It was about Napoleon’s execution of the Duke d’Enghien, a leader in foreign-supported conspiracies in France, that Talleyrand delivered the comment: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” Moldova’s recent sentencing of former defense minister Valeriu Pasat, a leading figure in Russian-supported “active measures” in Moldova, to ten years in prison, is an ordinary mistake, set to boomerang as the appeal proceeds through Moldovan and international venues.
It seems a supreme irony that this pro-Moscow politician has been sentenced for consorting with Washington, ostensibly against Moldova’s interests. The U.S. Embassy in Chisinau has publicly criticized that implication in the verdict and also noted the trial’s infringements of due process. It seems unlikely that the case would stand up in the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), toward which the case seems to be moving. The prosecution’s charges are weak, the first-instance court’s procedure was flawed, and the verdict obliquely impugns the intentions of the U.S. government.
The main charge against Pasat is defrauding Moldova of $55 million back in 1997, when he served as defense minister. At that time, Pasat handled Moldova’s sale of MiG-29 fighter planes to the United States. Moldova had inherited a Soviet squadron of 32 MiG-29s, of which it sold: one to Romania and four to Yemen in 1994, and 21 to the United States in 1997, whereupon it kept six planes that had become inoperable.
The Pentagon offered $40 million in cash for those 21 planes in 1997. Some rogue states were also interested, among them Iran, which offered $95 million. The $55 million figure in the fraud charge against Pasat represents the difference between the Iranian and U.S. price offers. Washington sought to prevent a sale to rogue states and to get the planes off the market.
Moldova’s choice of the U.S. offer was a joint decision by then-president Petru Lucinschi and the government, including Pasat. Praised publicly by then-U.S. defense secretary William Cohen and widely covered positively by U.S. media, Moldova’s decision became a milestone in relations with the United States. In any case, Chisinau had little choice in the matter, as selling the planes to Iran or some other rogue state would have resulted in international sanctions more costly to Moldova than the $95 million Iranian offer, let alone the $40 million received from the United States. In addition to that cash, the Pentagon was also to deliver some excess non-combat items to Moldova’s Defense Ministry, some of which however had to be junked on arrival and others that never arrived.
Pasat was arrested in March 2005 on landing at Chisinau airport from Russia. The 11-month pre-trial investigation and trial were held in camera. Testimonies for the defense, submitted by the then-director of the Pentagon desk who had handled the sale and the then-U.S. ambassador to Moldova, were refused by the court on technicalities that looked like excuses.
Pasat’s track record is that of a consistently pro-Moscow politician, from 1992 when he publicly proposed granting Russia military basing rights in Moldova, down to 2005 when, based in Moscow, he took part in overt and covert Russian attempts to destabilize Moldova during the electoral campaign. Pasat was Moldova’s deputy chief of mission and then ambassador in Moscow (1992-96), defense minister (1996-1999), and chief of the Intelligence Service (1999-2002). President Vladimir Voronin retained Pasat as intelligence chief in 2001 at Russian insistence, but dismissed him the following year in an early gesture of insubordination to Moscow. In 2002, Pasat moved to Moscow and became an “adviser” to Russia’s Unified Energy Systems (UES) chief Anatoly Chubais. Last year, UES unlawfully acquired a major power plant in Transnistria, despite Moldovan protests.
During Moldova’s electoral season in late 2004-early 2005, Pasat played a leading role in attempts to mobilize the diaspora of Moldovan guest workers in Russia and their families back home to vote for pro-Moscow politicians. Those attempts were well funded and amply televised from Russia for impact in Moldova. At that juncture, Russian policy almost openly sought to overthrow Voronin in retaliation for his break with Moscow and turn to the West. Pasat’s March 2005 return to Chisinau appeared timed to attempts by Russian security services to stage riots in Chisinau, for which purpose they infiltrated political operatives and goon squads (some of them as would-be “election observers”) into the country. Those attempts found no public support locally, and Moldova’s security agencies handled the situation effectively.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially protested the sentencing of Pasat, openly encouraging an international propaganda campaign on his behalf. It has packaged him as a “man of profound democratic beliefs” and “one of the leaders of the Moldovan opposition” (whereas in fact no one in the Moldovan opposition identifies with Pasat any longer since the failure of the 2005 operation). Chubais and several members of the UES board have issued a series of public warnings: for example, Chubais linked the Pasat affair with Moldova’s “anti-Russian policy” and threatened that Voronin would “come up against serious problems soon” because of this. Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially protested against such language, and Voronin’s top adviser, Mark Tkachuk, retorted by comparing Chubais’ threat with criminal slang about settling of accounts. Meanwhile, UES is lobbying for Pasat in Strasbourg and Brussels.
Moldovan authorities regard Pasat as a risk to national security and would prefer to keep him out of action, in prison if necessary. However, the proceedings against him demonstrated poor professionalism by the unreformed Prosecutor’s Office and the partly reformed court system. Chisinau would be well advised to issue an official clarification that it has no claims on the United States, as indeed it has not, despite the verdict’s implications. It can also make certain that the courts of appeal examine the full evidence — including that officially cleared by the Pentagon and State Department — in open and unbiased proceedings. It is in Chisinau’s interest to have the case resolved credibly in Moldovan courts before it reaches the ECHR and snowballs internationally.
(Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 9; Washington Post, February 25; Moldovan media running coverage of the case, January-February 2006).