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Moldova fast-tracks EU membership amid fears of Russian-backed coup – POLITICO

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the capital’s central square on Sunday, waving flags and homemade signs in support of the country’s efforts to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

As the Russian war rages just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this small Eastern European country has called the rally in a bid to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, nearly a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at the presidential palace in Chișinău, as a column of her supporters marched outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on the opening of accession negotiations by the end of the year. We believe we have enough support to move forward.

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe! The crowd, many waving Ukrainian flags and the gold and blue stars and stripes of the EU, cheered. An orchestra on stage played the block anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years you have taken decisive action and now you have a responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready to integrate into the single European market.

However, the jubilant gathering comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything in its power to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had foiled a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Chișinău officials later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings, and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the allegations.

“Despite previous efforts to remain neutral, Moldova finds itself in the crosshairs of the Kremlin – whether it likes it or not, it is part of this wider conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, senior researcher at the think tank. AtlanticCouncil. in Washington.

“There is an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘Kaliningrad of the south’, by setting up a friendly regime that allows them to attack the flanks of the Ukrainians,” Dupuy said. “But it hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

In response to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels announced last month that it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to counter growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the Common Security and Defense Policy will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty”.

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to start accession talks “as soon as possible” to protect Moldova from what she said are growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and believe that we can only save our democracy as a member of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from all major parties in the European Parliament tabled a motion calling on the European Commission to start negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership is not without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, senior researcher at Carnegie Europe. “They will have to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

Meanwhile, a frozen conflict around the breakaway region of Transnistria in eastern Moldova could further complicate matters. The strip of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been ruled since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops there are stationed despite Chișinău demanding their departure. It also houses one of the largest weapons stockpiles on the continent, with 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will have to solve this problem before accession,” said Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chairman of the European Parliament delegation to the country. , told POLITICO.

“We don’t know now what a solution might look like, but the fact that we don’t have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

Although she denied that Brussels had sent official signals that Moldova’s membership would depend on the departure of Russian troops, Sandu said that “we believe that in the months and years to come there could be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict”.

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion – and in recent months they have stepped up their attacks on the government from Sandu.

A February study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research found that while nearly 54% of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, nearly a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment. with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were divided on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25% citing Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18% saying the United States

“Putin is no fool,” said an elderly man who declined to be named, shouting at passers-by on the capital’s streets. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR party staged counter-protests in several regional towns.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia skyrocket the cost of gas in what many see as a blackmail attempt. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “shrinked by 5.9% and inflation averaged 28.7% in 2022”.

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. While the process of joining the EU is expected to take years, if not decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will hold its own in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons in her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We have been part of the Russian world all my life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.

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