Will Shooting Death Derail Moldova’s EU Association Bid?

January 22, 2013
Chișinău’s ‘success story’ dimmed in alleged ‘Huntgate’ cover-up

U.S. calls for full investigation in Moldova but not on murders in Ukraine
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

No one can accuse European Union officials – with the active support of their U.S. colleagues – of stinting in their efforts to portray Moldova as a post-Soviet “success story” eligible for a fast track for EU integration. During 2012 Chișinău was favored by visits from European Commission President José Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With EU assistance having quintupled between 2006 and 2012, Moldova tops Brussels’ per capita largesse (41 € per person).

“I consider Moldova to be part of the EU,” said Barroso. “My visit here is a sign of recognition for the reforms your country has been implementing.” Indeed, reforms – notably anti-corruption and legal reforms to bring Chișinău’s police and judicial systems into ostensible line with EU standards – have been touted as among Moldova’s strengths, especially under the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” (EaP) program and activities of allied NGOs. For example, a 2011 report by the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs on five EaP countries’ progress cited “obstacles” in Ukraine’s performance but “repeatedly commended” Moldova “for its close cooperation on implementing the EU standards.” Of the five countries, “overall, the Commission assessed Moldova achieved the greatest progress.”

Unsurprisingly, Romania has expressed great enthusiasm for Moldova’s EU prospects. “Referring to the current geopolitical developments, Romania's Foreign Minister pleaded in favor of the Republic of Moldova and other European partners should be offered clear EU accession prospects,” according to a Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE) release following a January meeting of Romania’s Foreign Minister Titus Corlățean with some of his regional counterparts. “In the context, he stressed that Romania pronounces in favor of the Republic of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and the European Union should come to association agreements” with them. Moldova can be seen as a “successful story of the Eastern Partnership,” according to the MAE release, “which justifies the expectations for a positive result at the summit due in Vilnius, this autumn,” at which Moldova hopes to be offered an association agreement.

Murky details surrounding the death of Sorin Paciu

In short, Moldova’s supposed eligibility for an association agreement rests heavily on convincing its EU interlocutors that the former Soviet Republic has turned a corner on implementing European standards, particularly on rule of law and legal reform. That’s precisely why the ongoing scandal rocking Moldova – and already dubbed “Huntgate” – promises to have such a disruptive impact.

Very little can be stated factually about Huntgate with any degree of certainty other than that Sorin Paciu – a 34-year-old businessman, married, father of one daughter – was shot on Sunday, December 23 in the nature reserve Pădurea Domnească during a boar-hunting party that included about 30 participants split into two groups. According to press reports, he was taken to Făleşti regional hospital, where he was operated on for multiple perforations of his small intestine and internal bleeding but died on the night of December 24/25. He reportedly was buried on December 27 at the Central Cemetery on Armenească Street in Chișinău, having been brought the evening before to Saint Teodora de la Sihla Cathedral (Собор Святой Феодоры из Сихлы).

That’s pretty much it. There is no record of any post-mortem medical examination. There is no indication that hospital staff or anyone else called the police to report this fatal shooting, as required by law. This is despite the fact that the hunting party (or, with 30 participants, more like a convention) included several state officials, including law enforcement and judiciary figures.

Indeed, nothing at all was publicly reported about Paciu’s death until January 6, 2013 – two weeks to the day after the shooting – when anti-mafia movement leader Sergiu Mocanu publicly accused Romania’s Prosecutor General, Valeriu Zubco, of having shot Paciu and covered up the crime. Zubco has temporarily stepped down from his post following a call that he do so from Prime Minister Vlad Filat, so as to avoid any appearance that Zubco might seek to influence the investigation. Zubco, who took part in the hunt, denies Mocanu’s accusations, calling them a “dirty campaign” motivated by “battles between politicians.”

Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office has identified as its only suspect in the shooting not Zubco but Gheorghe Creţu, vice president of Moldova’s appeals court. Creţu confirms his participation in the hunt but not shooting Paciu, saying that several shots were fired and law enforcement authorities with expertise must determine exactly what happened.

Problem less the shooting than the cover-up

Of course, the bigger problem for Moldova as a rule-of-law “success story” is not the tragic shooting death of Paciu (hunting accidents, assuming that’s what this was, happen), but the cover-up. Besides senior justice officials Zubco and Creţu, hunt participants included a number of other officials, including Ion Pleşca, who is president of the appeals court on which Creţu sits (and who, with Zubco, is a member of the high-level Commission on Constitutional Reform, established in 2009), not to mention Ion Lupu and Valentin Svestun, respectively director and safety and security engineer of the “Moldsilva” agency, which administers the republic’s parks. How can it be that not one of them thought it advisable to notify the appropriate authorities?

The damage to Moldova’s reputation was immediate. “This case, in particular, how the State institutions addressed the case, their attitude, primarily affects the image of the Republic of Moldova,” said Moldova’s Foreign Minister, Iurie Leancă, at a joint press conference with his visiting Norwegian counterpart Espen Barth Eide on January 15. Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova, Dirk Schuebel, also commented that future EU-Moldova relations would depend on how the Paciu case would be addressed.

William Moser, the American ambassador in Chișinău, also weighed in at length (in an interview with the Moldovan publication Tribuna):

  • “An independent commission should be formed to fully investigate all aspects of the case and to issue a public report on its findings along with recommendations for further action. It is vital that a full, transparent accounting take place and that the public be informed,” stressed the Ambassador.
  • When asked by TRIBUNA to speak about similar cases in USA, William Moser said that there are two different issues at play here: “the shooting death of Sorin Paciu and the actions of authorities following that death.”
  • “In the first instance, in the United States the police would be called to the scene to offer assistance and investigate the matter. In fact, a similar incident happened in 2006 when then Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in the accidental shooting of a fellow hunter. The local police were contacted within an hour from the shooting and conducted a thorough and independent investigation in accordance with the U.S. law,” he stressed.
  • The second issue, the Ambassador said, refers to the actions of authorities following the shooting of Sorin Paciu, stressing that “in this case many questions remain about what happened and how officials responded to the incident.”
  • “From our perspective, we expect a full, thorough and independent investigation of this case. No one should be above the law, and most especially, public officials should not be above the laws of the country where they serve at the will of the people,” said the Ambassador.
  • According to him, “the way Moldova handles this case will be an excellent test for Moldova’s democratic institutions.”

Indeed, after meeting with Prime Minister Filat and Parliament Speaker Marian Lupu, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti announced a commission to conduct what he promised would be an impartial investigation. It will be interesting to be seen the extent to which the commission’s main task will be to get to the bottom of the question of why so many responsible persons shirked their legal obligations – or whether the commission will give priority to repairing the damage to Moldova’s international credibility.

Comparison with Ukraine

As a matter of context, it should be kept in mind that Moldova entered this crisis with an edge over Ukraine in efforts to negotiate closer ties with the EU. Ukraine has also had its shooting incidents, but not in the form of hunting accidents. For example, in January 2009 Dmitry Rustamov, a BYuT deputy in the Rada, was shot down in Odessa. His killing – certainly not an accident, as Paciu’s appears to be – remains unsolved and, it appears, was never thoroughly investigated.

Perhaps more directly relevant to Ukraine’s ties to the EU is the 1996 killing at Donetsk Airport of Yevhen Shcherban (Євген Щербань, Евгений Щербань), together with his wife, Nadezhda, and an airport employee. The killing of Shcherban, a Rada deputy of the Liberal Party of Ukraine, again was no accident. What’s interesting, however, is that it is not the murder of Shcherban that is a problem for Ukraine, but renewed efforts to investigate the crime.

Again in comparison with Moldova, it is well known that perhaps the key obstacle to the EU’s willingness to make a firm commitment to Ukraine on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) is the continued imprisonment of former prime minister and western favorite Yulia Timoshenko. Initially convicted on the basis of a gas-pricing deal with Moscow, Timoshenko now faces additional charges related to the Shcherban murder. (Putting aside political motivations on all sides, it is somewhat odd that Timoshenko’s western supporters rarely claim she is actually innocent of the charges levelled at her.)

While the U.S. ambassador to Moldova has spoken out for a full investigation of the Paciu case, American authorities have not shown the same level of interest in the Shcherban murders.