Politician Renato Usatii is a native of Moldova but is a product of the Vladimir Putin era in Russia. Born in 1978, near Balti, of indeterminate ethnicity and more fluent in Russian than Moldovan/Romanian, he lived from 2004 until 2014–2015 in Russia and amassed (or so it appears) a large fortune there, presumably in his young age. Usatii’s official status is that of president of a company (“VPT,” based in Nizhni Novgorod) that does business with the Russian Railways state company.
Launched as a special-purpose project last year, Usatii’s party (“Our Party”) entered Moldova’s parliamentary election campaign, but was disqualified from the race shortly before the November 30, 2014, election day. Moldovan authorities opened several criminal investigations against Usatii at that time, mainly over illegal campaign financing (see below). He returned hastily to Russia, but landed again in Moldova in May 2015 to lead his party’s campaign for the local elections just held.
Usatii’s campaign has not offered any policy program worth noting. His message aims, instead, to discredit pro-Europe politicians, the main target being Liberal-Democrat Party leader Vlad Filat. Without rejecting the European course outright, Usatii criticizes Moldova’s pro-Europe politicians for pursuing that course despite growing support for the Eurasian (Russian) choice in Moldova. “Our Party” promises to imprison corrupt officials wholesale, if this party comes to power. Usatii’s campaign also attacked former president Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party for “betraying people’s hopes” (so as to siphon voters from it).
Instead of program proposals, “Our Party’s” campaign message focused on “bread and circuses.” Wherever the funding source may ultimately be traced, Usatii spent money lavishly on charity works, sporting completions, impressive gifts to needy families (while flaunting his $300,000 Rolls Royce) and hosting spectacular concerts with Russian star performers in Moldova. “Our Party’s” campaign team consists (for now) of pro-Russia activists from the political fringe. The campaign team, many of its candidates, and first and foremost Usatii spoke mainly in Russian during the campaign, but nevertheless attracted sufficient numbers of nationally and linguistically indifferent Moldovan voters from younger age brackets in medium-sized towns.
This party’s campaign seemed calculated to:
a) build, with “Our Party,” one pillar of a pro-Russia political construction in Moldova, the other pillar being Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, since 2014, and squeeze out Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party, which Russia could never use as a tool; b) establish a territorial base with centrifugal potential around the “Russian-speaking” Balti; c) discredit Moldova’s European choice by conflating it with corruption, mainly targeting Filat (inconvenient to Moscow) while mostly sparing Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc (whose party is deal-prone); d) create, with the Socialists and other groups, a destabilization potential sufficient to trigger pre-term parliamentary elections, then enter the next parliament and marginalize the pro-Western parties conclusively; and e) just as important as the foregoing, Usatii conveys subliminally the message that Moldova remains a part of Russia’s linguistic and cultural sphere.
Viewed in this light, Chisinau’s November 2014 decision to remove Usatii’s party from the race, citing its campaign finance violations, was legally sound, and corresponding with Moldova’s raison d’état. Yet, ignoring the situation on the ground, the European Commission in Brussels and the State Department in Washington criticized Chisinau’s decision, on the basis that it deprived voters of a possible choice while depriving that party’s candidates of the right to run for election. Moscow, of course, protested more loudly (see EDM, December 2, 9, 2014).
What caused Chisinau this time to reverse that decision, and allow this Russian project to operate in Moldova—whether due to the November criticisms, or backstage pressure from Russia—is far from clear. On the whole, Moldova’s governance and overall capacity to protect national interests has declined further in recent months, the Usatii case being one of a number of examples in this regard.
Usatii’s new political fief, Balti, provides potentially fertile ground for Russian “political technologies.” Moldova has not been able to lift its second-largest city from its part-Soviet, part–“Russian World” conditions. According to Moldova’s most recent census (2004), 54 percent of Balti’s population declare Russian as the language of their first choice, even though ethnic Russians form only 19 percent of the city’s population. Ethnic Ukrainians, at 24 percent, outnumber the local Russians; however, 84 percent of the ethnic Ukrainians declare Russian as their primary language; while only 3 percent of the Ukrainians are Ukrainian-speaking. And 25 percent of Balti’s ethnic Moldovans are “Russian speakers” (Statistica.md, Recensamintul Populatiei 2004, accessed July 1).
Balti, thus, starkly illustrates the concept of a “Russian-speaking population” resulting from the linguistic Russification of non-Russians and, as such, being instrumentalized politically. A Communist mayoralty continued ruling Balti from 1991, uninterruptedly until June 2015, when Moldova’s agonizing Communist Party was finally displaced by Usatii from Balti.
The city’s last Communist mayor (2007–2015), Vasyl Panchuk, was an ethnic Ukrainian, originally from Vynnytsya, but was monolingual in Russian. He and the city council were, on the whole, passively loyal to Chisinau, particularly considering that the Communists were still a major political force in Moldova. But this has now changed also. Although Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had issued a statement urging Moldova’s ethnic Ukrainians to vote for Moldova’s pro-Europe parties, the ethnic Ukrainians (mostly “Russian-speaking”) went mostly in the opposite direction in November 2014 and June 2015.
Last year, Usatii seemed to have come to some understandings with the Bishop Markel of Balti. The Bishop is politicized, outspokenly Russophile, and chronically in conflict with the Metropolitan in Chisinau, who, despite being affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchy, is loyal to the Moldovan government.
Usatii had started building a power base in Balti in 2014 and looks determined to accelerate this process now. He has announced intentions to invest personal funds in Belti, to join foreign investors in joint projects there, and to continue charitable donations. Usatii seems about to combine the roles of mayor, de facto political leader, main commercial investor, and chief patron of charities into his hands. In sum, Balti has become the fiefdom of a political force detrimental to Moldova, far more than it ever was under the Communists. From fiefdom it might perhaps turn into some kind of enclave, if the consultative referendum goes ahead in November as planned. Meanwhile “Our Party’s” political influence has now expanded from the city far into the countryside; while potential risks of enclavization can develop in Moldova’s south, if Chisinau’s own disorders persist (see Part One and Two in EDM, July 1, 2).