As war rages in Ukraine, is Moldova on the brink of conflict?
Russia says the West wants to turn Moldova against Moscow as Ukraine claims the Kremlin wants to control the small landlocked nation.
Kyiv, Ukraine – Moldova, a tiny nation west of Ukraine, is fending off a string of crises caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Energy prices are astronomically high, inflation has jumped above 30 percent, and elderly Moldovans receive utility bills that are larger than their pensions.
Moldova faces a “civil conflict”, pro-Russian forces say, while their pro-Western opponents call the crises a “hybrid war” instigated by Moscow to force the nation of 2.6 million back into the Kremlin’s political orbit.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Kyiv have diametrically different messages about what is going on in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“Moldova is one of the nations the West wants to turn into yet another ‘anti-Russia’,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had warned his Moldovan counterpart, Maia Sandu, about Moscow’s plans to “destroy” Moldova and gain control over it.
“I informed her that we’d intercepted a plan by Russian intelligence plan to destroy Moldova,” Zelenskyy told European leaders in Brussels on February 9.
Moldovan intelligence confirmed it was monitoring “subversive activities, aimed at undermining the Republic of Moldova, destabilise and violate public order”.
Arrests of people suspected of planning “diversions” followed in mid-March, while foreign nationals suspected of ties with Russia were banned from entering.
The polarising statements from Moscow and Ukraine reflect an even deeper domestic schism.
The nation is a powder keg just a spark away from a civil conflict, a socialist lawmaker says.
Bogdan Tirdea accuses President Sandu and her Solidarity and Action party of being Washington’s political “puppets” and “warmongers”.
“They always try to play the war card, create hysteria, constant fear,” he told Al Jazeera.
He claimed the government has trampled over political pragmatism and neutrality enshrined in the nation’s post-Soviet constitution to “annihilate” Moldova by forcing it to join NATO and merge with neighbouring Romania.
“But first, they need a small war, and then we will join Romania, NATO and close the ‘Moldovan question’ for good,” Tirdea said.
Moldova and Romania share close historic ties, and hundreds of thousands of Moldovans already have Romanian passports.
Some 44 percent of Moldova’s population supports the merger, while only 40 percent wanted their nation to join the Eurasian Economic Community, a Russia-dominated free trade bloc.
Tirdea’s words echo what Russia’s Lavrov said about President Sandu.
The West “installed her using rather specific methods that are far from free and democratic”, Lavrov said in early February.
Sandu was elected president in 2020 in a vote the West deemed “free and fair”, and her pro-Russian predecessor Igor Dodon is now facing treason charges.
Russia calls the charges trumped up, and says she would do whatever it takes to break away from Moscow’s political orbit.
Sandu “is rushing to join NATO, she has Romanian citizenship, she is ready to merge with Romania, and she is ready for practically anything”, Lavrov said.
‘Coordinated with the Kremlin’
His opinion is shared by Moldova’s pro-Russian forces, including Sor, a nationalist, neo-conservative party that has six seats in the 101-seat parliament.
Sor is named after its fugitive leader Ilan Sor, who was sentenced in 2017 to seven and a half years in jail for taking part in the embezzlement of $1bn from three Moldovan banks.
He escaped to Israel, and since September, his party rallied up thousands of protesters who have been marching almost every weekend in the capital, Chisinau, occasionally clashing with police.
Sandu claims Moscow holds the party’s purse strings and directs the protests.
Observers agree with her.
Since a direct military invasion is off the table, “Moscow’s only chance is to shake the situation from within and bring pro-Russian parties to power through a snap [parliament] vote”, Ukrainian analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
“The protests have been coordinated with the Kremlin,” Alexei Tulbure, a former Moldovan diplomat and lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.
He said Moscow spiked gas prices to force Moldova into submission, but Sandu’s government decided to buy European gas instead.
After Ukraine, “we’re the next target”, he said.
“Russia is waging a hybrid war against us” that includes energy blackmail, propaganda and support of the protests, he said.
An independent investigation by Moldovan and Russian journalists claimed that the Kremlin financed and helped organise the protests.
The investigation released last October also purported that Russian intelligence officers allegedly planned to organise Moscow’s takeover of Transnistria, a separatist province adjacent to southwestern Ukraine that broke away after a civil war 30 years ago.
The Dubai-sized sliver of land on the Ukrainian border has one of Europe’s largest arms depots with Soviet-era guns, ammunition and bombs.
To some observers, Moldova is a geopolitical platypus, a seemingly improbable combination of historic, linguistic and religious factors.
Moldovans speak Romanian, a language rooted in Latin, but its speakers are not Catholic.
They adhere to Greek Orthodox Christianity – just like most of the minorities, including Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Gagauz.
The latter are a Turkic-speaking community with strong pro-Russian sympathies.
Since Russia took over what is now Moldova and southwestern Ukraine two centuries ago, the czars and the Soviets promoted wine-making and farming that stifled industrial growth.
It still makes Moldova heavily dependent on energy exports.
The Kremlin also uses “alcohol diplomacy” to support pro-Russian Transnistria and the Gagauz autonomy – and “punish” central provinces once a pro-Western government comes to power.
Moldova has been prone to years of political paralysis intercepted by spasms of protests and even violence.
While many working-age Moldovans toil abroad, their parents and children are aeons away from each other politically.
In 2009, communists mostly backed by the elderly nostalgic about their Soviet youth came to power.
Retired trucker Ion Covali told this reporter at the time that post-Soviet capitalism had only brought poverty and humiliation.
“We used to be a magnet, everyone in the Soviet Union envied us. But now, we live in a dump,” he said.
But his teenage grandson, also named Ion, was among the thousands of youngsters who rallied in Chisinau and torched the parliament building.
“Everything was so unexpected,” he said. “And everyone was high on this sudden freedom.”
To pro-Western observers, freedom from Russia is not far away.
The Russian-Ukrainian war brought on “fundamental changes” that will help Moldova absorb Transnistria and fast-track the pro-Western drive, analyst Tulbure said.
“Geographically, we remain in the same place, but we want to belong not to the post-Soviet world, but to the world of freedom, democracy,” he said.