Demonstrators took to the streets of the Moldovan capital of Chișinău on Sunday, demanding the removal of pro-west president Maia Sandu after US and European officials raised concerns about an alleged Russian plot to topple her government.

The protest was peaceful and smaller than previous demonstrations held last autumn. It came, however, amid heightened political tension in Moldova following fresh warnings of a security threat to the nation of 2.6mn people, which borders Ukraine and Romania. Transnistria, a breakaway Moldovan region, is already under Russian control.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who met Sandu in Munich at the weekend, said Washington was alarmed by “some of the plotting that we’ve seen coming from Russia”. 

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy this month claimed that Moscow was planning to remove Sandu. Last week, Sandu said that Russia planned “the use of people from outside the country for violent actions” in Moldova.

Over the weekend, Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia was trying to seize power, just as it did a year ago in Ukraine. “But in Moldova, Russia wants to do things differently — not by tanks, but by bandits,” Podolyak told Moldova’s Tv8 broadcaster.

Moscow has denied the existence of a plot, describing them as “fiction”. On Saturday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova drew parallels between Kyiv and Chișinău, saying that Moldova is being “led by its western sponsors on the same path as Ukraine and the Baltic states”.

On Sunday, the UK shared its analysis of what provoked last week’s brief closure of Moldova’s airspace following another security warning from Ukraine. “There is a realistic possibility that this was a Russian balloon that had drifted from Ukrainian airspace,” British intelligence said on Twitter.

Ahead of Sunday’s protest, Moldovan authorities reacted by restricting access for citizens from Moscow-friendly countries, including from the Balkans. A team of boxers from Montenegro was barred from entering Moldova to attend a tournament and four Uzbek nationals were put on a flight back to Turkey on Sunday after being caught with false papers, according to border police.

The protests in Chișinău have been organised by the pro-Russian Șor party, putting the spotlight on party leader Ilan Șor, a Moldovan oligarch strongly supported by Moscow. After being convicted in 2017 for his involvement in a massive bank fraud in Moldova, Șor has sought refuge in Israel. The US has put Șor on a sanctions list and he is the target of a fresh anti-corruption investigation in Moldova.

Ahead of Sunday’s protest, Moldovan police searched the homes and detained some members of the Șor party, as part of an investigation into the party’s illegal funding of the protests, according to the public prosecutor’s office.

Șor’s deputy leader Marina Tauber spoke at Sunday’s protest, which gathered about 5,000 people, a local police official told the FT.

Sunday’s smaller-than-expected protest shows both the Moldovan government’s resilience and the limits of Russia’s ability to fuel discontent with the help of local pro-Russian politicians, according to EU lawmaker Siegfried Mureșan, who chairs the European parliament’s delegation for relations with Moldova and was visiting its capital.

“If they could not do a bigger protest today, I don’t think they will be able to do much more in the near future,” said Mureșan. The Moldovan authorities, he added, demonstrated that “they know how to monitor and police things like this and keep order”.

Many of Sunday’s protesters travelled to Chișinău by bus from smaller towns, with their costs covered by Șor. But a pensioner who attended the demonstration insisted that he only wanted to improve his financial situation and had no desire to help Russia gain power: “I love Moldova, but I want a different government that helps me pay the electricity.”

Retired physics teacher Constantin Ceban said that he shared such worries about soaring energy bills, but he stayed away from the protest because of its sponsorship by Șor.

“I think people from the countryside don’t understand this, but most people here in Chișinău know that these demonstrations are paid for by robbers,” Ceban said.

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