CHISINAU, Moldova — Before war broke out next door, Moldovans had big plans for their country.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has placed Moldova, a former Soviet republic and one of the poorest countries in Europe, in an extremely vulnerable situation, threatening its economic development, straining its society with waves of refugees and evoking existential fears of a new Russian occupation.
The jitters of war also add another chapter to Moldova’s long and increasingly desperate efforts to extricate itself from the clutches of Moscow. In pursuit of this, he recently applied to join the European Union, but the prospect of being admitted anytime soon is remote.
“We are a fragile country in a fragile region,” said Maia Sandu, President of Moldova, in an interview.
Moldovan fears rose again on Friday, when a Russian general said his country’s army now plans to seize the entire southern coast of Ukraine. This would establish a land bridge between Russia in the east and Transnistria, a heavily armed breakaway region east of Moldova – bordering Ukraine – controlled by Russia.
Whether Russia has the means to gobble up such a large swathe of Ukrainian territory is debatable, especially given the huge losses suffered by its army in the Battle of kyiv. But whether it’s real or just an effort to stir up trouble in the region, Moldovans take the general’s threat seriously.
The Moldovan government has long been concerned about Transnistria, a thin strip of territory controlled by at least 12,000 Russian separatists and soldiers. Since the war broke out, the Moldovan and Ukrainian militaries have faced the added concern of whether the Transnistrians would rush into battle and begin attacking Ukraine from the west. So far this has not happened.
Nestled between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is tiny – with less than three million people – and for centuries has been torn between bigger powers: first the Ottomans and Russia, and now Europe. and Russia. The theme, clearly, is Russia, and Russia does not want to let go.
Moscow exercises control over nearly 100% of Moldova’s energy supply. And the Kremlin is constantly trying to excite the many Russian speakers in Moldova who are sensitive to its propaganda, especially in Transnistria.
This seemed to have happened on Friday, when, according to Russian media, Major General Rustam Minnekayev said: “Russian control over southern Ukraine is another route to Transnistria, where there is has cases of Russian speakers. people are oppressed.
The Moldovan government immediately summoned the Russian ambassador to complain about the general’s statement, saying it was “not only unacceptable but also unfounded” and led to “increased tension”.
For Ms Sandu, 49, the country’s first female president, it was another hurdle on a dangerous path she has been trying to navigate since the crisis began.
Moldova has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and banned Moldovans from sticking pro-Russian symbols on their cars. At the same time, the country has not fully adhered to European Union sanctions against Russia for fear of being cut off from Russian gas.
“No one said it would be easy,” Ms Sandu, 49, said from her office on Stefan cel Mare, the capital’s grand boulevard, Chisinau, past a patchwork of towering stylish office buildings Soviet. “But nobody said it was going to be that hard.”
The war has been hard not only for her but for almost everyone here. Before hostilities began, Adrian Trofim, whose family owns a 19th-century wine estate and country resort, thought he was finally getting a break after two years of struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. He was adding a wing to the hotel, setting up a spa focused on wine-based treatments, and preparing to produce sparkling wine.
But now its operations have fallen into jeopardy. Brandy worth a quarter of a million dollars that it needs to ship to Belarus has been stuck in its warehouses. His regular Ukrainian customers have no way of paying him, which is still costing him several hundred thousand dollars. And he can’t ship his chardonnays to China, one of his newest markets, because the port of Odessa, Ukraine, which he uses for his exports, closed as soon as the first bombs fell in February.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Mr. Trofim, who may soon have to lay off nearly half of his staff. “Everything is frozen until we figure out how to live with this situation.”
It might take some time. When the war started in Ukraine, residents of Chisinau said they were woken up by the sound of explosions not so far away. Then Ukrainian refugees began to pour in – more than 400,000 arrived, Moldovan officials said – straining public services in a country where the average annual income is less than $6,000.
Commodity prices then spiked as supply chains were disrupted. And business owners have had to persuade their employees, terrified that war might enter Moldova, not to flee the country, following the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who have moved abroad over the past of the last decade.
“We were already considered high risk,” said Carmina Vicol, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moldova. “We had just started convincing investors to give us a try. Now everyone has backed off.
It’s not all bad news. Some Ukrainian companies are planning to settle in Moldova, in search of a safer environment. And with the arrival of all the foreign dignitaries (and press crews), its international profile has improved, leading the government last month to rebrand Moldova as “a small country with a big heart”.
Many Russians discovered this big heart a long time ago. In Soviet times, retired officers flocked to Moldova, drawn by the scenery, good food and sunshine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was ruled by pro-Russian elites, who maintained close ties with Moscow, especially in energy matters.
Moldova gets all of its gas from companies controlled by Russia. And even though Moldovan leaders have talked about weaning the country off Russian gas and getting energy from other countries like Azerbaijan, Turkey and Romania, none of those, for now, could get closer to what Russia provides.
And so Russia continues to use its grip on gas prices to push Moldova. Russia has hinted, for example, that it would lower prices if Moldova agreed to make concessions on Transnistria, which Moldova refused.
The twin problems of Moldova, energy and Transnistria, are linked. In Soviet times, the largest power plant in Moldova and its two largest gas pumping stations were built in Transnistria.
“If you look at the map, it doesn’t make sense,” said Victor Parlicov, an energy analyst and former government official. “It was built that way in case Moldova tries to go its own way.”
Transnistria has its own flag, with a Soviet-style hammer and sickle, and a separate identity from the rest of Moldova. Its roots date back to the 1920s, when the Soviet Union carved out a small republic for itself in the same region, before incorporating parts of it into the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic during World War II. Mr Parlicov said this fit a pattern of Soviet authorities reshaping the borders of the republics in relation to historical realities, which created the potential for conflict.
The situation in Transnistria mirrors that of Ukraine’s Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists rebelled after the 2014 anti-Russian rebellion, triggering a series of events that led to war. Transnistria also complicates Moldova’s aspirations to join the European Union.
“We would be happy to be part of the EU,” said Serghei Diaconu, deputy interior minister. But, he added, half-jokingly, Transnistria was “a big pain” that could discourage the EU from accepting Moldova.
Joining NATO would be an even bigger order. Neutrality is enshrined in Moldova’s constitution, a holdover from the early 1990s, when it tried to stand its ground without upsetting Russia. Today, Moldova’s leaders question the wisdom of this approach.
“If you ask me if neutrality is going to keep us safe, I don’t know,” said Ms. Sandu, the president. “It hasn’t helped over the past three decades to convince Russia to withdraw its troops from the country.”
The geopolitical tightrope the country is forced to walk on, in the eyes of many Moldovans, means that its future is intertwined with that of Russia. Mr. Trofim, the winemaker, for his part, said almost half of his business depends on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Looking out over the vast, manicured cellar gardens, empty except for a few visitors, he said he was appalled at what Russia had done in Ukraine, but could not condemn anyone forever.
“I can’t say that I will never do business with Russia,” Mr. Trofim said. “It’s a question of the well-being of my business.”