Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Opinion

Moldova's Sandu will need EU help in 2024

  • President Maia Sandu. Moldova's severe level of dependency on Russia for energy has threatened to derail the country's impressive progress towards EU membership (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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2024 will be a decisive year for Moldova. The tiny former Soviet republic, which lies landlocked between Ukraine and Romania, is heading for a presidential vote in the autumn that will determine its place within Europe.

While attention in Brussels may be focused on the upcoming European Parliament elections, Moldova is fighting for its own democratic future as an aspiring EU member state.

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A historic decision was made at the European Council summit last December. Maia Sandu, Moldova's pro-European president, managed to secure an agreement to open negotiations on her country's EU accession alongside Ukraine.

But despite reaching this milestone, there can be no room for complacency. Moldova still remains vulnerable to Russia's capabilities to undermine its European path. As Belgium assumes the rotating EU presidency, deeper political and economic engagement with Sandu and the Russian threat facing Moldova needs to be made.

Moldova has one of the most vulnerable economies in Europe. Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, 99 percent of Moldovan energy needs came from a single Soviet-era pipeline controlled by the Russian state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.

This severe level of dependency on Russia for energy has threatened to derail Moldova's impressive progress towards EU membership.

Shortly after the Russian assault on Ukraine, Gazprom slashed its deliveries to Moldova by almost 40 percent in a deliberate attempt to cause political and social instability in the country. The sharp rise in energy prices as a result of the war have hit consumers across Europe. But the economic impact has been felt particularly hard in Moldova where many lower-income households rely on pensions and social assistance.

Resignation calls

Discontent intensified into mass demonstrations calling for with Sandu's resignation as well as tensions with Transnistria, Moldova's Russian-speaking breakaway enclave.

Moldova has taken steps to reduce its over-reliance on Russian gas and strengthen its energy security. Victor Parlicov, the Moldovan energy minister, announced a termination of gas purchases from Gazprom last October. Meanwhile, government subsidies and emergency gas supplies saw Moldova through one of its worst winter energy crises in its post-communist history in 2022/23.

But more work needs to be done to find long-term solutions to Moldova's energy vulnerabilities. Gazprom still ships 5.7 million cubic metres of gas to Transnistria every day and a majority of Moldova's electricity continues to flow through Russian-operated power plants in the secessionist region.

Russia's threat to Moldova not only involves the weaponisation of energy, but also includes sophisticated hybrid attacks on its constitutional order.

Unveiling her country's new national security strategy at the end of last year, Sandu identified two principal threats: "the aggressive policy of the Russian Federation against our country as a whole and deep-rooted corruption in Moldova". The designation of corruption as a national security issue is an indication that Russia has exploited Moldova's weaknesses in public administration in an effort to maintain its influence in the former Soviet republic.

Sandu came to office in 2020 determined to root out systemic corruption and implement reforms in line with EU standards. This process accelerated following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine with plans made to make the tax system more attractive to foreign investment and enact comprehensive judicial reform.

But these efforts have met hostile resistance from Russian proxies operating in Moldova.

Ilan Shor, the US-sanctioned businessman sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing $1bn [€0.91bn] from three Moldovan banks, organised anti-government protests in Chisinau.

According to US intelligence, Russia intended to use these demonstrations to stage an insurrection against Sandu's legitimate, democratically-elected government. Over 50 people were arrested for their links with groups tasked by the Russian security services to instigate violence.

The EU cannot afford to underestimate Russia's ability to interfere in Moldova's internal affairs, particularly in light of autumn's pivotal presidential elections.

Sandu's anti-corruption party, Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), performed well in recent regional elections but suffered losses in big cities. Ion Ceban, who enjoys links with Russia, defeated the PAS candidate in the mayoral contest in Chisinau. Russia's influence in these results can be seen in the mobilisation of Russian finance to fund pro-Kremlin political parties. Moldova's intelligence services later detected that €20m was used.

The integrity of Moldova's democratic process is also at risk of being compromised by disinformation in the public media. Six television channels owned by or affiliated with Shor have had their broadcast licences suspended for promoting Russian propaganda.

The Belgian EU presidency has pledged "to support EU neighbours in tackling the challenges they face", but its programme failed to make a direct mention of Moldova. The precarious position that Sandu's mission to take her country into the EU finds itself in calls for a renewed focus.

This means channelling strategic EU investment to stimulate Moldova's economic growth and ease the financial pressures that its most vulnerable consumers are under as the transition from Russian gas takes place. Dumitru Alaiba, Moldova's economic development minister, predicted that his country would achieve 2.5 percent growth in 2023, a rate much less than what was expected.

Investment would also support projects designed to diversify Moldova's energy supplies. Construction has already begun on an interconnector between Moldova and Romania funded by the European Investment Bank. Such critical infrastructure initiatives are key to building Moldova's resilience against Russian threats to its democratic cohesion through the withholding of gas.

As her government prepares for Moldova's most important election since achieving independence from the Soviet Union, Sandu needs the support of her European allies more than ever.

Author bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a non-resident associate research fellow from the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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