CHISINAU (Reuters) - Two months ago, Moldova’s Deputy General Prosecutor Iurie Garaba traveled to Moscow with an invitation to attend an official function for Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Day.
The visit didn’t go as planned.
Garaba was stopped by border guards at Moscow’s airport and taken in for questioning. He said one guard rifled through his passport for 15-20 minutes while another asked what he was doing in Russia - despite his official invitation and a document naming him as the head of the Moldovan delegation.
“I was asked questions that have absolutely nothing to do with border document checks. For example, ‘How do I pronounce my last name?’, or ‘How to write it correctly?’, Garaba told Reuters by telephone.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm his version of events.
But some Moldovan officials say the incident is part of a campaign by members of Russia’s security apparatus to humiliate officials from the ex-Soviet state as they travel to or through Russia.
The primary aim, four top Moldovan officials including Garaba’s boss Eduard Harunjen told Reuters, is to derail a Moldovan probe into a Russian-led money laundering operation that funnelled $22.3 billion of Russian money through the Moldovan financial system between 2011-2014.
Russia has countered by saying its own citizens, including lawmakers, journalists and military personnel, had been subjected to “detention and zealous searches” or outright bans at the hands of the Moldovan authorities.
“We confirm our readiness for constructive cooperation with the Moldovan side to resolve all complex issues,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
Moldovan investigators have probed a scheme under which Russian shell companies took fictitious loans from offshore companies based in Britain. The transactions were guaranteed by Moldovan citizens, a move designed to allow Moldovan judges complicit in the scheme to order the fake loans be paid out, thus ensuring the transfer of money out of Russia, according to Moldovan prosecutors who have been investigating the matter.
Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, borders EU member Romania, with which it has close linguistic and cultural ties, but remains heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies.
As in Ukraine and Georgia, moves by Chisinau to forge closer ties with the EU have been strongly resisted by Moscow. Moldova signed a political and trade pact with the EU in 2014, prompting Russia to slap a retaliatory ban on Moldovan produce.
The Moldovan officials interviewed by Reuters said Moldovan intelligence had detailed knowledge of individuals in Russia’s FSB security service who allegedly ran the scheme together with a Moldovan businessman called Veaceslav Platon. Platon’s wife told Reuters by phone that he denies any wrongdoing.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Interior Ministry, in response to written questions submitted by Reuters, said the ministry could not comment on Moldova’s complaints of harassment because the Garaba case and others described in this article were not within its remit.
Reuters also sent requests for comment on the harassment to the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the General Prosecutor’s office, but received no response.
The row comes at a time when Moldova’s recently elected president, Igor Dodon, is looking to pull the country away from the European Union’s orbit and back towards Moscow, in opposition to the country’s staunchly pro-Western government.
After months of waiting for Russia to change its behavior or for Dodon to intervene, the Moldovan government went public with its grievances last Thursday and announced that no officials would travel to Russia until the issue was resolved.
Its March 9 press statement said “all this abuse, harassing Moldovan officials at the entry into the Russian Federation and putting them on international monitoring, took speed and size once the (money laundering) investigation progressed.”
Russia’s foreign ministry responded in its email: “With regard to the recommendation of the Moldovan government to Moldovan officials to refrain from trips to Russia, in our view such actions do not facilitate the restoration of bilateral relations and the activisation of cooperation.”
The Moldovan officials said they do not believe the harassment is orchestrated from the Kremlin but by people in the interior ministry and the security service. In Russia, the FSB oversees the border guards service. They believe FSB officials used part of the money from the money-laundering to further Russian state interests.
The Moldovan government has not specified an exact number of cases or when the abuse started, but estimates 25 officials had been harassed just in the last few months, and one officer at the Interior Ministry was stopped and questioned 35 times.
“We have tens of such cases,” Interior Minister Alexandru Jizdan told Reuters.
One interior ministry official said she had been stopped three times at Moscow airport, most recently in January. On the third occasion, she said she jokingly told the Russian guard she could find her own way to the interrogation room.
The complaints of harassment comes as Moldovan prosecutors have launched criminal cases against 14 judges as well as 10 senior bank managers, senior central bank officials and four bailiffs in the money-laundering investigation.
Russian law enforcement authorities also say they have been investigating the Moldova scheme for several years. Some lawyers who work in the Russian criminal justice system say it is common for one arm of Russian law enforcement to investigate a crime while another arm resists that effort because they have competing interests.
Moldova says it has sent repeated requests to Russia over the past six years for help getting to the bottom of a scheme dubbed by local press as the “Russian Laundromat” which allegedly washed money from more than 100 Russian companies and 21 Russian financial institutions.
The Russian Interior Ministry said in response to inquiries that it could not comment on the money-laundering case itself because of the on-going Russian investigation into it.
Last week Moldova’s Prime Minister and the President of the Moldovan parliament met the Russian ambassador in Chisinau to send a note of complaint to Moscow about the way Moldovan officials were being treated.
The note also said that the Russian authorities had repeatedly ignored Moldovan requests for help to trace the origins of the laundered money and information to piece together how the scheme was carried out and who was involved.
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Maria Tsvetkova, Svetlana Reiter and Tatiana Ustinova in MOSCOW and Alexander Tanas in CHISINAU; editing by Mark John; update edited by Peter Graff