Moldova has been in a complicated situation for a long time. The small state lying between Romania and Ukraine has a security problem with the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria, where a Russian garrison of around 1,500 troops has been stationed. In the first weeks and months after the invasion of Ukraine, there were concerns that Moscow would attack southern Ukraine from Transnistria. Although today this possibility no longer seems likely, the latest information shows that Moscow does not want to give up its influence in Moldova and is actively working to undermine the pro-Western Moldovan government.
When the US announced another wave of sanctions against Russia on October 28, the list also included several Moldovan oligarchs, including Vladimir Pahotniuc and Ilan Shor, who were involved in the disappearance of billions of dollars from the Moldovan budget between 2012 and 2014. According to the United States, the reason for sanctioning Moldovan politicians is systemic corruption and an attempt to influence elections in the country. Ilan Shor is currently in the spotlight, especially for his alleged collaboration with Russian intelligence services to undermine Moldova’s Europeanization efforts. This information emerged from documents acquired by Ukrainian intelligence. According to these documents, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) spent tens of millions of dollars to create a network of politicians that aim to geopolitically reorient Moldova back towards the East. This is evidenced, for example, by the transfer of control over two main pro-Russian television stations into the hands of Shor’s close associate or by the assistance of Russian political strategists to Shor’s political party. The oligarch denies the accusations. He declared he never received any support from Moscow and that the charges against him are fabricated.
Another important figure who also made it to the latest sanctions list is the Russian businessman Igor Chaika. Officially, he is sanctioned due to his cooperation with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to undermine Moldovan president Maia Sandu. For The Washington Post Peskov denied that he cooperated with Chaika or that he had anything to do with Moldova. Chaika’s companies were also used for funnelling money used to finance pro-Russian Moldovan political parties. Part of this money was spent on influencing elections or bribery.
Chisinau is currently facing massive anti-government protests fuelled by pro-Moscow forces in the country. Reporters of the independent Moldovan newspaper Ziarul de Gardă discovered that demonstrators who march through the capital chanting anti-government slogans are often organized and brought in from across the country and that organizers pay 400 lei (21 euros) a day to participate in the demonstrations. Ilan Shor, who is currently in exile in Israel, is accused of organizing anti-government protests. However, not all protestors are paid. Some people are simply dissatisfied with the prices skyrocketing. The Moldovan government fears that with the arrival of winter, gas supplies from Russia may stop completely and the number of protesters will increase rapidly, potentially leading to the fall of the government and Moldova’s return to the Russian sphere of influence.
The energy sector has been the strongest lever that Moscow has over Chisinau. Moldova is largely dependent on gas supplies from Russia and Moscow uses this fact to influence the domestic political situation. In autumn 2021 when the gas contract expired, Gazprom increased the price, which forced the Moldovan government to declare a 30-day state of emergency. Sergiu Tofilat, former presidential energy advisor said that “the Kremlin wants to punish the Moldovan people for voting against a pro-Russia party.” Although the government is trying to diversify its gas sources, the amount of gas imported mostly from Poland and Romania is not enough to cover all demands. Another blow for one of the poorest countries in Europe is a further increase in gas prices as well as the reduction of supplies from Gazprom by 40%.
Chisinau’s situation in this “energy war” is all the worse because it depends on Russia to a large extent also for electricity. Missile strikes on Ukraine destroyed a significant part of the country’s energy grid and forced Kyiv to stop exporting electricity abroad. It is important for Moldova as it imported 30% of all electricity from Ukraine.
Another problematic area is the above-mentioned Transnistria. There lies the large power plant Cuciurgan controlled by Russian company Inter RAO JES. This power plant produces 70% of all the electricity for Moldova. A reduction in the volume of gas supplies for Moldova also means less gas for Transnistria, which limits the performance of the power plant, resulting in a deepening of the energy crisis. A small part of the consumption can be covered by supplies from Romania – but at the moment it is not sufficient.
The energy crisis is just one of the factors negatively influencing the domestic political situation in Moldova. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the growth of the Moldovan economy has stopped. The Moldovan leu has been continuously getting weaker and it is expected that the inflation rate hits 30% this year. All of this even further reinforces the discontent of the population with the current government – on top of Russia’s efforts to undermine it.
Photo credit: Stefan Wisselink, Flicker