Moldova's new leader seeks sweeping reform after tense power struggle

Controversial oligarch Plahotniuc leaves the country after his party concedes defeat

Maia Sandu leads her first government session in the government building in Chisinau, Moldova, on Saturday. Photograph: Dumitru Doru/EPA

Moldova's new prime minister, Maia Sandu, has vowed to cleanse its corrupt institutions and reinstate the rule of law after her pro-EU bloc and a Russian-backed party joined forces to oust the country's richest oligarch and his allies.

Tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc left Moldova shortly after his Democratic Party's outgoing government finally made way for Ms Sandu's new cabinet on Friday, following a week-long battle for power.

Her pro-western Acum group unexpectedly forged a coalition government on June 8th with the Socialists, who favour closer ties with Moscow, and ultimately prevailed over the Democrats after receiving verbal support from the EU, US and Russia.

“The situation is still risky because the head of the regime has left the country...but the institutions and people that served him for a long time are still here,” Ms Sandu told The Irish Times on Sunday.

The new prime minister of Moldova, Maia Sandu, whose pro-western Acum group unexpectedly forged a coalition government on June 8th with the Socialists. Photograph: Dumitru Doru/EPA

"We can now focus on freeing up and cleaning up the justice institutions and making them independent," the former education minister and World Bank adviser said from Moldova's capital, Chisinau.

“Once this is done, we expect the justice [agencies] to start investigating all these corruption schemes and abuses, and then we will be looking for [Plahotniuc] to get him back to the country to answer for all the abuses and illegal decisions and actions that he and his team have done.”

Allegations of misrule

The Democrats, who deny allegations of misrule, said Mr Plahotniuc had left Moldova “for a few days” to see his family.

Moldovan media reported that the oligarch had travelled to neighbouring Ukraine, where unconfirmed reports said he had flown to London.

“We don’t know where he is,” said Ms Sandu.

“None of the state institutions have a record that he left the country, so either he used a different identity or he managed to bribe or ‘convince’ employees of the institutions not to record the fact that he left,” she explained.

Moldova suffered the still unexplained theft of $1 billion from three of its banks in 2014, and last year the European Parliament called it "a state captured by oligarchic interests".

The EU froze funding to Moldova after its courts used a technicality last year to stop anti-corruption campaigner Andrei Nastase becoming Chisinau's mayor; he is now interior minister and his party is a member of the Acum ("Now") bloc.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn is expected to visit Chisinau this week and Russia has said it seeks closer co-operation with Moldova.

The Harvard-educated Ms Sandu admitted, however, that Acum’s alliance with the Kremlin-friendly Socialists “is not a natural one.”

“But for now we have a common objective, which is the de-oligarchisation of the country,” she said.

“There are risks but we didn’t have another option. Letting the regime continue for a few more years would have completely killed our society.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe