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Moldova's Richest Businessman Strikes Back

Gabriel Stati during his trial at the Court of Appeal in April 2009
Gabriel Stati during his trial at the Court of Appeal in April 2009
Almost a year after the change of government in Moldova, arguably the country's richest businessman, Anatol Stati, announced he has sued the former Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, for ruining his business in Kazakhstan and blocking a deal to bring cheap gas to Moldova from the Central Asian country.

Stati, whose main asset is the Ascom Group, an oil-services company with extraction rights in Central Asia, Iraq, and Sudan, has demanded more than $3 billion in damages.

He bases his claim on a letter allegedly sent by Voronin in October 2008 to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Voronin allegedly urged his Kazakh counterpart to pay "serious attention" to Stati, whom he accused of using income from Kazakh assets to carry out "blood-tainted business" in Sudan, causing "severe damage" to Moldova's reputation. Stati "runs and finances propaganda campaigns and in nontransparent ways funds political parties in opposition to the current government," the former president allegedly wrote in the letter leaked to the press last spring.

But some argue that Voronin's reasons could have been meaner. Igor Munteanu, an analyst and the director of the Viitorul Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, suspects that the former president, who ruled Moldova with a strong hand for eight years, just couldn't stand the fact that someone dared to run a lucrative business outside of his control.

Whatever the reason, the subsequent inspections and criminal investigations by the Kazakh authorities have led to the confiscation of most of the assets held by Tolkyneft and Kazpolmunai, the Ascom Group's two main companies in Kazakhstan, according to company spokesman Vitalie Diaconu.

The latent Stati-Voronin conflict erupted into full force last April, in the aftermath of the violent anti-Communist protests in the Moldovan capital. Just after the controversial election on April 5, Stati's 34-year-old son Gabriel was detained in the Ukrainian port of Odesa on a Moldovan arrest warrant, extradited to Moldova, and imprisoned on charges of fomenting a coup attempt against the government.

Over two months later, Gabriel Stati was released due to a lack of evidence and all charges against him were eventually dropped when the Communist Party lost the early elections in late July last year.

The whole affair triggered unusual interest among international media, with the "Financial Times" writing in May of last year that the arrest of the "flamboyant" Gabriel Stati, "who has a taste for expensive cars and restaurants, highlights the business battles that are deeply entwined with politics in Moldova."

A year later, the Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal probe against former President Voronin based on a complaint filled by Anatol Stati.

Ascom Group spokesman Diaconu admits that his company enjoys a warm relationship with Moldova's new government. According to Diaconu, the government even appealed to the Kazakh authorities to ensure a fair investigation into Ascom's operations there, after one of the company's managers was detained in the Central Asian country for alleged wrongdoings.

It could be a sign of normality, as the Moldovan Constitution calls for the government to protect Moldovan citizens "inside the country as well as abroad."

But it could also be just a confirmation that last year's "Financial Times" assessment about the deep intertwining of business battles and politics in Moldova still applies.

-- Alexandru Eftode

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