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Welcome back. Maia Sandu, the pro-western president of Moldova, accused Russia this week of plotting to overthrow her country’s democratic institutions. It’s time to pay more attention to Moldova — and to recognise that not every problem in this precarious, politically splintered state on Ukraine’s south-western border is connected directly to Russia’s war next door. You can reach me at tony.barber@ft.com.

First, in case you missed it, I’d like to highlight this article by Clive Cookson, the FT’s science editor, on the numerous weather balloons and other man-made objects that fly in Earth’s atmosphere above the cruising height of commercial planes and below satellite orbits.

Clive’s piece was timely because of the tensions between Washington and Beijing over the Chinese balloon that US forces shot down with a Sidewinder missile this month off the coast of South Carolina.

Moreover, the security issues raised by that incident extend to the periphery of the war zone in Ukraine. On Tuesday Moldova’s civil aviation authority temporarily shut down national airspace after being alerted to the intrusion of an unidentified object similar to a weather balloon.

Plots and coup attempts

You can understand why the Moldovan authorities are jumpy. One day before the balloon scare, Sandu said she had confirmation of an anti-government plot involving citizens of Belarus, Montenegro, Serbia and Russia. She accused them of planning popular protests in an attempt to topple Moldova’s democracy and install a Moscow-backed regime.

It all sounded rather like the attempted coup in 2016 in Montenegro, where a court later convicted 14 people, including — in absentia — two suspected members of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

Word of the alleged plot in Moldova emerged at a time of rising political tensions and economic hardships there.

Earlier this month, Natalia Gavrilita, Sandu’s prime minister, resigned in a step that triggered the fall of her entire government. After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Gavrilita’s government struggled to cope with its extreme dependence on Russian energy supplies, a collapse in foreign trade, soaring inflation and an influx of Ukrainian refugees.

Moldova’s troubled modern history

However, Moldova’s difficulties go further back. They are rooted in its contested 20th-century identity, and in its violence-scarred emergence in 1991 as a fragile state out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. One weakness of western policies towards Moldova is that they take too little account of how this fraught past shapes the present.

Moldova is a mainly Romanian-speaking state that comprises most of the historical region of Bessarabia. That was under Russian imperial rule from 1812 until the end of the first world war, when it united with Romania. Joseph Stalin annexed Bessarabia in 1940, lost it to the Romanians after the Nazi invasion of the USSR and then reannexed it in 1944.

By merging Bessarabia with a sliver of Ukrainian territory, Stalin created the Soviet republic of Moldavia. Leonid Brezhnev, the future Soviet leader, was Moldavia’s communist party chief in the late Stalinist era from 1950 to 1952.

Under Soviet rule, Russian increasingly became the language of education and public life in Moldavia. For written Romanian, the authorities replaced the Latin alphabet with Cyrillic. They insisted — all evidence to the contrary — that this reflected the existence of “Moldavian” as a language distinct from Romanian.

Abolition of these Soviet-era manipulations was a rallying cry for the Moldovan (the Romanian word for “Moldavian”) nationalist movement that emerged in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader.

Independence for Moldova came in 1991, but not without a reaction among Russian-speakers in two regions: Transnistria in the east, and Gagauzia in the south. Fighting broke out in Transnistria, where separatists set up a rogue statelet, with the help of a locally based Russian army unit, that survives to this day.

Transnistria and Gagauzia are pressure points that make Moldova vulnerable to Russian intimidation, but, as Thomas de Waal has written for the Carnegie Europe think-tank, perhaps less so than was feared a year ago. Moscow’s failure to destroy Ukraine’s independence and make military advances as far west as Odesa reduce the risk of a Russian invasion of Moldova.

Fomenting public unrest is a different matter. Russian-backed protests broke out last year, organised by the opposition Șor party, founded by the fugitive oligarch Ilan Șor.

He was convicted of fraud in 2017 over the stealing of $1bn from Moldova’s banking system — then, about an eighth of the country’s gross domestic product — in a scheme dubbed “the theft of the century”.

Reunification with Romania?

For western governments, more awkward questions — which they generally prefer not to raise in public — concern Moldova’s relationship with Romania and the state’s long-term viability.

In 2018, on the centenary of Bessarabia’s union with Romania, the Romanian parliament voted in support of unification with Moldova. It was a purely symbolic gesture, but as Craig Turp-Balazs has noted, Romanian governments for 30 years have tended to treat Moldova as a sort of junior family member.

Public support in Moldova for unification is relatively low, but it has shown signs of rising in recent years. More to the point, nearly 650,000 Moldovan citizens — or a quarter of Moldova’s population — possess Romanian passports, according to Bucharest’s official figures. Even Sandu herself has one.

This trend is important because Moldova has suffered extraordinary population losses since independence through migration abroad. A 1989 census in Soviet Moldavia estimated the population at 4.3mn. Now, it is about 2.6mn, excluding Transnistria.

The election of Sandu as president in 2020 and of a pro-western government in 2021 owed much to the votes of Moldovan émigrés in western countries. “Many of them believe that the only way Moldova can ever become an EU member is through unification with Romania,” writes Adam Starzynski for the 3SeasEurope website.

Moldova’s long-term independence is therefore closely tied to the question of whether the country can join the EU before the Romanian reunification issue rears its head in earnest.

Prospects for EU membership

What is the likelihood of EU membership? Like Ukraine, Moldova was made an official candidate last year. The EU has been trying to stabilise Moldova’s economy with financial assistance — up to €295mn, as proposed last month. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development chipped in last year with a €300mn loan, enough to finance a fifth of Moldova’s annual gas imports.

However, two EU documents shed light on why full membership for Moldova remains a long way off.

Reviewing Moldova’s application last year, the European Commission observed:

The integrity, independence and accountability of the judiciary need to be significantly improved . . . Corruption remains a serious concern that requires continued attention as it imposes significant costs on the state budget, businesses and the population, discourages domestic and foreign investment and undermines the rule of law.

This month, the Commission made this assessment of Moldova’s efforts to meet the conditions of accession to the 27-member bloc by aligning itself with the EU’s acquis, or accumulated body of law:

Moldova’s alignment rate with [EU] common foreign and security policy declarations and restrictive measures has fluctuated between 50 and 80 per cent over recent years. It has not aligned with decisions on Russia and Belarus sanctions or with decisions under the EU global human rights sanctions regime.

In other words, the road to EU membership will be long and hard. But unification with Romania, even if desirable (a big question), looks no easier, either.

More on this topic

The Russian Laundromat exposed — an analysis of the giant banking fraud in Moldova by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Apple faces pressure to reduce its manufacturing reliance on China, but the US tech giant is running into obstacles in its efforts to increase production in India, the FT’s Patrick McGee in San Francisco and John Reed in New Delhi report

  • Russian society is responding to the war in Ukraine not with grassroots enthusiasm but a mixture of detachment, conspiracy theories, confusion and volunteerism, Anna Matveeva, visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London, writes for the openDemocracy media platform

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