This article by Boјan Blaževski was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
One can feel high tension in the air in the capital, Chișinău. Protests, disinformation campaigns, and economically unsubstantiated restrictive measures are just some of the tactics that official Moscow is carrying out in the case of Moldova.
An old dilapidated building greets passengers arriving at the airport in Chișinău. In terms of its size and interior, it overwhelmingly reminds me of the old building of the Skopje Airport. Immediately after the entrance of the small edifice comes an unusual passport control. Two border police officers are standing at the checkpoint, supervised by a third person in civilian clothes. Next to the counter, there are two tactical-unit-policemen armed to the teeth. Moldova declared a state of emergency immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the echoes of this war can be felt immediately after arriving at the border of this small Eastern European country.
Around 20 passengers are in front of me, and the border police at this counter, which is one of the few, separates seven for additional checks and escorts them to the special rooms. The magical sentence – that I am a journalist – seemingly changes the expression of the border police officer, who immediately notices the trace of my visit to Ukraine in my passport – the stamp from the Kyiv airport Boryspil. After kindly asking about the purpose of my stay in Moldova and where I would be accommodated, I got the stamp on my passport that allowed me to enter the country.
Mihail waits for me at the exit of the Customs Control at the airport. He is my driver to the hotel. He apologizes that he could not leave his car in front of the airport, since parking there is strictly forbidden, and also there are a large number of taxis. He also explains that the steel parking garage at the airport is full of vehicles with Ukrainian registration plates, so he could not park his car there either.
Since the start of the Russian aggression, Ukraine has been left without air traffic to the world, and the closest flying point for many Ukrainian citizens is Chișinău. The seaside city of Odesa, with more than a million inhabitants, is less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from here.
“There are one million Ukrainian citizens in Chișinău now. They fled from the war there and now are starting to buy flats in the city,” explains Mihail.
The number of Ukrainian refugees keeps growing, explains Mihail, portraying the severity of the situation Moldova is in. UNHCR data, however, show that Moldova, up to October 15, 2023, received 111,338 officially registered refugees from Ukraine, out of 964,796 persons who had crossed the border from Ukraine after the start of all out Russian aggression on February 22, 2022. About 120,000 of the refugees who crossed the border are not Ukrainian citizens, but citizens of other countries, primarily Russian citizens fleeing from conscription into the Russian Army. Most of these refugees did not remain in Moldova. NGO sources from inside the country estimate that about 100,000 refugees actually reside in Moldova now.
These numbers, if correct, are dramatic for a country that, at the last census by the Statistical Office of Moldova, in 2014, had fewer than 3 million registered inhabitants. This enormous increase in the population after the Russian invasion of Ukraine is visible all over Chișinău.
But, Mihail’s optimism does not subside. He explains that Chișinău is an extraordinarily safe city, there is peace in Moldova, and only the sirens of the ambulances disturb the peaceful atmosphere of the city.
Endless political turbulence
Against the calming elucidations of Mihail, tension can be felt in the air in Chișinău. In November 1990, a war broke out in this former USSR republic between the Moldovan Government and the Transnistrian separatist forces supported by official Moscow. The truce was reached on July 21, 1992, leading to the establishment of a somewhat occupied territory in Moldova through the creation of the internationally not-recognized republic Transnistria (“Pridnestrovie” in Russian).
Today, Transnistria is a self-proclaimed republic, supported by Russian soldiers and military equipment. Moldovan authorities in Chișinău de facto do not control a tenth of its internationally recognized territory. An additional concern for the Moldovan authorities is the military aggression of Russia in Ukraine and the possibility of Russia attacking Moldova.
On several occasions in the last year and a half, the pro-European president of the country, Maia Sandu, stated that official Moscow intends to carry out a coup d’etat to bring down the democratically elected government of Moldova. Protests, disinformation campaigns, and economically unsubstantiated restrictive measures are just some of the tactics that official Moscow has been applying against Moldova in this last period.
During October, in anticipation of the elections, these were some of the issues. For the first time since the military aggression in Ukraine in February 2022, Moldova organized local elections on November 5. These elections are viewed as a test of confidence for the coalition under the leadership of the Action and Solidarity Party of President Maia Sandu, opposed to some pro-Russian opposition parties. A month prior to the elections, when I was in Moldova, the electoral campaign was at high speed in the capital city.
War has the same face everywhere
The center of Chișinău is the home of the eclectic structure of the National Museum of the History of Moldova. In October, it hosted “The Echo of War: Photo Exhibition from Syria to Ukraine” by Syrian photographer Omar Sanadiki, presenting the consequences of the wars in these countries.
Sanadiki was born in Damascus. The war in Syria forced him to report about the devastated cities from his childhood. Last summer he was given the opportunity to visit Ukraine and see the horrors of the Russian aggression. Combining the photo material from both wars, in an innovative manner, the exhibition presents pairs of photographs depicting the terror of the wars in Syria and Ukraine. Without reading the captions, it is impossible to recognize where they were taken. Sanadiki’s craftsmanship enables one to see the atrocities of war simply by looking at the photographs of the ruins in Ukraine, thinking that you are among the ruins in Syria, and vice versa.
“Alas, it all started with the war that I did not want to report on, but I was forced to,” said Sanadiki about reporting from his native Syria.
Sanadiki says that he chose to present not only destruction and damage but also the souls of those who survived.
“I am always compassionate with these people, in commiseration. In some photographs, you will not find people, but their souls,” says Sanadiki.
The ambassador of the European Union (EU) in Moldova, the Latvian diplomat Jānis Mažeiks, pointed out that he was at an event he was not eager to attend.
“I wish I didn’t need to learn the names of the places like Raca, Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, but I had to, just like you,” said Mažeiks. “These photographs are stories of barbarism, documenting evil, but also document the humanity and the style of living in these populated places.”
“In addition, these photographs are a reminder of standing on the right side of history. I think that we can be proud that the European Union and Moldova together were on the right side of history when the war in Syria and the Russian aggression started — which was unprovoked — against Ukrainian sovereignty and independence,” Mažeiks added.
At the exhibition, Mažeiks expressed his wish for Moldova to become a European Union member state in the future. In June 2022, this country from the former USSR became a candidate for EU membership. But the answers to the question of when Moldova will become an EU member state should not be sought only from the Moldovan authorities, who have to conclude the reforms and changes that the citizens should seek. The future of Moldova is simply inextricably connected with the final outcome of the war in Ukraine and the resolution of the open issue of establishing Moldova’s sovereignty over the Transnistria breakaway region.
This year, as in the past, the citizens of Moldova have to choose between remaining a peripheral satellite on the Kremlin’s imperial map or becoming an EU member state.
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