Moldova is trying to join the EU, but it will have a hard time breaking away from Russia's orbit

Lack of control over its borders and corruption are two of the issues that could complicate Moldova’s bid to join the EU.

Author: Tatsiana Kulakevich on Jun 02, 2023
People take part in a pro-European Union rally in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on May 21, 2023. Elena Covalenco/AFP via Getty Images

Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, straddles Ukraine to its east and European Union countries to its west – placing it in an arguably vulnerable position in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.

But Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is increasingly signaling that it is aligning itself with the European Union.

Mimi Castle, a wine estate southeast of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, was the site of a June 1, 2023, political meeting of European leaders focused on security and stability in Europe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who pressed for more Western aid in the fight against Russia, was among the leaders who attended.

Moldova’s Western-leaning government has accused Russia of trying to block its entry into the European Union. But a top EU leader said recently that the organization would welcome Moldova with “open arms and open hearts”.

“Moldova does not want to be blackmailed by the Kremlin,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu said during a pro-EU political rally in Chisinau on May 22.

“We don’t want to be on the outskirts of Europe anymore,” continued Sandu, who said her goal is that Moldova joins the EU by 2030.

One major complicating factor for Moldova, though, is that an eastern section of its territory, Transnistria, has been occupied by Russian troops since 1992.

As a researcher on Eastern Europe, I think it is important to understand the reasons Moldova might have a hard time breaking away from Russia’s orbit.

Two men in suits stand in a row with a woman in a teal dress and a man wearing camouflage green in front of a sign that says European Political Community Summit.
Moldova President Maia Sandu, second from left, stands with the Emmanuel Macron, president of France, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, prime minister of Ukraine, and Olaf Scholz, chancellor of Germany, at the European Political Community Summit in Moldova on June 1, 2023. Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

Moldova’s population is split

Moldova first applied to join the EU – a process that takes nine years, on average – in March 2022, shortly after Russia launched a full invasion of Ukraine.

But the country’s population of roughly 3.4 million people is split on this move, according to the Moldovan polling company Magenta Consulting.

Approximately 48% of the population said in March 2023 that Moldova should join the European Union, while 34% expressed their support for maintaining ties with Russia.

Despite the citizens’ split sentiment, Moldova is already moving away from Russia. In May 2022, the government announced its desire to leave the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional political and economic group set up after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

However, Russia still has political influence in Moldova.

A pro-Russian politician, for example, won an election for governor in Gagauzia, an autonomous region in southern Moldova, in May 2022.

Sandu has also accused Russia of trying to overthrow Moldova’s government and replace it with a puppet regime picked by the Kremlin.

Resistance to corruption reform

There are different conditions that countries need to meet before they formally start negotiations with EU countries to become part of the organization.

The European Commission has spelled out nine reforms it wants Moldova to make – six of them are focused on fighting corruption in the justice sector. Corruption in Moldova is widespread.

The Moldovan government is now undertaking a comprehensive reform of its justice system, in advance of entering formal negotiations to join the EU by the end of 2023.

However, some Moldovan judges are resisting efforts to make anti-corruption changes, which would include a pre-vetting system for potential judges. As a result, there have been widespread resignations of judges, paralyzing the Supreme Court of Justice due to too few members remaining in office.

A large group of people appear to attend a protest, with one person raising his hand in the air and people hold red, blue and yellow striped flags.
Pro-Russian demonstrators protest against the rising cost of living in Chisinau, Moldova, in March 2023. Diego Herrera Carcedo/Andalou Agency via Getty Images

Lack of border control

Another complicating factor in Moldova’s bid for EU membership is Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region that separated from Moldova with the help of the Russian army after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Transnistrian government has de facto independence, but other countries and the United Nations simply recognize it as as part of Moldova.

People living in Transnistria are largely Russian speakers, and the government is run by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia also provides Transnistria with free natural gas and has supported older people in the region with pension money.

The presence of Russian troops in Transnistria prevents Moldova from fully controlling its own borders. If activated, combat-ready Russian troops in Transnistria could quickly destabilize the region.

One condition for EU membership is border and territorial control. Without this, Moldova cannot join the EU.

Cost-of-living crisis

Moldova’s heavy reliance on food and energy imports from Ukraine and Russia made it vulnerable to conflict-related disruptions to food and energy supplies from Ukraine and Russia due to the war in Ukraine.

Moldova’s inflation rate reached an all-time high of 34.6% in October 2022. The country’s inflation rate has since eased, but still stands at 18%. High living costs have sparked protests over the past several months, with people concerned about energy prices, but also about the ability to afford other necessities like milk.

Unstable energy sources is another concern for Moldova.

Ukraine cut its electricity exports to Moldova after Russian missile strikes targeted the country’s energy infrastructure in 2022. And Russia cut the daily gas it gave to Moldova by half in October 2022, resulting in electricity blackouts and concern about the country running out of power in the winter.

In an attempt to escape Moscow’s orbit, Moldova started importing natural gas from other international sources, mainly from Romania, in December 2022.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees to Moldova has resulted in additional financial costs. Over 800,000 Ukrainian refugees crossed the country’s eastern border – and 100,000 Ukrainians are now living in Moldova.

While the challenges faced by Moldova are significant, there is also reason to think it might join the EU. In April 2023, the European Union’s parliament reaffirmed its commitment to Moldova’s EU membership. But some of Moldova’s problems, like lack of full territorial control and deep-rooted corruption, are unlikely to fade quickly.

Tatsiana Kulakevich does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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