The ongoing large-scale Russo-Ukrainian military conflict has already initiated far-reaching geopolitical shifts in Ukraine and its immediate surroundings. As soon as the conflict broke out, it became clear that the conflict was a major risk that jeopardizes Moldova and its choice of European and Euroatlantic integration. During the early hours of the war, the President of Moldova Maia Sandu on her Twitter account condemned the act of war by Russia against Ukraine, calling it a blatant breach of international law [Twitter.com, 2022]. On February 24, 2022, President Sandu announced that the government would ask Parliament to introduce a state of emergency and that the country was ready to receive Ukrainian refugees [Seenews.com, 2022]. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, over 400 thousand refugees from Ukraine entered Moldova, which is a country next door to Ukraine, and nearly 100 thousand of them decided to settle there until they will be able to return safely to their homes in Ukraine [Stiri.md, 2022]. Despite being one of the poorest and smallest nations in Europe, Moldova has earned credit from many countries by being able to quickly provide refuge to over 100 thousand Ukrainians.
It can be said that out of all the countries not directly involved in the warfare (Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) Moldova is one of those that bears the most of the indirect consequences of the war. For many years, Moldova’s political stability and economic welfare have been dependent on the delicate balance between the fulfillment of its commitments in the realization of its European aspirations and tangible economic ties with Russia, which Moldova cannot renounce. Moldova, along with Georgia and Ukraine remains to be the most active country in terms of gaining the EU membership. In May 2022, the three countries initiated the Associated Trio tripartite format for the enhanced cooperation and coordination aimed at obtaining eventual membership in the EU. At the same time, Moldova’s ties with Russia and the CIS have been in decline over the past several years. The de facto participation of Moldova in the CIS has been reduced to formal membership. For instance, Moldova did not participate in the informal meeting of CIS heads of state held in St. Petersburg on December 28, 2021 [Kremlin.ru, 2021]. However, Transnistria remains to be one of the most sensitive issues for Moldova and tensions around it arise amid the intensification of the Russo-Ukrainian war. On March 3, 2022, a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moldova officially applied for fast-track EU membership shortly after the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on February 28, 2022, submitted an official request to allow Ukraine to gain immediate membership under a special fast-track procedure [Euractiv.com, 2022]. The next day after President Sandu, signed the application for the country’s accession to the EU, the separatist authorities in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) announced that they did not agree with this request and demanded the recognition of the independence of Transnistria [Cotidianul.ro, 2022]. On March 17, 2022, President Maia Sandu reiterated a call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the breakaway region of Transnistria and asked for a peaceful resolution of the conflict a day after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe designated it as a territory occupied by Russia [Uawire.org, 2022]. Although Chisinau has gained much attention and support in defending its territorial integrity in light of the Russia-Ukrainian war, the PMR continues to be a significant and highly sensitive issue that Moldova has to take into consideration.
At the same time, Moldova did not join the sanctions against Russia. President Maia Sandu explained her decision by stating that joining the anti-Russian sanctions would not harm Russia and yet significantly jeopardize Moldova’s gas imports from Russia [Ukrinform.net, 2022]. The supply of natural gas is one of the most sensitive issues that the Moldovan government has to deal with. Moldova is one of the countries that were most severely hit by the rise in natural gas prices and the recent sharp increase in gas prices became perhaps one of the most acute economic problems for the people of Moldova. In October of 2021, failures of negotiations with the Russian state-owned corporation Gazprom even led the Moldovan Parliament to declare a state of emergency in the energy sector for 30 days [Dw.com, 2021]. Eventually, Gazprom and Moldovagaz extended the contract for the supply of Russian gas to Moldova for five years at a price of $450 per cubic meter. It is highly likely that Moldova will remain susceptible to natural gas imports from Russia for quite a while, limiting Moldova’s energy security and abilities for geopolitical maneuvering. Currently, Moldova has no alternative for Russian natural gas, and the price of supply from other channels, in any case, would be higher than that of Russia. Given the high energy poverty in the country, it is highly unlikely that the majority of Moldovan people would want lower gas prices to be traded off for geopolitical gains.
Moreover, it should be mentioned that Russia is still an important market for Moldova’s exports. Nearly 8% of Moldova’s exports go to Russia. In some sectors of the Moldovan exports, the share of Russia is very high. For instance, Russia accounts for nearly half of all agricultural exports of Moldova [UN Comtrade, 2021]. Yet another leverage of Russia over Moldova is the Moldovan labor migrants in Russia. There are no precise statistics, but according to rough estimates, there might be 300-350 thousand Moldovan citizens working in Russia [Joblist.md, 2019]. For Moldova, which relies very much on remittances and is highly susceptible to socio-economic shocks, it would be an unnecessary risk to make daring statements against Russia.
It seems that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has not caused any significant domestic political changes in Moldova. According to a recent poll conducted from 4 to 18 of April 2022, 30,4% of respondents were ready to vote for the ruling Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) and 28,7% for the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS) consisting of the Party of Socialists (PSRM) and Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) [Infotag.md, 2022a]. The BECS represents the far-left wing of the Moldovan Parliament. Both PSRM and PCRM traditionally advocate Euroscepticism and often stand on Russophilic positions. For instance, on April 7, 2022, the Parliament of Moldova voted to outlaw the ribbon of St. George, a black and orange military symbol of Russian patriotism in response to the invasion of Russia to Ukraine and most members of the BECS opposed this law [News.yam.md, 2022]. It is interesting to note that the Russian invasion of a neighboring country does not seem to produce drastic changes in the political preferences of Moldovans. According to the poll conducted right before the invasion during 15-24 of February 2022, 23.7% of respondents would prefer to vote for BECS (18.2% for PSRM and 5.5% for PCRM), 20.2% for PAS, 11.7% for Şor party [Infotag.md, 2022b]. Thus, the level of approval and support of the main two parties in the Moldovan Parliament (PAS and PSRM) that represent opposing views on most of the important issues does not seem to change very much due to the Russo-Ukrainian war.
However, it is quite obvious that both President Sandu as well as the PAS of which she is a member have lost much of their approval rates over the last couple of years. According to a recent survey conducted between February 15-24, 2022, merely 20.6% of respondents trusted President Maia Sandu. The Head of state was followed by the former President of Moldova Igor Dodon with 17% of the trust of the people who were asked. It is also interesting to note that according to the survey, most of the respondents (22%) did not trust any of the Moldovan politicians [Stiri.md, 2022]. According to another recent survey conducted in April 2022, 26% of Moldovans thought that Igor Dodon was one of the political leaders who could improve the situation in the country. Only 22% of the participants in the survey said that President Maia Sandu was the one who can change the situation in the country for the better [Breakingnews.md, 2022]. Similarly, surveys show that the ruling party PAS has lost much of its approval rate since it won the parliamentary election in 2021 when it won a landslide victory by receiving 52.8% of the votes and securing 63 out of all 101 seats in the national legislature.
The decline of support for the ruling party and President Maia Sandu who declared European integration of Moldova as one of its priority goals might well be associated with other reasons. Recent opinion polls seem to indicate that most Moldovans are much more concerned about economic welfare and internal issues of the country rather than external geopolitical threats. One of the recent polls found that most Moldovans (63%) believed that things in the country were going in the wrong direction, while only one-third of the Moldovans 33% said that the direction was the right one. The poll also revealed that only 3% of Moldovans were highly satisfied with the way they lived and 18% were sufficiently satisfied. The rest of the population was found to be largely unsatisfied with their lives one way or another [Primul.md, 2022]. Although Moldova was rather successful in recovering from the severe shocks by the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in neighboring Ukraine is posing high short-term and long-term economic risks. Being one of the poorest countries in Europe makes Moldova highly sensitive to the effects of economic shocks. Moldova’s susceptibility and reliance on remittances, supply chains, trade routes, and energy imports from Russia are the main sources of socio-economic risks for Moldovans. According to a recent report by the World Bank, Moldova is expected to see its economic growth decelerate down to -0.4% in 2022. It is expected to recover to 2.7% in 2023 and to nearly 4.2% in 2024 [World Bank, 2022].
We should admit though that it would be wrong to expect the outcomes of the next elections in Moldova to be highly consistent with the opinion of Moldovans living in Moldova only. According to rough estimates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova, as many as 1.11-1.25 million Moldovans live abroad [Newsmaker.md, 2021]. This is an incredibly huge number of people for a small country with a total population of slightly over 4 million people. Moldovans living in the EU and other western countries, who make up the majority of Moldovans living abroad, are very active voters for pro-European parties and Presidential candidates. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to expect that in spite of the dissatisfaction that was largely motivated by economic reasons, the pro-European sentiments of Moldovans will not fade away and the government of Moldova will continue pushing forward the European integration of Moldova.
The Russo Ukrainian war does not seem to have changed radically the people´s attitude toward Russia in the core Russophile regions of Moldova such as Transdnirstrie, Gagauzia, and, to some extent, Northern regions of Moldova. However, one cannot say that the Russian invasion to Ukraine is approved by these people either. Recent opinion polls show that the vast majority of Gagauz people condemn the war and policy of Russian toward Ukraine, but they refuse to break their ties with Russia. The village of Congaz in Gagauzia, for instance, has offered shelter for 600 Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The villagers eagerly helped the refugees in many ways to overcome difficulties and treated them with compassion. At the same time, recent opinion polls have shown that in spite of being fully aware of what is happening in Ukraine, the majority of the villagers condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine but at the same time, state that Russia should not be viewed as an enemy to Moldova [Moldova.europalibera.org, 2022]. Besides a long history of friendly relations, labor migration is often referred to as one of the factors connecting Gagauzia and Russia as it is the main destination for Gagauz labor migrants. Moreover, the economy of Gagauzia is primarily based on agriculture which relies very much on exports to Russia. At the same time, the stance of Gagauzia is apparently not viewed by Chisinau as a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova. In fact, Gagauzia is the region of Moldova with the strongest anti-Romanian sentiments. Therefore, it is often used by Chisinau as a safeguard of the Moldovan nationhood and a hefty counterbalance in polemics with those who support the unification of Moldova with Romania.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Kanat Makhanov is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in Business Economics from the KIMEP University from 2012. In 2014 he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Vigo (Spain), completing his thesis on “Industrial Specialization in autonomous regions of Spain and Kazakhstan”. His main research interests are Spatial Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Economics, Human and Economic Geography.