If a country’s political mood is judged by popular participation, then Moldovans are earnest pro-Europeans. A May 21 rally spearheaded by President Maia Sandu to support Moldovan entry to the European Union (EU) attracted more than 75,000 people, according to police. An anti-government protest by a pro-Russian party in March drew around 4,500

For the first time since independence in 1991, a leap in European integration is within reach for the country of 3.25 million. Yet few in the West appreciate the amount of effort it will take to get Moldova over the line and into the EU. Even setting aside the political process that leads to a country’s accession (requiring unanimity among current members), the scale of reforms still to be completed is staggering. 

There are ambitious plans aplenty for the reform of public administration and justice, but what Moldova really lacks is institutional capacity. “The Moldovan government has world-class players at the top and weak institutions beneath,” as it was put by a security expert in a conversation with this author. A sustained brain drain (the number of university students has halved in 15 years) and low public sector salaries over the years have weakened Moldovan public administration. Many young people take the Romanian passports to which they are entitled and use those to find better opportunities in the EU.  

The best minds among those that remain often choose jobs in international organizations and in NGOs running on Western grants. This is where the main sources of local expertise lie at present; younger people doing all they can to help the country’s reform and to monitor progress. However, the civil service still needs a boost. Attempts to recruit qualified professionals from the diaspora to fill key positions in government agencies have met with failure more than once. 

All of this occurs against the backdrop of political instability caused by the Kremlin. Constant attacks, causing different degrees of harm, have been launched by Russia since last year. For example, the publication late last year of hacked and leaked private government messages was used to cast doubt on the appointment of the anticorruption prosecutor. Given that the main suspects in anti-corruption proceedings are Moldova’s pro-Russian politicians — led by a fugitive from justice, Ilan Șor — it is perfectly possible the leaks were intended to fan the ire of their (still numerous) supporters. This was preceded and followed by a barrage of cyber-attacks on public administration servers and false bomb alerts.  

Șor, who fled to Israel, remains politically active through a network of proxies and has staged protests in the capital. These activities may well be part of the hybrid attack that came into the focus of international attention when President Sandu stated in February that she had been informed by Ukrainian intelligence services of Russia’s plans to stage a coup. The US has sanctioned Șor, accusing him of assisting Russian election interference. He has denied this. 

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Exploiting the current, difficult economic situation, anti-government groups seek to mobilize the economically vulnerable. In March, energy prices and the cost of living were used to call for protests against Sandu and the pro-EU government. This, however, is not the only theme exploited to incite discontent. Earlier, fruit farmers who once earned a living from exports to Russia were told that pro-Russian leaders would revive their old source of income. In May, Șor’s party triumphed in elections for the head of administration in the autonomous territorial unit of Gagauzia (the office carries additional weight as its holder is an ex-officio member of the Moldovan government.) The winning candidate, Evgenia Guțul was virtually unknown before a pro-Russian, Șor-backed campaign propelled her election as regional leader.  

An absence of strong financial institutions means that the government lacks the means to prevent illicit flows of cash to Șor’s agents in Moldova. The EU’s decision to sanction persons responsible for undermining the sovereignty and independence of Moldova would have more impact if the country had advanced financial investigation mechanisms to ensure compliance. 

These threats to Moldova’s European and democratic future call for more targeted action from the EU. So what can be done? 

More support has to be given to public administration reform, including the full-scale overhaul of salaries and aiding Moldova’s review of key institutions. Having a bunch of high-level EU advisers in Chișinău might help, but it would be more useful to have mid-level advisers in ministries and government agencies supplying expertise currently missing due to the brain drain. It would also be a wise investment to create a multi-donor fund similar to that underpinning the Ukraine Reforms Architecture, to raise the quality of reforms by drawing competent professionals into government. Moldova also needs aid to step up its strategic communications capacity and so fend off hybrid threats. 

The current window of opportunity in Moldova may not last forever. In the next elections, which must be held by 2025, Sandu’s reform-minded government may come up against populist resistance fueled by Russia. The reformers need a hand in ensuring that the country’s progress toward the EU cannot be reversed. 

Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and also as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia. 

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.

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