‘People can’t afford milk’: Moldovans weigh political future as Ukraine war hits economy

Pro-Kremlin rhetoric is catching on with some as winter heating and basic foods become unaffordable

Electricity blackouts, stray missiles and 35% inflation: collateral damage from Russia’s war on Ukraine has plunged neighbouring Moldova into a crisis that goes beyond higher energy bills. “I see elderly people crying in front of the shop window. It’s not that they can’t afford salami; they can’t even afford the basics like milk,” says Carolina Untilă, who works in a corner shop in the suburbs of the capital, Chișinău. Moldova’s dependence on energy imports is driving record inflation. Prices of some products have doubled; in her shop, grocery sales have halved, Untilă says.

“Out of a pension, how can you save anything? It all goes on food and medicine,” says Ion Istrati, 72, from Borogani in southern Moldova. He is one of many who, faced with gas and electricity prices that are up to six times higher than last year, have applied for government help. “Without the compensation, it would have been grave,” Istrati adds. According to opinion polls, more than 40% of Moldovans are struggling with basic costs of living, while an additional 21% of people cannot afford the bare minimum.

To alleviate the burden of winter, as the former Soviet republic weans itself off almost total energy reliance on Russia, the government has had to turn to its western partners for emergency financial support. Russia’s state gas company Gazprom slashed supplies to Moldova in October, while reliance on Ukrainian electricity interconnectors has made the country an indirect casualty of the violence, as Kyiv stopped exporting electricity to Moldova in October after Russian airstrikes on its critical infrastructure.

Moldova’s minister for external affairs, Nicu Popescu, estimates that sourcing the alternative winter energy supplies the country needs will cost more than €1bn (£860m). So far, the government has managed to raise a third of the amount from its EU partners.

Ministers are acutely aware that the cost of living crisis carries political and geopolitical risks for this country of 2.5 million people. “Russia’s hybrid war in Moldova replicates the energy strategy used against Europe at large, but it also involves the propaganda war, that we see in the media, on social channels, and on the streets, at protests,” says the political analyst Igor Boțan. “In response, the government is attempting to diversify our energy sources and get support from our western partners.”

Some opposition politicians, particularly in the Șor party, blame the government for the economic hardship and argue that conditions require a return to closer ties to Russia.

Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, steps out of the rear door of a car
Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, in Paris last month for a gathering of the Moldova support platform, an initiative set up by Romania, Germany and France to provide aid to the country. Photograph: Yoan Valat/Reuters

Since the autumn, Șor has organised anti-government, pro-Russia protests in the centre of Chișinău. Tens of thousands have turned out, although it has been alleged that some of them were paid to show up.

Șor representatives from central Moldova are accused of meeting Duma officials in Moscow to seek the end of Russia’s embargo on Moldovan fruit for their district, Orhei, and a special local gas deal.

The US recently imposed sanctions on the party’s leader, Ilan Shor, as part of what Washington called its action to counter Russia’s “persistent malign influence campaigns and systemic corruption in Moldova”. The UK followed suit last week, naming Shor among 30 international political figures who will be stopped from entering the country or channelling money through British banks. Shor is reported to have fled Moldova for Israel in 2019 after a fraud investigation two years previously led to corruption charges. He has defended the provision of food and transport to those who wanted to join the anti-government protests “against the disgrace, poverty, hunger and cold to which they were condemned”.

Both Shor and another opposition leader, Gheorghe Cavcaliuc, who left Chișinău for London last summer after the pro-European PAS party won elections, have appeared at the protests via video-streaming. Both politicians claim that any investigations against them in Moldova are politically motivated. But their pro-Russia messages, transmitted via Shor-owned local and Russian TV channels, have caught on with some Moldovans.

Under the stewardship of the pro-western president, Maia Sandu, Moldova has applied for and been granted candidate status for EU membership. However, November polls indicated a dip in public support for closer integration with the EU, with 50% of Moldovans saying they would vote for membership, down from 65% in the summer of 2021. “We should stay neutral,” says 34-year-old Ana, criticising the Moldovan government’s voluble condemnation of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. “Our produce used to go to Russia, and gas and electricity were cheaper then,” she adds. About 60% of Moldovan exports now go to the EU and only 10% to Russia.

The blackouts have, however, made other Moldovans turn away from Russia. After a power cut that left parts of the country without electricity for 24 hours in November, on Moldovan social media #bezvas (#withoutyou) became a trending hashtag, borrowing from the Ukrainian president’s defiant riposte to the Kremlin: “Without gas or without you? Without light or without you? Without you!” Even the former pro-Russia Moldovan president Igor Dodon condemned the Russian attacks on Ukraine and said “we should thank Romanians for selling us electricity”.

Throughout November, Moldova bought nearly 90% of its electricity from Romania, after supply from the breakaway Russia-backed Transnistria region, which controls the key Cuciurgan power station, dried up. On 3 December, Romania exported gas to Chișinău for the first time. However, Romania is struggling to cover its own needs.

A temporary deal that the deputy prime minister, Andrei Spînu, called “humane” because it will help avert massive power outages will allow Moldova to trade gas stocks for cheaper electricity from Transnistria.

In the longer term, however, Moldova will have to prioritise the construction of a new electricity interconnector with Romania and develop the renewables sector.

“This perverse war in Ukraine has two facets,” says Boțan. “If Ukraine resists, and we also resist, we have the chance to integrate into the EU … But now it all depends on our efforts to inform citizens of the opportunities that have opened to us.”


Paula Erizanu in Chișinău

The GuardianTramp

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