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23rd Oct 2021

Interview

Moldova to EU: Help us go after fugitives

  • Moldovan prime minister Natalia Gavrilița with EU Council president Charles Michel in Brussels on Monday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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Moldova's new prime minister, Natalia Gavrilița, gets more excited when she talks about fighting corruption than about EU enlargement.

Her country broke out of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and signed a trade treaty with the EU in 2014.

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It was never invited to join Europe, the way neighbouring Romania and Western Balkan states were.

But when asked by EUobserver in Brussels on Monday (27 September) if Moldovan people understood EU enlargement policy, Gavrilița said: "People understand that consecutive governments in Moldova lied to them, stole from them, lost time on reform".

"People voted for us on a domestic agenda. What they want is a functional government that puts public interest above private gain," she added.

And when asked if the EU ought to be sending more positive messages on enlargement to her region than it has done of late, Gavrilița was more interested in European help on Moldova's international fugitives.

"Many of the people involved in the banking scandal, in the Russian Laundromat are abroad and we really need international support in going after them," she said.

"For example, Mr Platon is in London, Mr Shor is in Israel. Mr Plahutnik - we don't know for sure, but we think he's in Cyprus. They have properties, accounts in Europe," Gavrilița said.

"This is also part of building trust in the state ... to ensure these people don't enjoy a European way of life after stealing from the Moldovan people," she added.

Vladimir Plahotniuc, Veaceslav Platon, and Ilan Shor were all accused of siphoning $1bn from Moldovan banks in 2014.

The Russian Laundromat was a scheme to move billions of dollars of dirty money out of Russia into EU banks via Moldovan ones.

"These are the people at the top of the pyramid, but the pyramid is large. Many other people are also on so-called vacations [in Europe]," Gavrilița noted.

Her reformist government, coupled with Moldova's pro-EU president, Maria Sandu, was a "historic opportunity", to clean things up, she said.

And making Moldova into a normal European country was important for Moldovans "whether Europe is ready for us or not," she added.

"European integration is very much about the process, not just the result," she said.

But oligarchs, who owned troll armies and mass media and who often had ties to Russia, were trying to hold her back, she warned.

And men like Shor and Igor Dodon were among them, she noted.

Shor was one of those convicted over the $1bn bank-scandal, but he denies wrongdoing and still won the third most seats in elections in July.

Dodon is Moldova's former pro-Russian president who recently went round saying he does not need a Covid-19 vaccine because his natural antibodies were potent enough.

"There are powerful forces working against us," Gavrilița said.

Just 25 percent of Moldovans have been vaccinated so far, due partly to vaccine scepticism, she said. And Moldovans recently lost their all-clear status for travel to the EU due to soaring infections.

"It's very unfortunate that some politicians engage in that [trying to exploit the situation for personal gain]," Gavrilița said, referring to Dodon.

Moldova's giant eastern neighbour Russia has also tried to hold it back in the past.

Transniestria

It has 1,400 soldiers and a massive ammunitions dump in Moldova's Transniestria region, amounting to an occupation force in the breakaway territory.

It also imposed trade sanctions on Moldova when it showed interest in closer EU ties.

A Russian diplomat, Dmitry Kozak, agreed with Sandu in August to lift trade barriers.

But Kozak might ask a high price for any peace deal, given that, back in 2003, he personally authored a plan to partition Moldova in return for conflict resolution.

Russia might also use its monopoly on Moldova's gas supplies to exert pressure.

"We really hope they won't. We're in discussions now to extend the gas supply contract on current terms," Gavrilița said.

Meanwhile, her government was promoting reunification by making Moldova-proper "more attractive" and by reaching out to ordinary people, for instance by offering EU paid-for vaccines to Transniestria, she noted.

Asked if she knew what was really going on there, in terms of the Russian military or Covid, she said: "You know, Moldova is a very small country and it's very hard to keep anything secret. I'm sure some things we don't know, but we do know most of the facts."

And geopolitics aside, she highlighted the risk that the old Russian ammunitions depot, in Cobaste, was a major public safety hazard, the same way an accidental explosion ripped through Lebanon last year.

"Theoretically, it could be [like Beirut]. We really need to address this problem," she said.

Moldova facing Europe's worst demographic crisis

The loss of population is down to several factors - both negative demographic growth, plus Moldovans leaving for work abroad, or even taking up Romanian citizenships in order to move freely within the European Union.

New law gives Russian 'privileged status' in Moldova

Following a draft law approved by Moldovan parliament, the Russian language will now get a special status as the "language of interethnic communication", and becomes mandatory for all civil servants.

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