AP

Moldovan leader outlines Russian ‘plan’ to topple government

Feb 12, 2023, 1:28 PM | Updated: Feb 13, 2023, 12:26 pm

Moldovan President Maia Sandu announces she nominated as Prime Minister designate Dorin Recean to f...

Moldovan President Maia Sandu announces she nominated as Prime Minister designate Dorin Recean to form a new government in Chisinau, Moldova, Friday, Feb 10, 2023. Moldova's government collapsed Friday as pro-Western Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita resigned, adding to a series of crises that have gripped the small nation since Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine.(AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

(AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Moldova’s president outlined Monday what she described as a plot by Moscow to overthrow her country’s government using external saboteurs, put the nation “at the disposal of Russia” and derail its aspirations to one day join the European Union.

President Maia Sandu’s briefing comes a week after neighboring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country had intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destroy Moldova, claims that were later confirmed by Moldovan intelligence officials.

“The plan for the next period involves actions with the involvement of diversionists with military training, camouflaged in civilian clothes, who will undertake violent actions, attack some state buildings, and even take hostages,” Sandu told reporters at a briefing.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago, Moldova, a former Soviet republic of about 2.6 million people, has sought to forge closer ties with its Western partners. Last June, it was granted EU candidate status, the same day as Ukraine.

Sandu said the alleged Russian plot’s purpose is “to overthrow the constitutional order, to change the legitimate power from (Moldova’s capital) Chisinau to an illegitimate one,” which she said “which would put our country at the disposal of Russia, in order to stop the European integration process.”

She defiantly vowed: “The Kremlin’s attempts to bring violence to our country will not succeed.”

There was no immediate reaction from Russian officials to Sandu’s claims.

Sandu said that between October and December Moldovan police and its Intelligence and Security Service, the SIS, have intervened in “several cases of organized criminal elements and stopped attempts at violence.”

Over the past year, non-NATO member Moldova has faced a string of problems. These include a severe energy crisis after Moscow dramatically reduced gas supplies; skyrocketing inflation; and several incidents in recent months involving missiles that have traversed its skies, and debris that has been found on its territory.

Moldovan authorities confirmed that another missile from the war in Ukraine had entered its airspace on Friday.

Last April, tensions in Moldova also soared after a series of explosions in Transnistria — a Russia-backed separatist region of Moldova where Russia bases about 1,500 troops — which had raised fears it could get dragged into Russia’s war in Ukraine. Transnistria has a population of about 470,000 and has been under the control of separatist authorities since a civil war in 1992.

Sandu claimed that Russia wants to use Moldova in the war against Ukraine, without providing more details, and that information obtained by intelligence services contained what she described as instructions on rules of entry to Moldova for citizens from Russia, Belarus, Serbia, and Montenegro.

“I assure you that the state institutions are working to prevent these challenges and keep the situation under control,” Sandu said.

She said that Moldova’s Parliament must adopt draft laws to equip its Intelligence and Security Service, and the prosecutor’s office, “with the necessary tools to combat more effectively the risks to the country’s security.”

Costin Ciobanu, a political scientist at the Royal Holloway University of London, said it’s likely there “was a huge pressure” on Moldovan authorities to explain more to the public after Zelenskyy first went public with the security information last week in Brussels.

“Today’s announcement by President Sandu legitimizes the narrative that Moldova needs to focus on its security,” he told The Associated Press. “Probably, based on the evidence they received, they are now more sure of these kinds of attempts by Russians.”

He added that Sandu going public could also be a preemptive bid to thwart “Russia’s attempts to destabilize Moldova,” in the same way Western officials called out the Kremlin’s war plans before its invasion of Ukraine.

The president added that the plan would “rely on several internal forces, but especially on criminal groups” and went on to name two Moldovan oligarchs, Ilan Shor and Vladimir Plahotniuc, both of whom are currently in exile. Both men last year were sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K.

Last fall, a series of mass anti-government protests organized by Shor’s populist, Russia-friendly Shor Party, also rocked Moldova amid the energy crunch.

The president’s press briefing Monday comes after the surprise resignation on Friday of Moldova’s Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita. The same day, Sandu appointed her defense and security adviser, pro-Western economist Dorin Recean, to succeed Gavrilita.

On Friday, after Moldovan authorities confirmed the missile incident, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington that “Russia has for years supported influence and destabilization campaigns in Moldova, which often involve weaponizing corruption to further its goals.”

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania

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