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Moldova struggles amid Russian uncertainty

Carla Bleiker | Robert Schwartz | Vitalie Calugareanu | Dmytro Hubenko
May 9, 2022

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is visiting Moldova, the country that has taken in the most Ukrainian refugees relative to its own size. The small nation is one of Europe's poorest and faces many challenges.

Chateau Purcari is hosting Ukrainian refugees
Moldova has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country, relative to its sizeImage: Purcari Wineries Group

The Republic of Moldova in Eastern Europe is a small country. It has a population of fewer than 3 million people, but that number fluctuates because of mass migration: It is estimated that at least one-third of Moldovans are currently working abroad, which makes pinning down the exact number difficult. Here are figures we do know: Moldova has taken in more than 450,000 refugees from its neighbor Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in late February, starting a war that still rages today . When compared to Moldova's own population, that's the largest number of Ukrainian refugees any country has taken in.

The small nation's outsized willingness to receive Ukrainian refugees will be a focus of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres while he visits Moldova on Monday and Tuesday. The UN's news website states that Guterres is traveling to Moldova to "support the refugees and personally thank the Moldovans and all who assist them."

two people speak at podiums
Guterres on his visit to Moldova, with Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia GavrilitaImage: Bogdan Tudor/AFP

A history between Romania and the Soviet Union

Moldova gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The official language of Moldova is Romanian. The small country shares a border (marked by the Prut River) with Romania to the West. Until 1940, most of what is Moldova today was part of Romania. Then Soviet forces invaded areas east of the Prut River and established the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The majority of the population in today's Moldova are ethnically Romanian. Everyone who is of Romanian origin has the right to a Romanian passport, which many Moldovans made use of. Having this passport makes them citizens of the European Union, as Romania joined the bloc in 2007. Since the country is so poor, many Moldovans leave to work abroad in the EU and send money home to their families.  

A map showing Moldova and the separatist Trans-Dniester region

Trans-Dniester: The 'frozen conflict'

At the eastern edge of the country, where Moldova borders Ukraine, lies the separatist region of Trans-Dniester. It seceded from Moldova after a brief military conflict in 1992. The separatists were supported by troops from Moscow. Even today, Russia has around 1,500 troops stationed in the region and regularly conducts military exercises there.

Roughly 60% of the population in Trans-Dniester is Russian-speaking. The separatists dubbed the region "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic" (PMR), but not even Russia considers it a sovereign state. The region's other two official languages are Romanian and Ukrainian. Together with Russian, they represent the three major ethnic groups living in Trans-Dniester. The region's population has declined over the years amid the so-called "frozen conflict" and is estimated to number around 460,000 people.

Russian soldiers stationed in the separatist region are a major headache for the Moldovan government. Especially since Russian military authorities have stated that control of southern Ukraine would give Russia a gateway to Trans-Dniester, where there are "facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population," as a Russian military commander put it.

Ukraine war: Fears of new front in southwest

Eastern Europe's Switzerland

In 1994, three years after it gained independence, Moldova explicitly included its neutrality in the constitution. Like Switzerland, the country stated it would not take sides in international conflicts. There's speculation that the reason behind the move was to get Russian troops to leave Trans-Dniester — but if that's the case, it didn't work out.

The neutrality also means that Moldova is not a part of any large alliance, like NATO for example. The small nation hasn't introduced any sanctions against Moscow since the start of the war in Ukraine, but pro-European president Maia Sandu, who wants her country to join the EU, has condemned Russia's actions. That's about as far as any Moldovan politician will go.

Moldova is one of the poorest European countries and is heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies. With Russia's recent statements on the perceived "oppression" of Russian speakers and their troops still stationed in Trans-Dniester, many Moldovans fear that a victory of the Russian invading forces in Ukraine could also see the Kremlin march its army into their country.

Edited by: Stephanie Burnett

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker
Dmytro Hubenko Dmytro covers stories in DW's newsroom from around the world with a particular focus on Ukraine.