Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
The war in Ukraine has deeply affected the Eastern European region, including neighboring Moldova, which shares experiences of Russian aggression. The war has deepened the challenges Moldova is facing in many dimensions. However, at the same time, a new window has opened for the country: In June 2022, Moldova was granted EU candidate status alongside Ukraine. It is widely considered as a political step by the EU to express the fact that the EU considers them as part of the family, and that it trusts their administrative capacity to conduct the necessary reforms and meet the EU criteria. However, it is important that this achievement be discussed in the light of the challenges Moldova is experiencing during the ongoing war in Ukraine, the political positions taken by the Moldovan government during the crisis, and, more specifically, how these positions have shown the EU that Moldova can be a reliable partner.
How has the war affected Moldova?
Moldova, a country with a population of over 3 million, shares similarities with other Eastern European states, especially in terms of security challenges regarding Russia. Just like Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova is a victim of Russian occupation, having “lost” its Transnistria region in the east after the dissolution of the USSR, though separatist Transnistria, backed by Russia, lacks international recognition. After Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, the discussion about the occupied Moldovan region became a hot topic once again. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe supported classifying Transnistria as Russian occupied territory, whereas previously, it described the territory as “under the effective control of the Russian Federation”.
Source: BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18284837)
In the early stages of the war, there was a prediction that Russia would try to reach its Transnistrian military base from Ukraine by stretching the front from eastern Ukraine to the southern parts of the country, including Odesa, and from there to Transnistria, after which it would be able to use the region to launch new attacks on Ukraine. In parallel, tensions grew in Transnistria when blasts were detected, which damaged Soviet era radio antennae. Moldova’s president Maia Sandu called a security council meeting following the explosions. The Government of Moldova claimed these actions were aimed exactly at creating tensions in the occupied region. This in turn strengthened expectations that Moscow would try to create a base to use the region in its favor in the war against Ukraine. However, Moscow’s plan to succeed in Southern Ukraine and reach Transnistria failed due to Ukraine’s firm resistance and Moscow’s military failure.
Moldova’s vulnerability is its dependence on Russia when it comes to trade relations and, more importantly, energy. For decades, this dependence was good leverage in Moscow’s hands, which it used to play with the sentiments of the Moldovan population. Russia’s constant threat to impact the standard of living by raising the energy prices or causing supply interruptions often pushed the population to remain loyal to “Russian partnership”.
Sanctions against Russia and the disruptions to exports have had a big impact on those countries highly dependent on Russia – including Moldova. The major influential factor continues to be energy dependence and its influence on the life of Moldovan society. The country is experiencing energy crises in both gas and electricity. Russian controlled Gazprom increased the price of gas for Moldova and further threatens to cut supplies. At the same time, Moldova is suffering from an unstable electricity supply coming from Ukraine (which is being hit by blackouts itself), and from the occupied region of Transnistria where the power plant is based that produces the biggest share of Moldova’s electricity. Moldova has yet been unable to diversify energy suppliers. Deepening the partnership with the EU in this dimension is in its short-term plans.
As expected, the social situation in Moldova was used by Moscow to increase pressure on Moldova’s pro-European government. There have already been protests against the government, blaming Sandu for the rising costs of living and demanding her resignation. It is believed that the anti-government rallies are sponsored by the Kremlin, and the protesters are paid to participate.
Positions taken by the Moldovan government during the war, and its EU candidate status
Moldova’s government and its president have firmly stood in support of Ukraine against the Russian aggression, despite it being predicted that Russia would increase the pressure. Regardless of difficult internal circumstances, Moldova has hosted tens of thousands Ukrainian refugees, a move highly appreciated in the EU. Sandu herself has expressed her support for Ukraine many times, saying “Ukraine is also defending Moldova’s freedom today”. Sandu is seen as a pro-Western politician, further strengthening Moldova’s chances for EU membership. It is safe to assume that the Moldovan government’s positions and actions during the war in Ukraine have reinforced their Western partners’ belief that the country is able to be a trusted partner, and that continued support is necessary to strengthen Moldova’s capacity to maintain its pro-Western stance.
The candidate status means that the EU will pay more attention to the reforms needing to be carried out in Moldova, especially in the direction of good governance, the judiciary and fighting corruption. Numerous studies have identified that corruption, including at high levels, has continually undermined the ability of the state to improve the economic environment and stability. Thus, fighting these internal challenges will be Moldova’s main task on its path to the EU, especially in light of growing public support for EU membership.
Political developments show that Moldova’s present and future have become closely linked to the developments in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has increased the challenges Moldova is facing in the security, economic and social dimensions. However, the current situation in Europe has changed the security and political reality, and the positions taken by the Moldovan government in support of Ukraine have given the country a chance to receive EU candidate status. The fact that Moldova maintained a pro-Ukrainian position, despite the numerous challenges and increased pressure from Russia, led to the EU’s belief that the country has the capacity to be a trusted partner. It is clear that Moldova realizes that supporting Ukraine and Russia’s eventual defeat would be very positive scenarios for Moldova, as it will limit Russian influence not only in the occupied region, but also in Moldovan politics, making it easier for the country to take further steps on its path to EU membership.