Rockets, blackouts, protests: How Russia threatens Moldova with the help of oligarchs

The Republic of Moldova is dependent on Russia, but at the same time is threatened by Moscow.

Rockets, blackouts, protests: How Russia threatens Moldova with the help of oligarchs

The Republic of Moldova is dependent on Russia, but at the same time is threatened by Moscow. The government wants to join the EU, the opposition has excellent contacts in Russia. Putin's extended arm in the small country is an oligarch who lives in Israel to avoid jail time in his homeland.

At the end of October parts of a Russian rocket hit Naslavcea. The 700-inhabitant village is the northernmost point of the Republic of Moldova, only the Dniester River separates the place from the Ukraine. Nobody is injured by the shelling. But several window panes of residential buildings are broken, the Moldovan Ministry of the Interior announced at the time. According to Ukrainian information, the Russian missile was supposed to hit the hydroelectric power station on the Dniester near Novodnistrovsk, about ten kilometers away. However, the Ukrainian air defense shot down the missile as it approached and parts of the missile then fell on Naslavcea.

The incident does not cause a great stir, becomes a side note. Firstly, the Republic of Moldova is not a member of NATO, and the missile impact only has the meaning of collateral damage. On the other hand, the Moldovan Ministry of Defense downplayed the incident and pointed out that the Russian missile did not violate Moldovan airspace. Unlike several Russian missiles a few weeks earlier, which did not land in the country but used Moldovan airspace.

At first glance, it is surprising that Moldova does not use the incident to launch an all-out attack against Russia, without whose war in Ukraine the missiles would not have hit their own soil. After all, the Republic of Moldova has been hit harder by the Russian war of aggression than probably any other neighboring country of Ukraine. The strategically important Ukrainian port city of Odessa is just across the Moldovan border, and Cherson, recently liberated by Kiev's army, is only 200 kilometers away.

And not only Russian ricochets are dangerous for the small country between Ukraine and Romania. The country is now regularly affected by large-scale blackouts. The government in Chisinau spoke last week of "massive power outages across the country."

Up until October, Moldova still got around a third of its electricity from Ukraine. In the meantime, however, Kyiv no longer exports electricity to its neighboring country. Because of the ongoing Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, Ukraine has suspended electricity exports to the European grid for almost two months. Since then, Romania has been trying to help out with electricity supplies. The solidarity is no coincidence: a third of the people in Moldova have a Romanian passport. But the amount of electricity exported from Romania is not enough to keep the grid stable. The lights in the Republic of Moldova are therefore going out more and more often.

Moscow is waging an energy war against the small country. Most recently, Russia had cut gas exports by half. Moldova is dependent on Russian gas because it needs it to produce electricity. "In Moldova there is a high degree of dependency on Russia in many areas, which Moscow can exploit at any time in order to bring countries like Moldova into line in a more or less covert way. The rocket impact in the border village and the energy dispute are the tip of the iceberg. Moldova is one of the countries most at risk from Russia in the post-Soviet region," says political scientist and risk analyst Hannes Meissner from the BTI Vienna University of Applied Sciences in the ntv podcast "Learned again".

Moldova is in a tricky situation. On the one hand, the country wants to be admitted to the EU and has been an official candidate for membership since June of this year. On the other hand, Moldova has had Russian separatists on its own territory since the state was founded. The de facto state of Transnistria is part of Moldova under international law and covers around ten percent of the country. The Moldovan heartland is more pro-European, while Transnistria is a kind of Russian outpost. Moscow has kept the pseudo-state alive and has been subsidizing Transnistria, with its approximately 375,000 inhabitants, for three decades.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has stationed around 1,200 of its own soldiers as so-called "peacekeeping troops" in Transnistria. The permanent presence of the Russian military secures Transnistria's de facto autonomy from Moldova, which cannot even attempt to militarily bring the region back into its own power apparatus.

"The unresolved Transnistria conflict is the most serious dependency on Russia," analyzes Meissner. According to the post-Soviet expert, the Transnistrian question is primarily about a "security policy and geostrategic conflict". The conflict was largely fueled by Russia and was always exploited "when Moldova threatened to drift away from the Russian zone of influence".

Thanks to the Transnistrian separatists, Russia has powerful leverage in the country of an EU candidate country, right on the border with Ukraine. And President Vladimir Putin is mercilessly exploiting this position of power. By cutting gas supplies, Russia is further destabilizing a country that has never been essentially stable because of the existence of Transnistria.

Therefore, Hannes Meissner is convinced that membership of the Republic of Moldova in the European Union is not really an option. "It is reasonable to assume that the nomination as a candidate for accession was more of a symbolic act to support the country in moving closer to the EU and in repelling Russian aggression. Socio-economically, security and energy policy, the country is in a weak to precarious condition."

Meissner explains that this is due to three decades of oligarch rule. The oligarchs "quite literally hijacked" the state and the judiciary and undermined them in such a way that they could instrumentalize the state apparatus for their own economic interests. The party landscape was also determined for decades by the very rich Moldovans. Some were pro-Western, others pro-Russian. A deeply divided country ruled by a few. Moldova was never able to build a stable political system. That is why many people, especially young people, have long since emigrated.

The incumbent President, Maia Sandu, is trying to reform the country so that one day it can really become a serious candidate for EU membership. "Sandu has made a certain break with the oligarchic structures and with the previous presidents, their parties and their power structures. Now there is a movement in power that is clearly pro-Western, but also knows in which dependencies and in which dilemma this is country," says Meissner, summarizing the complicated situation.

How fragile the country is and how easily it can be destabilized is indicated by the mass protests that have been sweeping the country since mid-September, some with more than 50,000 participants. The demonstrations are directed against the western court government. "The pro-Russian side of the population is currently mobilizing massively. There are indications that participants in the mass protests were paid by the Moldovan oligarch Ilan Șor. This shows how vulnerable the country is and the tightrope walk the president and the pro-European government are walking," reports expert Meissner.

Ilan Șor is not only an oligarch, but also owns several Moldovan companies and a football club. In addition, in 2014 he became the head of the board of Moldovan Savings Bank. And he's a politician: from 2015 to 2019 he was mayor of Orhei, the country's ninth largest city. He won the election even though he was temporarily under house arrest during the election campaign. The 35-year-old was suspected of being involved in stealing $700 million from Moldova's banking system. He was elected mayor anyway. Just a year after his election, he had the party renamed the Șor Party.

At the beginning of 2019, he became a member of the Moldovan parliament, but has not been seen there since June 2019. Șor fled the country after investigative authorities identified him as the suspected mastermind behind the bank robbery at the time. He was sentenced in absentia to seven and a half years in prison, pending an appeal. Șor is now said to be in his native country of Israel to avoid imprisonment.

Since then, Șor has behaved like Putin's extended. He goaded the pro-Russian residents of Moldova, called for demonstrators and allowed himself to be connected to the anti-government rallies via video link from Israel. Șor has risen to become Moldova's most powerful opposition politician, even though he isn't actually in the country. Even Washington is interested in him: the US government has imposed sanctions on him because, with Moscow's help, he is fueling unrest in the Republic of Moldova.

In this heated situation in an already deeply divided country, President Sandu's prospects for moving the country further west are not the best. The country stands between the chairs, between the West and Russia. "There is a rift, a line of division that runs through the country, which Russia can once again use as an instrument. You have to remember that Russia has a lot of time here from its own perspective, because a quick rapprochement with the EU is among the sustained ones crisis in the country is not to be expected", analyzes Meissner in the podcast.

The direction in which the Republic of Moldova develops in the coming years will largely depend on the course of the war in Ukraine. Moldova is already feeling the effects of the Russian attack on Ukraine particularly badly.