After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829, Russia formally incorporated Moldova into its empire. Moldova’s heritage as an appendage of the Ottoman, Russian, and Soviet empires and two decades as part of Romania, coupled with a heterogenous population that is mostly Orthodox in faith but not Slavic in ethnicity, are key ingredients of its current political identity crisis. A central question for Moldova is whether to remain neutral but Russian-leaning, or embark upon a journey westward to enter the European Union and possibly NATO.

Moldova is a nation of 2.5 million set between Romania and Ukraine. Past governments have been formed by former Communists or other parties amenable to Moscow due to Moldova’s dependence on Russian energy and the presence of Russian troops in the breakaway Transnistria region. There is also considerable pro-Russian sentiment in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, which consists of approximately 150,000 Gagauz, ethnic Turks who converted to Orthodoxy and left the Ottoman Empire for southern Moldova between 1820–1846 after being given lands by Russian authorities.

In November 2020, a pro-Europe candidate, Maia Sandu, was elected president. She dissolved a pro-Russian parliament in April 2021. Elections in July 2021 resulted in victory for the pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity and the appointment of reform-minded prime ministers. For the first time in its history Moldova has a pro-Western president, prime minister, and parliamentary majority, which resulted in the European Union extending it candidate status in July 2022.

Yet Moldova’s future is far from clear. It is home to three nationalist movements: one autonomist, one integrationist, and one secessionist. The autonomists are the Gagauz, the integrationists are Romanian speakers wishing to rejoin Romania, and the secessionists control Transnistria. Besides these decentralizing tendencies, since the Russo-Ukraine War began, Russia has attempted to destabilize Moldova by cutting gas supplies, cyberattacks, and an alleged coup attempt in February 2023.

While elites now believe Moldova’s security requires Western integration, it is too early to tell if the rest of society has changed its default mentality to remain between East and West. He believes the 2024 presidential election and 2025 parliamentary elections will be crucial. The next elections will be about geopolitical choices. Moldova has a long way to go to meet certain EU criteria and if the country is unable to reform fast enough, this opportunity might slip by. Moldova has a two- or three-year window to make these reforms, otherwise domestic politics could demand a return to neutrality. Neutrality would leave Moldova more susceptible to Russian subversion and outright coercion.

Moldovan governments are traditionally hesitant to get ahead of public opinion and pro-Russia policies are understandable considering that before the war, Putin was the most popular politician in Moldova with a 59 percent favorable rating. As of June 2023, the number of Moldovans who express “some” or “a lot” of confidence in Putin stands at 37 percent (in that same poll, President Joe Biden stood at 33.5 percent). Prior to the war, 48 percent of Moldovans supported joining the European Union but 38 percent supported joining the Moscow-controlled Eurasian Economic Union. In June, 2023, Moldovans preferred EU membership to membership in the Eurasian Economic Union by 53 to 27 percent, but only 33 percent wanted to join NATO and over 52 percent did not.

Moldovan opinion is strongly influenced by economics and less by ideology. The Moldova’s government wasted a window of opportunity when the war began to influence society’s perceptions, since even pro-Russian media in Moldova did not immediately support Russia’s invasion. However, Moldova’s pro-Russian media have adapted and, instead of a pro-war narrative, they espouse an anti-Western one claiming the European Union is pro-war and the war is the result of NATO expansion. Western embassies and institutions have not reached out to average Moldovans. NATO does a poor job explaining its value and US public diplomacy does not advance America’s image. The image of the United States itself is good in Moldova but it is the image of US foreign and domestic policies that need advancing and defending from Russian attacks.

Approximately 20–25 percent of the population—mainly the elderly, Russian-speakers in northern Moldova, the Gagauz minority, and businessmen with economic ties to Russia—are naturally receptive to Russian narratives. Another 25 percent is susceptible to Russian propaganda during economic hard times. Furthermore, approximately two-thirds of the Orthodox faithful in Moldova belong to the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and therefore recipients of its soft power messages.

A powerful Russian narrative is that Moldova’s association with the United States will provoke war and that America’s wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.) are disasters for the locals. While America invests a lot in Moldova, it is not guarding that investment from Russian propaganda.

Russia’s subversive activity in Moldova has made it an adjunct battlefield to Ukraine. While the Moldova’s government bans rebroadcasts of Russian political television shows, Russian propaganda has just shifted to Facebook, TikTok, and other social media. Meanwhile, Russian trolls demonized the 300,000 Ukrainian refugees in the country, three-quarters of whom live in Moldovan households. Russia created an energy crisis in Moldova by cutting gas supplies by one-third and then sponsored street demonstrations against the government. This attempt to freeze and bankrupt Moldova failed but it did create an inflation rate last winter of 30 percent.

There is a concern about Russian interference in the upcoming 2024 and 2025 elections. Russia hopes for a return of a pro-Russian government in Moldova that would help legitimize its narratives. There will be no democracy in Moldova if Russian interference continues. Moldova needs help to preserve its democracy and develop resiliency against Russian subversion. A sizeable part of its population remains malleable to Moscow’s influence not just because of Soviet memories but memories ingrained since the Russian empire. As in Georgia, Russia uses a frozen conflict and economic leverage openly and influences society covertly to try to keep Moldova from moving from its orbit.

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