Lesser countries with lesser leaders have previously been hamstrung by wars on their doorsteps. Moldova, blessed with a president of steely determination, has instead made the most of a terrible situation.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, few countries in Europe can claim to have played as smart a hand as Moldova.
Sharing a long border with Ukraine, Moldova has become a frontline state of great interest to anyone following events in Central and Eastern Europe. At the beginning of the war there were even concerns that Russia might use its military base in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, to launch attacks on southern Ukraine.
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Since then, its hugely impressive president, Maia Sandu, has maneuvered Moldova carefully westwards, applying for membership of the European Union (Moldova was awarded candidate status in June 2022), and supporting Ukraine as much as the country’s constitutional neutrality allows.
Earlier this summer it successfully hosted the second meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), an informal body created last year following a plea from French President Emmanuel Macron calling for a new political organisation to unite democracies—both inside and outside of the EU—on the European continent.
The EPC summit was preceded by a rally in support of European Union membership, attended by tens of thousands of people.
“Moldovans know how to make the right choice because there is no family that does not have brothers or grandchildren in Europe,” Sandu told the crowd, a 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.”
Uncoupling from Russia
Moldova has taken the opportunity offered by an influx of support from Western allies to uncouple itself from Russia, both politically and economically. It has also quietly increased engagement with NATO, despite its constitutional neutrality. Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu attended NATO’s recent summit in Vilnius.
These efforts to uncouple from Russia took on new importance in February when President Sandu—who has suggested that the issue of Moldova’s neutrality could be reviewed—accused Russia of plotting to use foreign “saboteurs” to overthrow her pro-EU government.
In March, a secret Russian plan to destabilise Moldova—including supporting pro-Russian groups, utilising the Orthodox church and threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas—was obtained by various international press organisations appearing to confirm Sandu’s claims.
Sandu has since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine been a constant presence at international forums, warning continually that Russia poses a threat not just to Ukraine but to all of the countries of the region.
“Russia wants to remake the Soviet Union,” she said in May in an interview with the Financial Times.
Later that month, Prime Minister Dorin Recean confirmed that the country had fully weaned itself off Russian gas, saying that while at the start of the war 100 per cent of the energy consumed in Moldova originated in Russia, “today Moldova can exist with absolutely no natural gas or electricity from Russia”.
In June, Moldova banned the pro-Russian Șor party, founded by Ilan Șor, a controversial businessman convicted of fraud and currently living in exile in Israel, after the country’s constitutional court ruled that a wave of anti-government protests led by the party were “unconstitutional”.
Announcing the ruling, court chairman Nicolae Rosca cited an article in the constitution stating that parties must through their activities uphold political pluralism, the rule of law and the territorial integrity of Moldova.
Welcoming the court’s decision, Sandu said: “A political party created out of corruption and for corruption is a threat to the constitutional order and security of the state.”
Moldova has also this year taken steps to withdraw from some of the institutions of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—a Moscow-led intergovernmental organisation—that were perpetuating Russian influence in the country.
According to the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), however, full withdrawal is not on the agenda, as Moldova derives economic benefits from cooperating with some member countries.
A further signal of Russia’s waning influence in the country was sounded on July 26 when Moldova announced that it was expelling dozens of Russian diplomats and other embassy staff, citing “numerous unfriendly actions against the Republic of Moldova, as well as attempts to destabilise the internal situation in the country”.
The total will be cut from 84 to just 25—a figure much closer to the number Moldova has at its own embassy in Moscow.
“For many years we have been the subject of hostile Russian actions and policies. Many of them were made through the embassy,” said Foreign Minister Popescu, explaining the decision, made in the wake of media reports of new surveillance equipment being installed on the roof of the Russian embassy in Chişinău and a neighbouring building used by Russia.
Making the most of a bad situation
Despite a solid economic performance over the past two decades, Moldova remains among the poorest countries in Europe, according to the World Bank.
Moldova’s economy contracted sharply in 2022, GDP falling 5.9 per cent, although it is expected to return to growth in 2023. Inflation, which reached 30 per cent in 2022, is on its way down but is likely to remain high with consumer prices rising by as much as 14 per cent in 2023.
EU support for Moldova will remain crucial to ensuring that the country can fully complete its uncoupling from Russia.
In June, the EU unveiled a new support package meant to mitigate the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on Moldova and “bring the country closer” to the bloc.
“Moldova has stood firmly in solidarity and in defence of European values. And despite the enormous consequences Russia’s war of aggression is having on the country, Moldova is taking great strides to advance on its European future,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Several key EU initiatives in support of Moldova are already delivering results. European and Moldovan telecom operators have signed a first voluntary agreement to lower data and voice roaming charges that will help connect citizens and businesses.
The Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) meanwhile, set to mobilise up to 1.6 billion euros in public and private investments for flagship projects, is already delivering on projects being rolled out, worth more than 670 million euros, in key sectors such as supporting SMEs, energy efficiency and investments in infrastructure. Other initiatives include Moldova’s participation in the EU’s joint gas purchase platform.
Lesser countries with lesser leaders have previously been hamstrung by wars on their doorsteps. Moldova, neutral but blessed with a president of steely determination, has instead made the most of a terrible situation.
Photo: Maia Sandu and Volodymyr Zelensky at June’s EPC Summit, held in Moldova. © European Union.
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