Difficult end of winter in Moldova. Fresh protests took place last Sunday in the capital Chisinau, amid bomb threats targeting the country’s main airport.

The demonstration – which resulted in around fifty arrests – was organized and financed by the pro-Russian opposition party Shor. The political formation, founded by the Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor (now on the run due to massive fraud) seeks to bank on the anger of the population, hit by spectacular inflation of 30%, in order to falter the power.

A small country of 2.5 million people wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is the poorest state in Europe. But since his government – ​​pro-European – decided to turn its back on Russian gas and imports in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the socio-economic crisis has only worsened.

“It’s a political bet that affects the population enormously,” sums up Magdalena Dembinska, professor of political science at the University of Montreal.

“People can’t live anymore. They want the country to be stable and to be given a minimum standard of living. That doesn’t mean they’re pro-Russian. But the Shor party exploits this discontent by offering them food and paying them to take part in demonstrations. »

These troubles are the latest in a series of events that have hit Moldova since the start of the war in Ukraine and the announcement of its candidacy for membership of the European Union (EU) in June 2022.

Fearing to lose what remains of its hold on this former Soviet republic, independent since 1991, Russia is stepping up operations aimed at undermining the Moldovan government by instilling disorder and misinformation.

In the spring of 2022, a series of attacks in Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova, raised fears of an escalation in the Ukrainian conflict. Moscow had accused Moldova and Ukraine of being behind these attacks.

Moldovan police more recently announced the arrest of members of a network “orchestrated by Moscow” to “destabilize” the country. A few days earlier, 182 foreign nationals suspected of being pro-Russian agents provocateurs were banned from entering the country, including a “possible member” of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, according to authorities. A plot to overthrow the government was suspected.

Not to be outdone, the security services of Transnistria say they have foiled a Ukrainian plot to assassinate the president of this secessionist province. These revelations with potentially inflammable consequences have been denied by Kyiv.

“What all of this suggests is that Russia seeks to create uncertainty, fear and anxiety, and that suits its business,” says political scientist Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham. . It got worse a month ago. There is a cumulative effect. But I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point yet. »

Moldova is a divided country, where ties with Russia are still very real. According to an SBS-Research poll carried out at the end of January, 47% of its population still does not want to join the EU. Its institutions, vulnerable, and its army, almost non-existent, make it a favorable playground for Moscow, which takes advantage of it to sow confusion and multiply pressure points.

Stefan Wolff is reluctant to talk about regime change. Rather, he said, the Kremlin is using Moldova as a “rehearsal” for other projects.

“If this plan succeeds, Russia will use it as a model to do similar things in other places like Georgia or Nagorno-Karabakh. But the ultimate victory would be to foment unrest in the Baltic countries, especially Estonia and Lithuania, where there are large ethnic Russian minorities. »

Aware of the threat, Westerners have been increasing their support for President Maia Sandu and her newly elected Prime Minister, Dorin Recean, for several months. Repeat visits to Chisinau. Sustained diplomatic contacts. European financial aid to the Moldovan government to manage the economic crisis.

But the Moldovan file is far from closed, warns Stefan Wolff.

“I think we will see even more of this instability. People will continue to protest. With spring, energy prices will drop. People will return to subsistence farming. Many young Moldovans are going to be seasonal workers in Europe. The pressure will ease. There will be a period of calm… at least until the fall. »