AUTHORITIES IN UKRAINE’S SMALL NEIGHBBOUR STIR SECURITY FEARS
Moldova’s leaders are resorting to ethnonationalism in response to the Ukraine war. This former Soviet republic is traditionally neutral, and accepting Western support would bring its own risks.
CHISINAU, Moldova — Video editors and producers put the final touches to news packages. A rival station’s evening news played on a wall-mounted screen. A presenter looked over the script for the lead story at the nightly current affairs show Mesager – the most popular programme on Moldova’s state television channel, Moldova 1.
‘Tonight we have stories about agriculture and our prime minister, local politics, some decisions by the European Union, Zaporizhzhia [nuclear power plant],’ the presenter, Elena Bancila, told me. ‘The main story is that Moldova can now export poultry and eggs to Europe.’
The 9 March bulletin provided a broad sweep of the issues facing a country which has been long ignored by international media, yet finds itself increasingly in the forefront of the conflict, as host to refugees, not to mention the target of occasional (errant) missiles from the war next door in Ukraine. As its ‘pro-European’ government finds itself at the centre of multiple overlapping crises, it is completely out of its depth.
Earlier on 9 March, authorities in the breakaway territory of Transnistria claimed to have foiled a Ukrainian security services plot to assassinate the territory’s leaders. ‘We’re not covering that,’ Bancila told me before the broadcast, ‘as we believe it’s fake.’ Fingers tapped away at keyboards. A note on a whiteboard reminds staff not to abbreviate place names like the European Union. The intro for a video package said that anti-corruption prosecutors had seized some €50,000 in cash, which an ‘organised criminal group’ was allegedly using to fund an opposition political party’s street protests.
Rumours of a coup attempt
Since the start of the war in neighbouring Ukraine, Moldova has been full of rumours of a coup and attempts to destabilise the government as the conflict has acted as a catalyst for the power struggle between Russia and the West. Since becoming independent in August 1991 this former Soviet republic has been at risk of breaking up. Transnistria had declared independence from Moldova in 1990, and the central government in Chișinău lost control of the territory in 1992; since then, Russian troops have been stationed there to protect the pro-Russian local authorities. In Moldova’s south, the territory of Gagauzia, which has a largely Turkish-speaking population and enjoys a high degree of autonomy, elected a pro-Russian governor last month.
Meanwhile, the central government has strengthened Moldova’s pro-European shift since November 2020, when Maia Sandu, 50, a former World Bank economist, won Moldova’s run-off presidential election. She pledged to tackle corruption and forge closer ties with the EU. In essence, Sandu, a Romanian ethno-nationalist and europhile, was the preferred candidate for educated urban voters and the sizeable European diaspora (16% of the electorate) . She ousted the pro-Russian incumbent and head of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon. In May 2022 Dodon was investigated for ‘treason’, ‘passive corruption’, ‘accepting political party funding from a criminal organisation’ and ‘illicit enrichment’, and held under house arrest until November.
The war in Ukraine has tipped Moldova into a political and economic crisis. On 12 March this year, police blocked access to parliament. Several thousand protesters had gathered on Chișinău’s Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, bussed in from around the country. They waved the Moldovan flag and shouted, ‘Jos Maia Sandu’ (‘Down with Maia Sandu)’.
The demonstration was organised by the opposition Șor Party, headed by Ilan Sor, a fugitive oligarch sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia in 2017 for his role in a billion-dollar theft from three Moldovan banks between 2012 and 2014, which had outraged Moldovans. Several other Șor Party MPs are facing corruption charges.
Now in exile in Israel, Șor is clearly stirring up the protests to pressure the government, putting self-interest before his crisis stricken nation; the government claims he has financial and organisational support from the Kremlin. In February Sandu had announced that Ukrainian intelligence had uncovered a plot to use foreign provocateurs – Serbs, Montenegrins, Russians, Belarusians – embedded within the protests to topple the government . And there have been worrying signs of this, notably a Wagner mercenary detained at Chișinău airport.
‘I don’t have work or wages’
However, while it’s true that the protestors are being exploited, their grievances are legitimate.
‘[The government] says we only come to protest for money, that we work for Russia. They don’t listen to us, they refuse to communicate,’ said Alexandru, 58, who had been a farm worker much of his life. ‘I don’t have any work or wages. Everything’s expensive. I don’t even know if I’ll get a pension.’
Moldova is dependent on imports, making it acutely vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and rising fuel prices; inflation peaked here at 34% last year, at a time when the country is host to 70,000 Ukrainian refugees. Polling by the International Republican Institute (IRI) at the end of last year  showed that some 57% of Moldovans viewed the cost of living as the country’s most important problem. Eight percent saw external conflicts, war and insecurity as a top priority.
Yet Sandu’s administration also appears determined to discredit any criticism. ‘There’s this radicalisation of positions. The establishment says that whoever is against them is basically an agent of Putin and Russia, or supports Russia in the war,’ said Vitalie Sprinceana, a Moldovan sociologist. ‘They’re using various arguments to depict protesters as a fifth column; whoever protests now is a traitor.’
The Moldovan government’s initial response to Russia’s invasion was well calibrated: it condemned the Kremlin’s actions and urged respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It also emphasised Moldova’s constitutional neutrality and sought to limit any tensions with Transnistria, whose leaders also fear a widening war.
But over the course of the year, militarised rhetoric took hold, even as fears diminished that Russian troops would seek to join forces with their soldiers stationed in Transnistria. The Transnistrian authorities, meanwhile, feared a pre-emptive attack by Ukraine.
Though Russia now seems to have abandoned the idea of capturing Odessa, security continues to concern Moldova. In a January 2023 interview, Sandu told Politico that there was ‘a serious discussion … about our capacity to defend ourselves, whether we can do it ourselves, or whether we should be part of a larger alliance,’ though she was careful not to mention NATO, anathema to Russia and some Moldovans. If Moldova decided to abandon its neutrality, she added, this should happen through a ‘democratic process.
‘Neutrality doesn’t mean we’re defenceless’
The UK is among the Western countries most in favour of NATO strengthening cooperation with Moldova, as it did with Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. ‘We must understand that neutrality in our constitution does not necessarily mean we have to be defenceless,’ prime minister Dorin Recean (then presidential security advisor) reportedly said during a defence ministry conference last November where the US and German ambassadors were present. ‘We should commit and invest more to defending ourselves and be part of a larger defence infrastructure.’
‘I would want to see Moldova equipped to NATO standard,’ the UK’s then foreign secretary, Liz Truss, told the Telegraph in a May 2022 interview. ‘This is a discussion we’re having with our allies.’ Having granted Moldova accession candidate status at the same time as Ukraine, the EU promised in early May this year to send an additional €40m worth of military aid on top of the €40m released this June, under the European Peace Facility mechanism.
The Jamestown Foundation’s senior fellow, Vladimir Socor, argued in an August 2022 paper  that ‘unarmed, pauper’ Moldova was ‘more vulnerable than any of Ukraine’s (or Russia’s) other neighbouring countries’. It needed ‘security arrangements to be devised, assisted and funded by its Western partners’ and should become ‘a security protectorate under any other name’.
Neutrality is deeply embedded in the Moldovan psyche, some 60% of Moldovans see it as their best security guarantee according to IRI polling. Not that public opinion matters to war hawks: ‘Being unilaterally declared and recognized by none,’ wrote Socor, ‘neutrality is subject to interpretation by none other than Chișinău.’
As Moldova’s links with Euro-Atlantic organisations grow stronger, the fight against Russian disinformation is intensifying. Last June, Sandu promulgated the Informational Security Law, which banned the broadcast of Russian television news and analysis. The law also stipulated that 50% of licensed content should come from EU, US and other states that have ratified a transnational television convention (the European Convention on Transfrontier Television) – as if western media does not have a long history of spreading disinformation.
US influence building
Between 2017 and 2021, the US State Department spent almost $100m on Moldovan ‘civil society organizations and other entities … for rule of law, media, cyber, and programs that strengthen democratic institutions and processes, and counter Russian influence and aggression’ . This is US influence building, designed to wrench Moldova out of the Russian sphere. For its part, the Kremlin has failed miserably in exercising soft power in Moldova. Putin, who is steeped in Soviet nostalgia and fevered Russian nationalism, takes an unappealing, bullying approach.
Recean’s appointment as Moldova’s prime minister this February, a deeply untransparent process, signals a new hard line on security. Public Radio quoted him shortly after he assumed office: ‘We have requested anti-aircraft defence … we will go to all our friends and get this … but until then we have to take care of other threats: destabilisation, public disorder, attacks on institutions, hybrid warfare, disinformation, inducing anxiety in society, of inducing interethnic hatred.’
In this respect, the government’s ethnonationalism – equating Moldavian identity to ‘Romanian-ness’ – may have fanned the flames . On 15 March it drafted a constitutional amendment which changed the official state language from Moldovan to Romanian.
For his part, Recean enjoys no notable public affection and has no history in grassroots political activism. Yet he finds himself the prime minister at a critical moment in Moldova’s history.
Equally worrying are Sandu’s efforts, noted by the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe made up of independent experts on constitutional law) to expand the security service’s (SIS) powers to include warrantless wiretapping and surveillance, while blurring distinctions between criminal and intelligence investigations, and potentially subordinating SIS to the president’s office .
Meantime, numerous security officials, notably US Major General William J Hartman, commander of the ‘full spectrum’ Cyber National Mission Force visited the country. A large delegation, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Laura Cooper, rolled into Chișinău on March 15, as part of the US-Moldova Strategic Dialogue, relaunched by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year. A US Air Force band even staged concerts across the country. Is Moldova’s government heading down the primrose path?
1 Andrew Wilson, ‘Separate ways: Contrasting elections in Georgia and Moldova’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 19 November 2020, www.ecfr.eu
2 ‘Russia’s security service works to subvert Moldova’s pro-Western government’, The Washington Post, 28 October 2022
3 ‘Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Moldova | October-November 2022’, IRI, Washington DC, 9 December 2022
4 Vladimir Socor, ‘Moldova’s bizarre neutrality: No obstacle to Western security assistance’, The Jamestown Foundation, 11 August 2022
5 ‘Information Report: Countering Russian Influence Fund’, Office of Inspector General, US Department of State, December 2022
6 For more on Moldovan nationalism, see Loïc Ramirez, ‘Transnistria, relic of a frozen conflict’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2022
7 ‘On the draft law on the Intelligence and Security Service, as well as on the draft law on counterintelligence and intelligence activity’, Venice Commission, Strasbourg, 13 March 2023