Chisinau Airport: Schemes First, Development Later

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Christian RUSSU
While officials continue to promise to develop the country’s only international airport, corruption schemes for the benefit of key clans within the ruling party are thriving around the airport
The Chisinau airport, after its return to state ownership, can hardly be called anything other than “long-suffering”: small troubles and serious problems haunt it constantly. So, even though new beneficiaries were found instead of Sor’s structures, and all the interested PAS clans were involved, the development of the country’s only air harbor is still in question. As we remember, just recently it changed its international name from KIV to RMO, which, by the way, also resulted in difficulties for passengers. Another hint in the new abbreviation is that the country will probably have only one airport. This was confirmed by Infrastructure Minister Andrei Spinu. While in Balti, he told that the second largest Moldovan airport “Balti-Liadoveni” (by the way, also international, with its own code) is destined to be a car park for Ukrainian carriers transiting through Moldova. It is worth recalling that this rather modern airport was built for use in all weather conditions and for any aircraft. Due to its location, it is not characterized by dense fogs, which are often observed in the capital and lead to paralysis of air traffic. Now Ukrainian truckers, who will use it as a staging area while waiting for their turn to pass through the Moldovan-Romanian border, will appreciate all the advantages of Balti airport’s location. As for the Chisinau harbor, the authorities have finally announced their plans for its development. Among them are the reconstruction of the old terminal building to expand the airport’s infrastructure and the abandonment of buses that take passengers to the aircraft ramp. Our officials forecast passenger traffic growth in 2024 (over 3 million passengers against last year’s figures of 2.8 million), and these measures should make it possible to cope with it. A significant share of the planned air traffic is still attributed to residents of the neighboring country who are unable to fly from home. For the latter, the authorities, with the participation of the European Mission EUBAM, have recently even agreed a special corridor for transfers from Odesa and back. In fact, these plans cause persistent deja vu. All this has already been promised to us: a large new terminal in place of the old building, telescopic ramps instead of buses, and an additional car park. And according to the deadline, all this should have already been built and made available to passengers. In December 2019, the previous concessionaire, Avia Invest, presenting a project for the reconstruction of the capital’s airport, expected that already in 2024 it could receive 4.2 million passengers a year. It is clear that at that time the investment proposal was put forward rather to exert political pressure on the authorities, who forced the cancellation of the concession agreement. However, it seems to us that regardless of who would have been the eventual beneficiary - Avia Invest, some Russian businessmen, Nathaniel Rothschild or the fugitive oligarch Ilan Sor - the modernization of the airport over the past three years would have been carried out to some extent. It is unlikely that any of the representatives of private business would have turned a blind eye to the increased passenger traffic, forced to flow to Romanian airports. Our Chisinau airport was supposed to become a regional hub, for which all the prerequisites were in place, and the only thing that prevented it was the mediocre attempts of the authorities to take control over everything. Instead, the Iasi airport is becoming a hub, where a new terminal for 2.5 million passengers has opened recently. By the way, over what they finally managed to “take control”. Another “positive” news from officials during the week was the intention to hold a tender for the transfer of commercial space at the airport, empty after the expulsion of the Sor group companies. On 23 February, the authorities plan to announce the future manager of the premises in the Duty Free zone for the next three years. Of course, in fact, there is no Duty Free at the airport. The authorities have long deprived Sor’s group of the opportunity to use the duty-free mechanism, but they kept the signboard. Taking into account the habit of the ruling party to amend the legislation for any little or even worthwhile reason, it is quite possible that duty-free trade will be returned to the new tenant by spring. It will be easy to explain such a decision by caring about passengers. As for the potential tenant of these premises, it is, in fact, already known. The obvious winner of the tender is the French company Lagardere Travel Retail. Andrei Spinu probably did not have much sense to go to Paris in order to come to an agreement with it. After all, the French just recently acquired the space in the Bucharest airport in Otopeni. So, it was quite possible to negotiate with the Romanian partners the transfer of our air harbor assets to the French, even if all these deals were accompanied by corruption scandals. However, in our case, the formalization of the public-private partnership at the airport is complicated by the search for a balance of interests between the key groups within the current government. The subsidiary company Lagardere Travel Retail was registered in Moldova only in November last year specifically for the tender, and the latter was formed in such a way that it was the French company that won it: 7 years on the Duty Free and catering market, at least 10 airports served in the EU, etc. Our Moldovan catering, represented by the KFC chain of fast food restaurants, will have to compete with the French one. We can call it Moldovan because the co-owner of KFC business in the country is Prime Minister Dorin Recean. According to information surfacing in the domestic Telegram segment, the area for the restaurant with fried wings, a favorite of many Moldovans, was even taken out of the tender. In general, of course, no schemes contradict the original intentions of what prospects await the Chisinau airport from the point of view of the authorities. Minister Spinu immediately and bluntly stated that the authorities would ensure its functioning within the framework of a public-private partnership. The only question here is which interests Mr. Spinu and Mr. Recean intend to protect - public or private. Although the answer is quite obvious.