A summer of bomb threats frightens Moldova as war rages nearby
Moldovans fear a Russian invasion as tensions between the breakaway region Transnistria and Chisinau heat up.
On July 5, Moldovan authorities were alerted via email that more than 50 state institutions had been mined that day.
It was the start of a summer of bomb threats.
Since then, more than 100 similar warnings have been sent to landmarks, including the Chisinau International Airport, parliament and government buildings, the Supreme Court, commercial centres, hospitals and churches around the country.
All were false alarms.
“Obviously, we don’t feel safe here. We’re always worried and thinking about what could happen,” said 68-year-old Vera from Moldova’s capital, Chisinau.
The pensioner believes the threats are almost certainly a result of the Ukraine war, which has thrust Moldova, a landlocked nation bordering Ukraine and Romania, into an even more difficult position than usual.
The Republic of Moldova, which became independent at the same time as Ukraine when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, has a total 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.
In 1990, the breakaway region of Transnistria, a narrow strip of land bordering Ukraine, declared independence. Although it remains internationally recognised as Moldovan territory, it has been in conflict with Moldovan authorities for years and officials in Chisinau have no authority over the area.
The Russian-speaking area is home to about 500,000 ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, some Moldovans and Bulgarians, and more than 1,000 Russian “peacekeeping” troops.
Ukrainians fear that Russia could use the region to launch new attacks on Ukraine, while top Moldovan officials worry Moscow could invade their country.
Alexandru Flenchea, who formerly led efforts to reintegrate Transnistria, told Al Jazeera the spate of bomb threats aims to create a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among the Moldovan people.
“Those who have planned and carried out this wave of false bomb threats have achieved their goal,” he said.
People found guilty of false bomb threats currently face fines of up to 42,500 Moldovan leu ($2,200) and up to two years in prison.
In an attempt to discourage potential offenders, the interior ministry is now proposing to raise the fine amounts and increase prison time to up to 12 years for “knowingly communicating lies about the act of terrorism”.
According to a national police spokesperson, each false bomb threat costs the state about 30,000 Moldovan leu ($1,500), but expenses can reach up to 100,000 Moldovan leu ($5,000) as in the case of the airport.
Costs have increased this month as Moldova hired more counterterrorism experts. And, because the Moldovan police force responds to each threat, the response time for genuine accidents and medical emergencies has increased.
The private sector has also taken a hit.
A spokesperson for AirMoldova, a recently privatised airline, told Al Jazeera that since the threats began, the company has lost about 60,000 euros ($61,000).
The warnings began days after the European Council granted Moldova candidate status for the European Union.
Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed Transnistrian foreign minister, Vitali Ignatiev, has been insisting that there is renewed fervour among Transnistrians to join Russia, citing a referendum from 2006 in which Transnistrians expressed their wish to do so.
The Kremlin has not addressed Transnistria’s wish to join Russia yet but has accused Moldova of preventing its troops – or “peacekeepers” – from reaching the region.
Chisinau denied the allegations, saying that the entry of new Russian soldiers would be illegal under existing agreements.
As well as Russian troops, Transnistria is home to thousands of tonnes of ammunition.
With the war raging in Ukraine and fears simmering at home, Moldova’s foreign ministry is once again calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops and ammunition depots as Transnistrian authorities express concern about the “accelerated modernisation of the Moldovan army” and call for the reinforcement of Russian troops in the region.
“This all adds a certain tension, but as far as the statements of the so-called [Transnistrian] authorities are concerned, there is nothing new, it’s just smoke and mirrors,” said Moldovan security expert Valeriu Pașa.
“What we have known since February 24 is that the Transnistrian region itself does not represent a major threat to Moldova’s security, whereas the Russian Federation does,” he added.
On July 18, prosecutors said they had identified several bomb threat suspects within the country, as well as abroad.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu has described the baseless warnings as an attempt to destabilise the country.
“It’s something that bothers, but for now I don’t think citizens need to worry,” Sandu said in a statement.
According to Flenchea, the former official, after a few hundred alerts, the threats became the subject of jokes and memes on social media.
The speed at which light was made of the threats is worrying, he said, explaining that the population may have become accustomed to a sense of instability.
But Vera, the pensioner, is not among those who are able to joke.
“The purpose of these alerts is to hurt people,” she said. “No one is safe here,”
Days after Moldova announced it had found the bomb threat suspects, a group called the Organisation of the Himmler-Kult Nationalist-Socialists Fighters called for military action in Transnistria and a stop to the EU and NATO accession processes.