Demolished hotel “National” in the centre of Chișinău in the colours of the Ukrainian flag; Photo: Meta.mk
An old dilapidated building greets the passengers arriving at the airport in Chișinău. In terms of its size and interior, it overwhelmingly reminds me of the old building of the Skopje Airport. Immediately after the entrance of the small edifice comes an unusual passport control. Two border police officers are standing at the checkpoint, supervised by a third person in civilian clothes. Next to the counter, there are two tactical-unit-policemen armed to the teeth. Moldova declared a state of emergency immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the echoes of this war can be felt immediately after arriving at the border of this small Eastern European country.
The work of the two border police officers is carefully monitored by the supervisor in civilian clothes. He observes the checking of each of the passports of the arriving passengers. Around 20 passengers are in front of me, and the border police at this counter, which is one of the few, separates seven for additional checks and escorts them to the special rooms. The magical sentence – that I am a journalist – seemingly changes the expression of the border police officer, who immediately notices the trace of my visit to Ukraine in my passport – the stamp from the Kyiv airport Boryspil. After kindly asking about the purpose of my stay in Moldova and where I would be accommodated, I got the stamp on my passport that allowed me to enter the country.
Mihail waits for me at the exit of the Customs Control at the airport. He is my driver to the hotel in Chișinău. He apologizes that he could not leave his car in front of the airport, since parking there is strictly forbidden, and also there are a large number of taxis – not all of them licensed. He also explains that the steel parking garage at the airport is full of vehicles with Ukrainian registration plates. Subsequently, he could not park his car there also.
Since the start of the Russian aggression, Ukraine has been left without air traffic to the world, and the closest flying point for many Ukrainian citizens is Chișinău. The seaside city of Odesa, with more than a million inhabitants, is less than two hundred kilometers from here.
“There are one million Ukrainian citizens in Chișinău now. They fled from the war there and now are starting to buy flats in the city”, explains Mihail while driving on the potholed boulevard to the center of Chișinău.
The number of Ukrainian refugees keeps growing, explains Mihail, portraying the severity of the situation Moldova is in. UNHCR data, however, show that Moldova, up to 1 October 2023, received 792,605 Ukrainian refugees, as well as 96,664 citizens of other countries, primarily Russian citizens fleeing from conscription into the Russian Army.
These numbers are dramatic for a country that at the last census by the Statistical Office of Moldova, in 2014, had something less than 3 million registered inhabitants. This enormous increase of the population after the Russian invasion of Ukraine is visible all over the capital city of Chișinău.
On the streets, one can see vehicles with Ukrainian plates. The prices of flats in Chișinău went up to €800 per square meter, says Mihail, my taxi driver. For the citizens of the poorest European country, including himself, this price is hardly affordable.
But, Mihail’s optimism does not subside. He explains that Chișinău is an extraordinarily safe city, there is peace in Moldova, and only the sirens of the ambulances disturb the peaceful atmosphere of the city.
Endless political turbulence
Against the calming elucidations of Mihail, tension can be felt in the air in Chișinău. In November 1990, a war broke out in this former USSR republic between the Moldovan Government and the Transnistrian separatist forces supported by official Moscow. The truce was reached on 21 July 1992, leading to the establishment of a somewhat occupied territory in Moldova through the creation of the internationally not-recognized republic Pridnestrovie (Transnistria).
Today, Pridnestrovie is a self-proclaimed republic, with Russian soldiers and military equipment. Moldovan authorities in Chișinău de facto do not control a tenth of its internationally recognized territory. An additional concern for the Moldovan authorities is the military aggression of Ukraine, along with the issue of what will happen with this self-proclaimed republic in the future.
Under the enormous threat of the aggression in Ukraine and the possibility of Russia attacking Moldova, the Chișinău authorities proclaimed a state of emergency in the country in February 2022, and it has been in force up to now.
On several occasions in the last year and a half, the pro-European president of the country, Maia Sandu, stated that official Moscow intends to carry out a coup d’etat to bring down the democratically elected government of Moldova. Protests, disinformation campaigns, and economically unsubstantiated restrictive measures are just some of the tactics that official Moscow has been applying against Moldova in this last period.
For the first time after the military aggression in Ukraine in February 2022, Moldova will organize elections on 5 November. Although they will be local elections, for the mayors of the municipalities, including Chișinău, these elections will also be actually a test of confidence for the pro-European coalition under the leadership of the Action and Solidarity Party of President Maia Sandu, opposed to the pro-Russian Socialist and Communist bloc led by the former President Igor Dodon. A month prior to the elections, the electoral campaign is at high speed in the capital city of Moldova.
On the main squares and near the trolleybus stops, propaganda leaflets of political parties are distributed, while party activists are canvasing citizens. Billboards are promoting political party ads in both Moldovan and Russian language. Repair works and marking pedestrian crossings on the streets in the heart of Chișinău are common view, with construction workers all over the place. In other words, the pre-election reconstruction goes full steam ahead.
War has the same face anywhere
The center of Chișinău is the home of the eclectic structure of the National Museum of the History of Moldova. At the beginning of October, one of the most important museums in Moldova was hosting an exhibition of the Syrian photographer Omar Sanadiki.
“The Echo of War: Photo Exhibition from Syria to Ukraine” is an exhibition that was opened in this museum enabling the citizens of Chișinău to become familiar with the consequences of the wars in Syria and Ukraine through the eye of the photo lens.
Sanadiki was born in Damask. The war in Syria forced him to report about the devastated cities from his childhood. Last summer he was given the opportunity to visit Ukraine and see the horrors of the Russian aggression. Combining the photo material from both wars, in an innovative manner, he managed to combine several pairs of photographs depicting the terror of the wars in Syria and Ukraine. Without reading the captions beneath the pairs of photographs, it is impossible to recognize their origin. Omar Sanadiki’s craftsmanship enables you to see the atrocities of war simply by looking at the photographs of the ruins in Ukraine thinking that you are among the ruins in Syria and vice versa.
“Alas, it all started with the war that I did not want to report on, but I was forced to”, remembered Sanadiki about reporting from his native Syria.
Regarding the exhibition in the center of Chișinău, Omar Sanadiki says that he chose to present not only destruction and damage but also the souls of those who survived.
“I am always compassionate with these people, in commiseration. In some photographs, you will not find people, but their souls”, says Sanadiki.
The ambassador of the European Union in Moldova, the Latvian diplomat Jānis Mažeiks, at the opening of the exhibition pointed out that he was at an event that he was not eager to attend.
“I wish I didn’t need to learn the names of the places like Raca, Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, but I had to, just like you”, said Mažeiks.
“These photographs are stories of barbarism, documenting evil, but also document the humanity and the style of living in these populated places,” he added.
“In addition, these photographs are a reminder of standing on the right side of history. I think that we can be proud that the European Union and Moldova together were on the right side of history when the war in Syria and the Russian aggression started – which was unprovoked – against Ukrainian sovereignty and independence”, Mažeiks said.
At the exhibition, the EU ambassador expressed his wish for Moldova to become a European Union member state in the future. In June 2022, this country from the former USSR became a candidate country for EU membership. But the answers to the question of when Moldova will become an EU member state should not be sought only from the Moldovan authorities, who have to conclude the reforms and the changes that the citizens should seek. The future of Moldova is simply inextricably connected with the final outcome of the war in Ukraine and the resolution of the open issue of establishing Moldova’s sovereignty over the Pridnestrovie breakaway region.
The citizens’ optimism for EU membership is enormous. The latest public survey from September shows that President Maia Sandu is the most popular politician in the country, with 22.3 percent support of the citizens, while her party has 19 percent support from the voters. Former President Igor Dodon enjoys 7.8 percent confidence from the voters, while 11.8 percent of the interviewed citizens will vote for the pro-Russian bloc of Socialists and Communists, indicated the research of the Sociological Center iData.
This year, as in the past, the citizens of Moldova will have to choose between remaining a peripheral satellite on the Kremlin’s imperial map or becoming a prosperous EU member state.