Epower outages, stray missiles and 35 percent inflation: the collateral damage of Russia’s war on Ukraine has plunged neighboring Moldova into a crisis that goes beyond higher energy bills. “I see elderly people crying in front of the shop window. It’s not that they can’t afford salami; they can’t even afford basic things like milk,” says Carolina Untilă, who works at a corner shop in the suburbs of the capital, Chisinau. Moldova’s dependence on energy imports is causing record inflation. The prices of some products have doubled; her store’s grocery sales have halved, Untilă says.
“How can you save something with a pension? It’s all about food and medicine,” says Ion Istrati, 72, from Borogani in southern Moldova. He is one of many who applied for state aid due to gas and electricity prices up to six times higher than last year. “Without compensation, it would be bad,” adds Istrati. According to opinion polls, more than 40% of Moldovans struggle with basic living costs, and an additional 21% of people cannot afford the bare minimum.
To ease the burden of the winter, as the former Soviet republic weans itself from near-total energy dependence on Russia, the government has had to turn to its Western partners for urgent financial support. Russia’s state gas company Gazprom cut supplies to Moldova in October, while the country’s reliance on Ukrainian electricity links has made the country an indirect victim of violence, as Kiev stopped exporting electricity to Moldova in October following Russian airstrikes on its critical infrastructure.
Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, estimates that getting the alternative winter energy supply the country needs will cost more than €1bn (£860m). So far, the government has managed to collect a third of the amount from its EU partners.
Ministers are acutely aware that the cost-of-living crisis poses political and geopolitical risks for this country of 2.5 million people. “Russia’s hybrid war in Moldova mimics the energy strategy used against Europe in general, but also includes the propaganda war seen in the media, on social channels and on the streets, at protests,” says political analyst Igor Boțan. . “In response, the government is trying to diversify our energy sources and gain support from our Western partners.”
Some opposition politicians, particularly in the Șor party, blame the government for the economic problems and argue that the situation calls for a return to closer ties with Russia.
Since autumn, Șor has been organizing anti-government, pro-Russian protests in the center of Chisinau. Tens of thousands attended, although some are believed to have been paid to appear.
Șor representatives from central Moldova are accused of meeting Duma officials in Moscow to demand an end to the Russian embargo on Moldovan fruit for their district of Orhei and a special local gas deal.
The US recently imposed party leader Ilan Shor as part of what Washington called its measures to combat Russia’s “persistent malicious influence campaigns and systemic corruption in Moldova”. Last week, the United Kingdom followed suit, naming Shore among 30 international political figures to be barred from entering the country or channeling money through British banks. Shor reportedly fled Moldova to Israel in 2019 following a fraud investigation that led to corruption charges two years ago. He advocated providing food and transport to those who wanted to join the anti-government protests “against the shame, poverty, hunger and cold to which they were condemned”.
Both Shor and another opposition leader, Gheorghe Cavcaliuc, who left Chisinau for London last summer after the victory of the pro-European PAS party, appeared at the protests via video transmission. Both politicians claim that possible investigations against them in Moldova are politically motivated. But their pro-Russian messages, broadcast through local and Russian television channels owned by Shor, have caught on with some Moldovans.
Under the leadership of pro-Western president Maia Sandu, Moldova applied for and received candidate status for EU membership. However, polls in November showed a drop in public support for closer integration with the EU, with 50% of Moldovans saying they would vote for membership, down from 65% in the summer of 2021. “We should remain neutral,” says the 34-year-old – old Ana, who criticized the Moldovan government, which freely condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “Our crops used to go to Russia, gas and electricity were cheaper then,” he adds. About 60% of Moldovan exports now go to the EU and only 10% to Russia.
Due to power outages, however, other Moldovans turned their backs on Russia. Following a blackout that left parts of the country without electricity for 24 hours in November, #bezvas (#breztebe) became a trending hashtag on Moldovan social networks, borrowing the Ukrainian president’s defiant response to the Kremlin: “No gas or without you? Without light or without you? Without you!” Even former pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon condemned Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and said that “we have to thank the Romanians for selling us electricity”.
Throughout November, Moldova bought nearly 90% of its electricity from Romania after supplies dried up from the breakaway Russian-backed region of Transnistria, which controls the key Cuciurgan power plant. On December 3, Romania exported gas to Chisinau for the first time. However, Romania is barely covering its needs.
The interim deal, which Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spînu described as “humane” as it will help prevent major power outages, will allow Moldova to trade gas reserves for cheaper electricity from Transnistria.
In the long term, however, Moldova will have to prioritize the construction of a new electricity connecting line with Romania and the development of the renewable energy sector.
“This perverse war in Ukraine has two aspects,” says Boțan. “If Ukraine resists, and we resist, we have a chance to join the EU… But now everything depends on our efforts to inform the citizens about the opportunities that have opened up to us.”