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Obscure East European Backwater Is New Anti-Russia Battleground

  • The voters in Moldova's parliamentary elections are sharply divided between pro-EU and pro-Russia parties
  • A pro-Russia party polling at up to 18% has been barred from the polls

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

A Cold War-style spy saga involving guns, gangsters and the Russian security services is roiling this tiny ex-Soviet state before its election, which has become crucial battleground in the tug of war between Europe and Moscow.

Moldova’s election commission on Thursday barred Renato Usatii, a populist pro-Russian candidate, from running in Sunday’s parliamentary elections after a leaked audio recording appeared to show him discussing his close connections to the FSB, the Russian security service and successor to the KGB.

Government officials and political leaders here have long alleged that Mr. Usatii is a front for Russian secret services and criminal gangs—part of a multipronged Russian plan to get control over the country, which neighbors Ukraine.

The audio recording surfaced as Moldovan police unearthed a cache of weapons and military supplies, including grenade launchers and rifles, in raids on members of a pro-Russian antifascist movement.

Police arrested five members of the organization, but the group’s leader, Grigori Petrenko, fled to Moscow, according to government officials. Mr. Petrenko, who couldn’t be reached to comment, is also a senior member of Mr. Usatii’s Patria, or Homeland, party.

In Moscow, there was no official comment on the news.

The Moldovan election commission said it canceled Patria’s electoral registration and would confiscate some 8 million Leu (about $533,000) illegally donated from abroad to finance its campaign. Representatives for the Patria party declined to comment.

Mr. Usatii, a 36-year old millionaire, didn’t dispute the authenticity of the audio recording but said his comments were taken out of context and that he would appeal the election commission’s decision. He also vowed to organize “street meetings” with his supporters.

Mr. Usatii made his fortune in Russia and exploded onto the Moldovan political scene this year, with polls show him winning up to 18% of the national vote with his populist pro-Moscow message.

The recording and police raids created a scandal just two days before parliamentary elections were set to begin in this landlocked country of 3.5 million. Sunday’s elections are widely seen as the most important vote since Moldova declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of this vote. Whatever the result this won’t be over on Monday—it will be the beginning of another difficult chapter,” pro-European Prime Minister Iurie Leancă said in an interview Thursday.

“The key ambition has to be to secure the European path… but preventing destabilization has also to be a matter of concern to us.”

Early polls have shown voters are sharply divided.

Moldova, one of Europe’s smallest and poorest nations on the border with Ukraine, has emerged as a new front in the West’s struggle to fend off what it sees as the Kremlin’s effort to pull a former soviet neighbor back into its sphere of influence.

“The Cold War is back and Moldova is a key battlefield,” said Oazu Nantoi, chairman of the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldova-based think tank.

“The situation in Ukraine has created a very dangerous situation for the country and there is a prospect of instability and provocations.”

Highlighting Western fears that the Ukraine conflict is expanding into a broader struggle for power in the region, German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week warned Russia not to interfere in post-Soviet states, including Moldova.

A victory for the incumbent pro-European bloc, which has been in power since 2009, could cement the country’s western orientation. In June, the government signed a trade and political pact with the EU that prompted Russia to block imports of Moldova’s most popular products and warn of more punitive sanctions.

An inconclusive result or a victory for pro-Russian parties would be embarrassing for the West and could spark protests by rival factions in the capital reminiscent the those seen more than a year ago in Ukraine, diplomats and Moldovan politicians said.

In the Moldavan capital, Chisinau, election billboards speak to the stark choice voters face: at one intersection, posters from the pro-Russian Socialist Party show party leaders posing with Russian President Vladimir Putin . Next to those, a poster from the pro-European Liberal party features a giant flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Moldova has moved closer to the European mainstream than any other ex-Soviet republic, barring the Baltic states, and the three-party Alliance for European Integration has vowed to continue along that path. The EU now accounts for 45% of Moldova’s trade, and Russia just a quarter.

Yet Russia remains a dominant player in local politics: the majority of Moldovans watch Russian television channels and Moscow retains a military base in Transnistria, a breakaway territory that seceded from Moldova after a short war following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But as East-West tensions have intensified over Ukraine, Moldovans are taking increasingly entrenched positions.

“We belong with Russia and we can’t ignore it. For many years we’ve seen growing western influence on Moldovan politics, but its results are not good. Look at the corruption,” said Aleksandr Rosca, a student from Chisinau.

Others worry a conflict similar to the one in Ukraine could break out in Moldova.

“Its getting dangerous and I’m afraid that if we turn our back on Europe we will have a Maidan in Chisinau,” said Sergiu Galusca a 31 year-old winemaker, referring to the Kiev square that spawned Ukraine’s pro-European protest movement.

If pro-European Alliance parties win enough votes to regain a majority in the 101-seat parliament or are forced into a coalition with the powerful Communist Party, Moldova is likely to stay on course for Europe, according to Nicu Popescu of the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

A strong showing by the Socialist Party, whose campaign slogan is “Together with Russia,” could derail that pledge.

"Together with Russia" says the billboard

Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon said the charges against Mr. Usatii were concocted by Moldova’s government with help from Brussels and Washington to prevent a center-left coalition taking power.

“I’m convinced this is a setup—they are doing this to introduce a state of hysteria. This is dirty tactics and they are preparing massive falsifications,” Mr. Dodon said.

According to western diplomats, Mr. Usatii and his Russian backers have profited from disgust with Moldova’s corrupt political class and gained youth votes by spending lavishly on a campaign that included free concerts featuring Russian pop stars. His populist platform included pledges to reverse privatizations and prevent Moldova from joining the EU.

In a veiled reference to Russia, Moldova’s security services last week warned that external actors were attempting to destabilize the country in the run-up to elections. Government officials said the intelligence and law-enforcement services were expanding their operations to try to preserve stability.

Vladimir Voronin, former president and chairman of the Communist Party, which has governed in various coalitions and could hold the key to Moldova’s next government, said Mr. Usatii was a symptom of a mounting geopolitical battle on Moldovan territory.

“This has happened because Moldova is becoming a battleground for east and western interests,” Mr. Voronin said.

“My fear is that after the elections we could have protests, and there could be some actions that could get away from our control.”

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