Almost 50 European heads of state and government are set to gather in a castle a short drive from the border of Ukraine on Thursday in a symbolic demonstration of Russia’s isolation and support for Moldova as the country hosts the European Political Community Summit.
Ahead of the meeting, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among several European Union leaders to record video messages declaring “Moldova is not alone”, a declaration of solidarity with the nation of 2.6 million as it endures destabilising influence from Russia.
Geographically wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova was granted EU candidate status last year along with its war-torn neighbour, much to the delight of its pro-western leadership.
But in recent months, the Moldovan government has warned that Russia was supporting efforts to destabilise the country, and said they had uncovered a plan for a coup d’etat.
On the eve of the summit, the EU slapped sanctions on exiled Israeli-Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor and others who played a role in antigovernment protests in the country.
The sanctions list accused Mr Shor of actions aimed at “subverting democracy in the Republic of Moldova” including “providing illegal funding to support pro-Kremlin political activity”.
The businessman’s populist Shor Party, which is friendly towards Russia, has been “involved in the payment and training of persons in order to provoke disorder and unrest during the protests”, according to the EU sanctions list.
The protests drew on anger about the economic stress experienced by Moldova since the invasion of Ukraine, which saw inflation reach 32 per cent, its economy contract by 7 per cent and a million Ukrainian refugees pass through the country in a surge so large it required the installation of new mobile phone infrastructure to prevent networks being overloaded.
On the eve of the summit, Moldovan foreign minister Nicu Popescu told journalists his country was facing continual challenges to its democracy, ranging from cyber attacks to the shutting off of gas supplies, but that it now had a chance to showcase its resilience to the world by hosting the largest diplomatic gathering on its territory for “centuries”.
“We’re a country that is in a dangerous place in a dangerous time in the history of our European Continent,” Mr Popescu said. “This kind of diplomatic commitment to Moldova and to eastern Europe writ large is of crucial importance for us, for our society.”
The leaders are set to gather in Mimi Castle, a winery located a short drive from the Ukrainian border and close to the edge of Transnistria, an internationally unrecognised breakaway territory that is backed by Moscow and guarded by Russian troops.
After the invasion of Ukraine, there were fears that Transnistria could be the next flashpoint for conflict. The summit is seen as a way of clearly signalling to Russia that its war should spread no further.
“If you sit in Moscow and you see 47 countries in your close neighbourhood meeting together ... that’s telling you something,” a senior EU official said ahead of the summit.
The leaders will gather together to pose for a “family photo”, before discussing the issues of security and strategic interests.
“It’s a very strong political message in itself, delivered first and foremost to Moscow,” the official said.
The week before the summit, tens of thousands of people gathered for a rally in support of closer ties with the EU in the capital Chișinău, at which president Maia Sandu told the crowd that Moldova would no longer be on Europe’s periphery.
Ireland is a strong supporter of Moldova’s EU membership path.
Joining the EU “means stability”, said Mariana Rufa, the director of Moldova’s European Business Association.
“That’s actually what we were always looking for – predictability, peace and safety for our next generations.”