Chișinău: Ceban poses as a pro-European mayor, albeit at the expense of the FSB

The new elected Mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban speaks to media after the announcement of the preliminary results of second round of local elections at Socialist's Party headquarter in Chisinau, Moldova, 03 November 2019. Socialist Ion Ceban won Andrei Nastase with 52.39 to 47.61 percents of votes.
© EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU   |   The new elected Mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban speaks to media after the announcement of the preliminary results of second round of local elections at Socialist's Party headquarter in Chisinau, Moldova, 03 November 2019. Socialist Ion Ceban won Andrei Nastase with 52.39 to 47.61 percents of votes.

Daruieste Viata

The Republic of Moldova remains the target of destabilizing actions carried out by Russian special services, which control important influence and disinformation networks, as well as a number of political players in Chișinău, generically referred to as “The Fifth Column”. Some of these who are in close ties with Moscow have a fair chance of securing important offices in the Republic of Moldova, in the context of the upcoming ballots over the next couple of years – local elections (October 2023), presidential elections (November 2024) and parliamentary elections (July 2025).

Such is also the case of the incumbent Mayor of Chișinău, Ion Ceban, who is favorite to secure a second term as the mayor of the Moldovan capital-city. Known as a stronghold of pro-European right-wing voters, Chișinău is a strategic objective for all political factions, and this autumn’s elections will decide who will control this city until 2027.

In 2019, for the first time since the proclamation of the Republic of Moldova’s independence from the USSR in 1991, a left-wing pro-Russian mayor won the race for the Chișinău City Hall. The unconvincing election campaign of the right-wing candidate, Andrei Năstase, in conjunction with a mutual agreement between rightist and leftist parties not to use geopolitical messages in the campaign, critically influenced the final outcome.

However, for over a year now, Ion Ceban has been “rebranding” his political image, switching from the pro-Russian left-wing to the pro-European camp. Ion Ceban insists his 180-degree shift is the real thing, although his decision has been met with a great deal of skepticism in Chișinău.

The exposure of an FSB spy ring and the link to Ion Ceban

Last week, the director of the Moldovan Information and Security Service (SIS), Alexandru Musteață, said that an investigation into high treason and espionage involving two agents of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has now been brought to court. Yuri Gudilin and Vadim Yurchenko are accused of having set up an influence network which they used to recruit Moldovan citizens.

Yuri Gudilin’s name was revealed to the press as early as 2020, when he was air-dropped in Chișinău as part of a larger team of Russian operatives designed to help Igor Dodon secure a second term as president of Moldova. For all intents and purposes, Gudilin worked for the Center office of MRSK – a Russian power grid company – and described himself as a power grid engineer.

In 2019, FSB agent Yuri Gudilin was also part of Ion Ceban’s campaign staff in the context of the Chișinău City Hall election. The names of several Russian advisers were revealed by Igor Dodon himself, who filmed them as the election results were being announced on live television.

Ion Ceban worked for Dodon during the campaign for the presidential election, and RISE Moldova published pictures of Ceban and Gudilin walking out of the campaign headquarters of the Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) on Serghei Lazo Street in downtown Chișinău.

In November 2022, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury (OFAC)adopted a series of measures designed to counter Moscow’s campaigns in the Republic of Moldova: Russian consultants close to Igor Dodon and Ion Ceban were subjected to a number of restrictions.

On the other hand, the second Russian spy identified by Moldovan authorities is Vadim Yurchenko, Igor Dodon’s deputy in the Moldovan-Russian Business Union. 40-year-old Yurchenko held various positions, from expert to the deputy director of various Russian institutions, such as the Federal Penitentiary Service, the “Rostec” Holding (created by Putin), Inter RAO UES (which owns the Cuciurgan power plant in Transnistria) and “MRSK Center”, jointly with Gudilin.

Ceban’s spy/consultant – hand in glove with the Kremlin

At the time, American authorities described Yuri Gudilin as a close associate of Igor Chaika, the son of Russia’s former Prosecutor General, Yury Chaika as well as of president Igor Dodon.

The Dodon and Chaika families have been doing business for many years. Igor Dodon lobbied in Transnistriain favor of Chaika and other Russian investors keen on producing cryptocurrencies in this separatist region in eastern Moldova.

The FBI’s 2019 Muller report on the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election examined the Russian special services’ use of cryptocurrencies in special operations overseas.

In the Republic of Moldova, Chaika and Gudilin worked hand in glove. the USA describes  Yuri Gudilin as a political consultant and ex-officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who “coordinated efforts in 2020 and 2021 to influence the outcome of Moldova’s elections”. Gudilin worked closely with Russian nationals Olga Yurievna Grak and Leonid Mikhailovich Gonin on these efforts.

American authorities at the time wrote that Gudilin and Grak pressured senior PSRM members to accept their assistance and guidance by promising they would weigh in favorably with the Russian Presidential Administration. In 2020, Gudilin also facilitated the setup of a payment channel using the Tether cryptocurrency, likely for funding election influence operations.

SIS director Alexandru Musteață confirmed this nine months later. In a press briefing last week, Musteațăexplained how Gudilin was recruiting new blood for his espionage and influence rings in the Republic of Moldova, offering cryptocurrency as payment.

“Some of the illegal fund transfer channels that were investigated was also the transfer of cryptocurrency, as well as the so-called Hawala system, which involved hard currency exchange offices. A total of 500,000 USD was transferred from the Russian Federation to the Republic of Moldova via these channels, and the funds were used to finance the aforementioned illegal activities”, Musteață told the press.

The FSB endorsed Ceban’s MAN

What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that ex-FSB officer Yuri Gudilin was allowed to carry out his activity in the Republic of Moldova, where until recently he served as one of the advisers to the Chișinău Mayor Ion Ceban.

“Although its efforts to influence Moldova’s 2020 and 2021 elections failed, the Kremlin continues to organize efforts to return a pro-Russian government to power. Recognizing the loss of popular support for Moldova’s old pro-Russia political elite [PSRM and PCRM], Gudilin’s team offered support to an opposition political group, the National Alternative Movement (MAN)”, the US Treasury also noted in October 2022.

The US Department of the Treasury published the press release two months before Ion Ceban was elected as president of the National Alternative Movement (MAN) in the first party congress on December 21, 2022.

“The doctrine of MAN emulates the European Social-Democratic ideology, and we want to bring Europe home, so that every citizen should feel the effects of positive change. We want European integration to become a national priority. It is both our commitment and the goal of our political program to sign an agreement similar to the one in Snagov with parties that share the same vision”, Ion Ceban wrote on his Facebook page.

Ceban referred to the Snagov Agreement, a document signed by 14 parties in Romania in June 1995, which stipulated a cross-party national consensus to support Romania’s accession to the EU and democratic values.

It’s hard to believe a party funded with support from an FSB officer such as Yuri Gudilin and led by Ion Ceban could rally such pro-European consensus in the Republic of Moldova. It will, however, open its doors to a number of Communist and Socialist defectors, or at least those who will not switch to the National Movement for the People, a political party de facto led by the wanted oligarch Ilan Shor.

Another East-leaning politician

In 2019, the pro-Russian candidate Ion Ceban, backed by the Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova, pretended to take a step back from Russia’s sphere of geopolitical influence. Coupled with the subpar election performance of his opponent Andrei Năstase, representing the ACUM pro-European bloc, this strategy brought Ceban a narrow victory. With a lead of 11,294 votes, Ceban became the first left-wing pro-Russian mayor of Chișinău.

Ceban entered politics in the early 2000s, first signing up in the Party of Communists, then switching “bag and baggage” to the Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova, founded by Igor Dodon, after the latter “defected” from the ranks of the Communist party and the break-up of PCRM. Many young Communist politicians followed Dodon to join PSRM. In December 2022, Ceban created his own party as Dodon’s Socialist Party lost public approval. This marked the start of a party-switching campaign where many Socialist MPs joined Ceban’s newly-founded party.

Moscow’s yesmen in Ceban’s entourage

Ceban has set his eyes on a second term at the helm of the Chișinău City Hall in 2023 and wants to develop his party ahead of the 2025 parliamentary election. It is unclear though whether Ceban will succeed in drawing some of PSRM’s MPs or if he simply wants his party to become an alternative to Dodon’s. What is certain, however, is that Ceban wants the former governor of ATUG (Autonomous Territorial Unit of Găgăuzia), Irina Vlah, to be a part of his future political project. Ceban also tried to bring onboard the former pro-Russian Prime Minister of Moldova, Ion Chicu.

In 2020, RISE Moldova journalists published a series of investigations into the “Chernov archive” of the Moldovan subdivision at the Kremlin, proving that Moscow had over the years provided its protégés in the Republic of Moldova with logistic, methodological and ideological support.

In fact, part of the public statements of the Kremlin-favored candidates, including Irina Vlah, Ceban’s informal ally in MAN, were written by officers of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

In January 2015, upon announcing her candidacy for the office of governor of ATUG, Vlah delivered a seven-minute speech, drafted by the Kremlin’s “Moldovan subdivision”. More specifically, a number of pro-Russian, anti-European and anti-Romanian phrases were inserted into her speech, RISE Moldova journalists argue.

“The situation is worsened by the EU Association Agreement, which is an expression of servitude imposed by foreign elements and which led to severing economic relations with Russia, which are key to both ATUG and Moldova as a whole”, Vlah said, observing the Kremlin’s written instructions. In fact, Irina Vlah expressed indignation in September 2022 when president Maia Sandu said she does not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The pro-Russian “meek calf” and his siren calls to Romania

For a number of years now, Ion Ceban has been trying to develop close ties with local officials in Romania, carrying over the “meek-calf-suckling-from-two-cows” policy fostered in the 2000s by the former Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, which is sort of balancing act between East and West.

The Romanian media talked at length about Ceban’s political shenanigans in Romania. To make his siren calls more appealing, on November 25, 2020 Ceban said Chișinău is the second-largest city in Romanian space in terms of population and size.

“Chișinău is currently the second-largest city in terms of surface and population in the Romanian ethnic space, second only to Bucharest”, Ion Ceban wrote in a post which was later widely shared on social media.

Early this year, Ceban undertook a tour of Romania, meeting high-ranking officials. It was a genuine tour de force among local administrations, with which he sought to establish long-lasting partnerships.

In the last year, Ceban changed his original strategy, based almost exclusively on support from Russia. Ceban now proposes a new pro-European and particularly pro-Romanian vision.

One of Ceban’s high-profile meetings was with Marcel Ciolacu and Paul Stănescu in Bucharest. Following his meeting with the PSD leadership, Ceban wrote on Facebook that some of the topics on the agenda for talks included “the launch and prospects of the National Alternative Movement (MAN, his new party)”, as well as a potential cooperation with the Romanian side.

PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu returned the favor by visiting Moldova and meeting with Ceban in November 2022.

“We had talks about current issues we are dealing with, as well as projects Chișinău is implementing jointly with Romania. I was given assurances that Chișinău and its inhabitants will be supported and we will achieve great things together. I have expressed my gratitude for Romania’s support and for our beautiful cooperation”, Ceban wrote on Facebook.

Moreover, in February 2022 Ion Ceban also visited Piatra Neamț, where he met with the president of the Neamț County Council, Ionel Arsene.

“On the sidelines of the County Council meeting, president Arsene expressed his willingness to support our plans to rehabilitate the Cultural Center devoted to our great composer, Eugen Doga”, Ceban wrote in a Facebook post.

While visiting Neamț County, on February 23, 2022 Ion Ceban proudly announced on his Facebook page he would personally bring thousands of Sputnik vaccines from Russia, where he arranged the details with the governor of Saint Petersburg, Alexander Beglov.

Previously, Ceban also visited Bucharest, where he allegedly had a “very productive talk” with the Romanian Health Minister Alexandru Rafila. “Minister Alexandru Rafila promised to donate a batch of anti-Covid vaccines and medical equipment for our medical units in Chișinău”, the Moldovan mayor announced. Ceban also visited Cluj, where he met Mayor Emil Boc, expressing an interest for a Chișinău-Cluj twinning agreement.

At present, Ion Ceban is seen as the favorite candidate in the race for the Chișinău City Hall, after he spearheaded a number of political window-dressing projects aimed at beautifying the city. Still, the fundamental problems linked to the city’s dated infrastructure, the absence of a proper zoning plan, the lack of city planning prospects and the failure to attract foreign investors have made Chișinău a city with serious shortcomings and very few future developments perspectives.

Additionally, during his four-year term in office, his sidewalk and curb refurbishment projects in central Chișinău have brought the City Hall to the upper limits of public debt, which stands at some 2 million Moldovan Lei, tantamount to 100 million Euro. This will negatively impact the development of the capital-city in the years ahead, with very few loans and grants from Western partners on the horizon. It is hard to believe the West will be willing to provide such financial assistance to a mayor with a political background tied to Moscow, with a low public approval rating and who is suspected of secretly cooperating with Russian FSB spies.

Mădălin Necșuțu

Mădălin Necșuțu

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