Kyiv, Ukraine – Moldova, a small nation west of Ukraine, is trying to fend off a series of crises triggered by the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Energy prices are astronomically high, inflation has risen above 30 percent and older Moldovans receive energy bills that exceed their pension.
Moldova is facing a “civil conflict,” pro-Russian forces say, while their pro-Western opponents are calling the crises a “hybrid war” initiated by Moscow to force the nation of 2.6 million back into the political orbit of the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Kiev have diametrically different messages about what is going on in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“Moldova is one of the countries the West wants to turn into yet another ‘anti-Russia,'” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had warned his Moldovan counterpart, Maia Sandu, of Moscow’s plans to “destroy” Moldova and take control of it.
“I told her that we had intercepted a Russian intelligence plan to destroy Moldova,” Zelensky told European leaders in Brussels on Feb. 9.
The Moldovan intelligence service confirmed that it was monitoring “subversive activities, aimed at undermining the Republic of Moldova, destabilizing and violating public order”.
Arrests of people suspected of planning “diversions” followed in mid-March, while foreigners suspected of ties to Russia were denied entry.
The polarizing statements from Moscow and Ukraine reflect an even deeper internal schism.
The nation is a powder keg just a spark away from civil strife, says a socialist legislator.
Bogdan Tirdea accuses President Sandu and her Solidarity and Action Party of being Washington’s political “puppets” and “warmongers”.
“They always try to play the war card, create hysteria and constant fear,” he told Al Jazeera.
He claimed that the government flouted the political pragmatism and neutrality enshrined in the country’s post-Soviet constitution to “destroy” Moldova by forcing it to join NATO and merge with neighboring Romania .
“But first they need a little war, and then we’ll join Romania and NATO and close the ‘Moldovan question’ for good,” Tirdea said.
Moldova and Romania have close historical ties and hundreds of thousands of Moldovans already hold Romanian passports.
About 44 percent of the Moldovan population support the merger, while only 40 percent want their country to join the Eurasian Economic Community, a Russian-dominated free trade bloc.
Tirdea’s words echo what Russia’s Lavrov said about President Sandu.
The West “installed it with rather specific methods that are far from free and democratic,” Lavrov said in early February.
Sandu was elected president in 2020 in a vote that the West deemed “free and fair”, and her pro-Russian predecessor Igor Dodon now faces charges of treason.
Russia calls the allegations trumped up and says it will do everything it can to break away from Moscow’s political orbit.
Sandu “is rushing to join NATO, she has Romanian citizenship, she is ready to merge with Romania and she is ready for practically anything,” Lavrov said.
‘Coordinated with the Kremlin’
His view is shared by Moldova’s pro-Russian forces, including Sor, a nationalist, neoconservative party that holds six seats in the 101-seat parliament.
Sor is named after fugitive leader Ilan Sor, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in 2017 for participating in the $1 billion embezzlement from three Moldovan banks.
He escaped to Israel, and since September his party has gathered thousands of demonstrators who marched almost every weekend in the capital Chisinau, occasionally clashing with police.
Sandu claims that Moscow holds the party’s purse and is leading the protests.
Since a direct military invasion is off the table, “Moscow’s only chance is to turn the situation upside down from within and bring pro-Russian parties to power through a quick (parliamentary) vote,” the Ukrainian said. analyst Aleksey Kushch to Al Jazeera.
“The protests have been coordinated with the Kremlin,” Alexei Tulbure, a former Moldovan diplomat and lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.
He said Moscow raised gas prices to force Moldova into submission, but Sandu’s government decided to buy European gas instead.
After Ukraine, “we are the next target,” he said.
“Russia is waging a hybrid war against us,” which includes energy blackmail, propaganda and support for the protests, he said.
An independent research allegations by Moldovan and Russian journalists that the Kremlin funded and helped organize the protests.
The investigation released last October also alleged that Russian intelligence officers reportedly planned to orchestrate Moscow’s takeover of Transnistria, a separatist province bordering southwestern Ukraine that seceded after a civil war 30 years ago.
The land the size of Dubai on the border with Ukraine has one of Europe’s largest arms depots containing weapons, ammunition and bombs from the Soviet era.
To some observers, Moldova is a geopolitical platypus, a seemingly unlikely combination of historical, linguistic and religious factors.
Moldovans speak Romanian, a language rooted in Latin, but the speakers are not Catholic.
They adhere to Greek Orthodox Christianity, as do most minorities, including Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Gagauz.
The latter are a Turkish-speaking community with strong pro-Russian sympathies.
Since Russia took over what is now Moldova and southwestern Ukraine two centuries ago, the Tsars and Soviets promoted winemaking and agriculture that stifled industrial growth.
It still makes Moldova highly dependent on energy exports.
The Kremlin is also using “alcohol diplomacy” to support pro-Russian Transnistria and Gagauz autonomy – and “punish” central provinces once a pro-Western government comes to power.
Moldova has been prone to years of political paralysis, punctuated by spasms of protests and even violence.
While many working-age Moldovans toil abroad, their parents and children are politically centuries apart.
In 2009, communists came to power, mostly supported by elderly people nostalgic about their Soviet youth.
Retired truck driver Ion Covali told this reporter at the time that post-Soviet capitalism had brought nothing but poverty and humiliation.
“We used to be a magnet, everyone in the Soviet Union was jealous of us. But now we live in a mess,” he said.
But his teenage grandson, also named Ion, was one of thousands of youths who gathered in Chisinau and set fire to the parliament building.
“Everything was so unexpected,” he said. “And everyone was high on this sudden freedom.”
For pro-Western observers, freedom from Russia is not far off.
The Russo-Ukrainian war brought about “fundamental changes” that will help Moldova absorb Transnistria and accelerate the pro-Western drive, analyst Tulbure said.
“Geographically, we stay in the same place, but we don’t want to belong to the post-Soviet world, but to the world of freedom, democracy,” he said.