'We are not the enemies of Europe'
On Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, Moldova’s Presidential Palace is a rare high-rise building in downtown Chisinau, its gold-tinted windows, gold-trimmed interior and lavish gardens paid for with Turkish money and opened in 2018 during a visit by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In 2009, anti-government protesters stormed the building, throwing furniture and computers into the streets below, after allegations that Moldova’s Communist government had rigged an election. For the next seven years, it remained out of use and closed off.
That its latest tenant, President Igor Dodon, was able to have the building reopened says much about the re-orientation of Moldova since his election in 2016. Relations between Moldova - Europe’s poorest nation - and the European Union have fallen to historic lows.
Meanwhile, relations with Turkey - and Vladimir Putin’s Russia - have never been better.
Dodon has not had an easy first term in office. Moldova, a former Soviet state of some 3.5 million, saw three changes of government in 2019 alone. The latest, headed by former Dodon advisor Ion Chicu, has been in power just three months.
Like many of the states of eastern Europe, Moldova is split between those who feel closer to Russia - many of them older and living outside the cities - and those who look westwards to Romania, with which Moldova shares a language, and the European Union.
An estimated one third of Moldovans work overseas, many of them legally in the EU on Romanian passports - and many others illegally. Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014 which came into force in 2016, just before Dodon took power.
Speaking to Euronews this month, Dodon disputed claims that he is “pro-Russian”, arguing that although he was a personal friend of Putin, he - like many Moldovans - wanted to be close to both the Russian Federation and the European Union.
He argued that the European Union, rocked by Brexit and a growing polarisation between pro- and anti-Brussels forces, particularly in eastern Europe, needed Russia now more than ever. Dodon urged the EU not to ‘create foes’ and instead to talk to Moscow.
Dodon also spoke about neighbouring Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea, and the Moldovan province of Transnistria, where Russia has had military stockpiles and tens of thousands of soldiers since the end of the Cold War.
Dodon will have a keen eye on the 2020 election, when the 45-year-old will be looking for a second term in the Presidential Palace. To do so he will need to demonstrate that he can walk the tightrope between east and west, Moscow and Brussels.
“In Moldova it is almost impossible to be only pro-Russian or only pro-European. The overwhelming majority of our citizens want to be friends both with the Russian Federation and the European Union,” he said.
“But in the next 10 to 15 years we will not become members of the EU. Even if part of our population - meaning young people - want immediately to become members of the EU this will not happen. So we need to be pragmatic.”
You can watch the full interview with President Dodon in the player above.