First and foremost, it demonstrated Europe’s capability to discuss strategic interests without American involvement. Second, it conveyed a message of European unity in the face of President Putin, a point further emphasized by the last-minute participation of Ukrainian President Zelensky. Third, the meeting’s location, a castle situated halfway between the capital city of Chisinau and Tiraspol, the ‘capital’ of the secessionist Transdniestria, showcased the geopolitical complexities of the region. Lastly, the logistical challenges encountered during the event exposed the country’s backwardness, with British and American forces securing Moldova’s airspace and dignitaries resorting to shared planes to prevent airspace congestion.
However, beneath the symbolic veneer, the meeting bore significant political implications. The war in neighboring Ukraine had undeniably thrust Moldova into the spotlight for European leaders. Despite their intentions, summit delegates found themselves delving into the prospects of countries like Moldova and Ukraine joining the EU, taking into account not only Russia’s threats but also the troubles in North Kosovo. Additionally, the presence of over 780,000 Ukrainian refugees, as reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who had transited through Ukraine since February 2022, underscored the need for European solidarity. While many refugees had either returned home or continued their journey to other European nations, the continuous flow necessitated collective action as the conflict shifted toward Eastern Ukraine.
Moldova stands out among the EU’s New Neighbours in several respects. Since October 1990, the Eastern bank of the river Dniester, unilaterally renamed the autonomous republic of the Dniester, has organised its own elections. In August 1991, a civil war was averted through the intervention of General Lebed, the commander of the 14th Soviet army stationed in Tiraspol. However, the 14th army later lost its image as a peacekeeping force and has since been regarded, both within Moldova and the West, as an occupying force. Today, Moldova’s frozen conflict actively contributes to the rivalry between Russia and the West in the post-Soviet space.
The Kremlin’s tenacious attachment to this minuscule piece of land, lacking a common border with Russia and wholly dependent on Russian energy, guarded by under-equipped local soldiers, might seem irrational. Yet, it has become a manifestation of a primitive thinking that asserts, “We cannot allow ‘them’ to have their way.” This mindset has consumed Russia for a decade. In the West, it assumed greater significance in 2014 when some analysts suggested that Russia aimed to occupy all Black Sea ports and incorporate the Transdniestria region. Following the Russian occupation of Azov and Black Seas ports after February 2022, safeguarding Moldova from the Kremlin’s predatory policies and containing Russian influence on EU borders necessitated the protection of NATO and the EU.
The path towards NATO membership necessitates a constitutional change, as Moldova’s current Constitution declares the country as neutral. On the other hand, the EU membership process can be portrayed as a logical consequence of previous cooperation frameworks, particularly the New Neighbourhood Policy. However, the ultimate decision, as often is the case, will revolve around financial considerations – how much the EU is willing to offer, with a minimum of conditionality, to counterbalance the loss of the Russian market, settle substantial energy debts, compensate Moldovan farmers for oil and fertilizers, and transform the free trade agreement into a beneficial arrangement for ordinary Moldovans. Simultaneously, the EU must mediate the issue of “reunification,” which encompasses not only the Transdniestria secessionist region but also the autonomous Gagauz region, seldom prioritized in Western agendas. The Gagauz population, although not pro-Russian or Slavic, strongly identifies with self-governance and the use of the Russian language. Any progression of Moldova towards EU membership necessitates addressing its functioning as a state.
From a political perspective, Brussels currently finds itself in a favorable position. Moldova has followed a familiar post-Soviet trajectory. Initially, presidents and elites were former leaders who switched allegiances, often employing nationalism as a counter to communism. Subsequently, oligarchs emerged, briefly opting to compete instead of financing the election campaigns of others. Now, a new generation has emerged, boasting educational backgrounds from Western universities or international financial institutions. While lacking political experience and party affiliations, they present reform agendas, frequently focused on combating corruption and poverty. Their vision embodies a vague “Western democratic drive” accompanied by a rejection of Russian influence.
The Western world’s current hope lies with President Maia Sandu. The ruling pro-European Party (PAS) secured a landslide victory in the 2021 elections, propelled by popular discontent towards the previous leadership. However, the party’s support has waned since then, highlighting the pivotal role of EU financial assistance in Sandu’s re-election campaign in autumn 2024, aimed at improving living standards and restoring state authority. The so-called “pro-Russian” opposition has already begun to draw attention of the public to farmer protests in Poland, Romania, and Hungary, as well as the predicament of countries that have been candidates for membership for years. The EU is confronted with the question they raise: “Do we tighten our belts and wait 15-20 years for the sake of a brighter European future?” In more straightforward terms, “Do we fare better with Russia or with the EU?” This question extends far beyond the creation of a mere hashtag like #MoldovaIsNotAlone leading up to the June 1 meeting.