For 27-year-old Nikolae Hristov, a bouncer in a Moldovan nightclub, unaffordable energy prices are proof that the pro-EU government should turn away from Brussels and look to Russia, which has its grip on the country’s gas supply.
“The government said it could change this country, but it cannot even control prices for energy and basic goods,” Hristov said last month while taking part in Moldova’s largest protests since President Maia Sandu came to power in 2020.
Organised by the pro-Russian Șor party, the demonstrations blocked the avenue separating parliament from Sandu’s towering presidential palace. Some protesters stayed for days, sleeping in tents. Michail Uceryavy, a gardener who joined those on the streets, argued that “like Serbia, we could talk to Russia, but our government only believes in talking to the EU”.
A former World Bank economist, Sandu was elected on a pledge to end the corruption of previous administrations and steer Moldova towards EU membership, a goal that has been fast-tracked by the war in neighbouring Ukraine. Moldova became an EU candidate country together with Ukraine in June.
But with Moldova fully dependent on Russian gas, there are fears that President Vladimir Putin could exploit a winter energy crisis to assert his influence on the former Soviet state and derail Sandu’s agenda.
“Putin doesn’t need bombs for Moldova. What is necessary for him here is to destroy the standards of living and then people will turn again to those who can deliver cheap gas [from Russia],” Moldova’s state secretary for energy Constantin Borosan told the Financial Times.
Over half of Moldova’s population is at risk of falling below the poverty line, according to a March report by the UN Development Programme. The price of gas has climbed fourfold since last year, pushing the inflation rate to 34 per cent in August. This month Moldova’s energy regulator again raised household tariffs by almost one-third.
A harsh winter could also widen the chasm between residents of the capital Chișinău, which has a local heating network, and those in rural areas where the government is subsidising the purchase of firewood, with the help of €135mn of EU funding.
The most pressing concern is whether Russia’s state-run gas monopoly Gazprom will continue supplying Moldova this winter. With no gas stored on its own soil, Moldova has only a two-week reserve of gas in neighbouring Romania.
Gazprom sharply raised the price of Moldova’s gas after Sandu’s party won snap elections last year and is now demanding a $700mn debt repayment for past deliveries, which Moldova contests.
The Moldovan authorities have been working on several alternatives to Gazprom, which range from heating Chișinău with heavy fuel oil to importing gas from places such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in central Asia.
Since the summer, Moldova has received 30 per cent of its electricity from Ukraine, reducing its reliance on a power plant in the separatist territory of Transnistria, which had been its sole electricity provider.
Despite losing control of Transnistria in a war with Russian-backed separatists 30 years ago, Moldova failed to diversify away from Russian energy. Only 3 per cent of Moldova’s energy comes from renewables.
“For decades, Russia undermined diversification attempts by offering significantly cheaper energy resources,” said Artur Lorkowski, director of the Energy Community Secretariat, a Vienna-based organisation that oversees Europe’s energy market.
Meanwhile, restaurant owners and other entrepreneurs are trying to use less gas. In August, Nadejda Cornetel bought an electric oven to replace one of the two gas ovens in her biscuit factory, which has plunged into loss since the war in Ukraine began. She also plans to install solar panels.
“When I started seven years ago, gas had always been the best option and not something to think about, but now I don’t think anybody would open a business that way,” said Cornetel.
Sandu’s governing party has until 2025 to call another parliamentary election and convince voters that her reforms are yielding fruit, in a country where political beliefs are largely divided along generational lines.
“Today, the market economy provides more opportunity but less perceived stability and for the old generation that’s hard to understand, so many will vote for anybody promising the old Soviet stability,” said Eugen Cozonac, who is in charge of Moldova’s state-owned companies.
But many of the senior citizens protesting have been escorted by younger relatives. Alexander Mihailov, a fitness trainer, said: “Young people can earn more money, but what about my grandparents and their older friends?”
Putin could be waiting for falling temperatures to trigger bigger protests, but using energy shortages as a weapon against Moldova might also spell disaster for Transnistria, whose power station and metals industry rely on Russia’s gas. Transnistria has about 400,000 residents but uses more gas than Moldova’s 2.6mn population.
“We have to survive the winter and the Russians know it very well, but I’m sure those in Transnistria also feel very unsafe and unhappy now, even if they will do what they’re told by Moscow,” said lawmaker Dumitru Alaiba.
Moldova wants more emergency winter funding from Brussels, particularly as a new candidate EU country. “Big projects are coming, which is great, but what we need now is short-term budget support,” said government foreign policy adviser Dorin Frăsîneanu.
Another uncertainty is Moldova’s future supply of electricity from Ukraine, which could also heat buildings with air conditioning. A recent ministerial meeting in Odesa ended without Ukraine agreeing to a significant price discount for Moldova in the name of wartime solidarity. Instead, Kyiv is considering stopping electricity exports to Moldova.
To defeat Putin, energy secretary Borosan said it would be “much cheaper” for Ukraine to supply Moldova at below-market prices than risk losing a pro-EU government to a pro-Russian one, “which could also allow Russian aircraft to use our airports” to strike southern Ukraine.