One-third pro-Russian: how EU movement, the war, and support for an alliance with Russia coexist in Moldova

Friday, 8 March 2024 — , European Pravda
Photo: Andreea Alexandru/Associated Press/East News
A significant number of Moldovan citizens would vote for integration with both Russia and the EU simultaneously

Ukraine and Moldova are moving towards EU membership together. In 2022, the two neighbouring states were granted candidate status; in 2023, the EU agreed to open accession negotiations with both of them at the same time. Both have the backing of EU leaders. The governments in Kyiv and Chișinău have declared that EU membership is their main priority.

There are important differences, though.

Ukraine acts much more ambitiously than its neighbours and is the "engine of progress" for both states. Kyiv applied for EU membership in February 2022, right after the start of Russia’s full-scale aggression, and pulled Moldova along with it. It was of the utmost importance for the EU to maintain the connection between the two eastern neighbours.

The difference is even greater when it comes to how the EU is perceived by the citizens of the two states. While there is a clear consensus in Ukraine about its future in the EU, Moldova is still divided and to a significant extent pro-Russian. An authoritative survey that came out this week confirmed that more people in Moldova support an alliance with Russia than oppose it, and that if Moldovans had to choose between joining the EU and joining the Russian Eurasian Union, only 50% would choose the first option.

Moldovan sociologists and experts are at pains to emphasise that

the majority of Moldovan citizens are still pro-European, and only a third are Putin fans.

The survey did not, however, cover Transnistria, where support for Russia dominates. Given the make-up of Moldovan society, the position of Moldova's government, which remains unquestionably pro-Western, is even more valuable. But the peculiarities of public opinion in Moldova definitely need to be taken into account.

How Avdiivka has impacted Moldova

This week, several Ukrainian and Moldovan media outlets reported that in the event of a referendum, half of Moldovan citizens – and the majority of those who would turn out and vote – would vote for EU membership.

This survey is highly topical, as a referendum on EU accession is due to be held in Moldova this year, probably to coincide with the presidential elections.

The percentage of people who would vote for Moldova to join the EU turned out to be slightly less than half – 49.9%.

This is in stark contrast to Ukrainian opinion polls, where we usually see over 90% support for EU membership.

Moreover, in this survey, Moldovans were actually asked to choose between the European Union and the alliance with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (the Eurasian Economic Union), and as many as 30% of Moldovan citizens stated that given a choice between the two unions, they would vote to join the Russian one. Another 20% were undecided or said they would not go to the polls.

30% in favour of an alliance with Russia looks catastrophically high, but that’s not the worst news. If Moldovan citizens were asked only about joining the Eurasian Economic Union in a referendum, 41.5% of respondents would vote for it, compared to 38.9% who would vote against.

So in a hypothetical referendum on joining the Russian Union, that initiative would be voted through! The idea of joining the EU would also be voted through if the question were asked separately, without mentioning the possibility of integration with Russia, but with a relatively modest success of 54.5% voting for and 30.5% against.

Veaceslav Ioniță, an expert at the authoritative Chișinău-based Institute for Development and Social Initiatives (IDIS Viitorul), which organised the survey, admitted in a conversation with European Pravda that this high level of open support for Russia, along with a low level of support for the EU, came as a surprise even to the pollsters.

IDIS regularly conducts sociological research, sometimes for Western clients, and notes that support for the EU and Russia often fluctuates, usually in response to current events.

"It was evident that the pro-Russian electorate in Moldova was energised, inspired by something, and believed in Russia's successes. Even our regular interviewers conducting surveys in Moldovan regions reported to us that it had been a long time since they had seen such determination from Russian-speaking respondents," Ioniță pointed out.

What was it that "energised" Moldova's pro-Russian electorate?

The experts interviewed by European Pravda tend to hold the view that Putin's propaganda has managed to spread the idea among pro-Russian Moldovan citizens that Russia is moving towards victory in the war against Ukraine. This may have emboldened Putin sympathisers who had previously tried to conceal their preferences.

"We have never seen such positive results for Russia before. Perhaps the reason is that at that moment, Russian propaganda was reporting on Avdiivka and problems with US aid," explained Valeriu Pașa, chairman of the Moldovan think tank WatchDog.MD.

Veaceslav Ioniță also agrees about the impact of Russia's advance on Avdiivka. The field stage of this survey took place from 7 to 12 February, before the Ukrainian Armed Forces had withdrawn from the city, but Russian sources were actively reporting on the occupiers’ achievements and the shortage of ammunition among Ukrainian soldiers due to the halt in US supplies.

"It looks as if we fell into an 'electoral pit' regarding support for the EU and reached the maximum level of open support for Russia," he said, announcing the publication of new survey data which shows a decrease in support for an alliance with Russia.

It looks as if the number of Russia sympathisers has not decreased, though. They have simply gone back to being more silent.

Where does Moldova's love for Russia and Putin come from?

From a Ukrainian perspective, the level of sympathy for Russia among Moldovan citizens and their support for its actions as revealed by the February survey appear catastrophic. But for experts monitoring fluctuations in public opinion in Moldova, pro-Russian sentiments are nothing new.

Moldova’s geopolitical sympathies are very diverse. Even if we leave out Russian-occupied Transnistria, which was not covered by the sociological research, there are still many pro-Russian territories and centres in Moldova.

Central Moldova is predominantly pro-European. The north, which includes Bălți, the country’s second-largest city, is predominantly pro-Russian.

There are some totally pro-Russian and anti-Western territories in the south, including the autonomous area of Gagauz, where support for EU membership is thought to be less than 5%. And this is despite the EU having been their main donor to infrastructure projects for many years. Instead, there is enthusiasm and genuine love for Russia here, even though it ranks fourth in terms of aid and investment.

"In total, we have a pro-Russian electorate of 30-35%. So approximately one-third of Moldova's population is pro-Russian," says Veaceslav Ioniță.

How has people’s attitude toward Russia changed? Research indicates that pro-Russian sentiment decreased in 2022 after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but this change was neither deep nor lasting. In the spring of 2022, EU support stopped growing after a sharp rise. Over time, Russia has managed to regain the sympathisers that it initially lost in the shock of the full-scale invasion. "The February 2024 survey showed an increase in pro-Russian indicators in all regions," Ioniță says.

As a result, the current numbers are not radically different from what they were in December 2021 (when support for EU membership was at 48.9%, whereas now it is 54.5%, and support for an alliance with Russia was at 44.2%; now it is 41.5%).

A significant section of Moldova's population still lives in an environment dominated by Russian propaganda.

This enables the Kremlin to restore trust in itself. And although Chișinău has banned Russian TV channels, it did not have the same effect as it did in Ukraine. In Moldova, especially in the villages, there is widespread use of satellite television, which is not subject to administrative restrictions banning Russian sources. Additionally, there is a very high level of internet coverage, meaning that Russian YouTube has made significant inroads.

Moreover, Moldovan pro-Russian politicians and actors are very active in generating content, even for Romanian-speaking voters.

"In Moldova there is a constant and active propaganda campaign to discredit the country's movement towards the EU. Another factor is economic problems, which has led to the ruling party – which is associated with moving closer to the EU – losing its popularity," explains Valeriu Pașa.

A divided country

Although Moldovans’ level of support for EU membership may not seem high to Ukrainians, there are still more supporters of Euro-integration in Moldova than opponents. So even if support for the EU remains at its current low level in the referendum planned for the autumn, it still means a victory for Euro-integration.

At the same time, the EU referendum will also highlight Moldova's division.

"Moldova is divided on this issue, but not in half. About one-third of citizens lean towards Russia,"

says Iulian Groza, executive director of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE).

In addition, a significant number of people in Moldova, under the influence of propaganda, are supporters of "friendship with everyone" and are willing to vote for integration with both Russia and the EU simultaneously.

Surveys indicate that if simultaneous referendums on Moldova's accession to the EU and the Eurasian Union were held, both types of integration could win a majority of votes, which is absurd both politically and economically. "Many people simply do not understand what this is," says Iulian Groza.

Experts hope that with a systematic information campaign, the popularity of the pro-Western option can be raised, because two-thirds of the population potentially lean towards Europe.

Groza emphasises that there is a rise in pro-European sentiments during important events for Moldova, such as the summit of the European Political Community held in Moldova in May 2023.

But the fact is that Russian propaganda is more consistent.

Russia always manages to regain any lost positions in public opinion.

"We also see that the pro-Russian electorate is capable of mobilising sharply, while the pro-European one is more inert," says Veaceslav Ioniță.

Will the people tolerate the pro-European government?

The staunchest supporter of European integration in Moldova is its current government. 

President Maia Sandu has built her political ideology on the idea of EU membership. The same is true of the ruling PAS party, which has had a majority in parliament since 2021, as well as the government. In contrast, the parliamentary opposition is anti-European and pro-Russian.

The problem for Moldova's ruling party and government is their low ratings.

If Moldova's government keeps pushing the country closer towards the EU without active voter support, won’t they be ousted in the next elections? We can assure you that there are currently no grounds for panic.

Presidential elections are set to be held in Moldova in 2024.

According to the February survey by IDIS Viitorul, if Maia Sandu enters the second round with her perennial opponent, the openly pro-Russian Igor Dodon, they could tie with only a 1% gap in their ratings. Against another potential opponent, Chișinău Mayor Ion Ceban – a pro-Russian politician in the past and a "dark horse" now – Sandu would win with a slight margin of 4.5%. But Ceban has not launched a presidential campaign.

The speed at which Moldova's pro-Russian electorate is capable of mobilising indicates that this gap could easily be overcome.

There is one nice peculiarity about Moldovan elections, however, that provides quite solid confidence that there are no threats to Maia Sandu's victory.

Under Moldovan law, citizens living abroad can also vote in nationwide elections and referendums, and there is a simplified procedure for opening polling stations for them.

While Ukraine can only open polling stations at embassies and consulates, Moldovan polling stations can, by agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, be opened in cafés, libraries, and other places.

As a result, there may be dozens of polling stations in places where large numbers of members of Moldova's diaspora traditionally queue up to vote for their new government, such as Italy.

And the Moldovan diaspora in Europe is largely pro-Western. Its favourite in the presidential elections is Maia Sandu. And it will likely give nearly 100% support for Moldova's EU accession in a referendum.

Meanwhile in Russia, where there are many Moldovan economic migrants, the number of polling stations is artificially limited.

As a result, the diaspora has the potential to determine the election results in divided Moldova.

Indeed, Moldovans abroad accounted for 15% (!) of all votes in the last presidential elections.

It remains an open question whether the diaspora factor will also be sufficient in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will determine the next government. Here the risks are higher, as those elections will be contested by openly pro-Russian parties which will attract the 30% pro-Putin electorate, as well as by populists who do not publicly contradict European ideas but may have close links to Russia.

This election is set for 2025, and it is too soon to predict the ratings, or even which parties will be taking part in the race.

Eastern and Western foundations

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which is closely linked to the Putin regime, also plays a hidden role in politics in Moldova and Ukraine. In Moldova, where the population is far more religious than in Ukraine, the Church’s influence is invaluable.

The Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is part of the ROC (Moscow Patriarchate), competes for the beliefs and sympathies of Moldova's believers with the Bessarabian Metropolis of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Moscow is currently winning. 43.2% of survey respondents expressed support for the subordination of Moldovan Orthodoxy to the ROC, while 32.4% supported subordination to Romania.

IDIS Viitorul sees positive shifts here, though. In particular, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of a visit by the Romanian patriarch to Moldova, while only 15% were against it, although this had previously been a highly politicised issue that had met with resistance from a significant section of pro-Russian Moldovans.

The unification of Moldova with Romania – known as "Unirea" – remains unrealistic, however.

Some Moldovans consider themselves part of the Romanian nation and advocate for the unification of the two states. They argue that this would be the fastest way for Moldova to join the European Union, bypassing membership negotiations, etc. That is how East Germany joined the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Supporters of "Unirea", both then and now, remain in a minority – 37.8% for and 50% against – while the rest do not have a defined position. And this distribution of votes has persisted for many years, since the 2010s, according to Veaceslav Ioniță.

One of the reasons for this is the categorical resistance to unification from pro-Russian regions such as Gagauzia and Transnistria (the latter not included in the surveys), as well as the fact that for some Romanian-speaking Moldovans, their own Moldovan national identity remains important.

So the main option for now is the gradual integration of Moldova into the EU as an independent state. Moldova is determined to do this together with Ukraine and to overcome the powerful influence of the Kremlin and resistance from the significant pro-Russian section of society.

 

Sergiy Sydorenko, 

Editor, European Pravda

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