One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova—a landlocked country of 2.6 million inhabitants neighbouring Ukraine and Romania—is in a peculiar situation. Both Moldova and Ukraine were awarded EU candidate status last June. Yet, Moldova’s accession to the EU will be tough. Unlike Ukraine, which has severed its ties with Russia and the remaining spirit of the Soviet Union in light of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Moldova remains divided between those who support closer ties with the West and those who prefer closer relations with Russia. In the last month alone, Moldovan pro-EU president Maia Sandu warned that some want their country’s government to be “enslaved to the interests of the Kremlin” and to topple the democratically elected government. Anti-government protests are indeed common. Protestors tear up posters of the president and demand Moldova disinvolve itself from the war in neighbouring Ukraine and instead pay people’s high electricity bills, a knock-on effect from the war.
Such protests are often backed by Kremlin-friendly groups. On February 13, President Sandu announced that they have Ukrainian intelligence information that Russia is planning a coup in the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, that would involve taking hostages. Further information indicated the involvement of the eurosceptic Șor Party, one of the organisers of the anti-government protest.
But during an all-out war in Ukraine and the possibility of a new Cold War, why should we pay attention to Moldova? The problems of this small landlocked country are often overlooked by international media. As Russian missiles cross Moldovan airspace and Russia argues that Ukraine is planning to invade Transnistria, Moldova’s future may be directly linked to the outcome of Russia’s aggression. A potential new war front opening from Transnistria, where Russian “peacekeepers” are present, could drastically change the course of the war. However, according to a Ukrainian army spokesperson, Russia does not have enough troops stationed there to open a second front.
The internationally unrecognised territory Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), broke away from Moldova in September 1990 and Moldova lost control of the territory in 1992, as a result of a war between pro-Moldovan and pro-Transnistrian forces. Since then, there has been a frozen conflict between Transnistria and Moldova with occasional clashes.
To understand the situation in Moldova, one must also understand the relationship between Moldova and Romania—two countries that share a very close relationship. Four fifths of the country speak Moldovan, which is essentially the same language as Romanian. Minority languages include Russian, Ukrainian, Gagauz, and Bulgarian. On March 2, the Moldovan parliament passed the Romanian language bill, which reclassified the state language from Moldovan to Romanian. This is a message that has been pushed by the Romanian Academy before arguing that calling the language Moldovan is “ideological manipulation” and drawing comparisons to Austrians speaking German and Walloons in Belgium speaking French. The move resulted in vocal protest from the opposition known as the Communists and Socialists’ Bloc.
Almost one million people from Moldova also have Romanian citizenship, which is almost forty percent of their population. Showing the closeness of Moldova to Romania, even Moldovan president Maia Sandu has both citizenships, and she has stated that if there were to be a referendum in Moldova to unify the countries she would personally vote “yes”.
Transnistria sees its fate differently from Moldova. The Transnistrian government argues that the territory of Transnistria, which runs east of the Dniester River, has never belonged to Moldova and that there is no legal basis that ties the two nations. Moreover, the notion of reunifying with Moldova through a referendum held in 2006 was almost unanimously rejected. Instead, a possible voluntary accession of the region into the Russian Federation has been deemed a possibility. Internationally, the results of the referendum were unrecognised and observers had mixed reactions regarding the legitimacy and multiple violations against fair election principles were recorded.
Transnistria remains unrecognised around the globe. Moldova argues that legally all people in Transnistria are Moldovan citizens as the Republic of Moldova was declared the rightful successor of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, and secession without permission from Moldova is illegal and not backed by international law.
Linguistically, Transnistria and Moldova also show their differences. Moldova has many minority languages apart from Romanian (Moldovan). Yet, Russian is mainly spoken in Transnistria alongside Romanian and Ukrainian. While Moldova switched to the Latin alphabet in 1989, Transnistria continued using the Cyrillic alphabet for Romanian, which of course is strictly called Moldovan.
Moldova’s pro-Western government is trying to distance itself from Russia as much as possible, and there are fears that Moldova is the next target of Russia’s imperialistic expansion. According to a 2012 decree, the Russian government promised to respect Moldova’s sovereignty in resolving the issue of Transnistria. However, this was recently revoked by Putin. According to the Kremlin, it was done to “ensure the national interests of Russia in connection with the profound changes taking place in international relations”.
Distancing from the Russian government is difficult, as the government faces backlash and discontent from the public because of the economic hardship caused by Russia cutting off gas supplies to show their political discontent over the Moldovan government’s pro-EU stance. Still, 56 percent of the Moldovan population supports EU membership. Moldova’s government wants to become more Western and move away from its dependence on Russian natural gas. The government of Moldova has also repeatedly condemned the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the country is still politically divided and the fear of a Russian coup attempt remains. According to Lilian Carp, head of the Moldovan Parilament’s national security commission, the fate of Moldova is largely intertwined with the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
By Joosep Raudsepp