Moldova Sounds Alarm on Russian Interference in Elections

Sergey Guneev
Sergey Guneev

Moldovan officials are growing increasingly concerned that Transnistria’s request for “protection” from Russia is a sign that Russia is preparing to interfere in Moldova’s presidential election and European Union referendum later this year, a top Moldovan official told The Daily Beast.

Transnistria, the Russia-backed breakaway region in Moldova, held a special congress earlier this week to request “protection” from Russia. It’s a move that alarmed many poeple, who believe it could be part of an effort to give a green-light to Russia to extend its territorial ambitions, lean on its military presence of 1,500 troops in Transnistria, and possibly annex the region.

On the other hand, Moldovan officials have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt, part of Russia’s hybrid war against Moldova’s pro-Western government. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Moldova’s Ambassador to the United States, Viorel Ursu, said this was an influence campaign aimed at spreading fear and chaos, which will only increase as Moldova’s elections and its EU referendum—a creep westwards Russia has long detested—loom large this year.

“It is no coincidence that this kind of rhetoric and tension has been rising,” Ursu told The Daily Beast. “We are likely to see more of these type of actions in the coming months with the main purpose to instill fear and uncertainty in Moldova, and in this way to shape the outcome of the presidential election and EU accession referendum.”

Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with Transnistria claiming independence from Moldova soon after, although Transnistria’s independence is not internationally recognized.

The breakaway region’s request for “protection” from Moscow this week comes nearly two decades after Transnistria requested Russia annex it in 2006—a request that Russia ignored.

And though the congress did not request full-on annexation this time, the request for “protection,” appears to be a step toward leaning more heavily on Russia, echoing the kind of Russian rhetoric about proxies in eastern Ukraine. It should be an alarm bell that many more Russia-backed destabilizing actions aimed at fueling discord in Moldova are coming, said Ursu.

“Currently what we see the Kremlin doing is engaging in an information campaign against Moldova to stir panic and turmoil,” Ursu told The Daily Beast. “We’ll see more of that. It’s part of the toolbox of the hybrid war that Russia is conducting against Moldova.”

Breakaway Moldovan Region Asks Moscow for ‘Protection’

The concern about Russia’s increasingly menacing influence operation comes after years of U.S. and Moldovan officials warning that Russia’s campaign is aimed at destabilizing Moldova’s pro-Western government. Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, warned last year that Russia was preparing a coup in Moldova alongside hostage plans and other attacks.

With Sandu up for reelection later this year, and with Moldova recently entering into accession negotiations for joining the EU, the stakes are even higher now, warned Ursu.

Russian Influence

As Moldovans gear up to vote later this year, Moldova’s government is working to shore up its defenses against other ways Russia can stoke division and cause chaos. The government has its eyes on Russia taking advantage of demonstrations in Moldova, as Ilan Shor’s pro-Russia party has infiltrated protests in the past, as well as the possibility that Russia will conduct disinformation campaigns on Telegram, Facebook, and Twitter, Ursu said.

Moldova has been dealing with a farmersprotest and is expecting transportation demonstrations in the near future, each of which contains the risk that Russia is stoking discontent. It’s the “same risk as it was last year” that Russia might be “infiltrating violent elements among the protests, provoking the police to overreact,” Ursu said.

Last year, the Shor party helped give training to people in Moldova on how to cause disorder during protests, according to Deschide.MD.

”This is something that we are watching… Every time there is a protest of course, the government engages in… trying to solve those problems before they escalate,” Ursu said. “But I'm sure Russia is watching and will try to use vulnerability related to these events.”

Russia may also seek to use gas and electricity supplies as political leverage, said Ursu.

Putin’s Allies Accused of Plotting Another Russian Land Grab

While Moldova was previously dependent on Russian gas, it recently stopped importing it directly for its energy needs. However, it continues to receive a large chunk of its electricity from Transnistria, where it is produced by burning Russian gas. Moscow is likely keen to exploit this vulnerability as well, Ursu warned.

“I know they're gonna use it,” Ursu said. “We are doing our best to build the infrastructure to connect to the European electricity market. However, we might not be ready by the end of the year.”

A Timely Reminder

The destabilizing effects of this “protection” request from Transnistria cannot be underestimated, but there are very real economic tensions underlying Transnistria’s request, Ursu said.

Although Russia has kept a force of about 1,500 troops in Transnistria for decades, the appeal for “protection” was likely a reference to economic concerns, said Ursu.

Moldova recently implemented a new customs agenda, forcing businesses in Transnistria to pay customs duties in both Transnistria and Moldova. That, Ursu says, likely was the last straw.

“This has been perceived by the Transnistrian authorities as a way of pressure,” Ursu said. “The main appeal of this gathering, the main objective, is to get additional cash from Russia.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine has changed Transnistria’s economy immensely. Ukraine shuttered its border with Transnistria soon after Russia invaded, dealing a blow to Transnistria’s trade. And an agreement that enabled Russian gas into Transnistria via Ukraine is expiring at the end of the year—and Kyiv has said it is not interested in renewing the deal. This has left Transnistria pining for additional support from Russia, Ursu said.

“We’ll hear more of this kind of rhetoric. It’s to remind Russia the Transnistria region still exists and they need Russian cash to survive.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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