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Europe's next powder keg?

Vitalie Calugareanu, Robert Schwartz / dcMarch 2, 2015

The war in eastern Ukraine continues to sow unrest in the European Union and NATO. Now, the focus is shifting to the tiny republic of Moldova on the EU's eastern border, and the breakaway territory of Transnistria.

Orthodox church in Tiraspol
Image: DW/A. Scherle

NATO's latest warning about the possibility of Russian aggression spilling over into Moldova provoked various reactions in the former Soviet republic.

Last week, top NATO commander, General Philip Breedlove, told the US Congress that Russian troops stationed in the breakaway state of Transnistria are there to stop Moldova from "leaning to the West." He added that Moscow has also implemented a wide-reaching information campaign in Moldova via the Russian media.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also expressed concern about developments in the region. Following talks with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Berlin, Merkel said she hoped a repeat of the situation in Ukraine would not be played out in Moldova. She added that the conflict over Transnistria's status remains unresolved, and that all past international attempts to find a solution have failed.

Around 2,000 Russian soldiers are currently stationed in Transnistria, even though Russia agreed to withdraw its weapons and military presence in 1999. Following a bloody war at the beginning of the 1990s, the region separated from Moldova and declared independence. Transnistria's pro-Russia leadership hopes the region will become part of the Russian Federation.

Political shift in Chisinau?

A general view of Moldova's Parliament
Moldova's new minority government is dependent on the support of the opposition CommunistsImage: picture-alliance/epa/D. Doru

The new Moldovan government has so far failed to respond to any of the alarm signals. The country is being shaken by a political crisis that could scupper closer ties with the European Union. Only two weeks in office, Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici is trying to convince the EU that Moldova is still committed to its previous pro-Europe course. But critics have their doubts.

The pro-European three-party alliance that won the parliamentary election at the end of November proved incapable of setting up a government. Two of the parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Democrats, have since formed a minority government that is dependent on the support of the opposition Communist party. Pro-Europeans in Moldova now fear that their country could begin leaning more strongly toward Moscow.

Warnings need to be taken seriously

Oazu Nantoi, a Moldovan political scientist, says there are a range of threats facing his country. One of these, he told DW, is the "fifth Russian column" in the Moldovan parliament: not just the Socialist Party, which has never concealed its pro-Russian stance, but also members of parliament from other parties who oppose Chisinau's pro-EU direction.

Map of Moldova and the Transnistria region
Image: DW

Nantoi also warned against Moscow's influence on the upcoming elections in the autonomous Moldovan region of Gagauzia. There, pro-Russia separatists have also threatened to join the Russian Federation. Like Breedlove, Nantoi reported that Moscow has begun an information offensive in the region; Moldova's airwaves are dominated by Russian TV channels.

But the biggest danger continues to spring from the region's widespread corruption and weak government. Moldova is a state that cannot guarantee justice, order and political stability for its people. And while a war is being waged on its border, "it will not be in position to resist the Russian Federation's aggressive expansion politics," said Nantoi.

'The situation is escalating'

Moldova's former ambassador to Moscow, Anatol Taranu, believes his country will face further provocation from Russia. "When European and American politicians start talking about a possible threat, it's a clear sign that the situation is escalating," Taranu told DW. He said that the government in Chisinau should increase security standards to defuse possible military activity.

For Taranu, Chisinau can only achieve a level of security for Moldova by deepening its relations with the EU and NATO. However, he's skeptical whether the new Moldovan government will actually pursue this goal. In his view, the neutrality of his country, anchored in the Moldovan constitution, has already been compromised. As long as Russian troops are stationed on Moldovan territory without an agreement to that effect from the government, there can be no talk of neutrality.

Anatol Taranu
Taranu: "When European and American politicians start talking about a possible threat, it's a clear sign that the situation is escalating"Image: DW/A. Scherle

According to Viorel Cibotaru, Moldova's new defense minister, there is no concrete risk of an expansion of the Ukraine conflict. Despite this, he is concerned. In a recent interview with a Moldovan newspaper, Cibotaru said that all of the republic's defense structures are on permanent alert, in order to be able to immediately respond to a possible threat.

The latest report from the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) puts the number of Moldovan troops at 5,300. In the event of a conflict, a further 700,000 Moldovans could be called up. Most of the republic's weapons systems date from the Soviet era. In 2014, the defense budget totaled some 20 million euros ($22.4 million), or 0.3 percent of GDP - similar to the budget of the Moldovan Academy of Sciences.