Tens of thousands of Moldovans rallied in Chișinău on May 21 in support of European Union membership. While relations between Chișinău and Moscow are at their worst in three decades, Moldova will need to overcome pushback from pro-Russian factions in Transnistria and Gagauzia to meet its ambitious 2030 EU accession goal.
An estimated 80,000 Moldovans rallied on May 21 in Chișinău’s city centre as Moldovan President Maia Sandu and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola spoke of a European future for the country of 2.6 million.
“Moldovans know how to make the right choice because there is no family that does not have brothers or grandchildren in Europe,” Sandu declared to the sea of EU, Ukrainian, and Moldovan flags. “We know that peace and prosperity are in Europe. Moldova will join the European Union, and this must happen by 2030.”
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Sandu ran for president in 2016 on a pro-EU platform but was defeated in a run-off against the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon. She briefly served as prime minister in 2019 and challenged Dodon again in the 2020 presidential election, winning the rematch. Sandu is Moldova’s first female president.
During Sandu’s presidency, Moldova has begun the process of leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States—a Eurasian organisation viewed in the West as being dominated by Moscow—and applied for EU membership with Ukraine and Georgia in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The European Council awarded Moldova and Ukraine the status of EU candidates in June 2022.
“In the European Parliament, we recognise the great efforts your country has made to implement the European Commission’s nine steps for reform and to align itself with the EU acquis,” Metsola told the crowd in Chișinău. “Moldova is already ready for deeper integration in the EU single market.”
The EU has for some time been the most important trade partner of Moldova. In 2022, the value of the products that reached the EU increased by 32 per cent compared to 2021. Russia is now only Moldova’s fourth largest trade partner, behind the EU, Ukraine and Turkey.
EU future hinges on overcoming challenges of past and present
Moldova has been vocally supportive of neighbouring Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 although the country is bound by its constitution to remain neutral. Russia retains a small military presence in Moldova, in the breakaway region of Transnistria.
While Russia annexed Crimea and began a conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, the Russian troops within Moldova’s international borders date back to the early 1990s. As the USSR began its collapse and the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime in neighbouring Romania fell, talk about a union between Romania and Moldova—which has an ethnic Romanian majority—prompted the Gagauz and Russian national minorities in the then Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic to launch their own fights for independence.
The Gagauz Republic and Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic—more commonly called Transnistria—declared their independence in 1990. Neither received international recognition, but Russian troops supported Transnistria in its war with pro-Moldova forces until the fighting ended in 1992. Today, 1,500 Russian troops remain in the unrecognised breakaway state of Transnistria, which occupies a sliver of land along the border with Ukraine and is home to 465,000 people.
“We are struggling to have peaceful resolution of the conflict, and we’ve been calling on Russia to withdraw its illegally stationed troops”, said Sandu on May 18. “We need a geopolitical opportunity to be able to solve the conflict.”
EU accession will likely require new agreements between Chișinău and Transnistria.
The Gagauz Republic disestablished in 1994 and agreed to peacefully rejoin Moldova as an autonomous territory. Gagauzia, today home to 140,000 people, elected a pro-Russia leader earlier this month—setting the stage for clashes with Sandu over Moldova’s future.
A poll in February found that 53.5 per cent of Moldovans would vote for EU membership while 23.8 per cent favour the Eurasian Economic Union—of which Russia is the largest economy.
Moldova had long sought to avoid conflict with Russia by maintaining its constitutional neutrality. It abstained from applying for EU and NATO membership in the early 2000s, when many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe—including its western neighbour, Romania—joined both organisations.
Since Moldova vocally sided with Ukraine in the war and applied for EU membership, Russia has sought to destabilise it. Russian strikes have caused blackouts and Gazprom cut its gas supplies to Moldova by a third. Inflation in Moldova hit 34 per cent late last year, and many Moldovans had to pay 70 per cent of their household income on utilities.
On May 18, however, Moldova said that it is no longer using Russian natural gas or electricity. Prime Minister Dorin Recean said that, “If at the start of the war 100 per cent of energy consumed in Moldova originated in… Russia, today Moldova can exist with absolutely no natural gas or electricity from Russia.
“Moldova no longer consumes Russian gas, it is integrated in the European energy network both technically and commercially.”
In February, Ukrainian and Moldovan leaders announced they had intercepted plans by the Kremlin to use saboteurs to stage a coup to replace the government in Chișinău with a pro-Russian one. Russia, in turn, claimed Ukraine was planning to attack Transnistria.
“Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” said Sandu.
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