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Moldova: EU negotiations and Russian propaganda

Vitalie Calugareanu | Robert Schwartz
April 22, 2023

The EU Parliament has endorsed expedited candidacy negotiations for Moldova. Pro-Russian groups are trying to hinder that — even placing propaganda ads on DW pages.

The flags of the EU, Moldova, and Ukraine
Image: Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

On Wednesday (April 19, 2023), the European Parliament in Strasbourg called for the start of EU-membership negotiations with the Republic of Moldova before the end of the year — provided the country fulfills necessary requirements. Parliamentarians described Moldova's membership as a geostrategic investment, one that would make for a strong and united EU. In fact, the EU promised both Moldova and Ukraine, currently under Russian attack, the status of membership candidates over a year ago, in June 2022.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Moldova's pro-Western government in Chisinau has repeatedly accused both Moscow and pro-Russian forces in Moldova of actively seeking to destabilize the country. The most recent attack targeted Deutsche Welle's (DW) Romanian-language online content, among others.

DW forced to block ad banner

Earlier this week, DW's Romanian page published a background article about recent Russian attempts to destabilize the Republic of Moldova. But DW users in Moldova — where Romanian is the official language — saw the article along with an ad banner calling for readers to the capital on May 7, for a protest to "topple the government thieves." The URL link led to a Facebook page belonging to the pro-Russian opposition Sor Party. The banner, which ran via Google Ads, was seen on a number of Moldovan websites over the course of several days.

Screenshot of the pro-Russian ad to protest against Moldova's pro-European government
The pro-Russian Sor party placed an ad to protest against Moldova's pro-European government in a DW articleImage: DW

The propagandist appeal for the country to "be saved from the thieves," came from a group of political oligarchs headed by Ilan Shor, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and saw roughly €2.5 million ($2.75 million) in assets confiscated by authorities last week.

The fugitive oligarch — he is presumed to be in Israel — had been found guilty of large-scale fraud and money laundering. Shor was the main figure behind Moldova's $1 billion 2014 bank fraud scandal. His scam involved three banks — he was chairman of the board of one of them — siphoning funds to shell companies in the UK and Hong Kong and then redepositing the cash into accounts disguised under false names in Latvia.  

Shor, who has both Moldovan and Israeli citizenship, fled the country in June 2019 — exactly the same time as another oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. Once the richest man in Moldova, Plahotniuc was able to use his Democratic Party to capture most of the state thanks to a wide-reaching corruption network that held the country in its grip for years.

There are international arrest warrants outstanding for both Shor and Plahotniuc, and both are on US and UK sanctions lists. The EU is also considering sanctions against the fugitive oligarchs as the bloc probes connections to possible Russian attempts to destabilize Moldova.

Moscow and the Sor Party have ratcheted up attacks on the pro-Western government in Chisinau since Russia began its war of aggression over a year ago. Moldova's pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, and her Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy have repeatedly warned that Moldova will be Russia's next target after Ukraine.

So far, Russia has reacted to every one of Chisinau's steps toward EU integration with threats, propaganda, lies and hysteria. For its part, the Sor Party has become ever louder as the massive corruption trial has neared its end and the fugitive oligarchs' influence over the Moldovan justice system fades.

Russian diplomat expelled

This Wednesday also saw a Russian diplomat declared persona non grata in the Moldovan capital and ordered to leave the country. The case is linked to an attempt by a Russian delegation led by Rustum Minnikhanov — the head of the Republic of Tatarstan — to participate in an election event in Moldova's autonomous Gagauzia region. Elections for the post of regional governor will be held there on April 30.

Gagauzia officially became an autonomous region within Moldova in 1994. Located in the south of the country it has special rights and its own government. Residents predominantly belong to a Turkic-speaking, orthodox Christian ethnic group. Most are Russian-speaking today. Irina Vlah currently serves as governor.

Irina Vlah speaking to a crowd in front of a podium
Irina Vlah currently serves as governor of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of GagauziaImage: ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

On Monday, Minnikhanov was kept from entering country. Moldovan border agents prohibited him and his delegation from leaving his private jet at Chisinau's airport. The head of Tatarstan is a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and he and his family are under Western sanctions.

Moldovan authorities have tightened border control considerably since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. That led to some 9,000 people being denied entry into the country last year. "We see the Russian Federation's intentions to destabilize the Republic of Moldova. We are vigilant and want to assure citizens that we know what we have to do to ensure the country's security," said Rosian Vasiloi, Moldova's head of border police.

Gagauzia — a wide open window for the Kremlin

The autonomous Gagauzia region is thought to be a "powder keg" that is ready to explode inside Moldova whenever the Kremlin gives the order. The separatist movement that tore the Republic of Moldova in two in the early 1990s had its beginnings here.

In order to block Moldova's unification with Romania, the Autonomous Republic of Gagauzia was illegally proclaimed in Comrat on August 17, 1990, in what was still the Soviet Union. Clashes between constitutional powers and those from the Autonomous Republic of Gagauzia followed. The conflict lasted until 1994, when the parliament in Chisinau granted the region special status. Among the issues covered by the law — the establishment of three official languages in the region: Gagauz, Romanian and Russian.

Moldova: The National Gagauz Museum # 24.11.2010 # European Journal

Though not a separatist region like Transnistria, it does have its own governor, parliament and executive. It does not transfer local tax income or fees to the central government, yet, it receives cash from Chisinau like every other region in the country.

A complicated story

The people of Gagauzia originally came from eastern Bulgaria and were settled in the Bessarabia region — now the Republic of Moldova — in the early nineteenth century. They were subject to mass Russification programs in the days of the tsar and later in the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to exert influence with the help of propaganda and loyal politicians.

Although the EU, Romania and the US provide Moldova with enormous financial assistance, some 98% of Gagauzia citizens still vote for pro-Russian parties in elections. According to the last census in 2014, roughly 135,000 people live in the region.

Rather than run against one another, the eight gubernatorial candidates up for election on April 30 have instead based their campaigns on stoking citizens' hostility toward the pro-European central government in Chisinau.

The catch is that although less than a decade ago nearly 100% of Gagauzia's exports went to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — the states of the former Soviet Union — today 45% of its goods are exported to the EU, and only 55% to the CIS.

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton