The Republic of Moldova proclaimed its independence in the wake of the breakdown of the USSR, but also as a result of the national rebirth movement at the end of the 1980s. In the 30 years that have since lapsed, Moscow has used a number of pressure points – a population with a doubtful identity, the frozen conflict in Transnistria, the monopoly on natural gas, its political clientele, etc. – in order to uphold its influence in the area between the Prut and the Dniester rivers.
A population with a doubtful identity
In 1812, at the end of a new Russo-Turkish War, eastern Moldavia, subsequently renamed Bessarabia, which is more or less modern-day Moldova, was annexed by the Tsarist Empire. It came with a campaign of Russification, particularly in urban areas, whereas the southern regions, the steppes of Budjak, were populated with Gagauz and Bulgarian communities. According to a study, the share of the Romanian population in the region dropped from 78% in 1817 to 52% 80 years later, the number of Russians went up from 2% to 6%, whilst Bulgarian and Gagauz communities doubled their numbers.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the former gubernya proclaimed its independence for a short while. Then, the Country Council (Parliament) decided on the unification of Bessarabia with Romania on March 27, 1918. The Bolsheviks refused to recognize the union, and over the course of the interwar period they turned up the pressure, spread propaganda and finally used military force to bring the region into the USSR fold. This period saw the birth of the myth of the Romanian gendarme who tortured and taunted the local population. It was also during this time that the authorities started promoting the idea of the Moldovan people and language, as opposed to Romanian.
Following the occupation of Bessarabia in 1940, a second, more aggressive wave of Russification swept across all walks of life – from education and the administration, to culture and the integration of citizens from other regions of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine in particular, in key leadership positions.
The separatist blackmail
In 1924, the USSR decided it needed a bridgehead in order to effectively launch its reoccupation campaign in Bessarabia. Hence it founded the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic left of the Dniester. The new polity was used also to promote theses about the Moldovan language and people. Once Bessarabia and Bukovina fell into the hands of the USSR, part of their former territory was incorporated into the newly-founded Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. It included the territory of Bessarabia, except for three counties in the south, which were annexed by Ukraine. The region left of the Dniester was highly industrialized and Russified during the Soviet period, and started being perceived as an integral part of Moldova. When the USSR collapsed, Transnistria proclaimed its independence in 1990 (a year before the Republic of Moldova would do the same), invoking “the danger of uniting with Romania”. During the same period, Gagauzia, another region that saw high levels of Russification, also emerged as a republic, except they did reach a consensus with Chișinău authorities. The 1994 Constitution granted Gagauzia the status of autonomous region.
Transnistrian separatists have been supported by the Russian Federation, directly or indirectly. Russian forces fought in the brief 1992 conflict in this region, which eventually reached a stalemate. The conflict continues to be frozen in the region, which is home to a huge military depot, estimated to contain a few thousand tons of munition, which Russia pledged to decommission ever since the end of the 1990s, without ever keeping its word. The region is being led by a separatist regime, loyal to Moscow, which provides financial assistance to the local population. Most people here are Russian citizens as well. Negotiations over a resolution of the conflict have been dragging on for nearly three decades. Moreover, some voices claim the political elite in Chișinău never wanted to solve the conflict in the first place, accusing them of conducting business and smuggling in the region, which people call “Europe’s black hole”. One of the most controversial “scams” in recent years revolves around the delivery of electricity. It is being produced by a company with Russian capital and then sold on the left-hand side of the Dniester. The energy production process uses Russian gas, for which the separatist government pays nothing, but which accrues as Moldovan debt, which has now reached approximately 7 billion USD.
In recent years, the local population has also been used for election purposes by pro-Russian parties and politicians, and Moscow uses the Transnistrian conflict to gain political, diplomatic and even military leverage over Chișinău.
Economic pressure points
After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Moldova retained most of its dependence on Russia and other CSI countries, on which it relied on for raw materials, hardware, fuel, and which also served as an outlet for its products. Up until 1998, when Russia was affected by a deep economic crisis, over 60% of Moldovan exports were Russian-bound, and over 70% targeted CSI markets.
Even after 1998, Russia remained an important market and did not hesitate to use its position as a political weapon. It’s what happened in 2006, when Russia blocked Moldovan wine exports, 70% of which were delivered to Russia. The embargo was introduced because the communist regime at the time was showing signs of cooperating with the EU. The same happened in 2014 as well. For a short while, after Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the EU, Russia imposed tax duties for Moldovan agricultural products. Over 2019-2020, it waived some of the bans, which the former pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, capitalized on in his election campaign.
The Republic of Moldova’s economic dependency on Russia waned over the years. In 2020, less than 9% of Moldovan exports are bound to Russia, and 15% to CSI states (including Russia). Nevertheless, some goods, such as apples and wine, still depend on the Russian market to a large extent.
Whereas overall economic dependency on Russia went down, the same cannot be said of natural gas…
The gas monopoly
A former speaker of the Moldovan Parliament, Communist MP Eugenia Ostapciuc, urged Moldovans and the political opposition in the early 2000s to remember “where the gas is coming from”.
The Republic of Moldova has no energy resources of its own, which is why it is purchasing 100% of its gas demands from Gazprom. Moscow has often employed its monopoly to blackmail Chișinău, which is exactly what it did in 2006, for instance. The situation is further complicated today by the fact that Russia claims the Republic of Moldova is in its debt for the natural gas supplies delivered free of charge to Transnistria.
Furthermore, some politicians are using the topic to push their electoral and political agendas. The best example is Igor Dodon, who boasted about securing a reduction of natural gas tariffs in 2020, when prices actually dropped due to the fluctuations on international markets. Right now, as experts expect gas prices to soar starting this autumn, the Socialists will blame the increase on the anti-Russian policy of Maia Sandu’s administration.
The Republic of Moldova has been trying to diversify its resources by means of a gas pipeline, built jointly with Romania using European funds. However, the pipeline is yet to be rendered fully operational. When it does, it’s very likely the pipeline will be transporting Russian gas.
The fifth column
For 18 of its 30 years of independence, the Republic of Moldova was ruled by three presidents, all former Soviet party members. Most politicians who took up key positions in the state apparatus, irrespective of their political affiliation, have always stayed mindful of Russia, some to a greater extent than others – Igor Dodon, for instance, visited the Russian Federation dozens of times over the course of his term in office. He met with Vladimir Putin 14 times and had 130 meetings with the Russian ambassador to Chișinău and other Moscow officials.
There was a saying in Chișinău that whoever managed to get a picture with Putin during the campaign or shake his hand would win the election. But this wouldn’t be the effect of some miraculous power of the Russian president. It was a clear signal for pro-Russian voters as to who Moscow was backing.
In 2003, Russia came close to imposing the federalization of the Republic of Moldova, by means of the former communist president, Vladimir Voronin, who during the first part of his term in office promised Moldova would join the Russia-Belarus customs union. The federalization plan was subsequently promoted by Igor Dodon’s Socialists, who were also forced to back off due to the people’s opposition.
Apart from the politicians who are overtly pro-Moscow, there are also those who act from the shadows. One such example is Iurie Roșca, the former leader of the national liberation movement, a unionist and anti-communist who in 2005 voted to get Vladimir Voronin re-elected as president, and in 2014 was described by Aleksandr Dugin as “a friend of Russia”.
In 2017, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova passed the Information Security Concept, which used nearly all the letters in the alphabet to describe the categories of threats in this field. This followed repeated warnings from civil society and experts over the dangers posed by Russian propaganda and the growing influence of Russian media in the Republic of Moldova.
A study conducted in 2020 shows that, despite restrictions on broadcasting Russian channels, 70% of participants said they watch TV programmes produced in Russia.
In the Republic of Moldova, cable networks continue to be dominated by Russian or Russian-content channels. Another study, completed in 2018, revealed that Russian propaganda is also being disseminated via social media. According to this study, the share of Odnoklassniki messages accounted for 57% of the total number of messages analyzed by researchers.
The Republic of Moldova is the country from Central and Eastern Europe with the highest level of exposure to Russian propaganda, shows the study titled “Resistance to disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe”. The study confirms that most leading television stations are those rebroadcasting Russian programmes, and a great part of online media favors the Kremlin. At the same time, there are significant parts of the population who are susceptible to manipulation, including ethnic minorities, elderly people and some active parishioners of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Church is the institution that enjoys the highest degree of popular confidence in the Republic of Moldova, surveys show. The Orthodox Church in the Republic of Moldova is divided into the Moldovan Bishopric, subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church, which owns most worship venues and has the largest share of the population, and the Bishopric of Bessarabia, subordinated to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Over the years, the Moldovan Bishopric and its clergy directly or indirectly supported certain political parties and politicians, usually leftist. A recent headline that sparked public outrage was the involvement of a number of Church officials in the 2016 campaign for the presidential election, taking a stand against Maia Sandu. The Constitutional Court at the time called on Parliament to forbid the church from getting involved in any way in election campaigns, but the said legislative modifications never came through. Furthermore, the Moldovan Bishopric tried to prevent a number of reforms required in order to bring the Republic of Moldova closer to the European Union. Such was the case when the Church got closely involved in a campaign designed to block the adoption of a law on equal chances. Concurrently, politicians have always been tempted to secure support from the Church.
Despite everything, Moldovans are looking westward
In spite of all the abovementioned pressure points Moscow uses to influence and interfere with the domestic affairs of the Republic of Moldova, most citizens have proved they want something different for their country. This became transparent in November, 2020, when they elected pro-European Maia Sandu as the country’s president, to the detriment of pro-Moscow Socialist leader Igor Dodon. On July 11, they returned to polls to confirm their option, by providing Sandu’s Party, Action and Solidarity Party, with a comfortable majority in Parliament. The result of the vote was in part impacted by Moldovan citizens residing in the West.
Now, the new administration will have to meet people’s expectations and offer the Republic of Moldova a safe and irreversible trajectory and steer clear of the mistakes of its predecessors, who used the mandate they had been entrusted to satisfy their own interests, thus compromising the very European and democratic values they pledged to abide by.