No, there is no celebration in Chisinau during these historic days for the country. Because there was this arrow on a map that the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko presented to his Security Council in early March. And what arrows symbolize on a map like this had just become bloody reality in Ukraine. The arrows reached from Donbass to central Ukraine, from Belarus to north-west Ukraine, from Russia to east Ukraine, from Crimea to Odessa – and from there straight to the Republic of Moldova.
And then there are the direct threats from the Russian side, including loud saber-rattling in Moldova’s breakaway, pro-Russian region of Transnistria.
Brussels signaled solidarity and promised candidate status, which was awarded at the EU summit on Thursday evening, as was the case with Ukraine. But there is no euphoria in the capital Chisinau. “There is hope,” as Daniela Domici, a filmmaker, puts it. However, this hope goes hand in hand with a lot of uncertainty: “We don’t know how things will change.” And there is a long way to go before accession.
It is this uncertainty that dominates. The EU’s recent decision to open its doors to Moldova appears to many to be just a small step, the beginning of an arduous and contentious process.
For Mihail Popsoi, however, the decision is at least a “moral incentive”. The 35-year-old is the speaker of the parliament and is one of the leaders of the ruling Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), which provides President Maia Sandu and the government. “Of course we would have preferred it if this process had taken place in times of peace,” he says. “But history doesn’t pick points in time.”
In this geopolitical context, there is no alternative for the EU but to involve Ukraine and Moldova. According to Popsoi, hesitation in Brussels would immediately be interpreted by the aggressor in a situation like this as a “sign of weakness”.
When Moldova’s western-leaning President Sandu took office in December 2020, there was no pandemic. The war in Ukraine was deadlocked, as Moldova has known since the 1990s with the breakaway pro-Russian region of Transnistria. When the PAS won an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections in the summer of 2021, a war like the one raging in Ukraine today seemed just as unreal as Moldova joining the EU.
For the first time in years, after many years of political instability, the country had a solid reform government with Sandu as a level-headed and Western-oriented president and a clear parliamentary majority. Even when Russia cut off the gas to Moldova in autumn 2021, it still looked like “business as usual” in dealing with Russia.
But today the situation is different, the tensions are enormous. Russian soldiers are stationed in Transnistria, officially 1,500, but probably several thousand. The threat posed by this Russian military presence in the country is real.
Not only do the arrows on Lukashenko’s map make this clear, there was also a series of unexplained explosions in Transnistria. Western experts suspected Russia behind it. In fact, in April there were direct threats from Moscow and warnings of a scenario in which Russia would have to “intervene”.
After Moldova’s government criminalized Russian war propaganda and banned the broadcasting of Russian TV channels, Moscow followed suit. According to Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov, Sandu will end up in the “dustbin of history”: “She should be more cautious about Russia and its symbols, especially since Chisinau cannot pay for Russian gas.”
Sandu still sticks to her clear line. In March she had already called for the withdrawal of Russian troops before the United Nations. Parliament President Popsoi describes the danger of a Russian attack at this point in time as “fortunately theoretical”. So far there is no evidence of a direct threat. He describes Moldova’s status as an EU candidate as a new geopolitical reality.
But membership is a long way off. Problems abound: corruption, an inefficient and politicized judiciary, and ethnic and political tensions in the country itself. In Gagauzia, for example, a Turkic-speaking but Russia-friendly autonomous region in the border triangle between Romania and Ukraine in southern Moldova, secession tendencies are stirring again. The conflict in Transnistria has been deadlocked for decades.
All of this in a country of just 2.6 million people struggling with declining population and chronic emigration. “It will probably be a very long time before Moldova actually joins the EU,” says Popsoi. “But we are committed to the goal.”