March 1st, 2023
Transnistria - Lots of Bluff and Bluster
Much of the news this week has focused around a flurry of statements and accusations that have been raising tensions regarding Transnistria. It started on February 23rd when the Russian Ministry of Defense accused Ukraine of preparing an invasion of Transnistria saying:
"according to available information, the Kiev regime is preparing an armed provocation against the Transnistrian region, and as a pretext for the invasion, it is intended to stage an alleged attack by Russian troops."
This caused a quick response from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy who noted that unlike the Kremlin, Ukraine does not invade sovereign countries saying:
“Now the Russians are throwing in information that Ukraine is allegedly going to enter the territory of Transnistria. We value the independence of other states. Transnistria is Moldova.“
Over the course of the last week there have been more and more statements from the Kremlin discussing some potential attack by Ukraine against Transnistria. At the same time, clear disinformation campaigns are being carried out to raise tensions on both sides of the river. One video that was (likely) spread by Kremlin propagandists went viral on social purporting to show the movement of Romanian military equipment towards the border with Moldova. This video is actually from November 2022 when a Romanian military unit was practicing for a parade.
On the morning of February 28th, 2 Russian radio stations in Transnistria starting playing air raid siren noises and telling all listeners to get to shelter immediately. Local authorities quickly announced that this message was fake and that the transmission was hacked be unknown persons.
Throughout all these statements and accusations the Transnistrian “leadership” has called for calm. The “leader” of the region Vadim Krasnoselsky told residents not to panic and assured them that in the case of real threats he would “personally and immediately” communicate them.
What’s Going On?
At the core, this seems to be a Russian disinformation operation aimed at creating tensions and supporting other ongoing efforts at destabilizing Moldova. With only a few vague statements and claims about Ukraine planning attacks both the local and international press is off to the races speculating about Moldova’s security and in some cases putting together puzzle pieces that may not be related at all.
For example, it is unclear if the hack of the radio stations to play air raid alerts was targeted at Transnistria at all. Similar hacks recently took place in Moscow, Leningrad and Belgorod Oblasts in Russia - presumably as information warfare on the part of Ukraine. Transnistria rebroadcasts Russian radio stations and may have just inadvertently picked this up.
At the same time, Ukraine’s head of the State Border Guard Service announced that they are fortifying the border with Transnistria saying:
"On the border with Moldova, there is such a segment as Transnistria, since the full-scale invasion, the defense forces have strengthened this direction, not only the control is being strengthened, but also the construction of engineering and fortification structures,"
What is not clear is whether or not this is due to any recent specific threat, or more generally that the border guards are increasing security next to “unfriendly” regions. The same statement noted that similar precautions are being taken with the border with Belarus.
Taken with last week’s statements from Ukraine about Russia potentially using the Chisinau airport, and Moldovan territory generally, as a way of attacking Ukraine, tensions and speculation remain high. But as we wrote last week, that scenario is wildly unlikely. Similarly, the idea that Ukraine will suddenly stretch itself thinner by opening a front in Transnistria against the wishes of the Moldovan government, and with clear international consequences, is also wildly unlikely. All in all, the goal from Russia seems to be to create fear and instability in Moldova.
Ironically, even Belarusian President Lukanhesko isn’t buying it. In a statement this week he contradicted the Kremlin saying that he does not believe at all that Ukraine would attack Transnistria.
Wizz Air Leaves Moldova
The low cost airline Wizz Air apparently sees reason to be worried about all this talk. They announced this week that as of March 14th the airline would be suspending all Chisinau flights for security reasons. Wizz Air will increase flights from Iasi in Romania to serve the Chisinau market. The airline stated:
"As a result of recent developments in Moldova and the high, but not imminent, risk in the country's airspace, Wizz Air has taken the difficult but responsible decision to suspend all flights to Chisinau starting on March 14,”
Local authorities have confirmed the cancelation of flights but called the move “strange” given that there has been no change in the security of Moldova’s Chisinau > Romania air corridor since it reopened in spring 2022.
This has left some speculating, including credible journalists that the move was politically motivated by Wizz Air, which is operated out of Hungary and designed to cause more fear in Moldova. It is worth noting that no other international airline has canceled any flights to Chisinau or made any schedule changes.
In response Parliamentary Speaker Grosu and PAS MP Radu Marian met with Ryanair ownership in Dublin to discuss the entry of that low cost airline into the Moldovan market. They assured Ryanair that steep airport fees that were common before the government retook ownership of the airport from Shor have been canceled and that discounts of up to 70% will be offered to companies opening new high-traffic routes. After the meeting the Moldovan delegation announced that Ryanair was very interested in the market and there would be followup talks.
Whatever the motivation of Wizz Air, we are seeing another example of the parliament and government’s ongoing “firefighting” efforts moving from one crisis to the next attempting to assure local and international audiences that Moldova remains safe and open for business.
Shor Protests February 28th
While all eyes have been on Transnistria the main effort to destabilize Moldova remains internal. Tuesday saw the largest protests of the Shor Party in months with protestors bussing in from all over Moldova and marching down Stefan Cel Mare to City Hall. As you can see from the video, this was a lot larger than the regular Sunday protests that have been ongoing for months.
Protestors shouted slogans such as "No to war!", "Down with ANRE!", "Down with Maia Sandu!", "Down with dictatorship!" They demanded that the government pay everyone’s energy bills for the winter and not get involved in the war. Anti-war messaging was on display much more than previous protests with protestors wearing paper cutouts of doves.
The protest involved scuffles between protestors and police as some groups attempted to break through police lines and get to the government building.
Additionally, police turned around some busses for lacking the correct “technical specifications” (aka they were not registered as busses) before entering the city. This caused Shor protestors to get out of their legal and non-legal busses alike and totally block the road leading into Chisinau near Stauceni for a few hours protesting police actions.
PAS MP Radu Marian responded to the protests saying:
“The authorities do not intend to ignore attempts to block important routes and the aggressive behavior of members of the Shor group. We will not allow the destabilization of the situation in the country by local criminal groups controlled by the Kremlin. Government agencies are acting tough and resolutely to ensure order and tranquility,”
Traffic was massively disrupted for much of Chisinau, but mostly the protests remained peaceful and everyone went home around 4 pm.
At the same time the situation marked a few clear trends worth considering:
Russia’s attempts to destabilize Moldova through the Shor Party can still attract very large protests. In previous months much smaller protests were seen which appeared to show the success of prosecutors in going after the money used to pay protestors and for their transportation. In spite of these efforts big protests are still possible on fairly short notice.
Moldova’s ability to hold corrupt politicians accountable continues to be called into question. Shor party leader Marina Tauber was at the protest, once again out of jail or house arrest. Further, she won an appeal that allows her to travel internationally and speak with other related persons in her case while it works its way through the courts. Moldova’s “catch and release” system on full display.
US Sanctions targeting Shor are falling short. Euronews reports that Shor is still using his stolen fortune to pay for mass facebook advertising in order to gin up protests. Meta has blocked Shor’s access but the fugitive oligarch has gotten around it by buying facebook pages in 3rd countries (such as Vietnam) and refocusing them as anti-Moldova propaganda pages with large budgets. Facebook says that they are taking these down as they find them but not until after ads are seen by millions of people - in a country of 2.5 million. Facebook has a designated crisis team to safeguard the Ukrainian information space. Moldovan NGOs are asking the company for “at least one person to be in contact with independent NGOs in Moldova [who] speaks Romanian and Russian, and who preferably knows a little bit about the regional context.” So far, that’s proven to be more than Facebook is willing to do when complying with US sanctions.
The situation remains volatile. Moldova’s security agency SIS announced it expelled 2 persons from Moldova who entered as tourists but were in fact “saboteurs.” No more information was given on the men except that they were working to “provoke a violent change in the constitutional order in Moldova” in the previously announced plan involving major street protests (*cough* Shor and Russia).
Economics and Infrastructure
While most of the week’s news was security related, here are a few important stories on the economic front to watch.
The Government approved the Ministry of Economy’s plan for a new lending mechanism for small business called the Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth of Moldova (FACEM). The program will be implemented by ODA and focus on lending to companies involved in strategic priority areas for the national economy. No clear details of the program were released but Prime Minister Recean called on ODA to keep the program as simple as possible - many past government backed loan programs failed because their complexity cause banks to ignore them or companies simply not to know how to access them.
Japan announced a 100 million euro loan to Moldova. The loan will be used as budgetary support in light of shortfalls associated with the war and economic crisis.
USAID has announced that the United States has allocated $300 million in support to Moldova from a previously announced 1.5 billion dollar fund that is for assistance spread between Moldova and Ukraine. This plan still requires congressional approval but signals a strong commitment to supporting Moldova in this time of crisis.
Victor Parlicov, the new Minister of Energy has noted that while his Ministry doesn’t yet exist it will be responsible for all question of the energy market including “natural gas, electricity, renewable energy, fuel transportation, heating and centralized systems, energy efficiency,.” The new Minister is currently starting the hiring and staffing process for the ministry.
Romania announced multiple agreements with Azerbaijan including a 1 year contract to buy one billion cubic meters of natural gas - which Moldova will also be able to buy from. Romania appears to be positioning itself as an energy transit player in Europe with agreements including the building of 2 new LNG terminals on the Black Sea and discussions with Azerbaijan about underwater electrical lines to bring “green energy” from the Caspian region.
Moldova extended its contract with Transnistrian power plan MGRES through the end of March with prices for electricity to stay the same.
Thanks for the update, David. This is really worrying. The most worry-some newsletter I have read so far. The threat is palpable, real and it is from within. Of course it is fuelled from outside the country but it is the locals who may break through the system. If the current leadership cannot sustain the pressure and buckles up, it will be a disaster. Real disaster.