Moldova vows to seek closer ties with Europe despite fears of provoking Russia

On February 28, the Prime Minister of Moldova, Natalia Gavrilita, declared that she wanted her country “to move towards the European Union as quickly as possible”.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail

With smoking evidence of attacks on Ukraine visible from her country’s borders, Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita vows to accelerate the former Soviet state’s push towards Europe in the face of growing threats hostile from Moscow.

Moldova has already closed its airspace, banned exports of staple foods and placed law enforcement on high alert on its border with Transnistria, the unrecognized dissident territory occupied by Russia, amid fears that what is happening in Ukraine will affect its smaller neighbour.

“We want to move towards the European Union as quickly as possible,” Ms. Gavrilita told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

At a critical time when Russia’s Vladimir Putin threatens those who stray from his country’s orbit, it would be “a very strong and important signal for our people” that the EU offers Moldova a prospect of membership – a formal invitation to join – said Ms Gavrilita.

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“Even within the EU there are now calls for this perspective,” she said. “I hope that will happen,” she added, although “it’s a shame if it’s the crisis that is accelerating this.”

Moldova is a landlocked crescent of hills and vineyards half the size of New Brunswick, wedged between Romania and Ukraine. It is best known for its wine, monasteries and a history of systemic corruption that has made it one of the poorest places in Europe.

But her European ambitions are on full display in schools, offices and the government office where Ms Gavrilita addressed the Globe, which displayed the European Union flag alongside the Moldovan banner.

An abandoned National Hotel building is painted in Ukrainian national colors in Chisinau, Moldova, February 27, 2022. The sign reads ‘No war’.VLADISLAV CULIOMZA/Reuters

Russia invaded Ukraine less than eight months after Ms Gavrilita’s Action and Solidarity Party won a majority in parliament. It is the first time since Moldova’s independence that it has been led by a pro-European Prime Minister.

These ambitions have failed to overcome a longstanding EU reluctance to usher in a country where corruption is rampant. Some member states have also feared angering Russian President Vladimir Putin by embracing a country that Moscow has sought to keep under its influence.

“The war in Ukraine has changed the security environment in Europe,” said Iulian Groza, Moldova’s former deputy foreign minister, who now heads the Institute for European Policies and Reforms. Russia’s instigation of the war suddenly made it clear that “it is better to give us economic and political support by accepting us in Europe than to now provide military equipment to defend Ukraine”, he said. declared.

The invasion of Ukraine also underscored the risks for other former Soviet states.

A humanitarian center for refugees from Ukraine at the Moldova-Ukraine border, in Palalanca, Moldova, Friday, February 25, 2022.AUREL OBREJA/Associated Press

On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss singled out the Baltics, Poland and Moldova as places whose peaceful existence is threatened by Russia. “If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, we are going to see others threatened,” she told Sky News.

Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine reflects a determination to prevent close neighbors from drawing closer to Europe. Moscow has already warned the Nordic countries against a new rapprochement with NATO. Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Finland and Sweden would face “military and political consequences” if they joined the Western military alliance.

Ms Gavrilita called a Russian attack on Moldova, which spends only 0.35% of its budget on its military, a “hypothetical matter”.

But Moldova knows better than almost any other country the Kremlin’s desire to seize territory it considers its own. This reality has long stifled the country’s appetite to push Russia.

A short drive from the prime minister’s offices, the road east of the capital, Chisinau, passes an outpost with a tank and soldiers wearing peacekeepers. In front, passed a checkpoint is Transnistria, which was seized by Russian-backed forces after a war that ended in 1992.

Memories of Russian-backed fighting forces remain fresh, especially at Criuleni, one of the main entry points into Transnistria from Chisinau. The small community holds an annual ceremony to commemorate deceased local residents, more than 300 in total.

Georgi Carpi built a house with a view on a hill where these forces fired rockets into Moldova 30 years ago. Now 74, he remembers telling anyone who would listen: “Don’t mess with the Russians. Leave the Russians alone.

Georgi Carpi built a house with a view on a hill where these forces fired rockets into Moldova 30 years ago. Now 74, he remembers telling anyone who would listen: “Don’t mess with the Russians. Leave the Russians alone,” he said on February 27.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

For most of the past three decades, Moldova has done just that. This hill remained under the control of Transnistria, where thousands of Russian soldiers are still stationed today.

Stefan Manoli, a former policeman here, was among a group of Moldovan law enforcement officers captured by Transdniestrian forces, an event that was one of the sparks of the conflict three decades ago. Now he thinks Mr. Putin will not be satisfied until Russia defeats Ukraine.

Moldova should not fear the same, he said, as long as it does nothing to incite Mr Putin.

“If we stay calm, nothing will happen to us,” Mr Manoli said.

Relations across the unrecognized border have generally been friendly. Half a dozen children from Transnistria cross Moldova to attend primary school in Criuleni. But fear has now settled in the mint green hallways of the school. On Friday, a third-year girl approached Principal Dodon Ala with a question: “Dear teacher, will we have war?”

Dodon Ala, headmistress of Criuleni Primary School, said on February 27 that children in her school had started crying for fear of war.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

“Then she started crying,” Ms Ala said. “I don’t know how to explain to a child what is going to happen.” At least one parent told him he intended to keep his child out of class for the next few weeks as a precaution.

The school has already felt the consequences of the colder relations between Moldova and Russia. A fight last fall over the price of natural gas, delivered to Ukraine by the Russian public company Gazprom, has tripled the school’s monthly heating bills. It was an experience that made Ms. Ala suspicious.

“There is a fear that if we move closer to Europe it could hurt us as a people,” she said.

But this process is already underway. Ms Gavrilita said she would “work on energy security and ensure that we are less dependent” on Russia, helped in part by European funding for green energy.

Moldova’s constitution obliges it to be neutral, and public support for NATO membership remains modest. But here too, the Ukrainian crisis has opened up the possibility of rapprochement. On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for “more support” for Moldova and other countries.

“I hope the world now understands that fearing Putin is not a strategy,” Groza said.

Mr Putin, he said, “will not be arrested unless he is deterred”.

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