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Marina Tauber, the former tennis player turned public face of Moldova's pro-Russia party. Dan Morar
Explainer

Coup rumours, Oligarchs, and pro-Russia agitators: What's going on in Moldova?

With voters split between pro-western and pro-Russia parties, Moldova is at a crossroads ahead of the next election.

AGAINST THE BACKDROP of the war in Ukraine, tensions between Russia and Moldova are steadily rising. As voters in Moldova are split between the pro-EU government and the pro-Russia opposition, the next election looms in the near distance, and every provocation by Moscow is having an impact. 

On Friday government leaders had to refute claims made by Russia that Ukraine has intentions to “invade” the pro-Russia breakaway region of Moldova, Transnistria, as the Kremlin pledged a “response”. 

“The Kyiv regime has stepped up preparations for the invasion of the Transnistrian Moldavian Republic,” a statement from the Kremlin said, as it claimed that Ukrainian troops were amassing on the border. 

The government in Moldova rejected these claims outright. President Maia Sandu said that there are “some” who want the country to fall, and to see a “puppet government enslaved to the interests of the Kremlin”. 

This latest provocation comes after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin decided to revoke a 2012 decree that underpinned Moldovan sovereignty in terms of the future of Transnistria, earlier this week. 

On its website the Kremlin issued a vague statement, saying that the decree was pulled to “ensure the national interest of Russia in connection with the profound changes taking place in international relations”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year has put Moldova in an increasingly difficult position. Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, the 2.6 million people in Moldova have been hit by the highest inflation rate in Europe and soaring energy bills, due to dependence on Russian gas and the cost of importing electricity from Europe. 

Experts and key political figures in Moldova believe that recent provocations by Russia are more an attempt to destabilise the country economically and politically before the next election in two years time, than intent on taking any military action along the lines of what has happened to Ukraine. 

Coup allegations 

Pro-western President Maia Sandu said last week that Russia has exacerbated the country’s energy crisis in order to “cause major discontent among the population and lead to violent protests”.

As Russia is accusing Ukraine of plans to invade, Sandu has accused the Kremlin of planning a secret “coup” to topple her government, which Russia has roundly denied. 

She said that Moscow has a plan to cause disruption in the country involving military-trained “diversionists” who would “carry out attacks on buildings of state institutions or even take hostages”. 

The country’s head of security recently told the BBC that it has become very clear that Russia is an “aggressor state”. 

Rosian Vasiloi said that the threat Moldova is currently facing started with the invasion of Ukraine. Last April, explosions in the separatist region triggered alarm internationally, but since then, the threat of destabilisation has been carried out through political means. 

Vasiloi said that Russia’s aggression has now changed, and that it is coming from “inside and outside of Moldova”. 

He also said that Moldova will be “next”, “if Ukraine falls”. 

President Sandu’s political party, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), is facing real pressure to show that it can take quick action on fixing the economy, pursue an anti-corruption agenda in a bid to gain EU membership, and to prove that its police force can tackle “internal forces” sowing pro-Russia sentiment.

Dr James Kapaló, a Moldova expert at University College Cork (UCC), said that everything Sandu’s government does now will matter to voters, and will impact the future of the country, but he also said that the outcome of the war in Ukraine will have a huge impact. 

Moldova is at a crossroads. Roughly 30% of the population back pro-western parties, 30% are in favour of the pro-Russia opposition, and a group of people in the middle “can be influenced by economic factors and political arguments”, according to Dr Kapaló. 

Protests and ‘infiltrators’ 

Moldova is an ethnically diverse country. Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz (a Turkic ethnic group), Roma people, and Bulgarians all live there. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there has also been an influx of refugees. 

There are people who speak Romanian, and follow Romanian news sources, and people who speak Russian, who get their news from Russian sources. 

National identity is complex in Moldova. Although the country’s 1994 constitution asserted that the official language is Moldovan, in reality this language is the same as Romanian, which a majority of people speak, meaning that many get their news from Romanian sources (in 2013 the country’s constitutional court ruled that the state language should in fact be Romanian). 

However, Russian, Gagauz, Ukrainian and Bulgarian are all minority languages in the country, with Russian being the most prominent, so therefore a large cohort of people get their news from Russian sources. 

The country has suffered from a brain drain, following a dramatic wave of depopulation following the end of the Soviet era. 

The separatist region of the country seceded from Moldova one year before the break up of the Soviet Union. There was a brief war between Moldova and the Transnistria separatists in 1992, but it has been relatively peaceful since. Around 1,500 Russian “peacekeeping” troops are still stationed in the region, which contains just under 500,000 people. It is not internationally recognised. 

Dr Kapaló explains that there is also a generational divide in the country which manifests itself in the split between pro-western and pro-Russia voters:

“Younger generations have more access to western media. Sometimes, older people – including those who speak Romanian – will feel nostalgic towards the Soviet era, because however bad it got, at least things were stable, and they knew what they could expect from the state.”

Now wages are low, prices are high, and there is an element of desperation that is adding to this nostalgia.

On Sunday, protests led by Moldova’s pro-Russia Sor party took place in the capital city of Chisinau, demanding that Sandu stand down. 

chisinaumoldova-february192023protestrallyinthe Marina Tauber at the recent protests. Image: Shutterstock Shutterstock / snob Shutterstock / snob / snob

Marina Tauber, Sor’s general secretary, who was previously a professional tennis player, led the protests and stated that her party is not opposed to the EU, but other members of the party have spoken openly about their pro-Russian stances before. 

The protest was smaller than similar ones carried out last autumn, and it passed off peacefully. 

However, 57 people from nations friendly to Russia were denied entry to Moldova in the last few days after checks by security services, and Moldova’s airspace was closed for several hours. 

Dr Kapaló said that these citizens were suspected of being on their way to “infiltrate” the protests and cause trouble. 

Russia has denied these claims, and said that the protests were a reflection of the country’s economic crisis.

chisinaumoldova-february192023protestrallyinthe Chisinau, Moldova. A Protest rally in the center of Chisinau, on 19 February. Shutterstock / snob Shutterstock / snob / snob

“By taking swift action Sandu is combatting doubts that the State doesn’t have the capacity to deal with these agitators, but she’s consistently proved her ability to act agilely enough to do so,” he said. 

The role of oligarchs 

Moldova has urged the EU to take strong actions against an oligarch called Ilan Shor who the government has accused of spreading social unrest with Russia’s backing – claims that have been roundly denied by both Moscow and Shor. 

Earlier this week, Moldova’s Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu made the claims about Ilan Shor when speaking to the Financial Times in Brussels. 

ilan shor Ilan Shor. Photo from the political party's website.

Shor is the founder of one of Moldova’s main opposition parties (which is named after him). Popescu said that the EU needs to sanction Shor as there are risks of a “coup d’etat” backed by the oligarch. 

In 2019 Shor fled Moldova after he was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement in a bank fraud scandal that saw one billion siphoned from the country. Prosecutors in his home country have called for him to be extradited from Israel, where he is currently based. 

Marina Tauber is now the public face of the political party, though she was also investigated last year and was placed under house arrest, while authorities looked into whether the Sor party had received money from organised crime. She dismissed the investigation and denied all allegations. 

The party is not the only pro-Russia one in Moldova, and it faces competition from other opposition parties. 

International support

Biden met with Sandu this week in Warsaw, and reaffirmed strong US support for the country’s sovereignty and “territorial integrity”. 

According to a press release from the White House, Biden highlighted ongoing US assistance to help Moldova strengthen its “political and economic resilience, including its democratic reform agenda and energy security, and to address the effects of the war against Ukraine.”

Sandu has invited Biden to Chisinau, but it is not yet clear if he will be accepting the invitation. 

The EU is also backing reforms in Moldova. In January of this year, it agreed to increase an ongoing financial assistance package by €145 million, bringing the total amount of support to the country to up to €295 million.

The European Commission stated that the increase in funds would go towards helping Moldova to deal with the “fallout from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, battling an energy crisis, and a high number of refugees from Ukraine”. 

The President has taken other actions to garner further support from voters, including putting forward a new Prime Minster, Dorin Recean after his predecessor resigned, citing a lack of party support. 

Political analyst Valeriu Pasha said that the change was made because the government was being eroded by “several crises” and had a “negative image”. 

“There was a need for a reset,” Pasha added. 

UCC expert Dr Kapaló added: “It is important for Sandu to maintain momentum now, unless there is an improvement to economic situation in Moldova, it is not hard to imagine voters turning against her.” 

- Includes reporting from AFP.  

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