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Putin’s threat hangs over tiny Moldova, but its people filled me with hope

‘Ukraine’s resistance has secured Moldova’s existence, and Moldovans are now sowing the seeds for their European future.’ A pro-EU rally in Chisinau, Moldova, 21 May 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
‘Ukraine’s resistance has secured Moldova’s existence, and Moldovans are now sowing the seeds for their European future.’ A pro-EU rally in Chisinau, Moldova, 21 May 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on and Kyiv prepares its counteroffensive, Moldova, the former Soviet republic sandwiched between Ukraine and the EU, is fortunate to be still standing. Had Russia succeeded in its original war aims, not only would it have captured Kyiv and Odesa, but from there it would have been a matter of days before Russian forces had reached Chisinau.

Moldovan authorities have no doubt this was Vladimir Putin’s plan. The prime minister, Dorin Recean, is crystal clear: Moldova survives only thanks to Ukrainian resistance. If Moscow had been able to spread the war to Moldova, there is no way it would have been able to put up the kind of fight the Ukrainian armed forces have. Yet, as far as the future of democracy, international law and European security are concerned, Moldova’s fate is as important as Ukraine’s.

The war fought militarily on Ukrainian soil still reaches deep into Moldova: disinformation, cyber-attacks, the destabilisation efforts of a Moscow-backed opposition and a separatist enclave loyal to Russia are only some of the existential threats that its 2.6 million people are dealing with.

Yet, considering how things could have turned out, I returned from a recent trip to Moldova and Ukraine (organised by the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences) with an incredible sense of hope.

A consequence of the invasion, certainly unintended by the Kremlin, is that Moldova has been recognised as a candidate for EU membership. Moldova’s president Maia Sandu’s pro-European and reformist credentials were important in this achievement. Sandu has made it her goal to take Moldova into the EU by 2030.

But in western Europe, too, there has been an attitude shift: even governments traditionally sceptical about EU enlargement, such as the French, have, at least for the time being, embraced Moldova’s path to European integration.

Only a year ago, Moldova relied on Russia for 100% of its natural gas imports. Now, that figure is down to 0%. Energy prices remain unaffordably high for many Moldovans, but it is no longer a security threat. Moldova’s electricity still comes from Transnistria, a Moldovan region which broke away in 1992 and is now controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

But if Russia were to cut gas supplies, causing electricity generation to grind to a halt, it would trigger an economic collapse in Transnistria rather than a protracted blackout in Moldova. Moldova and Ukraine have synchronised their grids with the EU’s and built interconnections with neighbouring Romania. Without electricity powered by Russian gas, Moldova would temporarily struggle, but it would survive.

And Russia knows it. It also knows that its invasion of Ukraine has upended Transnistria’s economy, casting doubt over this puppet region’s political future. Transnistria survives on the electricity it sells to Moldova, powered by Russian gas that it gets for free. Russia maintains a massive ammunition depot and a 1,500-strong military force in Transnistria, but only about 70 of these soldiers are actually Russian. The rest are Transnistrians with dual Moldovan and Russian passports: for most, their role in Russian forces is just a job.

Why, then, does Moldova not seek to regain control of its territory? Over dinner in Chisinau, Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s foreign minister and an old friend of mine, explained the predicament.

The answer is counterintuitive yet logical. Why accelerate a political process that would distract Moldova from its EU reform path, while possibly triggering a Russian-backed coup or overt military response? Chisinau wants the eventual reintegration of Transnistria, but wants it to happen through the Moldovisation of Transnistria, not the other way around.

All that said, Moldova’s security situation remains precarious, with a tiny and underequipped army facing a persistent Russian threat. The country’s economic challenge is almost as daunting. Lacking a strong industrial base, Moldova does not have an obvious path out of its unwanted ranking as Europe’s poorest country. Even before the war, with an energy crisis that caused inflation to soar, annual income per head averaged at less than $4,000, compared with the EU average of $33,000. The cost of living crisis explains Sandu’s waning popularity and could still bring her down in elections next year.

But for now, Moldovans have a government determined to make the best of its difficult predicament. There is no lack of will to deliver democratic reforms such as fighting corruption. Russian meddling and disinformation may be leveraging the very real economic hardship to whip up anti-government sentiment, but public support for EU membership is strong: thousands turned out for a pro-EU rally this week.

What is lacking is capacity. Huge numbers of Moldovans of working age have left the country and, while some of the best and brightest do return, it requires a massive act of passion and commitment: a minister in Moldova earns less than a junior researcher at my institute (who, alas, is not well paid). Several of the people we met had given up comfortable jobs abroad to serve their country; I was in awe of their stories, yet saw how difficult it is to harness sufficient talent to lead the country to a brighter future.

Moldova needs constant and consistent European support: a healthy middle ground between the hyped frenzy of concern when Russia’s threats are in the spotlight, and the neglect when Moldova’s small size and relative resilience drives the international community to focus elsewhere.

Next week, Chisinau will host a summit of leaders of the European Political Community, the new European club for EU member states, countries in the waiting room to join, and nations such as the UK and Norway which have chosen to remain outside. When I asked Sandu’s foreign policy adviser what the dream outcome was, the answer was simple and compelling: demonstrating to our citizens (and to the Kremlin) that we’re not alone.

In Moldova, the mood is realistic, yet hopeful. Ukraine’s resistance has secured Moldova’s existence, and Moldovans are now sowing the seeds for their European future.

As I think back to that hope I sensed in Chisinau, my mind drifts to Odesa, which is just 200km away and which I was able to visit a few days later. The Ukrainian Black Sea port is a long way from the frontline, yet it bears the outward signs of a country at war. The streets are emptier than Chisinau’s and I spotted buildings damaged by a Russian drone attack. There is a nighttime curfew but security measures have been eased and an extended grain deal means Odesa’s docks, strangled for months by a Russian naval blockade, are working again. As in Moldova, there is a mood of cautious optimism.

In between meetings, I sneaked away to visit the family of Olga, a Ukrainian refugee who lived with me last year. Olga and her son Vlad are still in Rome, but her mother and grandma stayed in Ukraine. They look after Olga’s garden now, which I had heard so much about from her. When I video-called Olga that day, I wanted her to see it: the cherry tree was in bloom.

Nathalie Tocci is director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and an honorary professor at the University of Tübingen.

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