By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) -Authorities in Moldova on Friday barred a pro-Russian party from taking part in local elections on the grounds it endangers national security — two days before the vote viewed as a litmus test of President Maia Sandu’s campaign to join the European Union.
Prime Minister Dorin Recean announced the bar on candidates from the Chance Party linked to fugitive business magnate Ilan Shor – jailed in absentia earlier this year on fraud charges.
The ban was imposed hours after Moldova’s national security service accused Shor of helping funnel 1 billion lei (50 million euros) into the country to stage anti-government protests during the war in Ukraine and to “buy” voters in Sunday’s elections.
Recean told a briefing that Moldova’s Commission for Emergency Situations introduced the bar “for reasons of state security” because of a “hybrid war” waged against Moldova by Russia, which the Moldovan government says is funding and backing Shor.
“Russia cannot invade Moldova with tanks like in Ukraine, instead it invades using criminal groups,” he said.
Alexei Lungu, Chance’s leader and one of the candidates sidelined by the ban, said the party was instructing voters to back alternative independent candidates still permitted to run.
“Nothing dreadful has happened. They are just afraid of us,” Lungu wrote on Telegram. “What Dorin Recean said today amounts to nothing other than the murder of our people.”
Some 600 candidates in Sunday’s election are set to be affected by the ban. Voters in Moldova, a former Soviet Union country that lies between Ukraine and Romania, will elect 12,000 officials, including the mayor of capital Chisinau.
Sandu has denounced Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine and accused Moscow of plotting to remove her. This week she alleged that Moscow was “buying voters” in the local election.
Russia’s foreign ministry responded to Sandu’s allegations by branding her a “disgrace” and said she was trying to distract attention from her government’s failings.
In a final televised appeal to voters on Friday evening, she called for a high turnout to back her pro-European drive.
“Thanks to your vote, Moldova has a chance to become a member of the European family. Don’t let our villages pass into the hands of thieves,” she said.
Last May, tens of thousands thronged the centre of Chisinau in a rally endorsing Sandu’s pro-European and anti-corruption agenda, but support is less certain in smaller cities and rural areas.
Earlier on Friday, Alexandru Musteata, head of Moldova’s security and information agency, accused Shor of channelling Russian money into the country to sway people’s votes.
“The hybrid war waged by Russia and cross-border criminal groups intensified in 2022,” Musteata said, listing election meddling, the nurturing of separatist sentiment in Moldova’s south and what he said was the distortion of democratic processes.
“And the authors of this scenario, directly in Moldova, are established – they are representatives of a criminal group headed by Ilan Shor… The group operates under the cover of many political projects,” he told reporters.
Shor has denied the funds are linked to Russia, saying they were generated by his business projects in different countries. In a video posted on Facebook he said he was sending the money to Moldova to help pensioners and finance social infrastructure projects.
Shor was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in April for his role in a $1 billion bank corruption scandal. A party bearing his name was banned by the Constitutional Court in June and the Chance Party was set up to circumvent the ruling.
(Writing by Olena Harmash; Editing by Ron Popeski, Alison Williams and Rosalba O’Brien)