Andrei Nastase, the pro-Western winner of the Moldovan capital's since-invalidated mayoral elections, has evolved from student to prosecutor to businessman to antigraft campaigner and politician -- one able to rally Moldova's divided pro-European opposition behind him through a tireless campaign mainly targeting Moldova's richest and most controversial man.
But the chameleon-like abilities of the charismatic Nastase have also prompted warnings from critics wary of the 42-year-old's ties to a duo of fugitive tycoons and his onetime readiness to join forces with Igor Dodon, Moldova's current Moscow-friendly president.
In a country rated as one of the most corrupt in Europe and the world (Transparency International's 2017 Corruption Perception Index ranked Moldova 122th out of 180 countries), Nastase's upset victory in the June 3 runoff against Ion Ceban of Dodon's Socialist Party came both as a lifeline for the pro-Western forces ahead of parliamentary elections later this year and as a catalyst for large anticorruption protests that followed the invalidation of the poll.
The mayoral election -- and Nastase's victory -- was voided in a series of court rulings because both candidates had addressed voters on social media after the official end of campaigning. The decision prompted widespread outrage and repeatedly sent tens of thousands of people into the streets to demand official recognition of Nastase's win. It was also condemned in strong terms by both the European Union and the United States.
The protests appear to have further strengthened Nastase's position as a leader of the pro-Western opposition.
Pointing Out Plahotniuc
Nastase first came to public prominence in 2015, riding the wave of public outrage that followed the disappearance the previous year of $1 billion from the banking system of Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries.
Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is plagued by endemic poverty and mass emigration, and has had to grapple with a decades-old frozen conflict with its Moscow-backed Transdniester region and the presence of more than 1,000 Russian troops on its territory. The disappearance of an estimated one-eighth of the country's gross domestic product enraged many Moldovans, who took to the streets to protest what they dubbed "the heist of the century."
Nastase, who was a lawyer at the time of the theft, seized on the widespread popular anger against the political establishment and founded the Dignity and Truth Platform (DA), an anticorruption civic movement that called for and organized large-scale protests in the fall of September 2015.
During the protests and after, Nastase joined the choir of those accusing influential but controversial Moldovan billionaire Vladimir Plahotniuc of being involved in the theft of the $1 billion. Nastase took things a step further, accusing Plahotniuc, the head and chief financier of the ruling pro-Western Democratic Party, of "hijacking" Moldova and turning it into a "captive state."
Nastase was just one of many pointing fingers at Plahotniuc. Another one was the former deputy director of the anti-money-laundering agency in Moldova, Mihail Gofman.
Nastase also accused the billionaire, a self-professed pro-European described by Forbes as Moldova's richest man, of secretly colluding with President Dodon to expand his personal control over Moldova's institutions. Plahotniuc, a recluse who for a long time refused to even have his photo taken, rejects the accusations.
As his political activism gained momentum and his anti-Plahotniuc rhetoric intensified, Nastase's Dignity and Truth Platform became a political party known as PPDA at the end of 2015. In January 2016, PPDA leader Nastase joined forces with Dodon in mass protests against the government, which they said was manipulated by Plahotniuc.
However, Nastase's ascent to national politics drew accusations that, while he was professing zero tolerance of corruption and sounding off on "oligarch" Plahotniuc, he himself was allegedly involved in murky deals with a duo of fugitive Moldovan businessmen, Victor Topa and Viorel Topa (no relation).
A Crusader's Own Skeletons
Nastase, according to his official biography, was born in Soviet Moldova in 1975. After the country declared independence in 1991, he left in 1992 to study history and geography in neighboring Romania -- with whom most Moldovans share a common language, culture, and history -- and then switched to law school.
With a law degree, he returned to Moldova, where he worked as a prosecutor until 2000, and then was deputy director of Moldova's state airline, Air Moldova, for a couple of years before becoming a lawyer.
Critics point out that when Nastase started at Air Moldova, Victor Topa was heading the civil aviation authority. And by Nastase's own admission, Topa is his and his wife's marital godfather -- a Romanian Orthodox tradition.
Victor and Viorel Topa, who were once Plahotniuc's business partners in the early 2000s, fled the country and were condemned to 10 and eight years, respectively, for embezzlement and blackmail in separate trials in Moldova. They have denied the charges, which they say are politically motivated and orchestrated by the Plahotniuc-controlled judiciary.
For his part, Nastase has rejected media accusations that the two fugitives, who currently reside in Germany, are financing the PPDA, which he has said is funded by public contributions.
Responding to RFE/RL by e-mail, Nastase said that if the Moldovan authorities could prove that the two "have financed the PPDA with one nickel, I will resign and withdraw from public life."
He added that Interpol established that the cases against the Topas in Moldova were political, and were now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights.
Critics also say Nastase has failed to convincingly prove the origins of his personal wealth. He declared before the local election that he owns 10 houses, two cars, and 32,000 euros ($37,300).
RISE Moldova, a community of investigative reporters, said in 2016 that "besides his ties to offshore companies which fed hundreds of thousands of euros into his accounts, Andrei Nastase has close ties with businessmen Viorel and Victor Topa," and mentioned his work as a lawyer for the two businessmen.
In his response to RFE/RL, Nastase said that he stopped working as a lawyer several years ago. He also denied RISE Moldova's accusations. "I do not have any businesses in Moldova or abroad, and I do not have any offshore accounts," he said.
With regard to his onetime association with Dodon's Socialists, he told RFE/RL, "It is not correct to state that Nastase protested together with Dodon. It was the people, the protesters separated geopolitically in several camps, who united in protests against a common evil -- an unpopular and kleptocratic regime."
A New Paradigm
Despite the criticism, Nastase managed to galvanize the support of pro-European forces ahead of the June local elections -- and eventually pull an upset win against the favored Socialist candidate.
Analysts say Nastase's anticorruption message was tailored to strike a chord with disillusioned Moldovans who saw themselves robbed as much by pro-Western politicians as by pro-Moscow ones.
That widely held sentiment was bolstered when a wide-ranging journalistic investigation established that even as the $1 billion theft was under way in 2014 through three Moldovan banks, Chisinau was involved in the moving of $20 billion-$80 billion out of Russia between 2010-2014 through a network of Moldovan and Latvian banks in a scheme known as the "Russian Laundromat."
"Nastase proposed a different paradigm," Bucharest-based academic Armand Gosu, a Russia and Moldova expert, tells RFE/RL. "Not an East-vs-West one -- we either go with Russia or with Europe. The paradigm he proposed was different: either we're continuing with the 'oligarchic' [model] and turn into something similar to Putin's Russia, or we want a democratic, antioligarchic European model."
Shape Of Things To Come?
Instrumental to Nastase's runoff victory was the support of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), led by former presidential candidate Maia Sandu.
In endorsing Nastase, Sandu was essentially returning a favor. Nastase had decided against running for president in October 2016, backing her candidacy instead. Sandu, who ran on a pro-European platform, lost to Dodon in a November 2016 runoff, amid nostalgia for what voters perceived to be a more economically secure Soviet past.
Sandu has also been a strong supporter of Nastase during the ongoing protests after the invalidation of the election, and appeared with him at a protest rally attended by tens of thousands in Chisinau on July 1 -- indicating the emergence of a powerful alliance between the two most popular pro-Western politicians ahead of crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.
Furthermore, the voiding of the mayoral poll appears to have fanned popular anger against what is perceived as a corrupt political establishment, and strengthened support in Chisinau for Nastase. In light of recent mass protests in other former Soviet republics, Gosu warns that the current protests could snowball into something much larger.
"We should take a look at what happened in [Armenia's capital] Yerevan and [Georgia's capital] Tbilisi, where massive protests led to the departure of prime ministers and the reshaping of the political landscape. It might be the turn of Chisinau now to see such protests," Gosu says.