Moldova will limit the “toxic influence” of Russia-backed oligarchs who use hybrid warfare to undermine the country’s democracy in its push for EU membership, foreign minister Nicu Popescu has told Euronews.
Speaking in an interview hours after the EU executive endorsed formal accession talks for Moldova, Popescu recognised the challenge of stamping out Russian influence.
“We do have a complicated situation with criminal oligarchs trying to destabilize Moldova, working together with Russia, injecting dozens of millions of euros into the Moldovan political system in an attempt to buy elections,” he explained.
His comments came days after local elections were marred by reports of Russian interference, with President Maia Sandu warning parties “paid by the Kremlin” were trying to subjugate Moldova to foreign interests.
“We will continue working in Moldova, but also in cooperation with the European Union and our partners, to limit the toxic influence of oligarchs on the Moldovan political system and their attempts to derail Moldova through hybrid attacks,” Popescu added.
Following the European Commission’s recommendation on Wednesday, EU leaders could approve the opening of formal accession talks for both Moldova and Ukraine as early as mid-December.
It is the first time the EU executive has given the green light to accession negotiations before candidate countries have fully met the necessary criteria set by Brussels, such as judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures.
A senior EU official told reporters on Wednesday that Moldova has completed “more than 90% of its reforms”, suggesting the country was ahead of Ukraine in its preparation for negotiations.
But pending reforms include crucial judicial reforms, anti-corruption crackdown, and more measures to stifle the influence of oligarchs.
A ‘merit-based’ process
Asked whether he foresees his country will remain in lockstep with Ukraine on the path to EU accession, Popescu underlined that progress towards EU accession should be based on merit.
“We believe in a merit-based process and we have our eyes firmly on the necessary technical steps that will bring Moldova into the European Union,” he said.
“One should not forget that European integration was created as a mechanism in the 1950s to pacify Europe, to democratise Europe, to consolidate peace and democracy in Europe,” he added. “This EU enlargement process has exactly the same objective today.”
“We should acknowledge that Moldova is at peace today thanks to Ukraine, thanks to the capacity of Ukrainian society, the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian political leadership to resist Russia’s brutal aggression,” Popescu explained.
Ukraine’s self-defence is allowing Moldova to live in peace and to implement the right reforms to edge closer to EU membership, he said.
Many EU candidate countries have lobbied for staggered entry into the bloc to replace the traditional all-or-nothing model of EU membership.
Brussels is trialling means of slowly integrating its candidate countries, including Moldova, into the bloc by offering limited access to its free trade area, visa-free travel and free roaming.
Moldova also participates in the bloc’s common platform for purchasing gas, which has allowed the country to rid itself of its heavy reliance on Russia-imported gas.
But Popescu said that while phased integration brings benefits to Moldovan citizens, his country is eyeing full-fledged membership.
Moldova is also interacting with other countries in the EU’s waiting room to share experiences, according to Popescu.
“We have a constant exchange of experience with Ukraine, with North Macedonia, with Serbia, with Albania. We are learning from each other,” he explained.
“We have borrowed some of the methodology that other candidate countries have used in their process of joining the European Union. We are learning from some of their mistakes. So we really have excellent cooperation and coordination on this with Ukraine, but with the countries of the Western Balkans as well.”