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The Pro-Kremlin, Far-Right Figure Vowing To Take Down Moldova's Government

Controversial fringe Moldovan politician Alexandr Kalinin openly supports Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (file photo)
Controversial fringe Moldovan politician Alexandr Kalinin openly supports Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (file photo)

Alexandr Kalinin has stumped for and aided Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, and now says he's ready to invade his homeland of Moldova with a guerrilla force of thousands to depose the Western leadership of President Maia Sandu.

Kalinin expounded on his allegedly insurrectionary intentions to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti just days after Sandu on November 28 stripped him of his Moldovan citizenship for "recruitment into the armed forces of a foreign state."

Bluster or not, Moldovan authorities -- edgy from ongoing Kremlin subterfuge, including during recent local elections -- are taking no chances, opening a probe -- the second -- into the fringe figure who apparently put his political career on hold to either fight, if you believe his accounts, or provide unspecified help to Russia's invading forces in Ukraine.

Analysts were quick to dismiss his bold claim as hot air.

"He is a very marginal figure. He is a failed presidential candidate, some sort of representative of Moldovans in Russia, and leader of the small Party of Regions," said Cristian Vlas, a Moldovan and Romanian analyst.

"I doubt he would manage to gather even a few dozen for that aim, but his threat should not be disregarded," Vlas told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

President Sandu has denounced Russia's war in Ukraine and accused Moscow of trying to oust her in a coup. Moldova has been in a state of emergency since shortly after the start of the invasion in February 2022, allowing the government to take certain unilateral actions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talks to reporters at an OSCE meeting in Skopje earlier this month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talks to reporters at an OSCE meeting in Skopje earlier this month.

The potentially explosive episode comes with tensions ticking up again between Chisinau and Moscow after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on November 30 at the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Skopje -- said that "Moldova is destined to fall the next victim in the West-unleashed hybrid war against Russia."

Chisinau is extra wary given the presence of some 1,000-plus Russian troops on the ground in Transdniester, a wafer-thin breakaway region abutting war-torn Ukraine that Pentagon officials and others have speculated could also be a target ultimately for Russia's authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin. Moscow has ignored repeated pleas by Chisinau to pull those troops out.

Moldova launched military drills near Transdniester on December 17 at its Bulboaca Training Center, according to the country's Defense Ministry, which said the exercises would last till December 22. A Facebook post showed military vehicles traveling along national roads in the region.

The drills came amid moves -- one of them monumental -- to anchor Moldova in the Western camp. On December 15, Moldova's parliament adopted a pro-Western national defense strategy in a move hailed by Sandu as a crucial step toward security and stability. That came with Chisinau securing perhaps its greatest foreign policy success to date with the EU formally agreeing to green-light starting accession talks on Moldova joining the bloc at a summit in Brussels on December 14-15.

Call To War?

In remarks to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on December 1, Kalinin claimed, without providing any details or proof, that he was assembling a 20,000-strong international unit to fight in Ukraine and then in Moldova against government forces there.

"We have decided to create an international unit, the 'Nistru-Dimitrie Cantemir Detachment.' We are creating a unit that will train those citizens who want to defend their country but lack the skills and knowledge. We already have a commander for our subdivision, so I am confident that we will recruit several thousand people in the shortest possible time," Kalinin boasted in the interview that no longer appears on the RIA Novosti website, although it is quoted elsewhere.

Just a few days before the interview appeared, Sandu, Moldova's Harvard-educated president, signed a presidential decree on November 27 to revoke Kalinin's citizenship for acts that cause serious harm to the state.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu attends a rally and concert on December 17, celebrating the European Union's decision to open membership talks with Chisinau.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu attends a rally and concert on December 17, celebrating the European Union's decision to open membership talks with Chisinau.

In September 2022, the president declared that individuals with Russian and Moldovan citizenship who enlist in the Russian Army to fight in Ukraine would have their Moldovan citizenship revoked. On his Telegram channel at the time, Kalinin dismissed Sandu's move as an attempt to "remove political figures who could compete against her in the 2024 presidential election."

On December 4, the Moldovan Prosecutor's Office for Combating Organized Crime and Special Cases (PCCOCS) announced it had summoned Kalinin for questioning and that a formal probe was being launched against the shady pro-Kremlin figure.

Swapping Business Suits For Camouflage

Kalinin assumed the leadership of the pro-Russian Party of Regions in Moldova in 2016. He quickly made his Moscow-friendly leanings clear: voicing support for Moldova to join not the EU but the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union; for Russian to be made a second state language; and for Moldova to become federalized. In 2020, he collected signatures for his candidacy in the presidential election but later withdrew from the race.

Since not long after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his country's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kalinin has been active on social media, not only voicing his support but reportedly actively taking part.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service has reported on videos posted by Kalinin -- purportedly from Ukraine -- where he is garbed in military-style camouflage fatigues, donning a helmet, and sometimes issuing threats to the Moldovan government.

A screen grab from one Alexandr Kalinin's videos
A screen grab from one Alexandr Kalinin's videos

In one video, Kalinin appears to scrawl, "For Moldova," on an explosive projectile before launching it while warning Moldova could end up in a war with Russia. From Kalinin's videos, it isn't clear whether he is actually fighting with Russian forces in Ukraine or just observing.

His actions and rhetoric have not gone unnoticed in Chisinau and beyond, including Brussels.

In February, the PCCOCS confirmed to RFE/RL that it had launched its first probe into Kalinin under a statute for violating Moldova's laws on "war propaganda."

In May, Kalinin was one of several Moldovan citizens added to the EU's blacklist for his activities in destabilizing Moldova as a so-called Kremlin collaborator. In October, Canada followed suit, including him among nine Moldovans individuals sanctioned at the time.

EU To Open Gates To Moldova?

The Kalinin controversy comes with Chisinau on the precipice of a major geopolitical milestone. The European Commission -- the EU's top executive body -- on November 8 released a report on enlargement that recommended that membership talks begin with Moldova (and Ukraine). At a Brussels summit for the 27 EU leaders on December 14-15, every member state apart from Hungary agreed to sign off on Brussels starting accession talks with Moldova, along with Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Perhaps buoyed by the European Commission recommendation, on November 24, the Moldovan parliament passed a bill to join the EU sanctions regime against Russia, a move Moscow denounced later that very day as "another hostile step" and vowed retaliation.

On November 30, Lavrov, whose mere presence at the OSCE gathering in the North Macedonian capital sparked a boycott by the three Baltic countries plus Ukraine, launched his rhetorical barrage. "The Kozak Memorandum, which could have reliably resolved the situation in Moldova 20 years ago, is among the thwarted attempts to resolve the acute problems of our continent on the basis of OSCE principles," Lavrov said. "At that time, NATO and the EU unceremoniously torpedoed the document.... In fact, Moldova is destined to be the next victim in the hybrid war against Russia unleashed by the West," Lavrov said.

The Kozak Memorandum was a 2003 plan for a federal Moldovan state, proposed by Russia, to solve relations between Moldova and Transdniester, a separatist region that broke away from Moldova in 1990. The memorandum was ultimately rejected by Vladimir Voronin, then Moldova's president.

The Moldova Foreign Ministry issued a rebuke to Lavrov's comments, calling Russia's invasion of Ukraine "brutal" and saying that Moldova "has felt the entire arsenal of destabilization attempts that Russia has unleashed against us."

"Russia's statements, whether today or on previous occasions, are part of the series of hostile actions that the Russian Federation has been trying to implement toward our country over the past 30 years," the statement said. "Fortunately, throughout this time, the partner states in the West have been by our side, helping us to successfully overcome these threats."

"Russia did not want to waste a moment to add fear around Moldova's fragile position in the midst of the war against Ukraine," Cristian Vlas, a Moldovan analyst told RFE/RL in written comments.

Russia was accused of trying to influence Moldova's local elections on November 5, by sending wads of cash to a pro-Russia party.

Fugitive Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor (file photo)
Fugitive Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor (file photo)

Just days before that vote, Moldova banned the pro-Russia Chance Party after Moldova's Intelligence and Security Service alleged that the party had received about 50 million euros ($55 million) in Russian money, which the security agency said had been channeled by exiled Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor and used to destabilize the country and "buy" voters.

Shor, who resides in Israel and was sentenced in absentia in April to 15 years in prison on fraud charges, was the head of the Russia-friendly Shor Party, which was declared unconstitutional in June by Moldova's Constitutional Court.

"In Moldova's local elections last month, unprecedented levels of Russian interference attempted to wreak havoc on the country's democratic process," wrote Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, adding, "This casts a worrying shadow over Moldova's presidential election due in autumn 2024."

The vote ultimately saw widespread support for candidates aligned with Sandu, although the Moldovan president's Party of Action and Solidarity failed to win a mayorship in any of the country's major cities, including Chisinau.

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