Growing fear of Russia sparks unease in Moldova

CHISINAU, Moldova (AFP): Tensions have been running high in pro-Western Moldova after allegations of Moscow’s attempts to destabilize the country came to light last week.

Facing multiple crises aggravated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, the impoverished former Soviet republic of 2.6 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine these days has to tackle the following key issues:

On Monday, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu accused Russia of plotting to violently overthrow her government through saboteurs disguised as anti-government protesters, claims which Russia denied.

Moscow’s alleged plan would also envisage “attacks on state institutions and taking hostages.”

Moldova is already wrestling with an energy crisis prompted by supply cuts from Russia’s targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, and tensions have flared up due to missile overflights connected to the war in Ukraine.

“Moldova is under hybrid attacks,” the country’s new Prime Minister Dorin Recean said Thursday.

“We fought against these threats last autumn, but a new, stronger wave is just beginning,” he warned.

Security measures have since been beefed up.

On Tuesday, Moldova’s airspace was temporarily closed as a result of an “unidentified flying object,” while a football match on Thursday was held behind closed doors over fears that agitators would mingle with supporters from Serbia.

“Russia is flexing its muscles and this latest attempt is probably the most serious one” since the beginning of the war, said Stefan Wolff, an expert on post-Soviet societies and professor at the University of Birmingham.

Overall “the prospect of an actual invasion is very limited,” Wolff told AFP, but the country needs to be “prepared for all eventualities” in the face of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who “does not seem to operate by our standards of rationality.”

Moscow still maintains troops in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, but their number remains “relatively small.”

The unrecognized region seceded from Moldova in 1990 after a brief war in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conflict has been frozen since 1992.

The greatest benefits that Russia possibly gains from its actions is to “create more uncertainties, and weaken the resolve” of Moldova and its European partners in their fight alongside Ukraine, Wolff explains.

Moldova’s parliament on Thursday voted in a new government led by Dorin Recean after the surprise resignation of its former prime minister Natalia Gavrilita citing a lack of party support.

“The government eroded due to several crises and had a negative image. There was a need for a reset,” said political analyst Valeriu Pasha of the Chisinau-based think tank Watchdog.

Moldovans had high expectations of Sandu’s presidency, which ended up not being “fulfilled” as the country grappled with “massive problems,” Wolff said.

Implementing reforms in the poor country, which has suffered a brain drain connected to a dramatic depopulation set in motion since the end of communism, is a difficult task.

Moldova became an official candidate to be considered for entry into the European Union in June 2022, and has welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past year, Moldova has been faced with numerous anti-government protests organized by the party of fugitive pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor.

A fresh rally is scheduled to take place on Sunday in Chisinau.

Dissatisfied with Moldova’s shift toward the West, Moscow tries to manipulate the “anxiety of the people” for its own goals, Wolff explains.

Ilan Shor is a key player in Russia’s efforts, utilising his monetary means of undeclared origin to carry out “destabilization, organize disinformation groups, and pay people to protest,” Pasha said.

In October 2022, Israeli-born businessman-turned-populist politician Shor was sanctioned by Washington for interference in favor of Russia and corruption.

According to recent polls, Shor’s party is averaging around 12 to 13 percent, representing a relatively significant support, given that pro-Russian sentiments have been declining since the start of the conflict.