Moldova “in the wrong place at the wrong time” turns to Europe to secure its future

When Marina Oprea found out that Russia had invaded Ukraine, she was the first “shout”. In a state of shock, this Chisinau woman, whom she met in a restaurant in the Moldovan capital, wondered if she should leave her country, which borders Ukraine. “I thought World War III had just begun.”she is breathing. But two weeks after the start of the conflict “pressure dropped” as well as “a form of normality has come.” It’s no longer a matter of care. At least “at the moment”.

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Like Marina, many Moldovans woke up paralyzed on February 24 when they discovered Russian tanks entering Ukraine. Some, especially those from the upper classes, have left, others have already packed their bags in case they have to flee. The former Soviet republic of 2.6 million is neither a member of the European Union nor NATO and has only about 7,000 active soldiers. A vulnerability that prompted the government not to impose sanctions against Russia.

A street in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on March 11, 2022.  (FABIEN JANNIC-CHERBONNEL/FRANCEINFO)

Three weeks after the start of the conflict, life on the streets of Chisinau continues. On Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, the main artery of the capital, Moldovans enjoy restaurants, bars and shops that are open as usual despite the state of emergency declared by the government. But some details – cars with Ukrainian registration numbers passing through the city, employees of international organizations present in hotels, calls for donations to receive refugees – remind us that the war is not far off.

In the central market “pulse of Moldova”you have to try your luck several times in this labyrinth of colorful stands so that they agree to answer us. “I don’t talk about politics” a passer-by slips in a black down jacket while the snow falls quietly. The same answer from the owner of a confectionery stall, who mutters under his breath insults against Russia. Elena, the fruit seller, who is watching us with curiosity, agrees to talk to us. “Of course I’m afraidshe explains. But I was born here and I have nowhere to go, so I’m staying.”

Elena, fruit seller at the central market in Chisinau, Moldova, March 11, 2022. (FABIEN JANNIC-CHERBONNEL/FRANCEINFO)

A little further on, Gregory, the prune seller, ruddy from the cold, does not think “that Russia will come here”. He has “family in Ukraine, including two nephews who are in the army” for which “he is deeply disturbed”. Many Moldovans are connected with Ukraine and Russia. If the official language of the country is Romanian, then the majority of the population speaks Russian, and there is a Ukrainian minority in the territory.

31 years after independence, the shadow of Moscow still hangs over Moldova. According to a survey conducted by Magenta Consulting between March 3rd and 5th. (in English)26% of the population of Moldova believe the Russian invasion “special liberation operation”, words used by the Kremlin, which refuses to talk about the war. Consequence “Russian TV programs broadcast in the country”, according to Mihai Mogilde, an expert at the Institute for European Reforms and Policies (Ipre). The Moldovan government also banned two Russian channels for propaganda in the first days after the start of the conflict.

Moscow’s presence is felt not only on the air. Transnistria, a self-proclaimed pro-Russian microstate with a presence of Russian troops, worries the authorities. Located between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, the territory has had its own government since 1992. The population, a third of which are Russians, has few freedoms, and the media are controlled by local authorities. “Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, nothing special has happened there, which is rather abnormal”explains a somewhat surprised Victoria Olari from the Institute for Strategic Initiatives, a Moldovan think tank.

In the central market of Chisinau, merchants practically do not cover the topic of Transnistria. “We are a small country in the wrong place at the wrong time”Igor exhales, plugging his headphones into his ears, who, along with his wife Inga, runs a cosmetics kiosk located at the end of a small, dimly lit alley. The Russian-speaking couple, who also have family in Odessa, a major port city in southwestern Ukraine, condemn the war but also disapprove of the Moldovan president’s decision to apply for EU membership. “an artificial structure that is useless and will soon collapse”.

Snow falls in the aisles of the central market of Chisinau (Moldova), December 11, 2022.  (FABIEN JANNIC-CHERBONNEL/FRANCEINFO)

The issue of Moldova’s EU membership is central to the country’s political divisions. The centre-right Action and Solidarity Party, which has been in power for a year, is pro-European. As for the Socialist Party, which is in power from 2016 to 2021, it is traditionally pro-Russian. Corn “Moldova has been largely oriented towards Europe for several years now”, says Mihai Mogildia. The state signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, which is still in effect, and exports 70% of its production to the EU. According to a survey conducted by Magenta Consulting (in English), 61% of Moldovans approve the request of their country, the poorest on the continent, to join the EU. A wish that probably won’t come true “up to years”, – says the expert. Not enough to discourage the Moldovans, yet “People are here for this because they already see EU intervention at the local level”. Mostly, “the electorate cannot be convinced that the EU is bad, the country is too poor”he still believes.

Natalia Uzun, a resident of Chisinau, Moldova, crossed the road at the city's central market, March 11, 2022. (FABIEN JANNIC-CHERBONNEL/FRANCEINFO)

“Europe is the only way” a slice of Natalya, crossed in the main aisle of the central market, wrapped in a large fur coat. “I am Russian-speaking, my father is Bulgarian, and my mother is Russian, but we understand that our future is connected with Europe”, says this airline employee. Migration flows prove him right. “Russia is no longer attractive, people mostly go to Europe, especially to Romania”, explains Victoria Olari. Motion “inevitable”, according to her. If Moldova remains free, look to the West.

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