Though support for European integration is growing among Moldovans, a deep divide over the attitude towards Russia remains a challenge for the country. Robert Sperfeld interviews Mihail Sirkeli, political analyst and editor of nokta.md.
Robert Sperfeld: For now it seems that Ukraine's defense of the Odessa region has saved also the Republic of Moldova from being directly dragged into this war. Do you feel safe in Moldova these days?
Mihail Sirkeli: Well, from the military point of view, yes, we feel safe. Ukraine is protecting us. So, it seems that there is no immediate risk of Russian troops entering Moldova, apart of those that are already there on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, I mean, the occupied territory of Transnistria. As long as the Ukrainian army is successful on the battlefield, Moldova will be safe from Russian military invasion.
To what extent you see the Moldovan government ready to protect the country against Russian aggression in other than military forms?
Let’s take the example of the recent elections in Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia. The leader of the Shor party that has won these elections, Mr. Ilan Shor, is under international sanctions, and convicted for 15 years of imprisonment. But unfortunately he can still be active in Moldovan politics. Now he's starting to corrupt mayors, operating with money from organized crime and used by Russia to destabilize the Republic of Moldova. This form of destabilization is worrying me most, that is the biggest threat for me. Hardly anyone understands the danger of this guy. And the Moldovan government does not seem to have the instruments to stop him. I don’t mean to interfere into elections – this might destabilize the south of the Republic of Moldova. But now they need to find instruments to stop the money flow that Shor uses in order to implement his political projects here.
Another aspect of destabilization are disinformation campaign originating from Russia. How comes it resonates so much?
Unfortunately, the Moldovan informational space is not protected at all. So there are some measures taken by the by the government to prevent access of Russian propaganda. The Russian disinformation benefits from the liberal legislation and from using the freedom of speech in order to undermine the freedom of speech and democracy. The government took some measures to suspend the licenses of the six TV stations rebroadcasting Russian television. But this Russian television found other partners in the Republic of Moldova, not to speak about the Internet and social media, which are totally dominated by Russian propaganda in the Republic of Moldova and very much influential not only the Russian speaking communities but partially to the Romanian speaking communities as well. This is a problem for the Republic of Moldova.
You run a Russian language Internet information portal, nokta.md. So how would you characterize the difficulties for independent journalist projects like yours? Why is it so difficult to create a balance in the information sphere?
Politically and legally there is no problem to operate independent media in the Republic of Moldova, even in Gagauzia it is no problem. The problem is that there is a lack of people and resources. We do our best. But you cannot compete with Russian propaganda only with one simple single Site actually. Writing news and text reports is not enough. You need a full good qualitative content and also enough quantity. That's how there might be a chance to counterbalance the Russian propaganda. So far we cannot ensure it. Even local public broadcasters are captured by local partners of the Shor party in Gagauzia, so they are using this regional public broadcaster as an instrument for aggressive pro-Russian and pro-war propaganda. In order to counterbalance, first of all, the government and the audiovisual council have to stop misusing these public resources. And second, we need to find a way to strengthen the local media like ours in order to have a possibility to produce more content in various formats, actually the full spectrum of media content which is consumed by the local consumers.
Besides Gagauzia, also the separatist entity of Transnistria is considered to be an instrument for Russian destabilization.
Surprisingly, Transnistria stays quiet more than one year after the start of the full scale invasion. Actually, we were expecting that Transnistria would pose the biggest threat to Moldovan security. Most noise generates in Gagauzia. It seems that Russia want to show that actually the Moldovan government does not control the entire territory, even on the right bank of Dnistr River. Moldovan state institutions like the Prosecutor’s Office are weak in the region and the division of competences in not clear. Many journalists coming to Moldova want to go to Transnistria, the traditional separatist region. But they do not take into account that Gagauzia is becoming the more severe issue for the Republic.
Let’s turn more to the socioeconomic situation in the country. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. The country suffers from high inflation and from the energy price crisis. How did Moldova survive this shock so far?
The government is managing the crisis quite well. Throughout the last two years, from the moment the pro-European government came to power, actually Moldova was in a constant crisis – pandemics, security, energy and more. With the support of the European Union and the international partners the government was able to provide enough compensation for the people so they can cover their bills for heating, gas and electricity. But at the same time, we need to understand that this disinformation coming from Russia actually undermined the trust in the in governments efforts to manage these crises. Still many people, influenced by Russian propaganda, believe that the government had to Russia, to Putin, in order to agree on a lower price for the gas.
And what about the perspective for the EU membership? Is it is it something that is giving confidence in in a more prosperous development?
According to the polls the support to the EU integration is growing and many pro-Russians becoming pro-European and supporting the EU integration perspective. However, we had the highest numbers of support for EU integration when the Communist Party was in power back in 2005. But then it was not really a conscious, choice because many people were going with the slogans of the Communist Party. Then, when the Communist Party turned from pro-European to pro-Russian again, the support for the EU quickly dropped down in the Republic of Moldova to 30 or 40%. Now, after the full scale invasion, many people understand that actually Russia is not doing well on the international level, is actually representing a big threat for the for the region. And they are making this choice in favor of the EU integration more consciously. Nevertheless, we have to understand that the Republic of Moldova is still very much divided and there is one single line of division that is the attitude towards Russia: One part of the society considers Russia and Putin as an invader, the other sees Putin as a liberator. And this division is the biggest problem and threat for the Republic of Moldova right now.
The upcoming summit of the European Political Community is criticized by some as an expensive endeavor for President Sandu that rather distracts the government from solving the real problems. Do you see an added value for Moldova and for the Moldovan government in hosting this this event? How is it perceived?
For the electorate of Maia Sandu, the people that actually want EU integration, the summit is a big, important signal that Republic of Moldova is not alone and gets support from international partners on its way to the EU. Everybody is expecting Moldova one day to become an EU member, and from that point of view, it's a strong signal of support not only for the country, but also for the for the president Sandu herself and for the government.
This interview was originally published in German on boell.de.