Russia has turned off the lights

Novaya-Europe deep dives into Moscow’s attempts to keep control over Moldova through energy blackmail and corrupted opposition

Russia has turned off the lights

A view from a street with no lights on due to a power outage in the city of Ialoveni, Moldova. 15 December 2022. Photo: Gian Marco Benedetto / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Moscow has been trying to keep Moldova in its area of influence for a long time, using all kinds of creative ways to do so: energy sources, propaganda, supporting separatists in Transnistria. But ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, Moldova has begun assuredly distancing itself from Russia and moving towards the European Union. It was even granted the status of an EU membership candidate — at the same time as Ukraine.

Russian missiles, set on destroying the Ukrainian energy infrastructure while “ricocheting” through to the Moldova energy system, added fuel to the fire. At the peak of the crisis, the country went through a mass power outage and total blackouts. In response, Moscow has been increasing the pressure through energy blackmail and opposition politicians it has control over, who have been “rocking the boat” and protesting. Tiraspol and Chișinău have even started to reach compromises in reaction to Russia’s moves.

Novaya-Europe’s correspondent Ira Purysova visited Chișinău to learn what new consequences the country is dealing with after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Early December is marked by full-scale preparations for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Moldova’s capital, Chișinău.

If one happens to end up here by chance, they would not be able to ever guess that there is a war being fought a couple of hours away. That just nearby, hundreds of thousands of people have no power, hot water, or heating. Moldova itself went through blackouts several times by now. Massive shelling of Ukraine’s infrastructure by Russian troops shrouded Moldova in darkness, too.

A fair near the Maria Bieșu National Opera and Ballet Theatre. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

A fair near the Maria Bieșu National Opera and Ballet Theatre. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

There were total blackouts and mass power outages.

The first time power went out in the country was on 15 November — on the day Russia launched around 100 missiles at Ukraine’s territory. Power was turned back on in the capital and its districts a few minutes later, while the regions had to wait for around an hour.

On 23 November, the situation repeated itself, but that time the capital remained without electricity for over an hour.

Shops, cash machines, and traffic lights stopped working. Trolleybuses stopped in the streets — they are the main way of transportation in the city. People began to worry.

“We, of course, haven’t faced the kind of issues Ukraine does, but the country did end up in a total blackout,” Yevgeny Cheban, journalist for Moldova media outlet NewsMaker, says. “It was a very unusual thing for us, I remember that we exited the office and saw that all traffic and street lights were out — nothing worked at all. A lot of people were standing on sidewalks. One can’t say that we faced hardships because of that situation, but we did become more worried. Flashlights and candles were soon sold out.”

The worry was strengthened by the energy crisis which escalated in the country at the beginning of October after Russia’s Gazprom has announced it would reduce gas supply to the country, including to Transnistria, a region outside of Moldova’s control, by 30% — down to 5.7 million cubic metres per day.

The Russian company blamed its decision on the refusal of Ukrainian Naftogaz to provide gas transportation services through the Sokhranovka station.

But Moldova is certain: all of this is Russia’s blackmail which put the country on the line of a humanitarian crisis for two months. After gas supply had been reduced, power outages started happening in the country. Even without taking into account massive shelling, which made using Ukraine’s energy sources impossible, there was just not enough fuel to produce the amount of electricity needed for both banks of the Dniester River.

“Russia has left Moldova in the dark. Russia’s war in Ukraine is killing people, destroying residential areas and the energy infrastructure with missiles. Ukraine is still getting shelled,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu wrote in a Facebook post after the blackout on 23 November. “We can’t trust the regime that leaves us dark and cold, that purposefully kills people just to be able to keep other nations poor and humiliated. However difficult it is today, our only way forward, the road to the future of the Republic of Moldova remains in the direction of the free world.”

But this road is full of thorns. Economically connected to both Russia and Ukraine, the country found itself trapped after the start of the war.

Dependence recovery

We meet with Moldova’s First Deputy Premier and Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Andrei Spînu, in his cabinet in the government building. The young official (he is only 36 years old) has held this post since 2021. One of the fields he is responsible for in the government is energy. He replies to questions succinctly, without deviating from the topic. He refers to the reduced gas supply as an instrument used by Russia for political purposes.

“Gazprom’s supply cuts have had a significant impact on Moldova, reducing the capability of the Cuciurgan power station (located in Dnestrovsc, Transnistria, territory not controlled by Moldova — translator’s note) to supply electricity to the right bank of the Dniester River. Because of this, Romania covered the necessary volumes of electrical energy at the end of October, however, it is more expensive,” the minister says. “The most difficult months this year will end up being November and December. During that period, Gazprom cut down the supply first by 50%, then — by 58%.”

The energy crisis deeply affects people’s finances. According to Spînu, the population saw gas prices increase eightfold this year, electricity — fourfold.

For Moldova, where even in the capital the average salary is €550, these prices are unaffordable. According to the government’s estimates, only 1% of citizens can pay for utilities without it affecting their budget.

To make it possible for citizens to pay the bills, the government has developed a compensation plan. The authorities will cover up to 60% of the bills for the most vulnerable groups.

Moldova is facing this situation due to its big dependency on Russian gas and electricity produced from it on the territory of the unrecognised Transnistria. People Novaya-Europe talked to agree that before 2019, Moldova had been completely dependent on Russia’s Gazprom. The country was unable to buy gas from other suppliers: Moldova’s infrastructure made doing so impossible. There was also a lack of political resolve to start diversifying gas flows. According to economist Viktor Ciobanu, previous ministers were more interested in grey schemes than solving real issues.

Now, according to the opinion of energy expert and former Adviser to the President Sergiu Tofilat, there are technical means to quit Russian gas, and Moldova is able to buy gas from any other supplier. That is indeed what the country has been doing: buying gas in the spot market and “reverse” importing it from Slovakia; the gas is then stored in facilities in Romania and Ukraine. The problem is the cost: it is too expensive, Moldova unable to afford it without subsidies from the EU.

When it comes to electrical energy, the situation is much more complicated. In Moldova, this issue is almost irreversibly connected to the Transnistria conflict. According to Tofilat, currently only 20% of electrical energy consumed by the country is produced on the territory controlled by Chișinău. The remaining 80% needs to be imported. Until recently, the import was divided between the Cuciurgan power station located in Transnistria (70%) and Ukrainian power stations (30%).

Energy expert and former Adviser to the President Sergiu Tofilat. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Energy expert and former Adviser to the President Sergiu Tofilat. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

The Cuciurgan power station provides Moldova with electricity at low prices, producing it out of gas that Gazprom has been supplying to the territory of the unrecognised Transnistria for years, basically for free. Since the middle of the 2000s, the station has been owned by JSC Inter RAO UES. The firm’s CEO is Boris Kovalchuk. Boris’s father is Yury Kovalchuk, billionaire and Vladimir Putin’s friend. Chairman of the Board of Directors is the head of Rosneft Igor Sechin.

The power station holds importance not only for Moldova but for Ukraine, too, especially for the southwestern part of the Odesa region. The Moldovan transportation energy network was designed in the Soviet era, which is why it is connected to Ukraine’s energy system (also why the blackouts occurred in Chișinău, too). When heavy shelling of Ukraine — which led to almost the entire energy system of the country getting destroyed — had begun, Ukraine’s electricity imports halted, and Moldova had to depend on the Russia-owned power station even more.

Furthermore, Moldova has to negotiate with the station even when it comes to electricity supplied by the European Union: Moldova’s infrastructure is designed in a way that makes almost all of the power lines go through the Cuciurgan station.

On 21 October, the station suddenly reduced supply to Moldova — from 70% to 27% of the necessary volume, there was just not enough gas to produce electricity. The country began to cut down on its power use: street lighting was now being turned off during evenings, lifts in residential buildings — during rush hours.

The authorities continued buying electricity from Romania, but even that was not enough if they were unable to come to an agreement with Transnistria.

The situation de-escalated only in the beginning of December, after the parties had signed an agreement about electrical energy deliveries to the right bank of the Dniester River in exchange for an increase in the volume of gas delivered to Transnistria.

According to the agreement, Chișinău will be buying more than half of the electricity it needs at the rate of $73 per MW/h (Romania sells only part of the electricity Moldova acquires at the rate of $90 per MW/h, while the main volumes are being sold at exchange prices — $300-400 per MW/h). In return, Transnistria will get all of Gazprom’s gas. Moldova’s gas reserves stored in the neighbouring countries should be enough to see the country through the two months of winter, even if Russia decides to stop supplying Moldova with gas at all.

According to Spînu, the agreement with the unrecognised territory was the best solution to provide Moldovans from both banks of the Dniester River with electricity and retain the country’s access to energy. Otherwise, any attack on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine would have an impact on both Moldova and the left bank of the Dniester River, not controlled by the country.

Unprecedented separatism

The view of Chișinău. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

The view of Chișinău. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognised Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Transnistria, is situated 78 kilometres away from Chișinău, but the life in two cities is strikingly different.

The formation of the unrecognised republic was happening alongside the collapse of the USSR. The conflict started emerging in the 80s, and then in 1992 there was a short but bloody war. According to Alexander Flenkya, director of the Initiative for Peace association and former Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration of Moldova, the creation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic was identical to the formation of the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in Ukraine, except for the fact that Russia shares no border with the left bank of the Dniester River. The conflict also rose out of the alleged issue of the Russian-speaking population in the region being persecuted.

After proclaiming independence, the region began to exploit its lack of recognition and turned into shadow economy heaven. Interests of not only Russia but also of Ukraine and Moldova converge here.

“Transnistria is definitely a pro-Russian region, which is dependent on Russia and was created by Russia,” Flenkya says, describing the contradictions present in the relationship. “At the same time, Transnistria is far away from Russia. Ukraine is between Russia and Transnistria. Even people who live in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic are not so much Russians as Russian-language speakers (Currently, the republic is populated about equally by Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians — editor’s note). So Russia’s influence on the region is indirect, all the elites and interests being local there.”

Still, positions of power in the government of the unrecognised republic are usually coordinated with the Kremlin.

“When it comes to this, Russia still applies pressure. There used to be four key positions that the locals could not appoint without Moscow’s agreement: Minister of Defence, Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister of State Security, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Usually, these posts would be taken up by Russians,” Flenkya says. “Although lately, the situation has changed somewhat, and now there’s only one politician completely controlled by Russia in the republic — Minister of Foreign Affairs Vitaly Ignatyev. He’s basically local, from Odesa, but he’s now turned [pro-Russian]. [The fact that officials are controlled by different groups] is very noticeable, often Ignatyev and [the current head of the republic Vadim] Krasnoselsky make contradictory statements.”

Alexander Flenkya, director of the Initiative for Peace association and Moldova’s former Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Alexander Flenkya, director of the Initiative for Peace association and Moldova’s former Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Profitability of Transnistria’s companies comes from the basically free Russian gas and electricity produced from it.

In short, the scheme is as follows: Gazprom supplies Transnistria with gas. Transnistria’s population pays for gas (although it costs 30 times cheaper than in Moldova), the money goes into the budget of the unrecognised republic. But the republic does not pay Gazprom back, the cost of gas is assigned to Moldova — the Moldovan debt to Russia estimated at over $9 billion. In the past, Gazprom used the debt as a reason for energy blackmail of the country: in case of any political conflict, Gazprom threatens to leave Moldova without gas due to the unpaid debt.

Furthermore, even Vladimir Putin admitted at the beginning of December that Russia supplies Transnistria with gas for free.

Sergiu Tofilat is certain: the biggest winners in the situation are the Transnistria companies controlled by Russian oligarchs and state agencies.

Moreover, the Kremlin uses gas as a point of political influence: it finances Transnistria’s regime and does not allow Moldova to independently define its foreign policy.

Frozen conflict

This autumn, Russian authorities reduced gas supply to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the unrecognised republic appealed to the Kremlin, asking to get to the bottom of the issue. However, he blamed the entire thing on Moldova.

The lack of gas put the region in an extremely difficult situation. After the beginning of the October energy crisis in Transnistria, several industrial facilities halted operations due to a shortage of gas. One of them was the Cuciurgan power station, which provides Moldova with electricity and is one of the biggest consumers of Russian gas. Moldova Steel Works also was left without gas supply; the factory exports its products to the EU countries, as well as to the US, Canada, and Australia.

When I ask Nikolay Kuzmin, local Transnistria journalist and political scientist, whether household inconveniences born out of the energy crisis were a nuisance, he gets annoyed, just like residents of Moldova do when talking about this subject. All of that is not important when there is a war raging nearby.

“Listen, I’ve got relatives in Ukraine. I studied in Ukraine myself, some of my friends enlisted, others are in the cities that get regularly shelled. The fact that I didn’t have water for a few hours is not important,” he says, convincingly. “I’m texting with my brother, he’s in Odesa, they only have lights on for a few hours a day. So, what does it matter? People are being killed there. To hell with this ‘nuisance or not.’”

But household inconveniences would have looked like a small issue to Transnistria residents if the agreement with Chișinău had not been reached and the region ended up with no gas. People Novaya-Europe talked to all agree: one more month and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic would have faced an economic collapse, the money would have run out.

According to Sergiu Tofilat, during the period when Transnistria stopped receiving enough gas to be able to produce electricity and supply Moldova with it, the region’s budget lost half of its income (the region’s annual income is $212.7 million — editor’s note).

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Tofilat thinks that Moldova’s agreement with Transnistria is the only possible solution in the current situation in order to minimise energy expenses of Moldovan consumers this winter and not let a humanitarian crisis occur in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. His opinion is shared by other experts: Viktor Ciobanu and Chairman of expert community WatchDog Valeriu Pasha, although both see flaws in the agreement.

“Somehow, no one considered the option of making Russian bandits and oligarchs that are behind those mining farms, for example [former Russian prosecutor general] Igor Chaika, pay more for electricity in Transnistria. Just not used to the idea. But one way or another, this [situation] would lead to an economic collapse. And what do we do with that?” Pasha questions. “Even if there’s just 250,000 people [living there]. But almost all of them are Moldova’s citizens, it’s our territory. This crisis is ours to solve, no matter what. If the situation had been prepared for, it would have helped with the reintegration of Moldova. But for now, there are too many unknown variables.”

Chairman of expert community WatchDog Valeriu Pasha. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Chairman of expert community WatchDog Valeriu Pasha. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Critics of the agreement between Tiraspol and Chișinău think that Moldova basically provided support for separatists by giving away all of Russian gas to Transnistria. However, Viktor Ciobanu calls these statements pseudo-patriotic. He also says that there is no other way to solve the conflict.

Another problem is that the temporary agreement does not put an end to the conflict, it only puts it on pause. Even now, the economist is certain that Moldova has to remain vigilant, despite the successful deal: “Who can speculate on what Gazprom will do next? One certainly can’t count on a long-term stable relationship with Moscow.”

Occupation plan

For now, the agreement between Tiraspol and Chișinău will be able to decrease utility prices and gradually restore calm in the country.

Moldova is facing the same challenges as Europe because of the war: inflation and utilities prices increase due to the energy crisis. However, these consequences are way harder for Moldova to deal with than for wealthier European countries. Due to its close ties to Russia and Ukraine, Moldova had to rebuild almost its entire economy after the war had started, a process which could not occur smoothly.

The country is facing record inflation — 35%. For consumers, gas prices increased sixfold. Direct consequences of the war — the blackouts and missiles that often fall on the bordering territories — also do not inspire optimism.

“It’s clear that the Moldova government is currently facing unprecedented problems. This is a war that puts a wrench in the plans, even the least ambitious ones. It’s hard to even try assessing the [ruling] Party of Action and Solidarity’s election programme, tick off the [promised] points, without taking into account what has been happening to the east of our borders,” Yevgeny Cheban reflects.

Journalist for the NewsMaker media outlet Yevgeny Cheban. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

Journalist for the NewsMaker media outlet Yevgeny Cheban. Photo: Ira Purysova / Novaya Gazeta Europe

However, not all residents of the country want to take the war into account, and discontent with the current government has been growing. The ruling party and the president’s ratings have been dropping since before the war.

Valeriu Pasha notes: were elections in Moldova to happen tomorrow, the pro-Russian opposition could easily win the majority of seats in the Parliament. Still, Yevgeny Cheban proposes to look sensibly at the numbers and not consider them a sign of big sympathy towards Russia.

“You have to understand that Moldova is not a wealthy country, our situation was difficult even before [the war],” Cheban laments.

“Currently, only going by official data, inflation is at 30%; if we go by what it feels like, the prices have gone up 50%. All of this, of course, aggravated the situation and hurt people’s wallets. That’s where the discontent comes from.”

This discontent was used by Russia, with the Kremlin trying to destabilise the country through protests which began taking place in Moldova this summer. However, they only began getting traction in September. The protests were organised by the Șor Party — an opposition party led by an exiled oligarch and politician Ilan Șor and supported by Moscow.

The Russian threat is not a joke to Moldova even after the potential escalation of the war attempted in April bypassed the country.

Back in May, The Times reported, citing Ukrainian military sources, that Russia was planning an attack on Moldova. At the beginning of November, the Dossier media outlet and Moldova’s Association of Investigative Journalists (RISE Moldova) were able to find out that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had been ordered to prepare “the second front” on the territories of Transnistria and Moldova.

According to the investigation, Alfa-group, an analytical centre with ties to the FSB, was considering several scenarios of seizing the country. Three of them involved an attack: creating a corridor to Transnistria through southern Ukraine, with the following recognition of the region; entering the borders of Transnistria without recognising the republic; capturing the entire country. Another scenario was to gain control over the region through creation of new political powers. It should be noted that these scenarios were being prepared by Russian secret services in June 2022, when it was already quite clear that Russian troops would not be seeing much success in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, even now, in December 2022, the threat of Moldova being dragged into the war remains. On 19 December, the authorities once again declared that Russia still wants to create a land corridor to Transnistria. According to Director of Moldova’s Security and Intelligence Service Alexandru Musteață, the risk of Russia beginning to advance on Moldova in 2023 “exists and is high”, depending on the situation on the Ukrainian front.

“Russia is interested in Moldova as a bridgehead for attacking Ukraine, as another territory from which an attack can be planned,” editor for RISE Moldova Vladimir Thorik says, explaining the Kremlin’s motivation. “Additionally, Russia considers Moldova part of the post-Soviet space. One sixth of all land isn't enough, they need small Moldova, too. It’s imperial ambitions.”

According to Thorik, Russia is trying to influence Moldova through two entities: the Presidential Administration and the FSB’s Fifth Service; both of these services work with other post-Soviet countries, too. In Moldova, they interact with leading politicians and coordinate those who proclaim themselves “friends of Russia”.

“The Kremlin’s Moldova department approved Moldovan politicians and also made edits to their pre-election talking points. The data shows that the Kremlin had involvement in careers of politicians of all levels in the country, from the president to regional leaders,” Thorik explains.

‘We are not alone’

The war in Ukraine and the energy crisis reinforced Moldova’s integration into the European Union. Back in the summer, Moldova was granted the status of an EU membership candidate, on the same day as Ukraine. The country applied for candidacy on 3 March, after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Despite the fact that the decision was more of a political move and joining the union could, probably, only become possible in 10-15 years, Moldova’s politicians still see it as a good sign.

Europe has been helping not only politically but financially, too: in November, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen declared that the European Union would allocate €250 million to Moldova to cope with the energy crisis. Germany also gave Moldova €40 million of budgetary aid, France — €100 million.

These numbers are not the most record-breaking of the year.

Back in April, nine international organisations and 36 donor countries decided to provide Moldova with €695 million in aid, including credits, and €108 million of direct donations to the country’s budget.

The European Union’s money, in particular for consumer compensation, is not the only thing that currently connects the country with the West. According to MP from the ruling party Natalia Davidovici, this year was the first time the Moldovan people did not feel alone. The country received visits from top European officials: President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, presidents and prime ministers of European countries (even before the war, Moldova saw first ever visits of the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte, President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and President of France Emmanuel Macron). And they did not only come to utter words of support but to bring concrete projects, too.

“We started to feel that we had a lot of friends in Europe ready to provide support so that we could face this crisis and not diverge from our chosen path,” Davidovici says. “I think that the Europe prospect has never been this real to Moldova before. Obviously, this is not only our accomplishment, that circumstances played a part. But the situation is that currently all the conditions necessary for our entry to the European Union have been created.”

However, there is still a lot of work ahead. According to Cheban, Moldova got a big discount, and if one were to read the European Commission’s statement, it becomes quite clear that Moldova does not even fit all the necessary criteria to be deemed a candidate. To join the European Union, the entire country will have to be reformed: changes of the justice systems need to be carried out, commitments on fighting corruption need to be followed through, organised crime needs to be fought harder, the course on “de-oligarchisation” needs to be taken — there are too many things to list.

Furthermore, the Transnistria conflict is still on pause; it is considered a territorial dispute. Without the conflict being solved, Moldova will not be able to join the union. According to Flenkya, the authorities of Moldova began to realise that Transnistria is not only a separatist region that the country could isolate itself from but an issue that needs immediate addressing only in June, after having received an EU membership candidate status.

“It would be disappointing if Moldova were to solve all its internal issues and the only thing separating it from joining the EU would be a territorial dispute,” Flenkya emphasises.

But he declines to make any predictions about the future. Flenkya is convinced that, most likely, the fate of the conflict will be impacted by actions of Europe.

“Sooner or later, this war will come to an end, and Europe will create new security mechanisms. Transnistria will be a part of this architecture, and Tiraspol and Chișinău will just have to work something out,” Flenkya speculates.

All the people Novaya-Europe talked to agree that Tiraspol’s regime will not survive without Russia. Even now, the region is somewhat reintegrated, economically: after the start of the war, Ukraine closed the Transnistria part of the border, so all export and import of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic now moves through Moldova. Valeriu Pasha thinks that the territorial dispute is less of an obstacle than all of the other internal issues.

According to Pasha, an important factor of joining the EU is the authorities remaining pro-European and incorrupt, there needs to be a clear majority in the Parliament. If the government ends up being pro-Russian, the process will come to halt. If it ends up being pro-European but corrupt — likewise. Furthermore, this will depend not only on help from the West but also on how well the country will be fighting the Russian influence.

“The people’s choice is based not only on where the help is coming from. Otherwise, no one at all in Moldova would be supporting the idea of getting closer with Russia. Russia and Putin’s popularity are based on disinformation and propaganda,” Pasha says. “By attacking Ukraine and committing all the unfriendly actions towards Moldova, Russian authorities have shown their true colours, so now many are rethinking their opinion of the Russian government. As of now, the majority of the population is looking ahead towards the European Union and does not support the so-called multipronged approach towards foreign policy.”

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