Russia’s relations with Moldova have been problematic and increasingly aggressive, especially since Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is not a recent occurrence. Moldova’s struggle with democracy has been intertwined with Russian aggression, going far beyond the Russo-Ukraine war. Moldova has featured a sympathetic Russian breakaway territory and a weak economy vulnerable to corruption exacerbated by Russian influence and energy superiority since its birth as a nation in 1991. As a result, Moldova’s fragile democracy has been impeded by internal corruption fueled by Russia’s economic influence and new security challenges. To distance itself from the effects of authoritarian Russian aggression and help bolster its democracy, the people of Moldova, under democratically elected president Maia Sandu have been determined to realign themselves with the West.
Moldova is a small landlocked ex-Soviet nation sandwiched between Ukraine on the East and Romania on the West. Without NATO or EU membership, a population of only 3.2 million, various economic/political weaknesses, and renewed Russian aggression, Moldova’s partly free democracy is vulnerable to democratic erosion. Despite endemic corruption and worrying links between political figures and economic interests, Moldova’s democracy does feature a competitive electoral process and freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly. Leaving the nation with a score of partly free (62/100) on Freedom House’s country report.
But within Moldova lies a frightening reminder of what the nation may look like if its democracy is not protected, Transnistria. Transnistria is a sliver of Moldovan land that snakes alongside the South-Eastern border of Ukraine, featuring substantial ethnic Russian populations. Shortly after Moldova achieved independence in 1991, a short five-month civil war broke out in which Russian-backed Transnistria separatists fought against the newly created Moldovan government. The war ended with Transnistria becoming a pseudo-independent nation, with a Freedom House rating of not free (18/100).
Despite Moldova and Transnistria essentially being the same nation, their distinctive interactions with democracy tell a story of two countries that will approach their futures in vastly different ways. First, it’s important to note that corruption aided by economic dependence on Russia continues to erode political independence on both sides. But Moldova, unlike Transnistria, has become frustrated in its relationship with Russia. A relationship that has negatively affected its nation’s democracy and economy, looking towards the West as a lifeline to help uplift its nation from continual democratic stagnation.
The main barrier to democratic consolidation in Moldova is corruption and energy dependence. Russia supplies Moldova with 100 percent of its gas through its state-owned company Gazprom. This energy reliance undermines the Moldovan government’s power in favor of Russian interests. Disregarding the democratic consensus among most Moldovans who aspire towards EU membership and economic progress instead of depending on Russia and a system that has not proved advantageous for Moldova’s population. Furthermore, Gazprom is also a 50 percent stakeholder in Moldovagaz, which distributes gas within Moldova. Gazprom also owns a 13.4 percent share in Tiraspoltransgaz, the Transnistrian version of Moldovagaz. Russian energy giant Inter ROA also controls Moldova’s main power plant in Cuciurgan, in Transnistria, which supplies 70 percent of the electricity to the right bank of the Dniester River.Moldova’s gas and energy dependence has given Russia a powerful diplomatic tool that enables Russian interests a corporation through which they can corruptly influence Moldovan politics, counter pro-European interests, and keep the Moldovan economy down while allowing corruption to flourish, thus diminishing the collective power of the Moldovan people. In addition, over the past decade, Moldovagaz has been responsible for over 2 billion Moldovan Lei (100 million euros) in dubious fraudulent expenses.
Anti-democratic figures like oligarchs have been able to operate without constraint due to corruption, a lacking judiciary, and the absence of economic diversification, which has been observed by the West. Particularly in America, where the US state department has publicly designated some of Moldova’s wealthiest oligarchs as threats to democracy, such as Vladimir Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor. Complicit in illegally influencing Moldovan elections through illicit Russian financing to further Russian interest within the region and thus maintain Moldova’s corrupt practices. Since 2020, Maia Sandu has been president of Moldova, elected in the first free and fair presidential election since 1996. Since then, she has appointed two pro-EU anti-corruption prime ministers and has begun diversifying the economy away from Russian energy dependence. However, a new security threat due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated Moldova’s process to become even more aligned with the West.
The Russian Invasion of Ukraine threatens the slight but significant progress Moldova has made in its democracy since the election of its president Maia Sandu in 2019. The Kremlin has been accused of coup plots within Moldova and recently fired missiles through Moldovan airspace. Even more frightening, Russia has access to 1,500 Russian sympathizing troops stationed in Transnistria that could be deployed within Ukraine or Moldova at a minute’s notice.These are alarming signs for Moldovan sovereignty and democracy. But if Moldova uses its position wisely, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine could present a genuine opportunity for progress. Russia has voiced many hostile threats toward the Moldovan government to create the narrative that Russia is willing to go to war in Moldova for the same reasons it did in Ukraine and Georgia. But this political posturing is weak, and the chance of a full invasion or activating the troops in Transnistria is unlikely. The war in Ukraine is concentrated in the East. Fighting has been stagnant for some time, allowing Moldova to seek Western assistance while Russia has its hand full with its special military operation. Moldova has already begun to use its new position to fight corruption, diversify its economy away from Russia, and bolster other areas of its democracy. Once corruption is hopefully tamed and Moldova improves upon other areas of its democracy, EU and NATO membership can become real possibilities for Moldova. Strengthening Western/EU ties and taming corruption were campaign promises of Sandu, and their attainment will be evidence of democratic strengthening in Moldova after decades of difficulty.