The View From Moldova — Is This Putin’s Next Target?

Of all the countries that border Ukraine, Moldova is arguably the most vulnerable to Russian aggression. Since 1992, Russian troops have been present in a breakaway region of Moldova called Transnistria. This is a majority Russian-speaking region that receives considerable support from Moscow.

In late April there were a series of explosions in Transnistria, the perpetrators are unknown but the explosions further heightened concerns that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would spill over into Transnistria and possibly even Moldova proper.

My guest Paula Erizanu is a journalist and author from Moldova and also based in the UK. I caught up with her from Chisinau,  Moldova’s capital city.  We kick off discussing the general mood of people in Chisinau as Russia targets the nearby Ukrainian port city of Odessa. We then discuss the history of the Transnistria conflict before having a broader conversation about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is impacting Moldovan politics and Society.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

Are Moldovans Scared of a Possible Attack from Russia?

Paula Erizanu [00:02:46] I did a vox pop last week with people in the Chisinau, strangers, and friends alike, asking them how they felt about the new incidents in Transnistria and what I found was quite a divided crowd. So, about half of the people felt quite tense and some of them even considered fleeing the country. I remember, for instance, one guy I met at the Central Market in Chisinau was on the phone to his relatives in Italy and they were discussing potential plans for him to join his relative in Italy but then on the other hand, the other half of people that I’ve spoken to are quite calm and they told me that they were really panicky in the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But since then, either their sense of fear has paralyzed, or they don’t believe that an actual full-scale invasion of Moldova by Russia is possible. So yeah, there is some tension here, but it sounds like people are not quite as scared as they were in the first days of war. And actually, I was speaking to a friend of mine who helped her parents flee the country in the first week of war and she said that they have now returned and they’re staying here. So, there’s obvious tension and people are speaking about this and there is some fear but at the same time, it’s not quite the panic from February, basically.

How has the Moldovan government and Moldovans themselves reacted to the influx of Ukrainian immigrants?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:44] On a per capita basis, Moldova has accepted more Ukrainian refugees than any other country in Europe thus far. How has the Moldovan government or civil society, such as it is, responded to this influx of Ukrainian refugees in the country?

Paula Erizanu [00:05:08] There was a lot of support for Ukrainian refugees from the first day of war, so I think the last time I checked we had more than 400,000 Ukrainians cross the Moldovan border. But then it’s just under 100,000 that are still staying in Moldova. Most of them are hosted by individual families and unlike any other country, about 60% of them are based in Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova, and the others are in villages and the rest of the country. And the response has been really warm, and I have actually spoken to a lot of volunteers. I spent some time at the refugee centers and some of the anecdotes I can share include the fact that there are families that have returned from Austria or Germany to Moldova because they found the conditions that they were offered here a lot better than what they got there, or they really got along with their hosts here and so they wanted to return. I also interviewed a Ukrainian artist for the art newspaper who is disabled, and both her and her husband are in wheelchairs. They came to Moldova in the first week of war from Odessa, like the majority of refugees in Moldova, actually, because we are so close to Odessa — the Moldovan border is only 60 kilometers away from Odessa. And this artist is disabled, her husband is disabled, and they are staying together with her elderly parents in one family’s house in a village so obviously there’s a lot of positive feeling and a lot of hospitality that Moldovans have shown. But that is quite a big pressure for a small country like we are and for a relatively poor country and so the Moldovan government has asked the international community for economic support.

What support is Moldova receiving to help in hosting the influx of Ukrainian refugees?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:40] I have seen that unlike other countries in the region that border Ukraine, Moldova is receiving support of the World Food Program and other U.N. humanitarian agencies to a much larger degree than others because Moldovans are relatively poorer.

Paula Erizanu [00:07:59] Yes and also our economy is now under a lot of pressure because the kind of trade that we used to have with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia before the war has now stopped or has shrunk. But basically, yes, the government asked for international support, and indeed, we have received international support via these international agencies, but my government sources have told me that what we are still lacking is budget support. And actually, the only country that has donated straight to the government account that they opened since the beginning of war and where lots of Moldovan citizens have also donated to in order to help the refugee effort — the only country that donated directly to them is Switzerland. And all the others, the EU, the US who have promised us a lot of support, have directed that money towards UN agencies, which are great on the one hand, but on the other hand they are quite bureaucratic and quite slow and until they get their things together, it’s still the civil society and the government that have to manage this refugee crisis.

What and who is behind the violent attacks in Transnistria?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:29] So earlier you referenced incidents in Transnistria. Can you just describe what those incidents were? And then we’ll go back and introduce listeners to the sort of unique situation, the frozen conflict of Transnistria, but before we get there, can you explain what these recent incidents were and why they were so disconcerting for many?

Paula Erizanu [00:09:54] Yes so, the first incident was an explosion at the so-called Ministry of Security in Tiraspol in Transnistria. There was no victim there and basically no people were in the building, but there was quite some damage to the windows and the building itself and then in addition to that, two antenna that transmit Russian television were damaged in Mayak, a village in Transnistria. And then there were a few other incidents at like military objects in Transnistria. Because there were no victims in any of these incidents a lot of people believe that they are false flags…

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:57] So false flags committed by whom? Against whom? For what purpose?

Paula Erizanu [00:11:02] Well, it depends on whom you ask. So, Transnistria has blamed Ukrainian infiltrators, whereas Ukraine is blaming Russia for trying to destabilize things in Transnistria and Moldova. The Moldovan authorities said that their analysis showed that there were factions within Transnistria and that different parts of the regime there either want to join the war in Ukraine or refuse to do it and they’re just putting pressure on each other like the pro-Russian group is putting pressure on the group that wants to stay out of this war.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:51] What theory do you think is most credible?

Paula Erizanu [00:11:55] I think it’s strange that the building of the Ministry of Security was attacked in the center of Tiraspol, and this hasn’t happened in 30 years, and there were no victims and there were basically no people inside. So that seems like it must have been organized with people from Transnistria.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:19] And I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but one credible theory might be that this was the pro-Russian Transnistrian security forces firing on their own empty building in a kind of false flag operation in order to blame anti-Russian or Ukrainian forces for it.

Paula Erizanu [00:12:39] Yes, that’s one theory and yeah, if that was the case, Russia would obviously be the one to blame for it because the pressure would have come from them and the Transnistrian forces would either involve Russian agents or local kind of executors of those orders. There are also theories that these different attacks were made by different people and that maybe, for instance, the antennae that transmit Russian propaganda could have been the Ukrainians doing. I don’t know. You know, at this stage, it’s all just speculation. It does sound like Russia and it’s kind of supporters in Transnistria were involved in this in some way, if not in all the ways.

What is the history of conflict with Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:45] Regardless of the provenance of these attacks, the situation, I think, underscores the unique characteristics of Transnistria today, characteristics that have only become heightened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Can you just briefly explain the history of that conflict?

Paula Erizanu [00:14:07] Yes, so Moldova gained independence in August 1991. In 1992, there were some provocations basically that started with Transnistrian forces attacking police officers in Moldova, and that escalated and there was a kind of short but bloody conflict that lasted from March until July, and it led to more than a thousand dead civilians were killed as well in the war. And the separatists were basically supported by the Kremlin, and they were joined by Crimea and Cossacks as well. So that is how it all started. The Transnistrian forces won the war, basically and so Transnistria declared independence from Moldova on the 2nd of September 1992 but the regime there is not recognized by any country in the world, including Russia. Russia does not recognize Transnistria as an independent nation so for the past 30 years, we have had this kind of frozen conflict that is very similar to what happened in Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia or Donbas in East Ukraine. And over these past 30 years an elite has been developing in Transnistria that is relying on monopolistic laws and practices in Transnistria, but also on smuggling between Ukraine.

Who runs Transnistria?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:07] And it’s essentially like one conglomerate that controls most business activity in Transnistria today, correct?

Paula Erizanu [00:16:15] It’s a few people at the top but one of the key guys is Victor Gushon, who is an ex-KGB agent and who founded Sheriff. This is the name of the conglomerate, and they own everything from the football club that qualified in the Champions League this year to petrol stations, telephone companies, supermarkets, anything you might think of. And interestingly, he has Ukrainian citizenship as well and property in Ukraine so there’s a lot of speculation that because of his connections to Ukraine and because of the so-called president Krasnoselsky’s connections to Ukraine, they don’t really want to get involved in the war in Ukraine.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:11] So that’s very interesting because, you know, these are ostensibly very pro-Russian oligarchs, I guess you could use the term, that receive support from Russia yet as a fallout from Russia’s attack on Ukraine, even the elite in Transnistria are trying to keep a distance from Moscow. Is that correct?

Paula Erizanu [00:17:35] Yes, yes, they are but it’s not clear how much leeway they have and how much pressure Russia can put on them to actually force them to join the war, despite the fact that they don’t want to join it. So, Transnistria gets free gas from Russia crucially and also a lot of economic and political support but at the same time, these guys have traded with Ukraine because that’s where the border is and with the corrupt kind of political elites in Moldova.

Could Russia force Transnistria to enter their war against Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:15] Is there concern that Russia may seek to envelop Transnistria into its broader military aims in Ukraine? Earlier, for example, you noted that Odessa is just 60 kilometers from Moldova. Odessa is on Russia’s target list. To what extent is there concern that Russia may in fact, seek to somehow either formally gain territory in Transnistria or otherwise inspire pro-Russian Transnistrian forces to behave more aggressive militarily?

Paula Erizanu [00:18:51] There have been speculations about it, including in this article published by The Times yesterday but at the same time, it’s quite difficult to understand just whether Russia can afford the costs. And I’ve spoken to people who have already fled Transnistria because they are fearing mobilization, especially men, young men or I know men in Moldova here who have relatives or come from Transnistria originally but are based in Chisinau and in other places here and they are wondering whether they are able to visit their relatives there without risking getting conscripted if they get found on Transnistrian territory. So, the fears are very acute about the potential involvement of Transnistrian men and military in the conflict but at the same time, it sounds like there is some resistance from the Transnistrian local forces. Even if Transnistria got involved in the conflict what experts have been saying is that a full-fledged occupation of Moldova is quite unlikely and quite costly if Odessa resists.

How has Russia’s war on Ukraine affected Moldovan politics?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:32] I’m curious to learn how the conflict in Ukraine is shaping or impacting the politics of Moldova itself. As I take it historically there’s the pro-EU camp parties who are currently in charge, and then there’s the more pro-Russian parties who have previously been in charge. Has there been since the invasion of Ukraine, perhaps a consolidation of support around the idea of deeper integration with the European Union in Moldova?

Paula Erizanu [00:21:07] Yes, it sounds like from recent polls, it sounds like the majority of Moldovans want stronger ties with the EU and support the potential integration of Moldova in the EU. And the government in Moldova is indeed pro-European, anti-corruption — that was their agenda that they came up with. But since they’ve been in power, President Maia Sandu was elected more than a year ago and then the parliament was elected last summer. So, since they came to power, they have had several crises to deal with: the pandemic, the gas crisis when Russia was threatening us in autumn with not supplying us with gas, basically, and now the war in Ukraine. All of these crises have put economic pressure on Moldovan society and so the pro-Russian kind of groups and Kremlin’s agents in Moldova basically are trying to use the economic effects and the inflation that citizens are feeling, and they’re trying to capitalize it and use it against the government. And they’re organizing protests, which until now have been quite small but at the same time it is a worrying trend. And this pro-European government really needs international support in order to maintain a kind of economic stability for Moldova, in order to basically protect democracy and ensure a European future for Moldova.

What is the importance of the 9th of May in Russia and Moldova?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:25] Lastly, are there any inflection points or incidents or events that you are looking towards in the future, in the next, you know, days or months even ahead, that might suggest to you how Moldova and Moldovans might experience Russian’s invasion of Ukraine?

Paula Erizanu [00:23:48] There’s definitely some tension around the date of the 9th of May, which is normally celebrated in Russia as Victory Day against fascism in the Second World War, but which in recent years has been used by the Kremlin to basically express support for the government, by the Russian people, and also in the kind of post-Soviet space by pro-Russian groups in the region. And so, on the 9th of May, the pro-Russian groups will — I don’t even know if the pro-Russian name is a good definition because it’s more like the Russian supported and Russian financed groups, political groups here — they are trying to organize events that will use banned symbols to celebrate this victory day. The banned symbols have previously been used to commemorate the dead from the Second World War, but now Russia is using those symbols like the orange and black Saint George ribbon, they’re using that as a sign of support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. So, the pro-European Moldovan government banned those symbols, and these groups are trying to say that they will defy the law and still display them on the 9th of May. Meanwhile, the government announced that they will organize Moldova for Peace events on the 9th of May. So, Moldova for Peace is the name of the government and volunteer led campaign that has helped Ukrainian refugees in Moldova from the first days of war. So, they are trying to rebrand this day, the 9th of May, into a day that commemorates the victims of the Second World War but also promotes peace today. Basically, the tension that people are fearing and feeling right now is that there might be clashes between these groups on the 9th of May and that Russian agents of influence in Moldova are going to try to create violent clashes as well in order to generate a political crisis and spark more instability here.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:51] Well, Paula, thank you so much for your time. This was really helpful.

Paula Erizanu [00:26:56] Thank you for your interest.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:00] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Paula for speaking with me. And of course, you heard some contributions from her two COVID puppies. I also have two COVID puppies, Eugene, and Murray, but mine were asleep the whole time, thankfully. I also recommend you look for her recent articles in both the Financial Times and The Guardian, which give, I think, further texture to the conversation we just had. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!

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