This former Soviet republic, located between Ukraine and Romania, is now the target destination of many refugees from southern Ukraine. The largely rural Republic of Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Julian Gröger, coordinator of cultural and environmental projects in the capital of Chişinău, reports on the effects of the war in Ukraine on this country of 2.5 million inhabitants.
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung: What does the wave of refugees fleeing war in Ukraine mean for the Republic of Moldova? What is the situation for refugees in Moldova?
Julian Gröger: In the first week, the situation specifically for refugees from the south of Ukraine – we are just 60 km from Odessa – was extremely chaotic, but also very ‘Moldovan’, in other words incredibly warm-hearted but utter pandemonium. I was in several chat groups getting thousands of messages every hour. Look at the statistics: we are now up to 300,000 refugees, around 100,000 of whom have remained here. That is equivalent to a sudden population growth of 4%. But Moldova can absorb it relatively easy at the moment, thanks to its very specific structure: we are a country that has been decimated by emigration and 30 years of people leaving have left many villages empty. This means that 100,000 people from Ukraine will not make a huge difference. And the Moldovan people are still only too happy to help!
I estimate that around half of the refugees have friends or family in the country. They have come here and knew immediately where they were going. The other half have been taken in by people who wanted to help. These people have no extra budget, no second pantry. I went to two different villages last Sunday and talked to several host families and refugees. There is enormous warmth between them, a great willingness to help. But this has its limits. The gas bill is now double. The store cupboards are slowly emptying and that’s also where our help is needed. This is the Moldovan model of host families, making use of semi-abandoned villages – help with the little things, so to speak.
To a greater extent, however, the authorities are still going to need to use halls, gymnasiums, etc., as initial contact centres for arrivals.
Does this new situation also threaten political stability in Moldova and societal cohesion?
The Moldovan people do not want to be dragged into the conflict. Right on the first day of the invasion, the civil airspace was closed. There were enormous fears that Russia could very quickly turn flight movements into a pretext to extend the attack to Moldova.
We are now seeing enormous solidarity with Ukraine. Yet 20 to 30% of people in Moldova still identify with the Soviet Union and consume Russian media, always vote for the pro-Russian party – currently the self-styled ‘Socialists’. These voices are admittedly quiet, but they are here in the country and they support Putin’s regime, even under the current circumstances. But that does not stop them from wanting to help. The current government is therefore extremely stable and the majority of the population – around 60-70% – are behind President Maia Sandu and the party in government.
Is there the expectation that the Russian army could march directly on Chişinău?
In the first days of the war, in particular, many people I am in direct contact with were being quite pragmatic about the possibility. With the same rhetoric the Putin regime used to justify its attack on Ukraine, it could be Moldova next. There are similar constellations with the internationally unrecognised breakaway republic of Transnistria and the pro-European reform government and therefore feeding grounds for any kind of fake genocide news and similar strategies. Many of my friends had their suitcases packed within the first few days. There were enormous fears that we would be invaded as well. The concerns were not so much about total destruction in this country, as everybody was perfectly well aware that Moldova cannot and will not defend itself militarily. But what was also clear was that there was no reason for Putin to stop at the Dniester, Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine. The people of Transnistria have been waiting for this moment for 30 years. Experts reckon that it would be a military operation of between three and five hours to get from the Dniester to the Pruth. And there will be zero resistance.
Has the situation on the line of contact with the breakaway republic of Transnistria already changed? Has there been any kind of escalation within that conflict?
Amazingly, there hasn’t. The situation on the de facto border is by and large normal, people are travelling from Transnistria into Moldova as normal, although tensions are running high. You don’t know who is a Putin supporter and who isn’t. But I haven’t heard of any actual incidents so far. It’s business as usual in daily life. On the Ukrainian side, just 20 km from the border river of Dniester, there is a military base that was taken by Russian troops under fire – you could hear the impacts from here. But we are still not seeing any signs of movement of Transnistrian troops or the 1500 so-called Russian peacekeeping troops in the country.
This has helped to abate the fears of the first few days a little. One thing, people listened to Putin’s speeches again, a little more attentively. Most people – including myself – believe that Putin is principally interested in an East-Slavic bloc between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Without Moldova, but certainly with Transnistria, together with all the major Soviet investments in this area. These are, principally, a steel factory in Ribnita in the north, the capital Tiraspol and then the large Kuchurgan power station in the south. Chişinău and the rest of Moldova are really not that interesting from an economic point of view. And as they are Soviet investments, the Moscow narrative is that they are “taking back what belongs to them”. I do not believe that this concept applies to Moldova. But if Putin should decide to take this step towards the whole of Moldova, nobody is under any illusions. Many people would flee the country.
What can Moldovan civil society – including in cooperation with its EU partners – currently do to manage the acute situation with Ukrainian refugees in Moldova? What specific projects are you working on at the moment?
For one thing, 80-90% of assistance to refugees comes from volunteers. In the stadiums, at the border crossing points, everywhere, there were volunteer helpers. It was fairly well organised. But people can volunteer to help out for a week, maybe two at best. They can’t do any more than that. There are already the first indications that these volunteers should be paid. To do that, it would take support from the state and, more importantly, the international community. That’s the first thing.
The other is helping out the host families that I talked about earlier, whose store cupboards are gradually running bare, with their energy bills and food costs and providing them with support. Including in civil-society contexts and networks, we really have to start communicating more, raising awareness about Moldova, a country that hardly ever makes the news. What can civil-society players do? We must keep making the point, loud and clear, that here in Moldova, we are having to feed by far the highest number of refugees per head of population, way more than Poland. That is why we urgently need European and international support to make its way here, too.
You have already spoken about energy prices going through the roof due to the war. How much is the country worrying about energy security and energy poverty at the moment?
A lot! And rightly so. Moldova’s first victim of this war will be the forest, as we are already seeing. Even back in the autumn, Russia massively turned up the pressure on Moldova with higher gas prices. Then in January, the people received their first increased gas bills. The real price they had to pay had doubled. Now, we are already seeing the first effects upon the forest. People from the villages can no longer afford to pay for gas and have switched to wood. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by unusually low temperatures in February and March, around freezing by day and as low as -10° by night. Moldova is 90% dependent on Russian gas for its energy, for both electricity and heating. Alternative gas connections to Romania cannot reliably cover needs. I hope that this is somewhere our European partners will continue to invest.
Are you personally active in supporting refugees along with your civil-society network?
Yes, in the villages where the Moldovan environmental organisation EcoVisio - with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, amongst others – was already working on questions of sustainable development in rural areas, we have identified families who have taken in refugees. Our aim is mainly to help them both with improving the energy efficiency of their homes and providing direct financial support. We have also started organising shipments from Germany, of items that are expensive and in short supply in this country, such as furniture, beds and mattresses. We are now trying to bring the first loads from Germany and set up sponsorships with German families. The Ukrainian people feel very much at home in Moldova. Linguistically and culturally, they are still close to Ukraine. I have four women from Odessa staying in my apartment, who tell me that they don’t want to go any further. They remember Chişinău from their childhood. We are now trying to find Germans who would like to be sponsors, provide direct financial support and who would like to be put in touch, including over the longer term, with Moldovan host families who can take in Ukrainians, to avoid financial shortages and tension. If, in ten years’ time, perhaps 300 Ukrainian children look back on the year 2022 and think “that was such a funny really long holiday in that funny Moldovan village with that funny language and chickens running around everywhere…”, then we will have achieved something positive. It would be amazing if we could do a little bit to cushion the trauma currently being experienced by children in particular.
Many thanks for the interview.
This interview was first published in German on boell.de.