When the Council of the European Union decided on 23 June 2022 to grant Moldova the status of EU candidate country, it boosted the morale of a beleaguered government in Chișinău trying to circumnavigate a daunting series of crises. Since Maia Sandu ousted Socialist President Igor Dodon in the presidential election in 2020 and her reform-oriented Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) obtained a parliamentary majority in 2021, Moldova has barely had a chance to catch its breath. In the year that followed, the country experienced an energy crisis that almost deprived it of gas in the winter of 2021-2022, a budding economic crisis with rampant inflation, and a security and refugee crisis as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The war in its immediate neighbourhood, with Russian troops advancing in the spring along Ukraine’s southern coast to barely over 100 kilometres of Moldova’s borders, has further complicated the already difficult geopolitical balancing act of successive Moldovan governments. It has also aggravated existing security risks. For years, Moldova has balanced its aspirations to join the EU with its constitutional neutrality and its many dependencies on the Russian Federation. While President Putin was quick to congratulate Maia Sandu on her election and has so far refrained from open hostility towards her government, there are still many vulnerabilities that Moscow already leverages and could further exploit if it chose to destabilise Moldova. Not only is Moldova’s economy highly fragile and dependent on Russian energy, there are also political forces and regions that see their interests threatened by the reforms of the PAS government in Chișinău – and over which Moscow has different degrees of influence. Two of such regions are the separatist region of Transnistria in the east and the autonomous region of Gagauzia in the south of the country. A better understanding of these key vulnerabilities could help the EU and the Netherlands to assist Moldova in reducing them and to increase the stability and resilience of the EU’s newest candidate country.[1]

The central question of this research report therefore is to what extent Russia’s influence over Moldovan domestic politics as well as the regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia poses risks to the internal and external stability of Moldova.

In Chapter 2, the report will first focus on the interplay between geopolitics, domestic politics and identity politics that have long affected Moldova’s political stability and governance. It will particularly look at the extent to which, for its own benefit, Moscow could leverage internal political divisions, the situation of the country’s sizable national minorities, and key dependencies on Russian energy and media. Due to the scope of the research, the report excludes other vulnerabilities that are already well documented, such as cyber security, border security and the impact of refugees from Ukraine.[2] Chapter 3 will zoom in on the situation of the breakaway region of Transnistria and its ambiguous relationship with the European Union, as well as the way Tiraspol has positioned itself in light of the war in Ukraine and Moldova’s bid for EU candidacy status. Chapter 4 will look more closely at the situation of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in the south of the country in order to determine the extent to which it poses a risk for Moldova’s internal and external stability. Chapter 5 will then chart Moldova’s evolving relationship with the European Union and will assess to what extent the EU’s assistance to Moldova has contributed to reducing these vulnerabilities. The report concludes with recommendations to the EU.

The report is based on a mixed methodology that combines literature review with field research and semi-structured interviews with officials, politicians, national minority representatives and experts during a research visit to Chișinău, Tiraspol and Comrat in June 2022.[3]

Figure 1
Map of Moldova (including Transnistria)
Map of Moldova (including Transnistria)

Source: Wikipedia commons, see online

This report builds on previous research commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands on Russia’s influence on Moldova and the EU’s attempts to ‘Europeanise’ the country. See Francesco Montesano, Tony van der Togt and Wouter Zweers, “ The Europeanisation of Moldova: is the EU on the Right Track?,” Clingendael Report, 2016.
On cyber security, see for example Natalia Spinu, “Moldova Cybersecurity – Governance assessment”, Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance, November 2020; see also Dinu Turcanu et al. “Cybersecurity of the Republic of Moldova: a retrospective for the period 2015-2020”, Technical University of Moldova, 2021. On the challenges related to refugees, see Reliefweb. “Multi-Sector Needs Assessment Moldova - Key preliminary findings”, July 7, 2022.
The authors are grateful to Iulian Groza, Victoria Nemerenco, Floris van Eijk and Babette Kolen for their invaluable support to the research project and the research visit to Moldova. The authors would also like to thank Dick Zandee, Jan Marinus Wiersma and Dionis Cenusa for their valuable feedback to an earlier draft of this report.