‘It’s very important for us that Ukraine wins. If Ukraine loses, Moldova will be next’

The EU has admitted both Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries, but has set strict conditions to begin formal accessions negotiations, particularly in terms of addressing corruption

The three-carriage, three-class train is hidden behind a tiny station in the suburbs of Iasi in northern Romania. It’s an old Soviet one, but the interior has been remodelled; there’s even Lavazza coffee. We trundle out of Iasi at a slow pace towards the border. It never gets any faster.

When we finally cross into Moldova, the change in living standards is immediately apparent. At a few small stations people descend directly on to the tracks, and walk into their village along dirt roads. Most of the roofs are corrugated, in contrast to the tiled roofs of Romania. There are fewer cars, and a sense of going back in time, of back-breaking work in gardens and fields. Gross Domestic Product per capita was €5,386 in 2022, about a third that of Romania, making Moldova, a former Soviet republic, the poorest country in Europe. Schoolchildren wave at the train, a twice-daily link to the European Union, membership which is now Moldova’s target.

The vagaries of history mean many Moldovans are already entitled to an EU passport – for instance, if their grandparents were born while it was part of Romania before and during some of the second World War. Adelina Roscu (20) is studying economics in Iasi and takes the train home to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, every fortnight to visit her boyfriend and grandparents. Her father has been working in France building kitchens since she was seven years old. Her mother joined him a few years ago.

“The salaries here are so low, people have to work two jobs, day and night,” says Roscu. But she wants to work in Moldova after she graduates. “Even if Moldova has disadvantages, I love my country. Even to go to Iasi I’m heartbroken.”


She’s putting her faith in Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, and her determination to bring Moldova into the EU. “She has made many changes already. The others before her stole everything. Sandu is for Europe; the others were for Russia. People like that.”

At the Global Working Agency on a leafy street in Chisinau, Olesea Stratan places Moldovans on short-term contracts in agricultural jobs in the Netherlands and Germany. She spent nine months in Blanchardstown as a nail technician, but came home because of her children. “I could earn €2,000 a month in Ireland, whereas the salary here is more like €600. My husband is still over there, but we weren’t ready to move permanently. My mother is getting older, I can’t expect her to mind the kids while we’re away.” She Facetimes her husband every day and they visit a few times a year. “The kids love Ireland, the zoo, Bray, Blanch.”

Russia believes Moldova is its territory and it will never give up that idea

—  Iulian Ciocan, author and journalist

It’s a familiar story here. At least 20,000 people from Moldova are believed to live in Ireland, and more than a million Moldovans live and work abroad. The brain drain is significant, and the economy is highly dependent on remittances.

The war in Ukraine creates further uncertainty and makes it difficult to attract foreign investors, but some businesses have managed to turn crises involving Russia into an opportunity, creating new jobs in the process. When the Purcari winery was revamped in the early 2000s with US and World Bank investment, Russia was still its main market. But when Moldova signed an initial agreement in 2006 with the EU, Russia responded with a ban on Moldova’s wine exports.

If Putin’s plan was to punish Moldova’s wine industry, it backfired spectacularly. Purcari brought in expertise from France and Italy and focused on quality and new markets. Last year Decanter voted its Negru de Purcari one of the top 100 classic blends. It now employs about 170 people in the winery and the attached boutique hotel, and more than 1,000 in the wider group, including a bottle factory near Chisinau, and is listed on the Bucharest stock exchange.

In the 1940s, German and Russian troops drank from the cellars at different stages during the second War Two. Purcari, less than 20km from the Ukrainian border, found itself on the frontline again in February last year.

“One of the waiters was the first to hear it,” says Cristina, our guide and sommelier. “He went to the gate and started giving tea and food to the refugees who were pouring over the border. We had a few hundred people staying here for the first few months.”

She pours a glass of Chateau Purcari Freedom Blend – Tribute Edition, whose label features the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and whose profits go to Ukrainian refugees.

“We originally produced this in 2014 to represent the countries facing Russian aggression, but we changed the label last year to specifically support Ukraine. It’s a blend of the Georgian grape Saperavi, the Ukrainian grape Bastardo and our own Rara Neagra from Moldova.”

This narrative may fit that of a plucky underdog standing up to Russia, but for the country as a whole it’s a tricky one to navigate. Russian disinformation and interference are ever-present. A pro-Russian oligarch who fled to Israel and has been convicted of defrauding the national bank of Moldova of a billion dollars sponsors a political party. Ilan Shor’s Sor party has seats in parliament and recently won a governor’s election in the south of the country. Fears of a Russian invasion were very real in early 2022, and people have only recently relaxed their guard.

Author and journalist Iulian Ciocan wrote a novel in 2015 called And In the Morning the Russians Will Arrive, a dystopian tale of an invasion of Moldova.

“When I started to write it I was thinking we have a fear the Russians can come and occupy us. This fear can be repressed, it can be stored in a corner of our subconscious, but it cannot disappear. Russia believes Moldova is its territory and it will never give up that idea.”

The hosting of this week’s European Political Community summit was a huge deal here, putting a spotlight on a tiny country that many people would struggle to identify before the war in Ukraine. Every public building flies both a Moldovan and an EU flag. Pro-EU president Sandu was elected in 2020 and her party, PAS, won the parliamentary elections last year. The twin crises of Covid and the war in Ukraine have been a challenge, but the government is determined to seize the moment, holding a rally two weeks ago that gathered at least 70,000 people in favour of EU membership.

From the visitors’ gallery in the Moldovan parliament just before a plenary session begins, there’s a real sense of energy among PAS MPs. Moldovan-Irish citizen Ion Spac was elected last year (Moldova’s diaspora is a significant component of the electorate) and came home to take a job that pays just €800 a month, leaving his brother and sons to run his construction business in Dublin. His family have made sacrifices too; his wife Raisa goes to and fro between Chisinau and Dublin to see her children and granddaughter.

Maia Sandu is very determined to put Moldovan on the European path. She’s charismatic and capable, and the refugee crisis showed that Moldova can do good things

—  Madalin Necsutu, Balkan Insights

“I had a day to think about whether I wanted to run,” says Spac. “And I decided this may be the only chance for me to do something for my country rather than just for my family.”

It’s a challenge to explain the benefits of EU membership to the public, not all of whom are onboard.

“We are a very small country, and we have to explain that we have to be part of a big family to progress. If we are not with the EU we will have to be with Russia, and we don’t want that.”

The EU has admitted both Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries, but has set strict conditions to begin formal accession negotiations, particularly in terms of addressing corruption. One of the biggest reforms is a pre-vetting process for those who will supervise Moldova’s judges and prosecutors. Nona Tsotoria is a former Georgian judge at the European Court of Human Rights and sits on the pre-vetting commission.

“As a Georgian I’m only too well aware that if judicial reforms fail, then other reforms are not sustainable. So what we are doing here is ensuring that the people at the highest level, those responsible for the appointment and disciplining of judges, are people of the utmost integrity. It’s crucial to implement these reforms in such a way that if they are challenged they will not be reversed.”

There are added complications for Moldova, including a frozen conflict in the breakaway Transnistria region, but Balkan Insights analyst Madalin Necsutu believes accession negotiations will begin on schedule.

“Maia Sandu is very determined to put Moldovan on the European path. She’s charismatic and capable, and the refugee crisis showed that Moldova can do good things. I expect that the EU will open the accession process by the end of the year – it will be a political decision rather than a technical one.”

For novelist Ciocan, it’s a critical moment for Moldova.

“We Moldovans are at a turning point, but it’s not just our decision. It’s the decision of the Europeans. We want to believe these are not just beautiful words.”

And there’s a sobering reminder that this is not just about Moldova’s economic future, but its continued existence as an independent state.

“It’s very important for us that Ukraine wins. If Ukraine loses, Moldova will be next.”