In one of the flowerbeds in Esteban el Grande Square, in the center of Chisinau, a light blue European Union flag, with its 12 stars, welcomes office workers who tap on its cobblestones, a gang of kids who enjoy of a winter walk and some female deputy hurrying to the white, broad, Soviet Moldovan Parliament. The authorities placed the banner last May, Europe Day, and there it remained, between a sculpture of the illustrious prince of Moldavia from the 15th century, the carving of the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin and a bust of the Romanian Moldovan romantic poet Mihai Eminescu. A true metaphor for the small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine, where since the independence of the Soviet Union, three decades ago, political battles have been fought between groups that want greater closeness with their Romanian neighbor or with the EU and those who bet on closer ties with Russia.
Moldova’s geopolitical orientation has been lurching cyclically between Brussels and Moscow. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with less than three million inhabitants, a population depleted by emigration, a still vulnerable economy, high levels of corruption and a prevailing disillusionment towards the political and economic elites. Now, 50% of the public supports the accession to the EU while 33% are against and look towards Russia, according to the Public Opinion Barometer.
For the Kremlin, Moldova is a strategic country. President Vladimir Putin, with his expansionist policy and his aspirations to return to Russia the role of great superpower that the USSR had, tries to maintain his influence over the former Soviet republics. And in Moldova it has important political and economic ties that serve as levers. As its role as the sole supplier of gas, emphasizes the energy expert Sergiu Tofilat.
In November, amid the global energy crisis due to rising prices, the pro-European Moldovan government declared a state of emergency after its agreement with the Russian gas company Gazprom expired and it was unable to close a new one at prices that the small country could afford. . Chisinau had been paying 170 euros for 1,000 cubic meters and happened to pay 680 euros. “A clear blackmail and punishment against the new government,” says Tofilat. “Moscow manages the gas tap to undermine the credibility of the new Executive and to open windows of influence in the population that add to the electoral interference and its propaganda in the media,” he says. The Kremlin and Gazprom have ensured that everything surrounding the Moldovan gas crisis is due to economic disagreements.
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Also in Brussels, they saw the gas chapter as the movement of one of Moscow’s most powerful tentacles, trying to gain a foothold in the country after the pro-European technocrat Maia Sandu, a 48-year-old former World Bank official, seized the presidency. Kremlin ally Igor Dodon last year and his party, Action and Solidarity, swept the parliamentarians last July. After weeks of crisis, Chisinau ended up reaching an agreement with Gazprom for 400 euros per 1,000 cubic meters over five years. A much less advantageous price than the Russian giant has signed with Belarus or Serbia, which pays about 238 euros. Despite this, the contract has raised the suspicions of analysts, who believe that the Kremlin has tried to obtain important concessions from Chisinau, such as curbing the impulse to approach Brussels. Already when Moldova signed the Association Treaty with the EU in 2014, Moscow restricted Moldovan imports.
The government of Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, a Harvard-educated reformist, has denied any concessions. And just a few weeks ago, Sandu, who repeated that Moldova wants to “build a Europe at home” as a formula for navigating between Moscow and the West, also made it clear that the country wants to be a member of the EU “one day”.
Alina Yunuspecova believes that Moldova should not choose between Russia and the community club. In a cafe with aesthetics eco-hipster From the center of Chisinau, the 26-year-old graphic designer assures that the path to enter the EU is long and with few guarantees; and that the ties with Moscow are quite powerful. “I don’t like politics very much, but now we have seen how the gas problem affects us,” he says. Yunuspecova was one of the tens of thousands of Moldovans who have left the country, expelled by the economic crisis and low salaries (the average salary is around 350 euros per month). Although after some time in the Baltics he decided to return and seek opportunities at home, he tells in Russian. Romanian is the official language of the country, and is spoken by four-fifths of its inhabitants (according to 2014 data), but Russian is also very widespread.
The EU has not given high hopes of membership to Moldova, which has yet to launch a series of substantial reforms in the economy, good governance and justice, to even be nominated as a candidate. But Brussels – which this summer has delivered an unprecedented economic recovery package of some 600 million euros to Chisinau – is trying to maintain close ties and collaboration with Moldova and the rest of the Eastern and Caucasian countries. Not only because of the benefits for the Union of maintaining democratic-minded neighbors in such a strategic area, but also to counteract the Russian strength, which has another important element of influence in Moldova, an anchor in a region that is turning increasingly to the West. : the Transnistria.
The Transnistria conflict
The region on the left bank of the Dniester River, recognized as part of Moldova by the international community (including Russia), declared itself independent in 1990. 31 years later, it is still trapped in the Cold War. After the brief war of 1992 in which hundreds of people died, Moscow financially supports Transnistria, where there was a majority Slavic population (Russians and Ukrainians), which has held several referenda for independence and to join Russia.
The territory has become a kind of theme park with Soviet aesthetics – although it has nothing to do with communism and the vast majority of the companies are in the hands of Viktor Gushan, the local oligarch, and his holding business Sheriff—, And in something like a Russian protectorate, which maintains in the enclave several bases and more than 1,500 soldiers that the Kremlin defines as “peacekeepers”, who also watch over the old powder kegs of the USSR. It is a military contingent that worries many. And even more so now when Western intelligence warns of a possible new Russian aggression against Ukraine. A few months ago, President Sandu reiterated her request to Moscow for the soldiers to withdraw, but the Kremlin has warned that changes in the the status quo of the region could “seriously destabilize” regional security.
In Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, in all official buildings the Russian flag flies along with that of this region. Tatiana Yegorova, 68, and her husband, Yuri, 80, don’t even want to hear about it. “You never know if there might be another conflict and with the ‘peacekeepers’ we feel safer,” says Yegorova, a retired programmer. In the enclave, which in Soviet times hosted a large part of the industry installed in the republic, there is also the main power station of Moldova. Its multi-million dollar debt for the gas that feeds it is one of the points in conflict between Chisinau and Gazprom. And the price of gas is cheaper in Transnistria than in other parts of the country: one ruble to nine, the Yegorovs say. In the living room of their apartment, next to the shelves overflowing with a large collection of the Russian classics that Yegorov appreciates so much, the couple assures that there are people from Chisinau who spend the winter in Transnistria, about 90 minutes by car, by energy prices. A narrative that local television (in the hands, like everything else of the owner of the holding Sheriff) and also the Russian comment regularly, although the Yegorovs don’t know anyone in that situation.
In Moldova, points out Ana Mihailov, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in the eastern country, a “vision of development and a rethinking of the economic model” are needed. Thanks to European funds and loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Chisinau has undergone a thorough facelift, has renovated many buildings and is working on improving the roads of the country, still eminently rural.
But if achieving macroeconomic stability and the painful transition from state-dominated economies to new paths has been challenging, eradicating endemic corruption is even more challenging, experts say. Moldova ranked 115 out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption perception index in 2020 (with number one being the least corrupt). It is also a challenge to increase trust towards the institutions of a citizenry traumatized by scandals such as the one known as the “robbery of the century”, in which more than 1,000 million dollars (the equivalent of an eighth of the gross domestic product) vanished. the country’s top three banks in 2014, causing an unprecedented crisis. Moldovan justice has already indicted several politicians and businessmen for this scandal; and now he is looking for the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, one of the country’s strong men, a great donor to the Democratic Party and who left the country a few years ago, in full scandal.
Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the European Council on International Relations, believes that it was mainly his intransigent speech against corruption that gave Maia Sandu’s party its significant victory, which accumulated votes from pro-EU people and also from voters without specific political preferences but deeply. tired of constant scandals. The Action and Solidarity Executive has also launched a technological development plan.
The engineer Anatoli Golovco assures that the growing sector of the new technologies can be one of the strengths of the country. “Another of our advantages is relations with Russia, we could be a bridge,” says Golovco, a university professor and businessman, in a restaurant in Chisinau, under the gaze of his wife, Irina, a specialized translator who has retrained as a stylist. Pragmatic, the couple also speak enthusiastically of the Sandu government and its anti-corruption program at all levels, from the one that led to the robbery of the century to the bites of doctors or middle-class officials. “We have lacked a vision of the country, we are still building ourselves,” says Irina. “Changes take time, sometimes you don’t see the quick result, but it’s there, they are here to stay,” he concludes.
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