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Bălți's prodigal son

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In northern Moldova, Renato Usatii is beloved. The multiethnic and Russian-speaking population sees this young businessman-turned-politician as one of their own. 

Regis Gente
28 October 2015

In Bălți, northern Moldova, Renato Usatii is a hero—and not only because he was born in the nearby village of Făleşti. Here, in Moldova's second largest city, it’s hard to find someone critical of Usatii, but even harder to find someone who doesn’t adore him. 'He's a muzhik [Rn: real working man], a simple guy like us. He speaks like us,' says Igor as he smokes a cigarette at the door of the restaurant where he works.

'He understands, for example, that Moldova isn't ready to trade with the EU. European companies will crush ours. For the sake of our economy, we should continue to sell our products to Russia,' says Sergey, a 24-year old computer programmer, and who is against the Association Agreement that Chișinău signed with the EU in June 2014.

Renato Usatii at a Moscow press conference in November 2014

Renato Usatii at a Moscow press conference in November 2014. Photo: (c) Aleksei Filippov / VisualRIANIn June, Renato Usatii, 37, was elected mayor of Bălți with 72.46 per cent of the vote. 'You see, people love me. I’m their Nelson Mandela,' Usatii joked with us, standing among the tents that his party Partidul Nostru (Our Party) installed in front of the parliament in Chișinău at the end of September.

'Bălți is boring for him, he has national political ambitions,' says one of his opponents. Indeed, over these past weeks, Usatii has spent most of his time in Chișinău. This might be also because he was late in reacting and understanding the anger of the Moldovan people following the disappearance of one billion dollars in a series of murky loans late last year (and which the state budget has had to cover to avoid the collapse of the national banking system).

The pro-European civic platform Dignity and Truth managed to mobilise people in Chișinău at the beginning of September. Just three weeks later, Usatii’s Partidul Nostru and the Socialist Party—led by Igor Dodon (who has adopted a more pro-Russian line over the past year)—organised their own demonstration, installed their own tents in the village and started to politically capitalise on the people’s anger.

Dreams on a national scale

Usatii’s June 2015 election was the result of an incredibly fast political ascent. When Usatii entered the Moldovan political arena the previous autumn, he was immediately perceived as a 'Russian project' by many observers. 'He arrived precisely when Moscow needed to exert more pressure on Chișinău, after the tensions rose between Russia and the west because of Ukraine' recalls political analyst Igor Boţan.

'Moreover, he has business [links] with the Russian Railways company [RZhD], and it is quite obvious that he has links with some criminal organizations in Moscow.' Many didn’t want to take him seriously. The young man looks like a teenager, wearing large T-shirts or colourful shirts, and is provides extremely simple messages to the people. 'We were wrong' recalls Botan.
 'Bălți is boring for him, he has national political ambitions' 

A western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity notes that Usatii 'knows perfectly well the rules of the game in Moldova and he is obviously strongly connected with the law enforcement bodies, and certainly with Russia, which feeds him with sensible and powerful information.'

It should come as no surprise that Usatii was briefly detained on 23 October at Chișinău airport on suspicion of violating privacy laws, after he released a telephone conversation between former prime minister Vlad Filat and a businessman on his Facebook page. Usatii was released two days later.

'Usatii’s success in Bălți has many reasons,' observes Ruslan Mikhalevski, chief editor of the Nezavisimi Belski yezhenedelnik, a local newspaper. But the main one is the sociology of Bălți, which is a typical post-Soviet city where the fact that you’re connected with power, the real one… in Moscow, is a huge plus. That’s why people here don’t question his wealth or his possible links with the criminal world. They see first that he is well connected and can – so they think – solve their problems thanks to his connections.' 

Usatii is indeed allegedly connected to the Russian criminal underworld, as shown, for example, in Killers Inc., a documentary film about the assassination attempt against German Gorbuntsov in London's Docklands in 2012. Gorbuntsov, a Russian banker, claims that Usatii was asked to kill him following a dispute with his former partners over opaque money schemes connected to the top management of Russian Railways.

Vlad Ghitsu, a pro-European civic activist and member of Bălți's city council, emphasises the city's demographic divisions. 'The city is multiethnic: about a half of the population is Moldovan, maybe a quarter Ukrainian, one fifth Russian… and everybody speaks Russian together. The Lenin factory, which used to produce equipment for the Soviet defence industry and employed more than 10 per cent of the city population, played a big role in [forming] the pro-Russian atmosphere that we can feel here today. Many Russians were brought to Bălți after the Second World War as part of Russification,' notes Ghitsu.

Ștefan del Mare Street, Bălți. Photo CC Allex91

Ștefan del Mare Street, Bălți. Photo CC Allex91This historical background partly explains why Moldova's Communist Party held the city until last June, when Usatii was elected. Even if the Bălți branch of the Communist Party couldn’t deliver Soviet standards of social welfare, healthcare or education, it still caters for post-Soviet nostalgia, and tries to preserve some of these guarantees, using them as an ideological base.

The Communists don’t have a bad record: the city looks clean and well maintained. But it is nevertheless a depressed. Bălți lost most of its industries after the USSR collapsed. Officially, according to the 2004 census, its population is 127,000. However, many people have left – mostly for Russia – and the overall population is currently around 80,000 to 90,000, according to civil servants and businessmen working in Bălți.

The first time I heard about the city was in March 2014. I was in Crimea covering the so-called 'referendum' for various French media outlets, and I had to write a profile of Sergey Aksyonov, the peninsula's new prime minister, who was born in Bălți. In 1993, Valery Aksyonov, the current Crimean prime minister's father, founded an organisation to defend and preserve Bălți's Russian culture, language and traditions, as well as the Orthodox faith. The NGO still exists, and maintains close relations with Marchel (Mihăescu), Bishop of Bălți and Făleşti, who represents the autonomous Moldovan Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate.

Bishop Marchel is known for his pro-Russian position, though the hierarchy of his church is generally more cautious on political issues. Over the past two years, Marchel has often expressed his opinions over the events in neighbouring Ukraine on Russian television. 

‘The Russian Community of Northern Moldova [Valery Aksyonov's organisation] in Bălți is still very active, we have more than 2,000 members. A few weeks ago, we organized an ethno-cultural festival dedicated to the Russian language, where many ethnic groups took part, like Bulgarians, Ukrainians and Jews,' said Pavel Buchatsky, Valery Aksyonov's successor.

Speaking about Renato Usatii, Butsarski highlights that 'people in Bălți – and in Moldova in general – are fed up with the political class. It’s all about intrigues and corruption. They want new people… and Usatii is a new face. He is a businessman and spends a lot on the people – from his own pocket – to finance the local football club, to buy new trolleybuses or to invite Russian pop stars here.'

Man of the people

Usatii’s populism doesn’t disturb many in Bălți—on the contrary. At the end of September, Usatii promised Dumitru Rusnac, the head of a private company contracted with Bălți's city hall to provide waste management and street cleaning services, that he would 'roll [him] up in the asphalt' if Rusnac didn't pay the unpaid salaries of his employees. Rusnac’s company and city hall disagree on the execution of the contract.

'When Usatii told me he will roll me up in the asphalt, it was a trap. He managed to bring me out of the city hall building where a small crowd was waiting for us, gathered by his guys. He was waiting for an occasion to make a PR stunt. When few days after I asked him why he said such things, he told me: "Dumitru, you have to understand, I’m a politician,"' reveals Rusnac, who says he has known Usatii for years.

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'I love my city: Bălți.' Photo CC: Avereanu, 2012The stunt worked. Galina, 73, was still speaking about this issue when we met in the Independence Street in the centre of Bălți.

'Please don’t say he hasn't done anything. You know, he has only been a mayor for 100 days – that’s not enough to carry out his promises. But, look, he already solved the problem of the unpaid salaries of the employees from the waste management company,' she says. 'He can do whatever he wants, and Bălți will support him,' states Rusnac. 'It's amazing. He has two Rolls Royces, wears extremely expensive watches, such as an Ulysse Nardin Genghis Khan, which costs maybe half a million dollars, and nobody asks where this money comes from.'

At the national level, Usatii’s success is far from guaranteed. Some sections of the population would never follow a pro-Russian politician. Is Usatii now trying to court them, by saying that he doesn’t want to cancel the Association Agreement, but rather intends to amend some of its articles?

'It’s not clear yet if Usatii wants to use the people's anger to come to power or if he is trying to capitalise on it. His actions show that he probably doesn’t want to challenge the government at the moment,' concludes the western diplomat in Chișinău.

Among the tents in front of the Moldovan Parliament, I asked Usatii about his immediate goals, and his answer was vague: 'I don’t know, I [just] observe. I want the oligarchs to leave power – this is what I want for our people.' 

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