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At Russia’s mercy, neutral Moldova desperately tries to appease all sides

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WATCH: Moldova’s deputy speaker of Parliament pleads for urgent financial aid amid refugee crisis – Mar 14, 2022

Upon first glance, life in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau seems perfectly normal.

Crowds of people hurry along Stefan cei Mare si Sfant Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare, popping in and out of boutiques, clasping coffee cups or munching on placinte – a traditional cheese-stuffed pastry.

There is little sign of a looming refugee crisis that is pushing the land-locked country, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, to a breaking point. There’s also little indication of any fears over the proximity of the war in Ukraine’s south, or of the possibility that as Russian troops advance along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, they might just keep on marching westwards and arrive on Moldova’s doorstep.

Ukrainian refugees arrive at the Palanca border between Ukraine and Moldova on March 12, 2022. (Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images).

But this veneer of calm is entirely by design, fortified by an extraordinary pact by Moldova’s liberal ruling party and its pro-Russian opposition, to preach calm and unity, in an attempt to not destabilize one of Europe’s poorest countries even further.

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READ MORE: Moldova’s deputy speaker of Parliament pleads for urgent financial aid amid refugee crisis

“Domestically, we are trying to keep the political situation calm. We’re trying to maintain the political stability as well as economic stability in the country, which is complicated,” Mihail Popșoi, deputy parliamentary speaker, tells Global News in an exclusive interview in Chisinau.

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Russia-Ukraine conflict: Moldova struggles with hint of war and wave of refugees – Mar 12, 2022

“(Our) vulnerability is enormous. But so far to this day, our intelligence and the intelligence that we get from our partners does not necessarily indicate that there is an imminent threat with regards to Moldova. But then again, Moldova has been living for 30 years with a threat towards its sovereignty.”

That threat is the 1,300 Russian troops currently camped out in Transnistria, Moldova’s Russian-backed breakaway region, a thin strip of land running along the border with Ukraine.

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Transnistria was established amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, in the hopes it would remain under Soviet control if Moldova sought unification with Romania.

A map of the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova. Global News

Instead, Moldova declared independence and Transnistria dissolved into war, leading Russian troops to intervene in support of separatist forces. After a ceasefire was announced in 1992, Transnistria became an unrecognised independent state with its own government, police, parliament and currency.

The self-declared republic has a stronghold over Moldova – it supplies the country’s gas. It also houses a stash of 20,000 tonnes of ammunition, one of Europe’s largest weapons depots, leftover from when fighting broke out in the region in the ’90s.

Rumours have swirled in recent days that Russian troops may come through Transnistria to attack Odesa, in Ukraine’s south. Popșoi says the government has been trying to debunk fake news stories about Transnistrian troops attacking Ukraine.

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This comes, after a video was posted online last week from a national security council meeting, where Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko seemingly revealed Putin’s battle plan – indicating troops will move onwards to Moldova.

But, publicly at least, Moldovan politicians maintain they’re not worried.

“The authorities are trying to do everything to keep calm in Moldovan society. They have a kind of deal or agreement with opposition political parties not to interfere right now with political debates, with hate speech or with any kind of accusation speculations on the Ukrainian-Russian war,” Viorel Cibotaru, former Moldovan minister of defense and security expert, says.

For now, at least, this extraordinary pact has united the country’s pro-Russian and European factions — on most things.

Moldova's 'complicated' relationship with Russia

Despite it being encircled by Ukraine at three compass points, Moldova’s stance on the war is, as Popșoi says, complicated.

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Moldova is neutral and has been since it amended its constitution in 1994 — meaning that, much like Switzerland, it does not involve itself in conflicts between other states. It is not a NATO member and is not part of the European Union.

This is largely why it has not introduced any Russian sanctions since the outset of the Ukraine war. Another reason is that Moldova is wholly reliant on Russia as an energy source – 100 per cent of its gas and 80 per cent of its electricity comes from Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moldovan President Igor Dodon during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, in 2017. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images). hoto by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

So too has much of its political influence. Between 2016 and 2020, Kremlin-backed Moldovan politician Igor Dodon, the long-time leader of the country’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists, served as president of the country – before he was ousted in the 2020 election by pro-European Maia Sandu. About 10 per cent of the country’s population are Russian.

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These historic and inescapable ties to their former Soviet oppressors are largely why Chisinau is attempting to straddle a line that both appeases Russia and puts it in reputable enough stead to join the European Union – after Sandu applied for fast-track membership on March 3, seeking protection.

Central to that tactic is the messaging – which starts at the top.

When we visit Popșoi in his office at Moldova’s parliament, he greets us stoically, giving nothing away. Dressed in a blue suit with pins on his left lapel in the colours of the Moldovan flag, he looks weary as he explains that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is increasingly punting interviews over to him, because they’re too overwhelmed.

Mihail Popșoi, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, says the refugee crisis is a ‘human catastrophe.’.

In front of the camera, Popșoi speaks slowly and methodically, choosing his words carefully. He immediately focuses on the need for calm, the refugee crisis and the lack of immediate threat to Moldova.

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The latest numbers he’d been given say 300,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far passed through Moldova in the past three weeks — costing the country $1 million euros per day. Of that number, about 100,000 remain in the country.

Read more: Over 2.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine amid Russian invasion: UN

But, he’s been warned by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that, if Odesa is bombed, some 1 million refugees could flood into Moldova in a matter of days.

The port city of Odesa is just 50 kilometres from Moldova’s border, and 300 km from the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula. It is Ukraine’s (and Moldova’s) most important port and handles the vast majority of the country’s imports and exports. Ukraine’s navy also has its headquarters there.

The targeting of Odesa would be a “human catastrophe” for Moldova too, which is already “significantly overwhelmed, Popșoi said.” He repeats the word “dire” several times throughout our interview.

4% of Moldova's population are refugees

It’s familiar rhetoric. Just a few hours earlier, in a press conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicu Popescu, labelled the country’s fiscal status “dire” and called the refugee crisis a “humanitarian catastrophe” as he appealed for international aid.

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Popescu said four per cent of the Moldovan population are now refugees. Most are staying in private homes, with some in one of 98 refugee centres across the country.

“For now most of them are in reasonably comfortable accommodation but as this number increases they will be staying in less comfortable accommodation,” he said.

“We really hope we don’t have to have tent cities.”

An athletics complex in Chisinau where Ukrainian refugees of Roma ethnicity are being housed. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP).

Popescu also outlined a range of compounding issues that were exacerbating the refugee crisis: the country’s imports, specifically food and construction materials, being blocked as they come from Odesa’s port and “major border management” problems with a large increase in illegal crossings from Ukraine – mostly fighting-age males.

These issues, Popșoi says, are simply pushing the country further into the red after two years of crisis after crisis.

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In fact, this is the only time he shows any kind of emotion during our interview – when asked what would happen if international aid did not arrive.

“I don’t even want to consider that scenario, it’s dire,” he says, after taking a deep, rattled breath.

“With the pandemic that has undercut our economy severely, with the energy crisis undercutting it even further and now, with the war of this magnitude on our borders … if we don’t receive significant financial assistance, our fiscal stability will go into disarray and I don’t want to even consider what that might imply for our citizens.”

People fleeing the conflict in Ukraine cross the Moldova-Ukraine Palanca border checkpoint. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP).

The fuel crisis came late in 2021 after Russia threatened to stop supplying Moldova gas if it didn’t pay its outstanding debts – resulting in a $100-million euro bail-out from Romania.

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This is also partly why Moldova has not imposed any sanctions on Russia over the war. That, its neutrality — and the fact Russian oligarchs do not tend to deposit their riches in Moldova, Popșoi says stone-faced.

“There are many challenges that Moldova faces in terms of actual sovereignty and actual capacity to sustain itself independently,” he says.

On the threat of a Moldovan invasion, both Popșoi and Popescu are eager to tamp down any panic.

Popescu says “we have not done anything to justify any type of military attack” and that there have been no signs in Transnistria of anyone – Russian or local citizens – preparing for deployment in Ukraine.

“But we cannot predict what will happen in the future.”

A Societ-style statue of Vladimir Lenin seen in front of the Presidential Palace in Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria. (Photo by Diego Herrera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images).

Popșoi echoes this, but goes one step further – taking aim at Russia for failing to adhere to a 1999 agreement that Russia would withdraw its troops from Transnistria, after they were deployed there to support the secessionist regime. Besides the soldiers, Russia keeps another 500 “peace-keepers” in Transnistria.

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Popșoi labels this a three-decade-long “violation of Moldova’s territorial integrity.”

This, however, is the only blame he places squarely on Russia for anything throughout our conversation, while maintaining “we’ve been very vocal in our support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

He draws the interview to a close with a subtle, if not stark, warning over the dangers Russia poses to wider Europe.

“We really count on the international community to step up and support us in this moment of need because at the end of the day … Ukraine and ourselves are on the border between Russia and the West, and we need the support to be able to maintain this stability,” he says.

“It’s in everyone’s interest.”

Socialists want closer ties with Russia

Popșoi’s core message is echoed by Moldova’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists, but the scene and its delivery are very different.

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The party headquarters in downtown Chisinau is in a nondescript building, with mirrored windows and doors and a sterile, sparsely decorated interior. Four men in black turtlenecks and jeans linger by the entrance.

Upstairs, in a conference room, we’re introduced to 30-year-old Olga Cebotari, one of five members of the executive committee of the Party of Socialists, which in 2021 formed a bloc with the Party of Communists to enter parliament. Party advisor Ernest Vardanean – a journalist, political scientist and Party of Socialists advisor from Transnistria – serves as translator, cutting in to offer his own opinions, at times.

Click to play video: 'Moldovan politician says country needs ‘strategic relations’ with Russia' Moldovan politician says country needs ‘strategic relations’ with Russia
Moldovan politician says country needs ‘strategic relations’ with Russia – Mar 14, 2022

Cebotari herself has close ties with Russia. She received her master’s degree in world politics from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. Between 2017 and 2019, she served as director of the Center for Support of Moldavian Youth in Moscow. She also holds Russian citizenship.

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She wants closer ties with the Kremlin.

“For us, it’s very important to develop relations with our closer neighbours – Romania and Ukraine. Also, it’s important to have stronger relations, strategic relations, with Russia. Also with the European Union, the U.S. and also with China,” she says.

But she side-steps a question on her feelings on the Ukraine war, despite her party having blamed the West and Ukraine for the invasion. Instead, she says the situation is “hard” and she is “proud of my citizens.”

Leader of the Socialist party and former president Igor Dodon seen during a rally on July 9, 2021 in Chisinau, Moldova. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images).

She is just as evasive on whether or not Moldova could be next on Russia’s agenda. She answers the question by saying “it depends” and reiterating Moldova is neutral and confirming that they are “together” with parliament in their messaging on this.

When asked about this pact, she says simply: “We are trying to maintain this situation in our country because it’s really hard. And as I said, we are a poor country and we need a lot of support now from our foreign partners.”

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Where the message totally diverts from the party line is in regards to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cibotari stresses that Putin is widely regarded in Moldova as “the top politician, even above all the Moldova politicians.”

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He’s “very popular and all people know about him,” but she adds that she doesn’t know if that popularity has been affected “now.”

Global News could not verify this information, but the majority of people we spoke with were not fans of Putin.

One of her final comments, on the likelihood that Moldova might become part of Russia again, sums up an attempt to appease all sides at once.

“We are together now with Ukraine. And as I mentioned in Moldova, people are together with Ukraine and Russia.”

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Rhetoric attempts to keep Russia and Transnistria at bay

This disarming display of political unity, from two parties largely at opposite ends of the political spectrum, is an attempt to keep moral panic at bay, NATO centre co-founder Cibotaru confirms.

Moldovans are nervous to upset both Russia and Transnistria. The Moldovan army is small and unprepared, Cibotaru says – and comparable to the number of troops in tiny Transnistria.

“They want to preserve correctness. First of all, towards our citizens — a lot of polls can demonstrate that at least one-third of Moldovan population have sympathies to Russia,” he says.

“Second is understanding that the different political turbulent discourses in media can provoke Moldovans to fight with Russians here in Chisinau and to create a raison d’etre for Russians to interfere and to save Russian people in Moldova.”

Click to play video: 'Former Moldovan defence minister urges calm in country right now' Former Moldovan defence minister urges calm in country right now
Former Moldovan defence minister urges calm in country right now – Mar 14, 2022

But even the very essence of its message of calm right now is politically loaded, Cibotaru says.

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“Russia was selling this status of neutrality to neighbouring countries for years, and they have the only good example as Moldova. And they pretend that the so-called peacekeeping operation in Moldova with the participation of Transnistria and Moldova and Russia is one of the best peacekeeping operations ever,” Cibotaru says.

“The communists and socialists are fans of this state of neutrality. So any speech (against) this can be seen also as an attempt to break this constitutional status, which they stand up for.”

Cibotaru says the only way out for Moldova now is diplomacy and “clever actions from the governors.”

That clever action, for now, is carefully-crafted discourse.

Russian invasion 'doesn't depend on us'

Outside Chisinau’s main refugee centre, at the MOLDExpo International Exhibition Centre on Thursday afternoon we run into Chisinau mayor Ion Ceban — also a member of the Party of Socialists.

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He’s overseeing a delivery of goods to the overflowing donations warehouse. Inside the adjacent refugee centre, row after row of tiny partitioned rooms with no door hold people newly arrived from Ukraine on single cots.

Ukrainians refugees are taking shelter at the MoldExpo International Exhibition Center in Chisinau. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP).

Ceban speaks proudly about how Chisinau’s citizens have stepped up to house Ukrainians, and how City Hall has managed to set up 45 refugee centres across the city – from hotels to student campuses and social centres.

Where his confidence drops, however, is on the question of Russia arriving on Moldova’s doorstep.

“Are you worried about Russia coming here?” we ask.

“Oh, well, what we do is to manage all the things that we have to manage here. It doesn’t depend on us. That’s why we hope it’s going to be peace and it’s going to finish as soon as possible,” he says.

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“Do you think they might come across the border, though to Moldova?” we repeat.

“Well, okay, this is…” Ceban trails off into a long silence.

Just as the silence starts getting awkward, he says: “We do our job, as I said, hopefully, it will be peace.”

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