Moldova brings criminal case against pro-Russian Gagauzia leader to court

Leader of Moldova's Gagauzia region Gutsul gives a press conference in Moscow

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) -A criminal case against the governor of Moldova's region of Gagauzia has been sent to court, prosecutors said on Wednesday, setting up the prospect of the Kremlin ally being tried on charges of channelling funds from Russia to a pro-Moscow party.

Evgenia Gutul, who emerged out of obscurity last year to win election to head the autonomous region of Gagauzia, has fraught relations with the central government, which fears Russia and exiled oligarchs meddling in its political landscape.

Gutul is accused of channelling funds from Russia in 2019-2022 to finance the now-banned pro-Russian "Shor" party set up by Ilan Shor, an exiled pro-Russian businessman convicted of fraud in Moldova.

"Gutul... was actively involved in the systematic introduction of unaccounted financial means into the Republic of Moldova that were received from an organised criminal group, mainly from the Russian Federation," prosecutors said.

Gutul, known for her strongly pro-Russian views and for calling for closer ties with Moscow, called the case fabricated in a statement on her Telegram channel.

She could be jailed for 2-7 years if found guilty and also banned from holding government positions, the statement said.

The small former Soviet republic led by pro-European President Maia Sandu hopes to join the European Union by 2030 and to extricate itself from Moscow's orbit.

Its relations with Russia have unravelled as the government has condemned Russia's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, accused Moscow of plotting the government's overthrow and expelled Russian diplomats.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has a Romanian-speaking majority and a substantial Russian-speaking minority, and its politics have oscillated between pro-Western and pro-Russian parties for decades.

Russian troops occupy Transdniestria, a pro-Russian separatist region that broke away in a brief war in the early 1990s. Gagauzia is a another small semi-autonomous region for the Gagauz, a Turkic ethnic minority.

Tensions in Chisinau appeared to be on the rise after Gutul, Shor and other pro-Russian politicians announced in Moscow last weekend the formation of a bloc dubbed "Victory" to take part in a referendum on EU membership called by Sandu for October. The plebiscite is to be held alongside a presidential election.

Fans at a packed Moldovan cup soccer match between Chisinau Zimbru and Sherif from Transdniestria unfurled two giant banners proclaiming: "Pro-Russian forces are a cancer in our land which must be removed in the national interest."

Gutul has travelled to Moscow to meet high-ranking officials in recent months and last month met Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutors also accuse Gutul of paying people to attend anti-government protests organised by the Shor party in 2022.

Gutul was earlier accused of bribing voters during local elections in 2023. She denied the accusations.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; writing by Yuliia Dysa; editing by Christina Fincher, Ron Popeski and Deepa Babington)