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Moldova and Ukraine took big steps on the path to joining the EU

Via Petru Clej, BBC News in Chisinau, Moldova

Petru Clej/BBC ChisinauPetru Clej/BBC

Chisinau feels like a European capital, but not all Moldovans want to leave Russia

For Moldova as well as Ukraine, Tuesday, June 25 will be an important day, as the European Union begins years-long negotiations aimed at bringing the two countries into new membership.

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu, a European leader, has set her sights on joining the EU by 2030, but her country faces a long and arduous journey to membership.

Chisinau feels like a European city. Young musicians sing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna dance with someone” outside a trendy restaurant as Moldovans pass by. But the city’s buildings remind you of its Tsarist, Romanian and Soviet past as well as its vibrant present.

Moldova’s population of 2.6 million is tiny compared to Europe’s, and one in five people lives in the capital.

But Maia Sandu holds a high position among EU leaders, not least because of her fluency in English and French. She goes to EU summits in class and wears jeans and sneakers.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe their move towards the EU is linked to the war in neighboring Ukraine.

One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova is located between Ukraine and Romania. It is plagued by corruption and earns largely from remittances sent by the vast diaspora across the EU.

And that link with the rest of Europe is vital, despite Russia’s efforts to discredit it.

Maia Sandu/X President Maia Sandu posted this photo earlier this month when Moldova players played against Ukraine in ChisinauMaia Sandu/X

President Maia Sandu posted this photo earlier this month when Moldova players played against Ukraine in Chisinau

When President Sandu signed the decree last week on EU accession negotiations, she spoke of Moldova becoming part of a “stronger and united Europe”.

But the Kremlin points out that although Moldova is a sovereign state, its “future interests” must also be tied to the Russian market and the “integration process” of the former Soviet territory.

Despite its Romanian-speaking majority, Moldova is a former Soviet republic and much of its eastern edge is home to a pro-Moscow breakaway region called Transnistria. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, within days Kyiv closed the 452-kilometre (280-mile) border it shares with Transnistria.

Map of Moldova

Russian troops have never left since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the region is a reminder of Moscow’s far-reaching influence in the former republics.

When she signed the decree last week, President Sandu would have her eye on two big votes in October. She not only has her sights set on re-election in the presidential election but also an ongoing referendum about making their country an EU member in the constitution.

Her country is divided into pro- and anti-EU camps and its biggest obstacle is Transnistria.

Pro-government MP Oazu Nantoi admits the issue cannot be resolved overnight, but now that Ukraine’s borders are closed, he is optimistic.

“We have the leverage to put pressure on this separatist regime,” he told the BBC.

Petru Clej/BBC Oazu NantoiPetru Clej/BBC

Oazu Nantoi said that preventing war with Russia is the best way to ensure Moldova’s security

Before joining the EU, Moldova would have had to sign up to extensive democratic and judicial guarantees, and Valeriu Renita, an opposition journalist for the pro-Russian party Sansa (The Chance), says Chisinau has failed to do so. .

“The government has shut down 13 TV networks, 30 websites, judicial reform is going badly – some people would say this country is a dictatorship,” he told the BBC.

His party was banned from local elections last November, and Mr. Renita denies accusations that the Moldovan opposition is following orders from Moscow.

At the heart of the alleged Russian plot to destabilize Moldova lies one man: fugitive business tycoon Ilan Shor, who was convicted in absentia five years ago for embezzling $1 billion from Moldova banks.

Shor, who holds Russian and Israeli citizenship, currently works in Moscow as an unofficial coordinator of anti-EU and pro-Russian forces in Moldova. Recently, these pro-Russian groups held a congress in Moscow and when some participants returned to Chisinau, authorities confiscated more than 1 million euros in cash.

Moldova Timeline

1812 The eastern part of the Principality of Moldova was annexed by Tsarist Russia and renamed Bessarabia

1918 When Tsarist Russia fell, Bessarabia became part of the Kingdom of Romania

1940 After Stalin’s ultimatum, Romania ceded Bessarabia to the Soviet Union. It was later combined with Transnistria to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic

1991-92 Moldavia declared independence from the Soviet Union. After a brief civil war, Transnistrian separatists supported by the Soviet army were stationed on the east bank of the Nistru River

Language is the main dividing line here.

Romanian/Moldovan speakers, who represent about 80% of Moldova’s 2.6 million residents, excluding Transnistria, strongly support EU integration.

Ethnic minorities, including Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Gagauz, and mainly Russian-speaking, protested.

The Moldovan government said many of them had been severely affected by Russia’s “information war”.

The Gagauz, a Turkish Christian ethnic group in the southern autonomous region of Moldova, are led by a pro-Kremlin governor named Evgenia Gutul.

She is known to support Ilan Shor and earlier this year Moldova’s ambassador to the EU Janis Mazeiks complained that dialogue with her was impossible.

Domestically, opinion polls show support for the EU in the October 20 referendum at 55-65%. But given the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who live and work in the European Union, at least for now, a Yes vote seems assured.

With their votes, Maia Sandu could even win the first round of the presidential election outright.

But Russian influence is always present, whether in the war in neighboring Ukraine or in the fake news that appears on TikTok or Telegram.

So much so that the government in Chisinau fears Moscow may try to incite violence ahead of the referendum in October.

President Sandu was targeted in a deeply fake video while another fake video featured a military camp for Moldovan children.

These are seen by Moldovans most vulnerable to propaganda, said Galina Vasilieva, editor of the Romanian and Russian news website NewsMaker.

“During the 2016 presidential election, there was a fake clip claiming that Maia Sandu had agreed with EU leaders to accept Syrian refugees. Many people believed it and she lost in election.”

Petru Clej/BBC Cathedral in ChisinauPetru Clej/BBC

Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau


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