Chisinau, Moldova – Soviet hymns blasted from speakers in the centre of the Moldovan capital Chisinau on Monday, as the annual Victory Day march went ahead with a new war raging in Europe.
Celebrated by former Soviet states, the May 9 event honours Soviet soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in the second world war.
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“Today is a big holiday, we freed Europe. We as in us, the Soviet Union, in which I was born,” Sergei Izbas told Al Jazeera from under the city’s Triumphal Arc, adding that his mother used to bring him to Victory Day celebrations as a child.
Like many others, Izbas wore a military green cap with a red Soviet star.
He was with a woman wearing the same cap, matched with a big Soviet star buckle belt and a Louis Vuitton handbag.
“When I came back from the army, I threw away my Soviet cap in the trash,” said an elderly man, pointing his finger towards Izbas. “Why are you wearing that?”
Izbas rolled his eyes and asked if the man supported unification with Romania – the two countries used to be one until 1940 when Moldova split from Romania and joined the Soviet Union.
“Yes,” the man mumbled, saying he considers himself a Romanian living in Moldova.
Another woman ranted at the former soldier: “For Romania? You go to Romania.”
A hostile exchange that represents the frictions brewing in Moldovan society as war devastates Ukraine.
The Republic of Moldova, which became independent at the same time as Ukraine when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, has a population of 3.5 million people and is deeply divided between those who lean towards Russia and those who favour the European Union’s policies.
The Moldovan government, constitutionally neutral, has banned pro-war symbols associated with glorifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as the letters V, Z and the orange and black striped St George ribbon – usually worn at the May 9 march.
Observers had feared this year’s celebration would worsen divisions, but Moldovans leaning West and East alike came to celebrate an important holiday – without violence or major incidents. Some defied the government’s orders and wore the ribbon, and others like Izbas engaged in heated discussions.
At the end of April, explosions rocked Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, bringing the prospect of conflict in the country closer than ever.
The war that broke out between pro-Transnistria separatists and pro-Moldova forces in 1990, ended two years later in a ceasefire that has been in place for 30 years.
But Russia’s military has had a presence in the region since; about 1,500 soldiers, dubbed “peacekeepers”, are there now.
And now, Russian officials have said they are eyeing easier access to Transnistria, 100 kilometres (62 miles) away from Ukraine’s port city of Odesa, as part of a plan to seize southern Ukraine.
But as Ukrainian forces have stalled the Russian advance in Mykolaiv, the prospect of this scenario has withered.
Divisions over the EU
Maia Sandu, Moldova’s pro-European president, could not make the march due to health issues but paid her respects at a veterans memorial.
Back in March, Sandu applied for EU membership in tandem with Ukraine and Georgia. While her government is the most democratic and pro-European in the history of Moldova, many at the march criticised her.
Eugenia Borozan, a former accountant for a television factory, begrudges the post-Soviet dismemberment of the factories Moldovans like her worked in.
She celebrated at the Eternity monument, where Monday’s victory march ended.
Previous democratic governments are to blame for Moldova’s poor economy, she said, and that is why she has always voted for pro-Russian socialists, who are championed by Moldova’s former president Igor Dodon.
Wearing the banned ribbon, Dodon also attended the march.
Chisinau’s decision to join the EU reignited divisions, with the official application in March pushing the Transnistrian region to declare its independence from Moldova.
As Russia’s invasion raged, the EU recognised the Transnistrian region as occupied by Russian troops.
The Kremlin, in turn, alleges that Russian speakers in Moldova are being discriminated against – a narrative also used to justify its war on Ukraine.
On April 26, explosions destroyed two radio antennas and damaged the headquarters of the security services in Tiraspol – the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria – pushing Moldova even closer to a potential flare-up.
Mariana Bogdan, a social worker from Chisinau, said she tries to avoid reading the news.
“I’m scared, especially since the wellbeing of my children is at stake,” she said.
The government declared a state of emergency to cope with what it saw as a concerning escalation.
While Russia accused Ukraine of the attacks, Dionis Cenusa, an expert at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania, believes they could have been orchestrated by Russia.
“Provocation could have been used by local Transnistrian groups of influence to pressure Moldova to make concessions in relation to import restrictions imposed by Chisinau for non-compliance with Moldova’s legislation,” Cenusa told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Moldova has decided to provide Ukraine with humanitarian aid.
EU Council President Charles Michel said during a recent visit to Moldova that the bloc is considering “significantly increasing” military support to Moldova, including non-lethal military equipment and cyber defence gear.
“Regional security circumstances are pushing the current [Moldovan] government to take a tougher stance on Russia,” said Cenusa, the security expert.
“Russia cannot apply other tools, like energy, at the moment, while the Moldovan government cannot be tougher on Russia due to a range of structural vulnerabilities and declining popularity in the country, which the pro-Russia opposition is trying to capitalise on.”
The government’s decision to ban symbols associated with the Russian invasion triggered discomfort among people who used to wear them in past years.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they banned this ribbon, it has nothing to do with what’s happening now,” said Sergei Rus (not his real name), a Transnistrian present at the victory march, who requested anonymity.
Dressed in a Soviet uniform made in 1943, he came to honour his two grandfathers who fought for the Soviet Union in the second world war.
He admits, though, that he does not know if he could fight if war came to Moldova.
“Even if I wanted to go to war, my heart wouldn’t let me, I am a Transnistrian, but if I go to fight for Transnistria, I will point a gun at my relatives in Moldova. If I fight for Moldova, I will shoot my Transnistrian relatives,” said Rus, who is Romanian-Ukrainian.
He drew parallels between the Transnistrian conflict and the one in Donbas, saying that they were all called separatists and the repression of Russophone Transnistrians is similar to the one in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“In Ukraine, these criminal groups have been killing for eight years in Luhansk and Donetsk and everyone is silent,” said Rus. “That’s not right.”
While the May 9 March passed with no major events, many Moldovans still live in fear that their country could get dragged into the war.
“I fear that pro-Russian politicians here present a greater danger at the moment, compared to a potential attack by Russia itself,” said Mariana, the mother.