Militarily neutral but with unequivocal European aspirations and with an economy heavily dependent on both the West and Russia, Moldova is Ukraine´s most fragile neighbour. Euronews Journalist Julián López Gómez went to the small nation to understand how the locals feel in the face of this current crisis.
What real risks is the country facing?
I´ve been dispatched there to try to find answers. I spent three days travelling across the country and meeting dozens of people: pro-Western and pro-Russian people, Moldovan and Russian speakers, government ministers and small business owners.
Immediately, I got the impression that I was in a country that was holding its breath.
My first appointment was with the Maxemchuk family in a park in Chișinău, Moldova’s capital. On the surface, they looked like they were on a relaxing Sunday outing, however tension and distress were palpable within this Moldovan-American household.
They tell me that, after living in this country for 19 years, their bags are ready should they need to leave the country.
“Most people here understand that it could very easily be us next. Moldova has a very similar geopolitical situation to Ukraine,” said John.
“But we do not have that many to defend. Ukrainians are brave. Ukrainian men and women, are defending themselves, those who stayed there,” added Aliona
John then remarked that Moldova is a tiny country, “The city of Kyiv has a larger population than Moldova, I think.”
At one point, Aliona couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. As she cried, she voiced her anguish.
The family embodies the fears and anxieties that the neighbouring war is creating in Moldova.
With a population of just 2.6 million people, this former Soviet republic is Europe’s poorest country. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, pro-Western and pro-Russian parties have heavily polarised national politics.
My next stop was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Moldovan Government Reaction in the face of the War
After vehemently condemning the Russian invasion, the pro-Western government officially applied for European Union membership. Nicu Popescu, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs told me the country truly felt how vulnerable it was.
Traditionally Eurosceptic and Russophile, the parliamentary opposition has so far contributed to this unity. I met an MP from the Party of the Socialists of Moldova (PSRM). The group has 22 MPs and it has repeatedly called for peace negotiations. The party has also proposed specific laws to develop Moldova´s status as a neutral nation, which is enshrined within their constitution.
“I think that as far as we keep on being neutral, we are safe,” says Adrian Lebedinschi. “There are the examples of countries such as Switzerland, Austria or Liechtenstein, and many others that announced their willingness to be neutral. This has allowed them so far to avoid taking part in any military conflict.”
Yet Moldova already hosts a latent military struggle. After a deadly war in the early 90s, the pro-Russian region of Transnistria declared independence. However to this day, no United Nation member state has recognised it. Russia deployed around 1,400 troops in that area and even established a consulate there. In response to the Moldovan request for European Union membership, the region renewed its plea for international recognition.
Moldova’s Separatist tensions
To understand the situation a little better, I travelled to the artificial border with Transnistria. I attempted to bring our cameras inside the separatist territory, unsuccessfully. Instead, I called a Russian IT engineer who lives in Tiraspol, the capital of the region.
“The atmosphere is not very bad. However, people do not know whom to support. They do not understand who is right and who is wrong. You know, in Pridnestrovia, (as the region is locally known), there are many Russian pensioners, and they get some money from Russia. This is the most problematic group of people. They are under stress,” says my contact, who prefers to remain anonymous.
He tells me that since the Russian invasion, he has lost half of his salary. I ask him if people in Transnistria are worried about their future.
“People worry about their careers, about daily life. But when we have a war so close to our borders, worries increase”, he replies. “People in Europe must understand that Transnistria is not an aggressor, Pridnestrovia is not aggressive. It is not any side. Pridnestrovia is always for peace.”
Transnistria is not the only place trying to soothe tensions. I next headed southeast to another sensitive region, just 35 kilometres away from the border with Ukraine.
Gagauzia is an autonomous territory with very close socio-political and cultural ties with Russia. In a referendum eight years ago, an overwhelming majority of local voters opted for even closer relations with the Russian Federation over EU integration.
However, these days, local authorities prefer to make themselves discreet on the subject of the war in Ukraine. At least, that was the impression I got after listening to Gheorghii Leiciu, Deputy Speaker at the National People’s Assembly of Gagauzia.
An Uncertain Future for Moldova
Although politically appeased, Moldova faces enormous social and economic turmoil. The neighbouring war has further weakened an economy that is still reeling from the pandemic and the energy crisis. Almost completely dependent on Russian energy, the country suffers from high inflation, stagnation and disrupted supply chains.
Adding to the list of challenges, Moldova’s population has increased by almost 4 percent, as hundreds of thousands of Ukraine refugees have sought safety within its borders. Moldovans have made huge efforts to help them.
As part of my report, I visited the largest shelter in the country. It used to serve as a COVID-19 hospital during the peak of the pandemic. On the day I visited, there were 600 mothers and children staying there.
Living relatively close to the shelter, the Maxemchuk family told me they were also actively involved in various aid programmes for refugees. Despite the dire geopolitical situation, they have decided to stay…for now.
“Whatever direction things will go, I think the power, the strength and the big hearts of the people are going to win. They have to win.” Aliona concludes, as she walked away with her husband, her four children and their black Labrador.