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Moldova struggles amid Russian uncertainty

Published : May 10, 2022 16:42 IST T+T-
Moldova has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country, relative to its size.

Moldova has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country, relative to its size.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is visiting Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries that faces many challenges.

The Republic of Moldova in Eastern Europe is a small country. It has a population of fewer than three million people, but that number fluctuates because of mass migration: It is estimated that at least one-third of Moldovans are currently working abroad, which makes pinning down the exact number difficult. Here are figures we do know: Moldova has taken in more than 450,000 refugees from its neighbour Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in late February, starting a war that still rages today. When compared to Moldova's own population, that's the largest number of Ukrainian refugees any country has taken in.

The small nation's outsized willingness to receive Ukrainian refugees will be a focus of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres while he visits Moldova on May 9 and 10. The U.N.'s news website states that Guterres is traveling to Moldova to "support the refugees and personally thank the Moldovans and all who assist them."

A history between Romania and the Soviet Union

Moldova gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The official language of Moldova is Romanian. The small country shares a border (marked by the Prut River) with Romania to the West. Until 1940, most of what is Moldova today was part of Romania. Then Soviet forces invaded areas east of the Prut River and established the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The majority of the population in today's Moldova are ethnically Romanian. Everyone who is of Romanian origin has the right to a Romanian passport, which many Moldovans made use of. Having this passport makes them citizens of the European Union, as Romania joined the bloc in 2007. Since the country is so poor, many Moldovans leave to work abroad in the EU and send money home to their families.

Trans-Dniester: The 'frozen conflict'

At the eastern edge of the country, where Moldova borders Ukraine, lies the separatist region of Trans-Dniester. It seceded from Moldova after a brief military conflict in 1992. The separatists were supported by troops from Moscow. Even today, Russia has around 1,500 troops stationed in the region and regularly conducts military exercises there.

Roughly 60 per cent of the population in Trans-Dniester is Russian-speaking. The separatists dubbed the region "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic" (PMR), but not even Russia considers it a sovereign state. The region's other two official languages are Romanian and Ukrainian. Together with Russian, they represent the three major ethnic groups living in Trans-Dniester. The region's population has declined over the years amid the so-called "frozen conflict" and is estimated to number around 460,000 people.

Russian soldiers stationed in the separatist region are a major headache for the Moldovan government. Especially since Russian military authorities have stated that control of southern Ukraine would give Russia a gateway to Trans-Dniester, where there are "facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population," as a Russian military commander put it.

Eastern Europe's Switzerland

In 1994, three years after it gained independence, Moldova explicitly included its neutrality in the constitution. Like Switzerland, the country stated it would not take sides in international conflicts. There's speculation that the reason behind the move was to get Russian troops to leave Trans-Dniester — but if that's the case, it didn't work out.

The neutrality also means that Moldova is not a part of any large alliance, like NATO for example. The small nation hasn't introduced any sanctions against Moscow since the start of the war in Ukraine, but pro-European president Maia Sandu, who wants her country to join the E.U., has condemned Russia's actions. That's about as far as any Moldovan politician will go.

Moldova is one of the poorest European countries and is heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies. With Russia's recent statements on the perceived "oppression" of Russian speakers and their troops still stationed in Trans-Dniester, many Moldovans fear that a victory of the Russian invading forces in Ukraine could also see the Kremlin march its army into their country.