Moldova, between dependence on Russia and pro-European aspirations

Politics - December 21, 2022

Official EU candidate status for the Republic of Moldova, a country 100% energy dependent on the Russian Federation, comes with substantial EU support. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently announced that she would visit Moldova to discuss “additional” EU support for the country’s authorities as the energy crisis has left the population impoverished.

“We discussed the disastrous energy situation in Moldova. We are working on additional support to help Moldova meet its immediate needs for gas and electricity. I look forward to meeting Maia Sandu when I visit Moldova (…),” Ursula von der Leyen announced on Twitter. 

Maia Sandu said on November 1st in Bucharest that Moldova is going through a major energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine and risks running out of gas and electricity this winter. 

“For Moldovan consumers, gas prices have increased six times in the last year (…). The situation is just as bad for electricity. After the Russian Federation bombed the Ukrainian networks, Gazprom halved the volume of gas delivered to Moldova, and the supply of electricity from the left bank of the Dniester for the next month has become uncertain, providing the country with electricity is a daily challenge. Even though we are making serious efforts to save money and the government in Chisinau is trying to help people with low incomes, a family’s bill expenses have risen to 70-75% of their income. This energy vulnerability generates political blackmail and interference in democracy, domestic and foreign policy,” Sandu said during a recent visit to Romania.

Moldova’s natural gas imports reduced by about 30%

Russia’s Gazprom Group reduced natural gas supplies to Moldova by about 30% in early October, according to Moldovagaz gas company director Vadim Ceban. However, the government in Chișinău says it is prepared for any scenario and has a plan to overcome the energy crisis. In the meantime, citizens are looking for heating alternatives, whether wood, coal or renewable energy systems. 

For September 2022, the purchase price was $1882 per thousand cubic metres and the tariff for domestic consumers was increased by 27.2%. Since the 1st of October, the import price of gas is calculated according to a different formula, which includes 70% oil price and 30% methane spot price.

“We are buying fuel oil for Termoelectrica, increasing gas stocks, taking measures to reduce consumption, Energocom is preparing to buy gas from the market, other measures according to the preparation plan for the heating season approved by the Government,” explained Andrei Spânu, Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

The Republic of Moldova has increasingly distanced itself from Russia with the pro-European forces taking power in Chișinău.

But it is not only the energy crisis that affects the population of the Republic of Moldova in the context of the war. The number of Moldovans living in Russia – most of them workers – has fallen rapidly, and by the beginning of May 2022 had reached just 76,645 people, reports MoldStreet.

Compared to the beginning of May 2021, the number of Moldovans in Russia has almost doubled, and compared to May 2020 – by about 3.5 times.  The figures were presented by experts of the Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting of the Presidential Academy for Economy and Public Administration of Russia (RANEPA). The same study reveals that compared to May 2019, the number of Moldovans living in the Russian Federation decreased more than four times, and compared to the end of 2014 – the decrease is about 7.5 times, according to MoldStreet.

The Republic of Moldova has increasingly distanced itself from Russia with the pro-European forces taking power in  Chișinău with the election of Maia Sandu as president in November 2020 and even more decisively after the early parliamentary elections in July 2021. The new government has thus taken a number of steps to reduce Moscow’s influence and dependence on it even before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. But by aligning itself with Western positions, one such episode being the refusal of the  Chișinău authorities to resume the  Chișinău-Moscow flights operated by Air Moldova, according to veridica.ro

At the same time, over the past year, officials in  Chișinău have explicitly called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist Transnistrian region, which legally belongs to Moldova, and Maia Sandu has spoken explicitly about Russia as the actor pulling all the strings in Tiraspol.

“The Russian Federation has a key role in everything related to the conflict in the Transnistrian region, starting from its origin and everything that happened. We have always demanded the withdrawal of troops from the Transnistrian region, the disposal of munitions. We continue to advocate a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Sandu said on the 17th of May during a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

As for the other pro-Russian entity in Moldova – the Gagauz administrative-territorial unit – Maia Sandu went to Comrat where she explained to the deputies of the People’s Assembly that she does not support Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This is the first time Maia Sandu has spoken so strongly against Russia in perhaps the most pro-Russian stronghold in the  Chișinău-controlled territory of Moldova. “You cannot ask me to support Russia’s war against Ukraine. I will never support this war,” Maia Sandu said trenchantly.

Securing the information space was also a turning point in relations between Moldova and Russia. An important episode in the bilateral relationship was the banning of Sputnik Moldova, the Kremlin’s propaganda organ which provided much of the toxic information played daily in the Moldovan media. The ban came on the 26th of February, two days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The effect was not only immediate in stopping Russian propaganda on the airwaves in Moldova, eastern Romania and southeastern Ukraine, but also deterred other pro-Russian media whose broadcasts contained pro-Kremlin and anti-European propaganda, according to veridica.ro. But the most significant steps taken by Chișinău towards the West are those aimed at diversifying energy sources. If until the advent of pro-European power Moldova was 100% dependent on Russia for both gas and electricity (by proxy), things are a bit different now.

First of all, the Republic of Moldova has diversified its source of electricity and gets less than 70% of Transnistria’s electricity from the Cuciurgan thermal power plant, owned by the Russian company Inter RAO. About 30% of its electricity now comes from Ukraine. Since spring this year, Moldova has also been connected to the European ENTSO-E grid, which provides a safety net in case of Russian-dictated interruptions from Transnistria. On the gas side, the Republic of Moldova has not yet succeeded in breaking away from Russia, on which it remains totally dependent.

However, small steps have been made in securing reserves in Romania of about 35 million cubic metres of gas, and the Iasi-Ungheni- Chișinău gas pipeline can be used to transport gas from the European energy system to the Republic of Moldova.  Chișinău is also in talks with Azerbaijan to find solutions. Moreover, there are talks that the Republic of Moldova could be included in the EU’s basket of gas suppliers. The fact is that, in the event of a negative scenario, alternative solutions can be found, even if not the cheapest and lightest, say journalists from veridica.ro.

The support recently pledged by the EU to Moldova is in addition to the money already directed to Moldova before the war in Ukraine.

In mid-2019, the European Commission granted more than €14 million in financial support to Moldova to support police reform, the fight against corruption and money laundering, the modernisation of the energy sector and the streamlining of public finances.  This is in addition to another tranche of money, granted a few months earlier, when the EU provided  Chișinău with some €15 million to support the implementation of the free trade agreement, the financing of education and training programmes and the implementation of the visa liberalisation action plan. And it is not the only European support. Only on the 11th of February 2022, the Romanian government concluded a memorandum with the one in  Chișinău on financial assistance of €100 million for the country. 

European Union (EU) heads of state and government on the 23rd of June granted Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova the status of candidate countries for membership of the EU club, after the European Commission (EC) made a recommendation to this effect, international news agencies report.

The leaders of the 27 took the first step towards the accession of the two countries at the Brussels summit, a process that may be reversible if they fail to comply with reforms demanded by the EC in terms of judicial independence, the fight against corruption and organised crime or the application of laws limiting the power of oligarchs.

Today ”marks a crucial step on your road to the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote on Twitter, congratulating Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski and Moldovan President Maia Sandu and their peoples. ”We have a future together,” he added, writing on Twitter and in the languages of the two countries, according to AFP.

Moldova’s pro-Western stance, accentuated in recent months, and its declared intention to join the EU, has heightened diplomatic tensions between Tiraspol and  Chișinău.

An official from the so-called republic of Transnistria, quoted by Free Europe, said that the separatist republic west of the Dniester is maintaining its course towards independence and considering union with Russia. At the same time, several Russian Foreign Ministry officials said Ukraine and Moldova could reignite the Transnistria conflict, which has been frozen for 30 years following the 1992 fighting between Moldova and pro-Russian separatists.

Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Igor Sokorenko, says Moldova is taking advantage of the “inevitable attrition of the Russian contingent’s material base” to prevent deliveries of military equipment to Transnistria. Transnistrian official Vitali Ignatiev says he is prepared to consider the 2006 referendum on the independence of Transnistria, a so-called independent republic, which was backed by an overwhelming 89% of voters. Ignatiev calls himself foreign minister, even though Transnistria is not recognised as an independent republic. 

The announcement came a day after the government in  Chișinău rejected Russian peacekeepers’ access to Transnistria. As a result, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Moldova of repeatedly detaining “Russian peacekeepers” at  Chișinău airport.

“We qualify these actions as unfriendly and should always react to them in an appropriate way,” Russian Foreign Ministry Commonwealth of Independent States Director Alexei Polyshchuk was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.