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Moldovans are worried that Russia's war in Ukraine will spill into their country

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has Moldova worried that they could be next. The small country next to Ukraine has no NATO protection and only candidate status in the European Union. It has also struggled with a pro-Russian separatist movement for decades. And to this day, Russian troops are stationed in a breakaway region called Transnistria. We are joined now by Alexandru Flenchea. He's former deputy prime minister for reintegration and currently represents Moldova in the peacekeeping effort between that government, Russia and Transnistria. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Flenchea.

ALEXANDRU FLENCHEA: Good morning. And I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: Why are Moldovans concerned with the war in Ukraine next door that they might get caught up in it?

FLENCHEA: Of all Ukraine's neighbors, Moldova is closest to the battlefields. Russian cruise missiles overfly Moldovan airspace. Russian missile debris have fallen on Moldovan territory several times. So we have already encountered a number of significant security incidents. But one should not disregard the economic impact of this war on Moldova. Investments are not coming for these reasons because the war is next door. Moldovan businesspeople move their businesses to neighboring Romania, which provides them greater security because Romania's EU and NATO member state.

SIMON: You oversee the Moldovan government's peacekeeping efforts between the three sides. What has that been like? What have people been saying? What have you had to do?

FLENCHEA: My routine activity is basically attending the weekly meetings of the so-called Joint Control Commission, which has three components, a Moldovan delegation, Russian delegation and Transnistrian. What I found, to be honest, is lots of absurd. And the greatest absurd is that this so-called peacekeeping mission exists at all. Picture this - there is peacekeeper checkpoints along the division line, and these peacekeepers' checkpoints are trilateral, which means that armed Moldovan, Transnistrian and Russian military do their service 24/7 together for 30 years. Do we need those peacekeepers at all? I'm pretty certain we don't.

SIMON: Why is any of this necessary?

FLENCHEA: Because it is just a legal cover for Russia to maintain its military presence on Moldova's soil. All of Moldova's governments in the past 20 years have demanded that this mission be dismantled and replaced with an international civilian force under a relevant international mandate. Russia has always opposed that because, again, that gives them the pretext to maintain their military on Moldova's soil.

SIMON: Moldova's president has accused Russia of a plot to overthrow her. Have you observed that?

FLENCHEA: I am inclined to see that statement by President Sandu as part of the misinformation warfare that Russia wages against Ukraine but also Moldova and many other European countries. In response, Moldova has to wage misinformation war, as well. I have not seen any indication that Russia would be planning or would even be able to implement a coup d'etat in Moldova right now. And Russia, to be honest, does not have to rush to do it now. There will be local - national and local elections in Moldova in the fall, and then there will be presidential elections in Moldova in 2024, followed by parliamentary elections in 2025. Lots of opportunities for Russia to interfere and seek to ensure victory for Russian parties in Moldova. All they have to do is wait, allow their agents to work and continue putting energy and political pressure on Moldova.

SIMON: When you say allow their agents to work, I mean, is that suggesting some plan to essentially commandeer the elections?

FLENCHEA: No. The Moldovan authorities have full control of the electoral process. But any election campaign means lots of campaigning, lots of information and misinformation, lots of room for manipulation. And Moldova has never been among the richest nations in Europe. In fact, we are a poor country. And poverty is best allied to misinformation and political manipulation.

SIMON: Alexandru Flenchea, who leads the peacekeeping effort between the Moldovan government, Russia and Transnistria. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

FLENCHEA: Thank you for the invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.