After Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, almost 700,000 Ukrainian refugees crossed the border into neighboring Moldova. About 100,000 decided to stay in the nation of 2.6 million – the highest per capita influx to any neighboring country.
In several ways, Moldova resembles pre-war Ukraine. It is a multilingual and multiethnic country with a rich history. While Romanian is the official language, and the primary language for 75% of the population, many speak Russian, especially in the capital and other big cities. Public opinion and political views are divided between Soviet nostalgia and a pro-European outlook and, like Ukraine, Moldova depends on Russian gas and includes an unrecognized state illegally backed by Russia — Transnistria. The Russian presence continues to hover over the country like a cloud, its spies subverting Moldovan institutions, while the government says it has attempted to install a pro-Kremlin regime and is associated with opposition parties organizing anti-government protests.
Although Moldova has no border with Russia, when the first missiles hit Ukraine last year many people were shocked and panicked. The apparent speed of the advance on Kyiv made them worry the Russian army would head for Transnistria next and quickly occupy the rest of Moldova. As a result, many sent relatives away (though they returned when Russia’s invasion stalled), and considered escape for themselves. Many also opened their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Until they were banned in December, TV stations parroting the Russian version of the war broadcast freely in Moldova, confusing perceptions of the invasion. “Some people here don’t understand that Russia is bombing Ukraine, they think it’s Ukraine bombing itself,” said Elena, a Ukrainian woman in her thirties, as she recalled the difficulties she faced when she arrived in Chisinau. Regardless, Moldovans, including those who swallowed Russian propaganda, were eager to help their desperate neighbors.
It was the first time Moldova had faced a refugee crisis. Within the first 24 hours of the invasion, almost 16,000 people had crossed the border, including 100 who asked for asylum. To put that in perspective, only 86 asylum-seekers were registered by the authorities in Moldova in the whole of 2020.
State authorities, charities, and local people immediately responded and the number of volunteers heading for Palanca, a southern border crossing just 40km (25 miles) from Odesa, was so huge police had to intervene to control the traffic. A year after the full-scale invasion started, charities still regularly provide refugees with food, goods, clothes, and training courses. The UNHCR launched a cash assistance program, and refugees have access to banks, jobs, schools, and medicine.
In the EU, those privileges were granted by Temporary Protection status in early spring 2022, but in Moldova, they were covered by the state of emergency decrees, imposed after the invasion and extended every 60 days. It took almost a year to approve the implementation of Temporary Protection in Moldova, largely because of a wrangle over who should pay for it. However, beginning March 1, Ukrainian refugees are granted temporary protection status for a period of a year, aligning the country with EU legislation.
Before the war, Moldova had the lowest per capita GDP in Europe, except for Kosovo. In 2022, it improved its position in the ranking by one point, but only because Ukraine moved down. Still weakened by the pandemic, the economy took a beating as a result of Russia’s aggression and the refugee influx. In 2022, Moldovan inflation more than doubled compared to the previous year and hit 30.24%, creating tension over the balance between the needs of its own citizens and those of the refugees. Price rises fell to an annual rate of about 22% in March.
Marina, an employee of WeWorld, an Italian charity working in Moldova, recalled that during the first weeks of the crisis, 10-15% of those accepting food packages intended for Ukrainian refugees were actually Moldovans. The refugees are eligible to receive about €120 ($133) a month from the UNHCR, which is equivalent to the amount most Moldovan pensioners get from the state (the average monthly pension in Moldova was about $168 in 2022).
Even though the handouts were from NGOs and international organizations, rather than the Moldovan government, many people asked, “Why do you help aliens and not your own people?” Vitalie, a Moldovan activist, said. NGOs and volunteers aiding Ukrainians found themselves between a rock and a hard place: If they helped Ukrainians, they were criticized for taking away from Moldovans, and vice versa.
“We’ve never received the amount of help for Moldovans that we are receiving now for Ukrainians,” said Olga, who works for the Salvation Army in Moldova. “The difference is enormous, and Moldovans are poorer. They see it.”
Some members of the leading opposition party, PSRM, a pro-Russian and Eurosceptic party, have made these claims as well, raising concerns about whether support for refugees will endure if there is a change in government.
Language, which forms a potent dividing line between those who see the future in Brussels and those still looking to Moscow, is another potential flashpoint. A significant number of Moldavans who identify as ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as well, and the language has been an advantage for refugees while, at the same time, a source of controversy for those helping them.
Many organizations working with refugees use Russian because they don’t have Ukrainian-speaking specialists, and have been criticized for doing so by Ukrainians. They argue that Russian, the lingua franca of the post-Soviet space, eases communication between the host community and refugees. “It’s easier for me here, in Moldova,” explains Nadia, a woman in her 50s, who fled Odesa in May, “It feels a little bit like home. There is no language barrier. In no other country can you get that much help.”
The war in Ukraine is different from many other wars resulting in mass refugee flows because most Ukrainians have no desire to leave forever and, and are able to go back and forth as the focus of the conflict shifts. Moldova is a good choice for those wishing to visit their homes and relatives in Ukraine, to meet husbands on leave from the army, and to await the return home.
“We did not want to go far away from home,” explains Elena. “We came here as neighbors, and if we go to the EU, we will be refugees.”
However, Ukraine and Moldova’s historical, cultural, and territorial proximity also makes it more difficult for refugees to integrate into the host community. “I don’t speak the Moldovan language and don’t want to study it because, in spring, we go home. At least, we believe so,” explains Nadia. “With Russian, I can’t get a good job, only as a cleaner, a nanny, or a nail technician.”
That won’t matter if the war ends in the coming months and the refugees can indeed return home. That outcome is a common expectation among Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. If not, longer-term thinking will be required.
Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a researcher at Public Sociology Laboratory and lecturer at Sociology Department in UW-Madison. She was a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
This article is the result of a collaboration with the Free Russia Foundation.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.