It’s clear that you’re entering a frontier state the moment you get to the Romanian-Moldovan border. A queue several kilometres long of cars, mostly with Ukrainian registration plates, waits to be let through by Moldovan border control; their interim destination is Romania but ultimately most are trying to reach Germany, Ireland or the UK.
There are fewer people attempting to cross the border by foot now, but I’m told this is a positive change compared to a few days ago, when people were turning up with their passports, or just a birth certificate, a bag or two, and a look of desperation on their faces – and little else. Tents with volunteers offering tea, coffee and snacks are still assembled along the road leading to the checkpoint. Some people have been waiting seven hours or more. I don’t need to worry about queueing as I am coming into Moldova, not trying to leave. I am here to take a reading of the actual situation on the ground and to gauge the impact of Ukraine’s war on its tiny neighbour. My destination is Chisinau, but the only option of getting there these days is to fly into Romania, in my case to Iasi, and cross the border. Moldovan air space closed as soon as the invasion of Ukraine began. It is unlikely to re-open any time soon.
Chisinau, 170km from Odessa, is different from when I last visited in the summer. On the one hand, you can’t help notice that somehow it is tidier: the authorities have taken down many of the prolific advertising billboards that covered apartment blocks (if you’ve been to Moscow during the late 1990s and early 2000s you know what I mean). It is cleaner too, and the public transport system has improved – the marshrutkas have been gradually side-lined and replaced by modern(ish) buses and trolleybuses.
Another difference is the difficulty of finding a hotel room. The cheapest I could find at £550 per night was a near-three star hotel with the word ‘Spa’ in its name, deceptively. The Radisson Blu and the Marriot were fully booked; their rates were higher. It is because of the war, of course. Not all refugees are destitute. Those Ukrainians who have fled but who can afford to stay in nice hotels are doing so in the hope that there will be a peace deal soon. Their Porsche Cayennes and BMWs fill the hotel car parks. This is not something one really appreciates from London, I guess.
Then you see the reality of the sad principle that every war brings opportunity. Sitting in the lobby of one of the overbooked hotels, drinking a coffee, I cannot help but overhear the conversations around me. One man tells another that he paid $10,000 to Ukrainian border control to be let out (Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree barring men aged over 18 from leaving the country). His new friend replies that he managed to get out a few days before the new law, but still had to pay a bribe to officials to circumvent customs declarations when they found cash and jewellery hidden in shopping bags in his car.
My Moldovan friends see little such ‘opportunity’. As if the pandemic, coupled with higher energy prices, was not sufficient to derail the government’s ambitious reform plans, Vladimir Putin had to invade Ukraine. Approximately 250,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Moldova in the first two weeks since the beginning of the war. This is about 10% of Moldova’s population. All the government’s capacity and focus, from ministers to low-level bureaucrats, are occupied with managing the refugee flow. Some ministers are looking for financial support from the west to help Chisinau cope with the refugee crisis; others are quickly amending legislation to allow cargoes to be shipped into the Port of Constanta, in Romania, given that the usual import/export route is Odessa. The shares of some of the biggest companies, despite being listed on the Bucharest Stock Exchange, have collapsed by 35% or more; any IPO plans that Moldovan companies had are now being put on hold. The reason? Lack of investor confidence. “The war has thrown Moldova back at least a decade in terms of economic growth and reform”, one cabinet minister tells me.
Many ordinary Moldovans ponder their options: some, who are younger, think of packing their bags and going to Europe. “Don’t forget that there are about 1,500 Russian soldiers in Transnistria”, a 30-year old IT consultant reminds me. The break-away region on the left bank of the Nistru river declared independence from Moldova in 1992 after a civil war that saw some 1,000 die; Moldova insists that the region is an integral part of its sovereign territory. As in Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist leadership thinks otherwise. Last week Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka showed a battleplan, with arrows pointing at Russian troop movements to Transnistria from Odessa, sparking new fears that Moldova might be next.
In contrast, many others say they do not intend to leave, even if Putin were to order tanks into Moldova. “I can afford to go to Europe and live comfortably there,” says a veteran Moldovan banker. “But why should I? I was born here and I will stay, even if this becomes Iron Curtain 2.0.”
I must leave, however. Having seen the immense queues of cars at the border with Romania, I decide to return to Iasi by train. The ticket office clerk says I’ll be in Iasi in 4.5 hours, “or thereabouts”, which seems like a great improvement on the prospect of spending 12 hours at the border in a car. I’m glad I did. Most of my fellow travellers are ordinary Ukrainians on their way to Europe, primarily women and children. Most speak Russian among themselves; some identify themselves as ethnic Russians, which makes the reasons for this war even more surreal. “I am Russian,” says one lady from Odessa. “And Putin is bombing the country I live in, while trying to convince me that he is in fact saving me from some evil. It is not remotely convincing, I can tell you that.” We pull into our destination and my fellow travellers gather their children and their few belongings and disperse, to uncertain futures.