The writer is a Moldovan journalist and author
On March 3, Moldova formally applied for EU membership. The move came out of the sense of urgency generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the risks that poses to Moldova’s own peace and independence.
Nicu Popescu, the country’s foreign minister pleaded for international assistance in March. “We are the single most fragile neighbour of Ukraine,” he said. “We need help to stay on our feet.” Addressing the European Parliament in May, Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, described EU membership as the “light at the end of the tunnel” for a country grappling with the economic fallout from Russian aggression next door.
But those European aspirations are not new — and now, more than ever, they should be acknowledged and encouraged by the international community.
In April 2009, I joined tens of thousands of Moldovans in National Assembly Square in the capital Chișinău to protest against rigged elections and the challenge they posed to the fair, democratic, prosperous, European future many hoped for. Those protests can be compared to the Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14 in that they helped to cement support for European values in Moldovan society. They also accelerated the replacement of the Russian-affiliated political elite that ruled Moldova between 2001 and 2009 with a cadre of pro-European politicians.
Moldova eventually signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014. The deal ensured visa-free travel and free trade between Moldova and the bloc. As a result, in 2021 about 60 per cent of Moldova’s exports went to the EU, and only 10 per cent to Russia. The failure of the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to establish a similar pact was the spark that set off the Maidan protests in November 2013.
But it was not all plain sailing for Moldovan politics in the 2010s, with high-level corruption a particular problem. After leaving behind her job as an adviser to the executive director of the World Bank and becoming minister of education in 2012, Sandu’s strong anti-corruption stance helped her cement her position as the pre-eminent pro-European politician in Moldova. She became prime minister in 2019 and president in 2020. The party she founded, Action and Solidarity (PAS), has ruled the country with a parliamentary majority since 2021.
In some respects, Moldova already looks more European than certain EU member states. With Sandu as president and development expert Natalia Gavrilița as prime minister, it is one of the few countries in the world to be led by two women. Moreover, 40 per cent of the seats in parliament are occupied by women, a higher percentage than in Estonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary or even Germany. In 2022, the country climbed 43 positions in the Press Freedom Index, ranking 40th, ahead of Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and Romania (and also, strikingly, the US).
But the war in Ukraine poses a threat to Moldova’s European future. The economic consequences of the Russian invasion are the greatest challenge it faces. Since February, the country of 2.5mn has seen almost half a million refugees cross its borders, and hosted up to 100,000 displaced people, half of them children, on its territory. Moldova has thus shown itself to be a reliable humanitarian partner.
Nevertheless, the war and ensuing energy and refugee crises have stretched the country’s already scarce resources. Moscow is seeking to exploit these economic pressures in order to destabilise Moldova. This must not be allowed to happen: stronger Russian influence in Moldova would deepen the security threat to both Europe and Ukraine. It is in the EU’s interests to grant Moldova candidate status, as well as economic support.