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The Kremlin’s Hybrid War in Moldova

Zarina Zabrisky reports on how Russia is attempting to take advantage of the cost of living crisis in the former Soviet state

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Kremlin’s Hybrid War in Moldova

Zarina Zabrisky reports on how Russia is attempting to take advantage of the cost of living crisis in the former Soviet state

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On 6 November, at 2:30pm, the protestors converged on the wide central street in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. According to the police, the rally was attended by 1,700; the organisers claimed that 50,000 took part.

The demographics appeared to be strikingly homogenous. About 80% were women in their 60s to 80s, wearing ethnic headscarves common in villages and unusual for residents of the capital. The police blocked the main street, preventing the rally afrom moving further. No violence was observed. 

Participants and speakers addressed the crowd in Romanian – the official language of Moldova – and Russian, which is recognised as “the language of communication” by the laws of the country, a former Soviet republic.

The speakers addressed the rally from a makeshift podium, equipped with microphones, amplifiers and a generator. Their words focused on the rising price of gas, the cost of living, and mistrust of the current administration. Several Russophone orators spoke of patriotism, the importance of the Russian Orthodox faith, Soviet Union values, and the “betrayal of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy”. They expressed strong anti-American and anti-EU sentiments. 

Most protestors stood in silence, holding white chrysanthemums and commercial plastic funerary wreaths, occasionally chanting, “Away with Maia Sandu!” – referring to the country’s President – following prompts from the podium. Dozens of elderly women sat in a nearby park, covering their faces with headscarves and turning away from the camera. Only one woman explained the symbolism of the flowers to journalists, saying that they were for “President Sandu’s funeral”.

When asked to speak about their demands, 30 protestors refused to comment. One man in his 60s said that he would not speak to a UK media outlet. Another woman in her 70s threatened to hit the journalist, shouting, “Away with America! Away with England!” 

At 4:30pm, the organisers closed the rally, playing cheerful Russian pop songs on their loudspeakers. The crowd walked several blocks down the main street, in a determined and brisk manner. By 5pm, in the dusk, groups of 50-60 split from the procession towards side streets where more than 50 coaches and a large number of mini-buses were parked.

The 6 November Chisinau protest. Photo: Zarina Zabrisky

The protestors dispersed, directed to the buses by athletic men in camouflage. When asked about the destination, all but one woman refused to answer. “We are going home,” she said. After the buses left, funerary wreaths and flowers were abandoned on pavements and bus stops around the city. 

Moldovan journalists infiltrated these Șor Party protests – organised by the populist opposition party – in September, and their reports confirmed that every weekend, thousands of Moldovans, mostly of retirement age, are bused to the capital from rural areas.

The participants are reportedly paid L400 ($82) for two hours of ‘civic activism’. The group leaders instruct the hires to “actively demonstrate, chant against the Government, and to not respond to journalists”. 

‘Moldova’s Fate is at Stake’

The protests have shaken Moldova since the beginning of September 2022. In October, law enforcement agents had to dismantle a tent camp in front of the Parliament, while dozens have been detained.

Eight suspects associated with the Șor Party were detained by Moldovan law enforcement agencies at the beginning of November for organising mass riots, and for a campaign of discrediting the police. The police seized L380,000 ($20,000) in cash, in labeled bags, intended for the compensation of the hired protestors and to pay for their transportation to the site.

The Șor Party is named after its founder, Moldovan businessman Ilan Shor. Accused of embezzlement, Shor currently resides in Israel to avoid arrest and sends video messages to the demonstrators. His wife, a Russian citizen and pop singer known as Jasmin, has received personal awards from President Vladimir Putin.

In the first week of November, the US imposed sanctions against Shor, Jasmin, and his party for allegedly destabilising the political situation in Moldova. Recently, the We Build Europe Home Party, led by another fugitive, Georgy Kavkalyuk, joined the protests.

Moldovan Interior Minister Anna Revenco said that “fugitive criminals” and Moscow were behind the protests in Moldova, and that their goal was “to destabilise the situation in Moldova and weaken the country in order to use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Europe.”

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An investigation by RISE and Center Dossier found that the intelligence services of Moldova, Ukraine, and some Western countries had said that these protests were the project of the FSB. The Russian intelligence agencies have allegedly been sponsoring subversion against the pro-European Government and have invested tens of millions of dollars into the cultivation of pro-Russian agents and propaganda, with financing carried out via large state-owned companies in Russia. It is assumed that the Kremlin aims to return the Republic of Moldova to its zone of influence. 

Member of the Moldovan Parliament Eugeniu Sinchevici told Byline Times that Russian President Vladimir Putin resents the fact that the majority in the Parliament of Moldova are pro-EU, alongside the fact that Moldova obtained EU member candidate status in June 2022. “Driven by imperial ambition, the Kremlin uses two tools to return Moldova to its sphere of influence: weaponising energy and staging fake protests,” said Sinchevici. 

In relation to the former, Moldova’s major electricity suppliers until recently were Transnistria, a separatist area in Moldova unrecognised by the international community and controlled by Russia – and Ukraine. Before Russian airstrikes damaged its energy infrastructure, Ukraine supplied 30% of Moldova’s electricity. Simultaneously, the Russian state-owned energy corporation Gazprom decided to cut its gas deliveries to Transnistria and, on 1 November, Moldova stopped receiving electricity from the territory.

As a substitute, Moldova now imports electricity from Romania at prices that are five or six times higher than domestic prices – causing a 50% rise in prices for ordinary citizens. The amount of income spent on energy bills is close to 90% for some households, according to Sinchevici. “Imagine paying $270 for energy out of a $300 monthly cheque,” he said.

“This winter is going to be really tough. Our country needs European and American budgetary and energy support in order to get through this winter. Supplying Moldova with energy is relatively easy as it is the equivalent of supplying a large German city,” said Sinchevici. “Moldova did not start the war in Ukraine and yet we are paying the full price: Moldova’s fate is at stake. If this pro-European Government fails, it will be a great opportunity for the Russians to erode trust in Europe.” 

An Unstable Situation

The Moldovan Government itself is taking action – putting in place a $250 million compensation package for energy bills, targeted at the most vulnerable, and attempting to increase its reliance on renewable energy from 8% to 27% in the next year.

“In the following years, we will build the necessary infrastructure to make our country’s energy sector resilient,” Sinchevici said.

Yet, it’s unclear whether this will curb the staged protests.

President Sandu’s pro-EU Government is inconvenient for the pro-Kremlin wealthy elite in Moldova – and for the Russian Government itself. After 30 years of oligarchic rule, corruption in Moldova is a major issue, hindering economic development. Construction projects were abandoned or stalled due to the embezzlement of funds. In villages, residents still do not have access to plumbing.

Under Sandu’s Government, however, the Government has been actively investing in urban and rural improvement projects. Justice reforms are also underway: the former openly pro-Russian President of Moldova Igor Dodon is under home arrest on high treason and corruption allegations – an unprecedented moment in the history of democracy in Moldova. 

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“With Dodon under arrest, Ilan Shor is becoming more influential, partially due to a wide campaign of social media ads, in particular, Facebook ads. All pro-Russian parties –democrats, communists, Shor Party – have united to push the pro-Russian gas price narrative,” said Senkevich. “Millions of dollars are invested not to just hire protestors but also in social media. Ads to promote disinformation run on Facebook and Google. Newly-created pages spend tens of thousands of dollars on ads, and even though they are reported and banned, they succeed in pushing fake narratives. Pro-Russian TV channels add to inciting the anti-Government sentiments.”

In June 2022, the Moldovan Parliament passed a bill banning Russian political and news programmes. Yet, our on-site research showed that at least 15 Russian-language programmes and two political, pro-Kremlin shows aired in November 2022.

“At this moment, the protests are not genuine,” said Sinchevici. “However, there is a danger that a real protest may arise. Anger against the ruling party will come if people can’t afford food.”

Many Moldovans are leaving the country – the airport in Chisinau is unusually crowded. 

The Kremlin weaponises energy, corruption, stages protests, and undermines governments as a part of its hybrid war strategy. “Russian influence operations attempt to exploit weaknesses in target countries in order to destabilise them from within,” said the US Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian E. Nelson.

This certainly appears to be the case in Moldova.

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