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.
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.