Ukrainian Judge’s Kidnapping May Have Political Impact in Moldova

Pro-Russian politicians accuse head of state of colluding in abduction

Yuri Panchenko

Analysts say that last month’s kidnapping of a Ukrainian judge in Moldova may damage President Maia Sandu ahead of early parliamentary elections due this summer.

On April 3, Ukrainian judge Nikolai Chaus, his son and two bodyguards were abducted in central Chisinau. The kidnappers released all the men except for the former judge whose whereabouts are still unknown.

Chaus, a former Kyiv judge, became widely known in 2016 after being accused by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine of taking a 150,000 US dollar bribe, which he allegedly buried in glass jars under his house.

There was huge public interest in the case, as Chaus had played a prominent role in the government of Petro Poroshenko. However, the judge managed to avoid trial, fleeing to Moldova a few days later where he applied for political asylum.

At that time, the Ukrainian media linked this escape to the fact that Poroshenko was a friend and business partner of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, then the country’s de facto ruler. Ukraine’s request for Chaus’ extradition was subsequently denied.

However, following parliamentary elections in 2019 after which Plahotniuc fled the country, the issue of the judge’s extradition resurfaced. His application for asylum and Moldovan citizenship had been denied and he was awaiting an appeal decision on April 28, also anticipated to deny him the right to asylum.

Officials from former president Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party of Moldova raised the possibility that the Ukrainian special services had been involved in the kidnapping, an allegation that at first seemed groundless.

However, investigators soon made a similar statement after one of the kidnappers was detained and a video appeared showing Chaus leaving Moldova in the boot of a car with Ukrainian diplomatic plates, which guaranteed it free passage through the Ukrainian border.

“This crime was committed by foreign citizens who crossed the state border,” said Moldovan minister of internal affairs Pavel Voicu. “They have already left the country through the border with Ukraine. We have records evidencing it in the Ukrainian language.”

Kyiv officially denied any involvement in the abduction, and foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba offered to create a joint Ukrainian-Moldovan working group to investigate the issue.

This did not placate Chisinau, especially after it emerged that the car in which Chaus was taken to Ukraine belonged to the military attaché of the Ukrainian embassy in Moldova, Sergei Smetanyuk.

The Moldovan foreign ministry made an official request to strip Smetanyuk of diplomatic immunity in order to launch a criminal prosecution.

Artem Filipenko of the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies said that the incident was now being exploited for political gain.

“The country is holding early parliamentary elections this summer and this kidnapping is actively used by the Socialists, the party of former President Igor Dodon. The incumbent president Maia Sandu is accused of having coordinated this abduction with Volodymyr Zelensky, bypassing the country’s legislation,” he continued, noting that Socialist Party lawmaker Bogdan Tirdea had repeatedly accused Sandu of collusion.  

“Moreover, the Socialists are trying to associate this abduction with the current escalation in Donbass. They repeat the narrative of Russian propaganda, accusing Kyiv of escalation and, as an example of our aggression, referring to the abduction of Chaus and from this case drawing conclusions that Moldova should recognize the Donetsk republics.”

Even if the scandal costs Sandu a few per cent of support in the July elections, the difference could be decisive.

Relations between Moldova and Ukraine have improved since Sandu became president. She chose Kyiv as her first international visit, marking a notable change in tone as Ukraine had previously refused to engage in dialogue with her predecessor Dodon.

However, the current incident might put the reset of relations between Kyiv and Chisinau on hold. Sandu’s office said that attempts to speak to her Ukrainian counterpart for an explanation had so far been unsuccessful.

A Ukrainian official who deals with relations with Moldova said that Chisinau was currently weighing the option of declaring the Ukrainian agents involved in the kidnapping as wanted persons.

The one detainee currently held is not thought to be a key figure in the abduction.

“This could spoil the relations between our countries for a long time,” the official concluded.

However, analysts remain baffled as to why Kyiv would have ordered a kidnapping when Chaus’ deportation looked imminent.

Political scientist Yevgeny Magda said that some overzealous actors within the administration may have been trying to curry favour with Zelensky.

“At least, this seems like the only logical explanation,” he continued. “Some in Zelensky’s team believe that Chaus has unique evidence against former president Poroshenko. It is possible that by obtaining this compromising material they wanted to give Zelensky a nice gift on the second anniversary of his victory in the presidential elections. There is simply no other version which can at least somehow explain Kyiv’s hasty move.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.