Ukraine’s neutral neighbor Moldova faces difficult elections while Russia’s war continues: NPR


A soldier and a woman walk past the headquarters of Russian troops in September 2021 in the city of Tiraspol in the Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian region that declared independence from Moldova but which is not internationally recognized. Russia has deployed 1,500 troops in the area.


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A soldier and a woman walk past the headquarters of Russian troops in September 2021 in the city of Tiraspol in the Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian region that declared independence from Moldova but which is not internationally recognized. Russia has deployed 1,500 troops in the area.

CHISINAU, Moldova – Ion Manole, a human rights lawyer here, received a phone call before dawn on February 24 from a colleague who asked him to open his window so he could hear the sound of Russian missiles exploding in the distance.

At first, Manole believed that Russian troops were attacking this small, Eastern European country, which lies between Ukraine and Romania. Manole, which runs Promo-LEX, a human rights organization, has won dozens of cases against Russia over atrocities in Trans-Dniester, a separatist region in Moldova that is home to about 1,500 Russian troops.

Manole feared that if Russian soldiers came to Chisinau, they would detain him.

“Everyone was scared,” he says, referring to people in the Moldovan capital. “We prepared our luggage to be able to leave.”

In fact, the explosions came that morning from the other side of the border in Ukraine. But the war next door has only underlined Moldova’s precarious position as Eastern Europe’s most vulnerable frontline state. It has also sparked a national conversation about how one of Europe’s poorest countries can protect itself in what has become a very dangerous neighborhood.

Moldova is an agricultural nation of vineyards, wheat fields and forests with a gross domestic product per capita. per capita at about $ 4,500, just below Guatemala, according to the World Bank.

When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in late February, many here feared they could continue into Moldova and push to make it a pro-Moscow buffer state between an enlarged Russia and NATO. Former Moldovan officials cite President Vladimir Putin’s position on former Soviet republics such as this.

“Putin’s global ambition is to rebuild, in one form or another, the Soviet Union,” said Alexandru Flenchea, who served as deputy prime minister for the reintegration of Trans-Dniester (also commonly known as Transnistria) into the rest of the country.


A border crossing between the Moldovan agricultural village of Dorotcaia and Trans-Dniester, a Russian-speaking unrecognized breakaway state home to 1,500 Russian troops.

Frank Langfitt / NPR


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Frank Langfitt / NPR

Flenchea says the Russian leader sees a nation like Moldova – or Ukraine for that matter – as not really legitimate: “A country that accidentally became a country because of what he called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in history: the collapse of the Soviet Union For Putin, countries like Moldova and the Baltic states and even Poland – they are not nations that have the right to be sovereign countries. “

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the Moldovan government condemned the attack. Last month, Moldova, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics all applied to join the European Union.

Moldova’s neutrality is in doubt

Moldova, which is geographically just slightly larger than Maryland, has sought security through a policy of neutrality that has sided with neither Russia nor NATO.

But in the face of the war in Ukraine, Igor Grosu, the chairman of the Moldovan parliament, says that politics are no longer enough and that his country now needs security guarantees from great powers.


Igor Grosu, chairman of the Moldovan parliament, says the country’s traditional policy of neutrality no longer provides adequate protection and that Moldova now needs security guarantees from the great powers.

Frank Langfitt / NPR


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Frank Langfitt / NPR

“I think the notion of neutrality in terms of guarantees will change dramatically,” Grosu says through a translator. “It does not work.”

Grosu did not specify what such security guarantees might look like, but one of the country’s former deputy foreign ministers, Iulian Groza, comes up with some thoughts. Groza, who runs the Institute for European Policies and Reforms, a think tank in Chisinau, says Moldova needs to develop a closer relationship with Europe. He says EU member states and NATO allies can help Moldova. It includes the sale of weapons to the Moldovan military, which has only about 6,000 troops and is not seen as a serious combat force.

“It is [also] about the chain of everything connected with defense capabilities, “says Groza,” medical infrastructure, training, equipment … professionalization of our army. “

Once part of Romania, some Moldovans want to reunite

At various points, Moldova has been part of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and Romania. Moldova declared independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. Some Moldovans say the country may be too small to survive alone, and the solution is to reunite with neighboring Romania, with which it shares a common language. Romania is also a member of the EU and NATO.

“This is perhaps, from my point of view, the best choice,” Iurie Renita, who served as Moldova’s ambassador to NATO, said of the reunification. “You join the EU immediately, but most importantly … you are under the NATO umbrella.”


Iurie Renita, who served as Moldova’s ambassador to NATO, says Moldova should protect itself by reuniting with Romania, which is a member of the EU and NATO.

Frank Langfitt / NPR


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Frank Langfitt / NPR

But reunification faces major obstacles. Although support has grown over the past five years, only about 44% of Moldovans support it, according to a recent poll. Of course, Russia would certainly protest if Moldova tried to use reunification with Romania as a backdoor route into NATO.

A third option for Moldova is to remain neutral and try not to provoke Russia.

Ion Chicu, who served as Moldova’s prime minister from 2019 to 2020, says the country does not need to buy weapons and that any attempt to join NATO would be unwise. After all, Putin cited Ukraine’s intention to join the military alliance as a reason for Russia’s attack.

Chicu also says it is naive to think that other nations will come to the aid of a small country like Moldova. Its population is about 3 million, according to the news analysis website Balkan Insight, plus maybe another million or more working outside its borders. Chicu says a country of this size does not really rate what he describes as a power struggle between Russia and the United States.

“Let’s put it bluntly,” Chicu says, “no one wants to protect us.”

“Ukraine became a battleground between two major geopolitical powers. That’s the reality. That’s exactly what happened back in … Korea, Vietnam or Syria.”

Russian troops are stationed on territory claiming independence from Moldova

When it comes to Russia, Moldova has a number of concerns. In addition to the estimated 1,500 Russian troops in the Trans-Dniester, there are also at least 8,000 Trans-Dniester troops in the breakaway region, which shares a 250-kilometer border with Ukraine.


A church in the Moldovan agricultural village of Dorotcaia near the border with Trans-Dniester, a Russian-speaking unrecognized breakaway state that is home to 1,500 Russian troops.

Frank Langfitt / NPR


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Frank Langfitt / NPR

The area moved to separation from Moldova in the early 1990s in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trans-Dniester, loyal to the USSR, fought a brief war with Moldovan troops. Russian soldiers intervened on the Transnistrian side. The fighting forces reached a ceasefire in 1992, and Trans-Dniester declared itself a republic, although it remained internationally unrecognized. Last month, the Council of Europe described Trans-Dniester as a Russian-occupied territory.


Warriors from the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester Republic aim on March 30, 1992 near the village of Dubasari from their trenches against Moldovan soldiers during clashes between Russian-backed separatists and Moldovan forces.

Michael Estafiev / AFP via Getty Images


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Michael Estafiev / AFP via Getty Images


Warriors from the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester Republic aim on March 30, 1992 near the village of Dubasari from their trenches against Moldovan soldiers during clashes between Russian-backed separatists and Moldovan forces.

Michael Estafiev / AFP via Getty Images

Trans-Dniester has strategic value for Russia. For example, Putin could use Moldova’s energy dependence on Russia and Trans-Dniester to put pressure on the country’s pro-Western government.

“We get about 75% of our electrical energy from a Transnistria-Russia-owned energy plant,” said Andrei Popov, an official at Moldova’s Foreign Ministry. “This gives Russia a very strong lever, and should this be interrupted, we will be in a very difficult situation.”

Moldova, which is without land, is also dependent on Russia for 100% of its natural gas. Sergiu Tofilat, an energy analyst, says that needs to change.

“We need to convince our society, which is very divided among pro-Russians and pro-Europeans, that relying on Russian gas is not normal,” Tofilat said. “It’s like funding the Russian army, which is killing Ukrainians who are fighting for our independence.”

Tofilat says it will not be easy to develop new energy suppliers given the high cost these days. It is especially difficult for Moldova because of the country’s small economy, but Tofilat says it is a price his country has to pay for its own security.

NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this story.

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