Home More News As Russian threat looms, Moldova makes EU membership its priority

As Russian threat looms, Moldova makes EU membership its priority

As Russian threat looms, Moldova makes EU membership its priority
Moldovan Ambassador Ursu Viorel stands in front of his Dupont Circle embassy, which displays a large Ukrainian flag over its entrance in solidarity with its besieged larger neighbor. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, has long seen its salvation in eventual admission to the European Union. On Dec. 14, that once-farfetched dream moved a little closer to reality.

Meeting in Brussels, the leaders of 26 EU nations agreed to open membership talks for Moldova and its vastly larger neighbor, Ukraine, with which it shares a 759-mile border. The decision was unanimous only because the sole defector, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left the room before the vote was to be taken.

“This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires and strengthens,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky immediately declared after the vote.

Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, voiced similar optimism, writing on social media that her tiny nation of 2.5 million—down from nearly 4 million in 1990—looks forward to joining the club.

“Moldova turns a new page with the EU’s go-ahead for accession talks. We’re feeling Europe’s warm embrace today. Thank you for your faith in our journey,” she said. “We’re committed to the hard work needed to become an EU member. Moldova is ready to rise to the challenge.”

Determined to help his country get there is Ursu Viorel, Chisinau’s man in Washington.

Viorel, who speaks Romanian, French, English and Russian, became Moldova’s top envoy to the United States in September 2022, taking over from Eugen Caras. It was an appointment he had long coveted.

“I always dreamed of becoming an ambassador,” he told The Washington Diplomat during a recent interview at his country’s mission fronting S Street, just off Connecticut Avenue. “I was really passionate about how people organize and build social contracts, and many of our legal systems are based on those ancient rules. That’s how I got interested in languages and cultures—how societies build social contracts and then break those rules.”

Rampant corruption among Moldova’s many problems

Born in 1975, Viorel graduated from the Romanian-French Lyceum in Chisinau, and attended the State University of Moldova, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law. He also has a master’s in European studies, with a specialization in EU law, from the College of Europe’s Institute of Postgraduate European Studies in Bruges, Belgium.

In 1996, Viorel began as a trainee in Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 1998 to 2003, Viorel was an advisor and program manager for the nonprofit Soros Foundation, and later a senior analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels (2003-14). From there, he moved to London, where he was division director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, which is bankrolled by Hungarian Jewish financial magnate George Soros.

Pedestrian boulevard in downtown Chisinau, capital of Moldova. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Since 1984, Soros has given $32 billion of his fortune to the foundation, yet his support for liberal causes like social justice, public health and democracy has enraged far-right leaders and conspiracy theorists. Soros is regularly vilified by current presidents such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as well as former ones like Donald Trump and Albania’s Sali Berisha.

“Those people who hate him should explain,” said Viorel. “The point of Open Society is to develop critical thinking. One of Soros’s biggest programs was scholarships for people like me. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to study abroad.”

Viorel added: “In Moldova, people hated what Open Society was doing, for instance supporting investigative journalists who uncover high-level corruption.”

There’s certainly plenty of corruption to uncover. Last year, Moldova scored only 39 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it on par with Belarus and Colombia, and only a notch better than Argentina.

This past April, a Moldovan court rejected an appeal by Ilan Śor, an Israeli-born oligarch and convicted criminal who had previously been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for stealing $1 billion (equivalent to 12% of Moldova’s GDP) from the country’s three largest banks. Instead, the court doubled his sentence to 15 years.

Śor, who heads a pro-Russian political party that has since been outlawed, fled to Israel in 2019. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the 36-year-old businessman “is reputed to not only have close ties to the Kremlin but is alleged to be on the payroll of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which is eager to stir up unrest in Moldova.”

Russia’s disinformation campaign against Moldova

Viorel said his country has been vulnerable to Russian blackmail ever since the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991.

“We never had a courageous or visionary leadership that would get rid of Russian leverage,” he complained. We were 100% dependent on their energy, and there was never any interest to diversify the economy. Russia has used that leverage effectively for more than 30 years, especially in the way it weaponizes energy. We use most of the Russian gas we import for heating public and private buildings. Last year, even though we had a long-term contract for gas supplies, it cut the gas on Dec. 1—just as winter was starting.”

Moldova, a defenseless country about the size of Maryland, is fertile testing ground for the Kremlin’s hybrid war, Viorel said.

Posters in Chisinau urge voters to support the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We’re very small, and our population is still majority Russian-speaking, so it’s very easy for Russian propaganda and disinformation to infiltrate,” he said. “Corruption is a very effective tool. Russia has always been interested in having corrupt governments in neighboring countries, because then you can blackmail their leaders.”

Viorel said that Russia has traditionally poured money into the campaigns of political parties that seek to counter EU influence by pushing Moldova to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which currently includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

“You can’t be allowed into the EU when you still have corrupt judges. An investor will never come when they know they cannot enforce their contract on a rule-of-law basis,” he said. “We didn’t even trust ourselves to clean up the judiciary. It was very common for students to pay for their grades. Admission [into law school] was not based on merit, but whoever could pay more.”

Moldova’s already precarious situation worsened the moment Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, sparking Europe’s bloodiest confrontation since World War II. Some 850,000 Ukrainian refugees flooded into Moldova, a higher percentage of its population than any other country in Europe. Of that total, some 80,000 have decided to stay rather than go back home.

“The plan was that Kyiv would fall in three days, and Odessa in a week. I don’t think Russia was prepared for a long war,” Viorel said. “But we are right to worry. Sometimes, I feel like my job here is to shadow [Ukrainian Ambassador] Oksana Makarova, seeking continuous support for Ukraine, because the Ukrainians are not just defending Ukraine, but also Moldova and the rest of Europe.”

New Moldovan security plan calls Russian threat ‘existential’

The Russian threat has made membership in the EU much more appealing to large numbers of Moldovans. According to Viorel, About 60% of Moldovan voters now support EU membership.

“EU integration is what the people of Moldova have chosen,” said a well-placed diplomatic source in Chisinau. “Even if we don’t know exactly what the impact on the Moldovan economy—and especially agriculture—will be, people hope to gain more than they’ll have to lose due to this integration.”

Ursu Viorel, Moldova’s ambassador to the United States. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

The source, who asked not to be identified, added: “The war in Ukraine speeded up the process, and this is an elephant in the room that nobody can or should be ignoring. It is certainly an achievement of the current Moldovan government, even though it’s one of only a few.”

In fact, Moldova’s efforts just to get to the stage where it can begin accession talks with Brussels have already yielded some results, Viorel said.

“There have been many changes in the last two years. Some challenges we’re facing were not predictable, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But also something positive has happened, such as the reform and anti-corruption agenda of our president, Maia Sandu. That hasn’t made her popular, but she’s really persevered.”

Complicating Moldova’s fragility is the presence of 1,500 Russian troops and 6,000 paramilitary forces in the separatist enclave of Transnistria—a narrow sliver of territory wedged between the Dniester River and Moldova’s border with Ukraine. It’s only 120 miles from Chisinau to Odessa, and Moldovans fear Russian forces could conquer Odessa, link up with pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria—under secessionist control since 1992—and quickly swallow up their country.

On Oct. 11, Sandu unveiled Moldova’s new national security strategy, which unequivocally says Russia is an existential threat to the country. This could have far-reaching domestic political consequences in Moldova, according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation.

“Two salient features of this document seem to have been overlooked by observers thus far,” it said. “First, it stops worshipping at the altar of Moldova’s ‘neutrality.’ Second, it alludes to an eventual political resolution of the Transnistria conflict without Russia’s direct participation.”

Ambassador remains hopeful for Moldova’s future

Since it started nearly two years ago, the Russia-Ukraine war has ruined Moldova economically, given that Russia and Ukraine—along with Belarus—accounted for a combined 25% of Moldova’s imports and 15% of its exports.

In early February 2023, Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky said that his government had uncovered a Russian plot to “destroy” Moldova, according to a BBC report quoting Ukrainian intelligence. “These documents show who, when and how Russia is going to break democracy of Moldova and establish control. I immediately warned Moldova about these threats.”

Intelligence services in Chisinau told BBC they had also identified “subversive activities” aimed at “undermining the state of the Republic of Moldova, destabilizing and violating public order.”

No surprise, then, that in August, the Moldovan government expelled 46 Russian diplomats, which amounts to 70% of the staff of the Russian Embassy in Chisinau.

“Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe. Even before the war, they were lower than Moldova, though the difference was not huge,” he said. “We believe our project for prosperity is based on European integration. This is what happened to all the countries of central Europe, and that’s why I’m a big believer in the EU.”

Meanwhile, at least on the surface, Viorel doesn’t appear to be too concerned that Donald Trump will take back the White House and cease all US military support for Ukraine.

“I’m not worried,” he insisted. “Democrats and some Republicans might have a different opinion [than Trump] about the level of support we should be giving Ukraine. Whatever new administration wins in 2024 will review the policy, but in one year, we could be in a very different place. The most important thing is to make sure that US support continues—and that Ukraine can resist and fight back, at least for another four years.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.