulting in repeated efforts to sideline him. In an October 2016 comment, he outlines the rise of new political forces on the left and right, with Plahotnuic’s ruling Democratic Party “situated comfortably in the middle”.

“The meteoric rise of Renato Usatii did not fit into this plan. Usatii’s populist appeal was, in many ways, a problem for all parties, but mostly for Dodon and Plahotnuic,” he writes. “Had Usatii not been banned from the 2014 election, we would now have a rather different picture, perhaps with Plahotnuic in a much weaker position or even out of power. That is why Usatii had to go.”

Usatii jokes that “People in Moldova say if you see a new criminal case against Renato Usatii it means that Moldova will have elections very soon – it’s a tradition.” He also points out that no legal cases were launched against him until the run-up to the 2014 general election, when Patria looked like it could take a substantial share of the vote.

Patria was blocked from standing at the last minute, and the following year Usatii took over another party. The Peasants’ Christian Democratic Party of Moldova was previously a tiny left-wing player but, renamed the Republican People’s Party or “Our Party”, it performed strongly under Usatii in the 2015 local elections.

Part of his success seems to be that – like many of the other populist politicians gaining traction across Europe – he is a refreshing change from the political establishment. Talkative, outspoken and sometimes politically incorrect, he doesn't look like a politician, wearing a tracksuit and t-shirt for our Skype interview – rather like Russian ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who Usatii says he admires more for his outspoken persona than for his political views. Our Party recently signed a cooperation agreement with Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Far from being concerned over the sources of Usatii’s wealth and his Russian connections, Balti residents appeared to welcome these in the 2015 local elections, when he was elected with a resounding 72% of the vote. Rather like supporters of Donald Trump in the US, Balti residents see Usatii’s business success as an indicator he will get things done in office, and hope to benefit from his influence with the major power in the region.

Despite this popularity, Plahotnuic was ultimately victorious in forcing him out of Moldovan politics – and out of the country altogether – ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Usatii claims that Plahotnuic had offered him €1.5mn to leave the country ahead of the election and an even larger sum to disappear permanently from Moldova. The move backfired when - as might have been expected – the Our Party leader immediately went public with the allegations on the “Puterea a patra” television show.

In October, Plahotnuic, who denies offering a bribe, got his revenge. A Moldovan judge issued an Interpol red notice (a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition) for Usatii in the Gorbensov case. This forced Usatii to move to Russia to avoid arrest and he has since been unable to return to Moldova.

He also faces a variety of other charges (all of which he denies) ranging from being a paedophile to plotting to assassinate the chief of police, an accusation based on a message posted on a fake Facebook profile. “Vladimir Plahotnuic and his media holding tried to make a criminal of me, so people would not believe all the things I say,” he says.

Meanwhile, Gheorghe Gonta, the award winning host of “Puterea a patra”, has been sacked, and Ana Ursachi, a lawyer who has represented Usatii and several other opposition figures, has fled Moldova for Poland after a two decade old murder investigation was re-opened. The case against Ursachi had previously been closed due to lack of evidence.

Usatii keeps up his political profile in Moldova by continuing to post on his website and Facebook page, which has almost 60,000 followers. However, his chances of continuing to play an active role in politics in the country depend on overturning the red notice. He has recently hired a London-based law firm to try to get the notice cancelled. He also says he plans to fight the charges levelled against him through the Moldovan courts, though with Plahotnuic’s control of the judiciary, he expects to lose every case. 

Edited to add quotes.