Moldova says it is slowly being robbed of the property portfolio of spas and sanatoriums it built up in Ukraine when they were both part of the Soviet Union.
Acourt ruling in Moldova regarding ownership of a building housing the country’s consulate in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa is fuelling debate over the fate of more than 100 properties in Ukraine that the Moldovan state claims as its own.
Lawmakers in Moldova say the country has de facto control over just 13 of some 130 buildings, resorts and sanatoriums that the state claims ownership over in its fellow former Soviet neighbour.
A group of opposition deputies have launched an initiative to establish the legal status of each property, accusing business interests in Ukraine of ‘looting’ Moldovan assets in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moldovan authorities claimed one small victory on April 6, when the Court of Appeal in the capital, Chisinau, rejected a challenge filed by a Ukrainian citizen concerning ownership of the building and land in Odessa housing the Moldovan consulate.
The issue came up during talks between the presidents of Moldova and Ukraine, Maia Sandu and Volodymyr Zelensky, in Kyiv in January, but experts see no quick fix.
“Some of the real estate included in the management of state-owned companies vanished,” said infrastructure investment expert Ion Potlog.
If Kyiv and Chisinau are able to restart a dialogue on the issue, “something might be worked out,” he said.
“But as long as these assets are in a grey zone, the Ukrainian side – more precisely, the businessmen – including in coordination with the Moldovan APP [Public Property Agency] slowly take them out of Moldovan state ownership and pass them into the private ownership.”
Assets ‘are just ruins’
Moldova’s significant property portfolio in neighbouring Ukraine dates to the days of the Soviet Union, when Soviet authorities in Chisinau wanted their own resorts and spas on the Black Sea, particularly around Odessa less than 200 kilometres from the Moldovan capital.
But in the turbulent transition following the end of the Cold War, Chisinau has seen property after property slip through its fingers, privatised under often disputed circumstances.
“On many of our properties or the surrounding lands, local businessmen have already built new buildings that are already registered in Ukraine without Moldova’s consent,” said APP director Ghenadie Tepordei. As far as local authorities in Ukraine are concerned, these Moldovan assets are already in private ownership, he said.
“In general, our representatives do not even have access to the territory to take pictures,” Tepordei said. “Our assets, which are still there, are just ruins. In one case, the police were even alerted to allow us access.”
A group of opposition lawmakers are now calling on the APP and the General Prosecutor’s Office to clarify the situation.
Moldova’s assets have been “simply dismantled and looted by ‘Ukrainian capitalists’,” opposition deputy Igor Munteanu told BIRN.
Sandu, Moldova’s pro-European president, raised the issue with the country’s Supreme Security Council on March 30, calling on the APP to compile a report and the government to launch an urgent financial audit.
“I asked for priority to be given to the situation regarding the Moldovan Consulate in Odessa and the sanatorium ‘Moldova’ in Truskavets [western Ukraine] and to present to the Supreme Security Council by April 15 a report on the actions taken,” Sandu said.
Suspicions over property swap
The latest case, concerning the consulate in Odessa, dates to a decision by the government of former Prime Minister Pavel Filip in February 2019 to allow for the building and land it is on – part of the ‘Moldova’ sanatorium complex – to be privatised via an exchange of real estate with a woman identified by Moldovan authorities as Iryna Rolemska
Critics of the deal say the valuation of the property and land – $468,800 and $1.46 million – was suspiciously low for one of Odessa’s most expensive areas.
A little over a year later, in July 2020, a new government under then Prime Minister Ion Chicu overturned the deal. In January this year, Rolemska took Moldova’s foreign ministry and the APP to court, demanding that the decision of the Filip government be implemented. She initially won, but on April 6 the Court of Appeal overturned the original court ruling.
In Odessa, where most of Moldova’s properties are located, local authorities say an inter-governmental commission should tackle the issue.
Sergey Grinevetsky, the head of the Odessa state administration, said it was a recurring problem, citing the example of the transfer of a plot of land that was part of the ‘Moldova’ sanatorium to a Cypriot company called Makstgroup for a period of 20 years.
“After that, disputes began between the Moldovan representatives and the Odessa City Council,” he said. “Then, for the first time, it was said that some buildings would be built on the place of the sanatorium. In July 2019, the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry cancelled the transfer of land, appealing to the courts.”
Munteanu, the MP, said that during talks between the countries’ president, Sandu “was promised help from the Ukrainian state because the most significant problems are in the Odessa region, where most Moldovan sanatoriums are.”
“However,” he said, “the local mafia in this region is stronger than the central government in Kyiv.” said Munteanu.