Moldova finds itself caught in the crosshairs of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Russia determined to stop the country forging closer links with the European Union. Cuts in Russia’s energy supplies have proved disruptive, pushing up prices and leading to protests and a recent change of prime minister. Pro-Russian politicians, implicated in vast corruption, are the political force behind the protests and stand accused of paying people to take part, aiming to destabilise the government. The new prime minister faces huge economic and political challenges. He should step up dialogue with civil society, which has an essential role to play in challenging disinformation and defending democracy and human rights.

The spotlight rarely falls on Moldova, a small country nestled between Romania and Ukraine. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has changed that.

Last month, prime minister Natalia Gavrilița stepped down. When her party, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections in July 2021, it was on a platform of tackling corruption and developing closer relations with the European Union (EU). But, as Gavrilița put it, no one expected the government ‘would have to manage so many crises caused by Russian aggression on Ukraine’.

Gavrilița resigned and was soon replaced as prime minister by Dorin Recean, in a parliamentary vote where opposition parties either abstained or boycotted. Like his predecessor, he’s put together a cabinet that mixes PAS politicians with technocrats. But the crisis is far from over.

Russia’s shadow

Russia has always cast a deep shadow over Moldova. Since it became independent from the Soviet Union, Moldova’s central political question has been how to balance its relations with Russia and the west.

When Moldova declared independence in 1991, its easternmost region, Transnistria, had already broken away and proclaimed its own independence. Military conflict between Moldova and Transnistria followed, in which Russian forces backed Transnistrian troops, ending in July 1992 with the situation frozen. Transnistria maintains its autonomy but lacks international recognition. Russian forces remain stationed there.

The dispute was at least partly about national and linguistic identity. In the Soviet era, the Russian language was imposed, as on all other component states, and independence unleashed a wave of nationalism that saw the adoption of Moldovan – essentially another name for Romanian – as the official language and a national flag echoing that of Romania. Transnistria however remains predominantly Russian-speaking and many who live there identify with Russia.

Ethnic Romanians form the majority in Moldova, but not in Transnistria, which is home to high numbers of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Many Moldovans feel close to Romania, and there’s long been discussion of unifying the two countries. But while many hold dual citizenship, the notion has consistently lacked majority support.

All issues of identity are controversial. When the Moldovan parliament approved a law to call the country’s official language Romanian instead of Moldovan in March, it brought an angry backlash from pro-Russia opposition politicians.

The question of whether to face east or west plays out in Moldova’s international relationships. Moldova was an early member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the regional organisation linking several former Soviet states. But last November the government announced it was suspending its participation and has since started withdrawing from treaties it signed as part of the CIS. Russia, not surprisingly, strongly opposes this.

Moldova formally applied to join the EU in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was quickly granted official candidate status. If successful, it would follow the same path as Romania, which joined the EU in 2007.

There’s so far no corresponding move towards joining NATO, something Russia strongly opposes and claims the government wants to do. Moldova’s constitution declares neutrality, which would rule out membership. Some politicians support the idea but polling has shown it to be consistently unpopular.

At the national level, there’s often been considerable Russian influence. The Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), a strongly pro-Russia party, made a unique post-independence comeback. It came first in six parliamentary elections from 1998 to 2010 and was in government from 2001 to 2009. Much of its support has since switched to the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM). The two allied in the 2021 election and provide the main parliamentary opposition.

Following the PCRM’s decline, Moldova has been ruled by changing coalitions of various broadly pro-European parties since 2009, although PSRM leader Igor Dodon served as president from 2016 to 2020, and his party was part of two fragile coalition governments from 2019 to 2021.

Corruption the common thread

While governments may have shifted from pro-Russia to pro-Europe, corruption has remained a constant. Oligarchs, having accumulated great wealth, moved into politics. Many political figures have been accused of corruption. Vlad Filat, prime minister from 2009 to 2013, received a nine-year sentence for abuse of power in 2016. By then, Moldova had experienced its worst crisis since independence. A massive 2014 bank fraud emptied three banks of an estimated US$1 billion, one eighth of the country’s GDP, requiring a government bailout.

The theft was devastating in a country often said to be Europe’s poorest. Powerful business leaders and politicians were alleged to have been involved, including Filat. Oligarch Ilan Shor, who leads the populist pro-Russian Șor Party, headed one of the three banks and was said to have masterminded the fraud. One of Moldova’s richest people, he was convicted for his role in 2017 but remained free pending an appeal.

Shor fled the country when a PAS-headed coalition came to power in 2019 and has recently been subject to international sanctions over his Russian connections. Other members of his party are under investigation. Oligarch Vladmir Plahotunic, who led the Democratic Party, which came second in 2019, was also alleged to have been involved in the bank fraud and also left Moldova after the change of government. None of the stolen money has been recovered.

It’s little wonder many found PAS’s anti-corruption agenda appealing. PAS leader Maia Sandu first came to power after the 2019 parliamentary election, but her coalition collapsed following a vote of no-confidence later that year. In 2020 she won the presidential election, comfortably beating Dodon, who has since also been subject to corruption investigations. PAS then won the 2021 parliamentary election by a landslide.

Sandu announced that her election marked ‘the end of the reign of thieves’ in Moldova. It also implied a significant loss of Russian influence; even if pro-Russian politicians hadn’t always been in power, many business leaders had Russian links. Further, the series of weak, corrupt administrations the country endured weren’t going to make any progress in joining the EU. Loss of public trust in several parties that stood on pro-EU platforms only to have their leaders revealed to be manifestly corrupt had also weakened support for membership.

Power plays

The new government already faced a challenge in delivering on its promise to tackle endemic corruption. And then the war happened.

All around the world, Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused food and fuel prices to soar, sparking a great wave of protests. Moldova has been particularly vulnerable because it depended on natural gas from Russia and electricity from neighbouring Ukraine, with which it shares Soviet-era infrastructure.

Moldova has been a target of the hybrid warfare launched by Russia and energy has been one of the tools used to put pressure on people and the government.


In October 2022, Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom announced it was slashing its gas deliveries to Moldova by 30 per cent. Among those affected was a power plant in Transnistria that supplies much of Moldova’s electricity, which drastically cut its output. Meanwhile Russian airstrikes on Ukraine’s power grid caused supplies to Moldova to be cut off. In December, Gazprom moved to supply Transnistria solely, with gas for the rest of Moldova only resuming in March, when the worst of the winter had passed.

Romania stepped in with an electricity deal and the EU and western states pledged aid to support energy costs and subsidise bills, averting disaster. But household energy prices have still risen sharply, with gas up by 27 per cent in September alone, driving Europe’s highest inflation and causing many to struggle.

Every crisis Moldova has encountered, including corruption scandals and political infighting, has seen people take to the streets in numbers, and that’s again been the case. 2022 saw multiple protests triggered by the high cost of living, with mass protests in September calling for the government to resign. Protests have continued in 2023.

Protesters haven’t just urged the government’s resignation. Some also demand a change of direction, urging Moldova to take a more pro-Russian line. This isn’t unique: soaring prices drove masses of protesters to the streets in the Czech Republic last year, demanding the resignation of the pro-Europe government and a friendlier policy towards Russia, including negotiation of a new agreement on gas supplies.

Dissatisfaction with the government has no doubt increased, and people who are struggling may find it hard to contemplate the repercussions of changes they’re demanding. They may see the links politicians have with Russia as assets. Russia, lacking friends to the west, would presumably be happy to cut deals in return for political concessions, particularly if it sows division among EU states.

But legitimate discontent has been magnified and instrumentalised for political gain. In the Czech Republic, the protests were organised by far-right and far-left parties, brought together by mutual support for Russia. In Moldova, it was Ilan Shor’s Șor Party that called the protests. Exiled politicians, including Shor, joined in online. Protests have been exploited for propaganda purposes by Russian state media.

Shor has credibly been accused of paying people to participate in protests. The protests suit his interests: as well as demanding closer links with Russia, protesters have called for the end of corruption investigations against Shor and other figures.

Voices from the frontline

Victoria Nemerenco is coordinator of the Europeanization, Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms.


Moldova has been a target of the hybrid warfare launched by Russia and energy has been one of the tools used to put pressure on people and the government. However, the energy crisis also led to overwhelming support from international partners, and especially from Romania and other EU member states. International allies provided direct budgetary support to compensate for the increase in prices, along with alternative electricity supplies by connecting Moldova to the European grid. This has increased Moldova’s resilience.

If last year a Russian attack on Moldova was a remote possibility, this year things have taken a new turn. The statement by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Russia’s plan to establish full control over Moldova was not all that surprising given the repeated references made by the Russian Foreign Minister to the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ being replicated in Moldova. Lately, Russian authorities have also made claims about an alleged Ukrainian attack on the Transnistria region. The Moldovan authorities are doing all they can to prevent an escalation of the situation, even if Russia is trying to exploit Moldova’s vulnerabilities to its advantage.

The energy crisis has increased people’s dissatisfaction with the government, but rather than a reflection of such dissatisfaction, the recent wave of organised protests was part of an attempt to replace the pro-European government with a pro-Kremlin puppet regime. Two parties with clear connections with Russia, the Socialists and the Şor Party – which has even been included on the US sanctions list – are attempting to sabotage governance through paid protests. Images of the protests and exaggerated numbers of protesters collectively brought to Chişinău are being widely used by the Russia-affiliated media to convey the idea of broad dissatisfaction and negatively influence people’s perception of the pro-European government.

The EU has reconfirmed its support by granting Moldova EU candidate status in 2022, further stressing the importance of the country abiding by democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law. Civil society continues to monitor the situation and is in touch with its international partners and donors, communicating the latest developments and the support required.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Victoria. Read the full interview here.

A polarised situation

President Sandu continues to accuse Russia of trying to destabilise the country and replace the government, describing what is happening as a ‘hybrid war’.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims to have intercepted Russian secret service plans to establish control over Moldova. This month investigative journalists published what appear to be a series of leaked official Russian documents developed in the wake of the 2021 election with plans to increase its influence in Moldova and stop the government moving closer to the west. Among the tactics are cuts to gas supplies and support for pro-Russian groups.

Recently the police announced they had arrested a group of people linked to Russia accused of planning to fund further protests. Meanwhile disinformation abounds:, a civil society initiative, says pro-Russian disinformation in Moldova has increased tenfold since the war began.

The fear is of further escalation leading to Moldova being dragged into the conflict. Last September Russia warned Moldova not to endanger its troops based in Transnistria or it would face retaliation. In February, on the day Gavrilița announced her resignation, two Russian missiles entered Moldovan and Romanian airspace. There have been other such incidents. A few days later, Moldova temporarily closed its airspace. An airline suspended flights to Moldova, citing security concerns.

It’s a febrile and deeply polarised situation. The new prime minister faces the challenge of reviving the economy and halting inflation with seemingly little room for manoeuvre, on top of the existing problem of dismantling the machinery of corruption. At the same time there’s a need to keep proving the value of democracy and respect for civic freedoms in the face of Russia’s dangerous normalisation of repression.

It’s a huge agenda, and Moldova’s civil society needs to be enabled to play its role in defending democracy, nurturing civic freedoms, exposing corruption and rooting out disinformation. The new administration must intensify dialogue with civil society. Moldova’s democratic partners, including the EU, must support civil society. There’s no other way to heal divisions and keep democracy alive in Moldova.


  • The government of Moldova should step up its dialogue with civil society to advance reforms, defend freedoms and resist threats.
  • The European Union and democratic states, in their engagement with Moldova, should prioritise support for civil society.
  • The European Union and other European partners should prioritise the development of renewable energy sources in Moldova to make the country less vulnerable to energy shocks caused by Russia.

Cover photo by Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images