Who Will Usatii Play Along with During Presidential Election?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Usatii’s appearance on the radar of the upcoming presidential race is most likely connected not to his personal plans, but to someone else’s election strategy
Last week, infamous businessman, politician and former Our Party leader Renato Usatii announced his intention to run in the 2024 presidential election. He presented himself as a “representative of the centrist forces” in Moldova, who will not listen to the USA, the EU or Russia, while he called his main supposed rivals - Maia Sandu and Irina Vlah – “proxy from Europe and NATO” and “proxy from Russia and Turkey”. At the same time, Usatii himself is convinced that the current head of state has no chance to take the second mandate. It is worth recalling that the politician already ran for president in 2020, but failed to make it to the second round, gaining about 17% of the total number of voters. This is at least the second time this year that Usatii has openly spoken about his presidential ambitions. On 27 July, on the air of a Moldovan TV channel, he mentioned his candidacy in 2024, even though his personal ratings were low. One of the key goals of his electoral programme is, no less than, the resetting of the country and the adoption of a renewed constitution following the referendum. The political path and career of Renato Usatii is winding and full of various scandals, information hype and constant attempts to attract maximum attention. After a painful defeat in the snap parliamentary elections of 2021, Usatii resigned as mayor of Balti and Chair of Our Party. But, as it turned out, he decided to sit in the shadows for a while and just a year later, in September 2022, he expressed his intention to re-establish Our Party and return to political activity. It is important that after the high-profile announcement, US Ambassador Kent Logsdon personally visited Usatii to discuss European integration and the autumn local elections in 2023. Throughout the year, Usatii diligently returned attention to his person, organizing periodic exposés of Moldovan politicians, various frauds in state structures and in the energy sector. As a result, Our Party won 6 mayoral posts in the local elections, the most important of which, of course, was in Balti. Compared to 2015, when it won in 12 cities in the north of the country, and Usatii himself became the mayor of Balti, the current result is not particularly impressive, although we cannot call it outright weak. At least, it allows us to speak about the preservation of a certain public interest in the political project “Renato Usatii”. Therefore, as soon as the second round of the local elections was over and Alexandru Petcov, standing on Usatii’s shoulders, was successfully elected mayor of Balti, the leader of Our Party immediately switched to the next electoral phase - the presidential elections. At his press conference, Usatii publicly asked Vladimir Putin to revoke his Russian citizenship, which he and his parents received in 2018 for some kind of cooperation with Russian authorities. However, despite this, since 2020, the Moldovan politician has been on a federal wanted list for illegally withdrawing funds from Russia. According to the investigation, an international criminal organization, which includes Renato Usatii, withdrew about 500 billion rubles through Moldindconbank in 2013-2014 using forged documents. While adhering the presumption of innocence, we should note that Usatii’s biography is so specific, to put it mildly, that publicly distancing from Moscow is unlikely to help him get rid of his colorful background. Usatii’s return from Russia in 2014 to participate in the country’s political life is in itself a clear indication that, at the initial stages, Our Party and its leader were the appointees, if not of Kremlin strategists, then of very influential Russian groups and individuals with dubious reputations. Usatii’s appearance on the radar of the upcoming presidential race is most likely connected not to his personal plans, but to someone else’s election strategy and election campaign. While the other contenders are still looking around and choosing the most appropriate moment for their “connection”, Renato Usatii is aggressively entering the process in his traditional scandalous and pretentious manner. This form of self-presentation is well suited to our time, so, taking into account the results of the recent elections in Argentina and the Netherlands, a bet on Usatii has a good chance to pay off. Although the former mayor positions himself as a centrist force and tries to attract a growing number of disillusioned and undecided voters to his side (competing in this field with the capital’s mayor Ion Ceban), he can rely primarily on the sympathies of the electorate from the left flank. Thus, the very fact of his appearance leads to a decrease in the electoral base of Igor Dodon and other pending political projects in this segment (linked to Ilan Sor). We cannot also rule out that such an early start of Usatii is part of the Russian electoral strategy. And Usatii’s “political detoxification” of and his demonstrative distancing from Moscow is nothing more than a smoke screen, since open criticism of the Russian Federation is an indispensable attribute for any modern Moldovan politician who expects any prospects. An argument in favor of this theory can also be considered the fact that Moscow is not impressed by the idea of Dodon’s participation in the next presidential race, although the Socialist leader is eager for revenge and may even go against Moscow’s recommendations. For Maia Sandu, her predecessor is the most convenient sparring partner, which, according to experts, increases her chances of re-election. Therefore, Usatii may face a very simple tactical task - to prevent Dodon from reaching the second round. On the other hand, Usatii’s recent scandalous outbursts are actively publicised by the media loyal to the authorities, fuelling citizens’ interest in his person, including by inviting him to the broadcasts. This may suggest that the presidency is also playing the “Usatii card”, as it did in the last election. It is quite possible that Sandu’s political technologists are preparing him as a counter-candidate to the incumbent president for the second round. With all Usatii’s electoral potential, as the last parliamentary elections showed, the growth of his rating has its limits. And in case of a choice between him and Maia Sandu, citizens are likely to choose the latter as the lesser evil. In any case, after the incumbent president and Irina Vlah, the third candidate who decided to compete for the post of the head of state has appeared on the electoral horizon. According to the first signs, it is still difficult to say against whom or in whose favor Renato Usatii will play. However, his participation in the upcoming “race” will in any case spice the campaign up and will obviously attract even more attention of the voters.