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Vulnerable Moldova

Vulnerable Moldova

The tiny country may be next on Russia’s list. Iulia-Sabina Joja interviews Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu.

Nicu Popescu, Iulia-Sabina Joja

Iulia-Sabina Joja: Two months into the war, how do you assess developments in Ukraine? When and how does the war end?

Nicu Popescu: Not a single person on the European continent feels secure. That’s the effect of this Russian aggression against Ukraine, the effect on the region, with global scale by now. And of course, this applies to Moldova—increasingly, as you know. We’ve been calling on Russia to stop its war against Ukraine. One doesn’t know what kind of continent we’ll be living on in a few months, or weeks even.

IJ: Can you give us a sense of the economic situation and, given that Moldova is such a small country, tell us about the influx of refugees?

NP: We’re a country of around 3 million people, and we’ve had more than 400,000 refugees moving through our territory. We now have roughly 95,000 refugees in Moldova—so roughly 3.5 percent of our population. An estimated half of these war refugees are kids, below the age of 18. This is all harrowing for Ukraine. The total number of refugees now is almost 5.3 million—from a country of 41 million.

The impact on tiny Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is and will be dramatic: On the health care system, the education system, for policing, for border control, for electricity, for heating, and for water consumption. For everything. We want to help. We need to adapt to new realities. More than 90 percent of the refugees have been hosted in private accommodations. So we don’t have large-scale refugee centers. We don’t have tent cities. Not yet.

IJ: You were in Washington recently. Was there a sense of the growing urgency?

NP: We’ve been working on economic and energy issues (and rule of law and anti-corruption, too). Of course, we spoke about security. The war in Ukraine and its effect on Moldova was front and center. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Chisinau. We’ve hosted USAID Director Samantha Power twice in the last six months. The administration appreciates our strategic relevance and current vulnerability. No one wants a wider war.

IJ: Some Ukrainians think that help from the United States and its European partners has come late, with too little in assistance. Are critical needs being met?

NP: Everywhere there’s solidarity with Ukraine. Moldova is doing its best, too. There’s a need for military assistance, but humanitarian aid is also crucial. We have been focused on helping the citizens of Ukraine stay in safety and dignity on Moldovan territory, and of course transit Moldovan territory if they want to.

IJ: Is Moldova threatened today? It appears that you may be moving to the front line.

NP: You’re asking about our Transnistria region where we have Russian troops. We’ve always been calling on Russia to withdraw them. The Russian military presence in Transnistria is against Russia’s international obligations, is against Moldova’s right to decide which troops are stationed on our territory. So we’ve been calling on Russia to withdraw its troops. And now we see signs of trouble, indications of false flag operations and pretext for military assault. We want diplomacy and dialogue. We depend on these things. But we also want the world to know how vulnerable we are.

If unprovoked aggression is not checked, it may well spread. The world has already changed since my visit to Washington in mid-April. We need to have the imagination to see how things can keep changing, for good and ill. I won’t speculate on scenarios. I will say the moment remains dramatic, for Ukraine and the region.

IJ: What do you need from the West now in this critical moment?

NP: International attention and assistance helps us stay resilient; this is very important. The humanitarian response has put all institutions—and their budgets—under strain, and we need direct budgetary support. As Moldova is facing an enormous energy security challenge, help getting sustainable and predictable gas and electricity supplies is of paramount importance. Finally, despite immediate challenges, our government is fully committed to delivering what we were elected for: reforms, fighting against corruption, and European integration. We are most grateful to partners who are providing support on these fronts.

Nicu Popescu is the Republic of Moldova’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and European integration.

Iulia-Sabina Joja is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and former adviser to the Romanian presidency.