Moldova: The long march towards Europe

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine presented Moldova with a unique opportunity to accelerate its march towards Europe. But while the country was finally granted the EU candidate status in June 2022, the road to membership is likely to be a bumpy one. Maia Sandu’s pro-European government faces an unstable political and economic context, an unresolved conflict in Transnistria and a persistent Russian influence, that may not play in their favor.

By Marie Rollet

Is that a match ?

The first significant rapprochement between Moldova and the EU goes back to the 2009 Eastern Partnership, a mainly economic initiative which “has resulted in a significant increase of trade between the two parties, successful sectorial cooperations, in particular on Energy, and a sustained dialogue on political reforms.” saysFlorent Parmentier, Secretary General of the CEVIPOF.This constructive context paved the way for several political initiatives such as the visa liberalization regime in 2014 or the 2018 EU-Moldova Association Agreement. Meanwhile, a pro-European political force developed and consolidated in Moldova, finally coming to power in 2020 when Maia Sandu was elected president. “She has always been very genuine in her commitment to take Moldova into the EU, always taking very pro-European, pro-democratic stands.” Stefan Wolff, Professor or International Security qt the University of Birmingham, comments.

And geopolitics played out well for this agenda. For the EU, the potential consequences of the war on Moldova sounded an alarm. « The war introduced a new element to the reasoning, namely that the EU’s power can be increased with the EU’s enlargement towards Ukraine and other Southeast European states, including the small ones, like Moldova.Indeed, what would be more useful for the European security: let these small countries remain in a dangerous limbo, as a jumping-off ground for the Russian troops, or to bring them into EU?” Emil Druc, the Moldovan Ambassador to Lithuania asks.

In only a few months in 2022, EU initiatives in support to Moldova flourished: a Frontex agreement to assist with border management, the synchronisation of the Moldovan and Continental European electricity grids, temporary trade liberalisation measures, and finally, in June, the EU candidate status. Shortly after, an “UE Partnership Mission to Moldova” was established in April 2023 with the mandate to “support the resilience of Moldova in the face of hybrid threats as well as their crisis management structures. For instance, we advised on the adoption of the law on establishing the Centre for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation this summer. We also provide advice to establish a national cybersecurity agency.” details Cosmin Dinescu, Head of the EUPM Moldova. Support to Moldova political and economic stability also comes in the shape of macro-financial support from the European Commission, amounting to 72,5 million by the end of October.

Adversarial forces playing

But Maia Sandu’s government faces adverse winds that are likely to make the route to the EU longer. The highest support for EU membership in Moldova (around 70%) was in the late communist period, during the second presidential term of communist Igor Voronin at the end of the 2000s. Today it gathers around 40-50% of the population. Moldovans’ lack of enthusiasm for EU membership has a lot to do with the scandals and political and economic instability that Moldova experienced after 2009, when the pro-European alliance came to power. Recent protests reflect people’s frustration with poor living standards, rising inflation and energy prices, influx of refugees from Ukraine, etc. Stefan Wolff explains

The frozen conflict over breakaway Transnistria is another challenge. While there is no direct immediate military risk, the region remains a source of instability and certainly an obstacle to EU integration. “The Sheriff conglomerate, founded and still run by two former members of the Soviet-era KGB, a commercial organization which some call criminal, has captured the economic and arguably the political levers of power. And while they are pro-European because their business model depends on access to European markets, this does not necessarily extend to the population at large who have maintained strong links and affinities with Russia. The reintegration of the Transnistria region is one of the biggest challenges Moldova faces today, and not only in terms of the economic cost. Should its 300 000 residents be reintegrated, they would certainly not support Maia Sandus’ European agenda.” said Stefan Wolff

Other forces playing against the Moldavan authorities include the influx of illicit funds during internal elections, “especially those directed by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor in the shape of cash, payment cards, and many other innovative ways. Says Cosmin Dinescu, and adds “We also noted a surge in cyber-attacks recently and we expect further intensification, not mentioning persistent disinformation with widespread fake news and narratives related to the EU or the war in Ukraine”.

A persistent Russian influence

Russian influence in Moldova will weigh heavily in the integration process. Some of the more traditional forms seem to have declined recently: “Russia’s economic and commercial influence has clearly decreased in the last decade, to the point that Russia now stands behind the EU. Up until 2 years ago, Moldova was 100% dependent on Russian gaz. They have now secured more diverse supply sources, and since Romania’s Transgaz took over Gazprom’s operation in Moldova in September 2023 the country is no longer dependent on natural gaz or electricity from Russia. On the political scene, most opposition parties remain pro-Russian, but they are not as strong in Parliament since the last elections.” said Florent Parmentier. However,Russia retains operatives in most political parties, potentially even in Maia Sandu’s.saidStefan Wolff.

But Russian propaganda and fake narratives are still spread heavily in the media and public space. Despite a number of transmission bans in relation to the war in Ukraine, “Russian language media are still very freely available and what is tricky is that there is no reliable pro-European Russian language media, which means that there are no credible alternatives to pro-Russian media for Russian speakers. But social media platforms like Telegram remains the most powerful and efficient channel of Russian propaganda.” saidStefan Wolff. One must say that the current economic and political situation in Moldova « is an avenue for Russian propaganda. They just need to tag on the popular discontent and redirect this frustration towards the government and its pro-European orientations.” Florent Parmentier explained. But other deeper, more complex reasons come into play, said Stefan Wolff: “The lack of support to Maia Sandu’s European agenda is an indication of the level of Russian influence, but also because a lot of Moldovans today see EU membership as a loss of connection to the East. This doesn’t mean they are pro-Russian but there is still, especially among the older generation, almost a sense of Soviet nostalgia and a fear to lose this connection as the country moves closer to Europe.” And he concludes “The government had an opportunity, they went for it and obtained the candidate status. Now what they need is an open and frank discussion with their people to explain how, at the end of the day, being in the UE will make things better, more stable, improve living standards. But it is going to be a long and costly journey, and not everybody will equally benefit from the process of EU accession.”