(Bloomberg) -- It’s Friday evening on the Moldovan steppe when Ivan Bessarab abandons his rounds of the construction site and ambles over, an enormous dog in tow. The two are watching over a future fun park, though there’s little to protect beyond some new streetlights, a pile of timber and a scaffolding arch that will carry its name: GagauziaLand.

A field in one of Europe’s poorest countries may seem like an inauspicious place for a family attraction, but the site isn’t just an amusement park.

Moldova is part of a widening movement among former Soviet states to overcome pressure from Moscow and pivot westward, with the autonomous region of Gagauzia a symbol of the complex struggle for nations to break free of the Kremlin’s grip.

President Maia Sandu’s government in Chisinau is leading Moldova down a path toward European Union membership and will hold a referendum later this year. Much of Gagauzia, meanwhile, would happily join Russia, and the region is becoming a headache for Sandu as she tries to permanently shift her country’s focus from east to west.

Ten minutes with Bessarab shows why. Heavily set with a helmet of cropped hair and a T-shirt bearing a biblical verse in English, Bessarab rattles off a series of pro-Russian talking points that would make a propagandist proud.

There are conspiracy theories on who’s to blame for the war in neighboring Ukraine; assertions that an EU-funded highway in the area will load generations with debt; and complaints that Moldova’s government is needlessly antagonizing a benevolent Moscow. “The Russians want to help us, to give us cheap gas,” said Bessarab. “Why won’t Chisinau allow this?”

Divided loyalties are evident everywhere. Where the blue and gold EU flag is on taxis and in park murals in the Moldovan capital, in majority Russian-speaking Gagauzia’s main city of Comrat, a statue of Lenin still stands, street signs are in Cyrillic, and Romanian, Moldova’s national language, is largely absent.

The recently installed Gagauz leader, Evghenia Gutul, is a regular visitor to Moscow. She’s promoted in Russian media, and given more prominence than her counterpart from the pro-Moscow breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Gutul on June 12.

For Oleg Serebrian, deputy prime minister for reintegration, Russia is engaged in a “hybrid war” against Moldova, with Gutul’s connections to Moscow proof of the Kremlin’s efforts to deploy the autonomous region as part of it.

“Unfortunately, it’s very serious,” he said. “I mean, the possibility of a destabilization of the country using different ways and different tools.” He said his office and that of the president were subject to a cyberattack.

Moscow dismisses Moldova’s complaints as “Russophobia.”

Russia’s overt pressure is being witnessed most violently in Ukraine, ever since President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea in 2014 and then through his full-scale invasion of February 2022.

But it is evident too in Georgia, with which Russia fought a war in 2008 and recognized two regions as sovereign nations as Tbilisi sought closer ties with the EU and NATO. More recently, the Georgian government passed a “foreign agents” law that rules out its EU candidacy over the heads of protesters waving EU flags. 

The tussle for Moldova’s future will reach a tipping point on Oct. 20, when presidential elections are held to determine if Sandu stays in office, alongside a vote on constitutional changes needed to pursue her flagship goal of EU membership.

“This is the project of our generation,” said Igor Grosu, the president of the national parliament in Chisinau who chairs Sandu’s Action and Solidarity Party. Chances of moving closer to the EU are “very good,” he said in an interview in his parliamentary office, but “this takes a lot of work, it won’t just happen.”

With an economy closer in size to that of Afghanistan or Rwanda than any EU member, it’s easy to overlook Moldova. People take pride in the fact it was Europe’s largest exporter of plums last year.

But its significance is geopolitical. Surrounded on three sides by Ukraine and to the west by NATO member Romania, Sandu’s efforts to root out corruption and pursue Western-style democracy mean it’s in a tug of war between Washington and Brussels on one side and Moscow on the other.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Chisinau on May 29 to announce $50 million in support to fight against Russian interference, disinformation and efforts at “weaponizing corruption.”

It’s a warning echoed by government officials, diplomats and analysts interviewed in Chisinau, Comrat and Washington, who said that Moldova is a bellwether for what Putin may try next to destabilize the West after attacking Ukraine. Russia already orchestrated an attempted coup in Moldova last year.

“From the very first days of the war, most of us understood that Moldova was on the target list, and we would be next if Putin succeeds,” said Sergiu Tofilat, an energy expert and former adviser to Sandu. He is deputy leader of the pro-European Party of Change, which will field candidates in next year’s parliamentary elections.

While that’s an alarm also rung by the Baltic states and others that border Russia, they are all in NATO; Moldova has no such defensive umbrella.  

Until now, Russia’s principal weapon against Moldova was gas delivered by pipeline transiting Ukraine to separatist Transnistria, where the country’s main power station is located. Curbs in supply led to a sevenfold jump in energy prices, sending inflation to 35%.

Brussels and Washington helped households pay their bills, and aided the government in synchronizing the power grid with EU member Romania. Infrastructure bypassing Transnistria altogether should be ready by 2026, and a separate gas pipeline has been engineered to allow reverse flows from LNG shipments arriving at Greece or Turkey. The upshot is that Moldova is moving from 100% energy dependence to total independence.

That’s turned the tables on Transnistria. Until recently the region’s pro-Putin leadership could hold the country to ransom. Now, it’s facing a significant loss of revenue that makes it more reliant on Chisinau.

With the border to Ukraine closed, 80% of Transnistria’s exports — notably cognac — now go to the EU. Those business interests make it unlikely to meddle in the Moldovan elections, said Serebrian, the deputy premier.

Not so Ilan Shor, a fugitive Israeli-Moldovan oligarch who also holds a Russian passport. He played a key role in bankrolling protests that were organized on the back of high energy prices, said Grosu, the parliament president. Shor, who was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail for fraud, has repeatedly denied all charges, saying the government is taking “revenge” on his protest movement and the judiciary is supporting it. 

According to Valeriu Pasa of WatchDog, a Chisinau-based think tank dedicated to Moldova’s democratic development, Russia is spending some €50 million ($54 million) on disinformation alone, equal to half Moldova’s entire defense budget for 2024.

The result is fake news, smears and pessimism among Russian speakers that bucks economic realities, said Pasa, while the EU is branded as war mongering in Ukraine and promoting LGBTQ+ rights at the expense of traditional family values.

For its part, Moscow charges that public attacks by Moldovan officials hostile to Russia have become routine. 

“This isn’t surprising, since an aggressive anti-Russian course is a well-paid undertaking for the current leadership in Chisinau, and is a condition for joining the European Union and interaction with NATO,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on April 18.

While there are some 1.6 million voters in Moldova, another 1 million or so live abroad, a diaspora presumed to be pro-European. But the government is taking nothing for granted given the outside forces at play.

Gagauzia, known for its vineyards and ethnic Turkic origins — it receives some funding from Ankara — is a focus of those efforts to sway opinion in Russia’s favor. The region comprises only around 60,000 voters, representing perhaps 5% of the Moldovan electorate, but that’s still enough to sway a tight election.

Its leader, Gutul, met with Putin in March and was on the podium for this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square marking the defeat of Nazi Germany. She returned with promises of financial help for pensioners, and of cheap gas — despite there being no pipeline between Russia and Gagauzia.

She complains that Chisinau is thwarting her efforts to better Gagauzia, a platform that helped her emerge from obscurity to win regional elections in September on the Shor party ticket. Indeed, the US Treasury cited Gutul’s links to Shor when sanctioning her.

Gutul declined to be interviewed for this article, and written questions submitted at the request of her spokesman went unanswered.

“Gagauzia will become the land of dreams,” was her campaign slogan, accompanied by unfunded plans to invest €500 million in the region, open an airport, and award salary hikes for teachers, doctors and police.

GagauziaLand was another campaign pledge.

Gutul complains that police raids, tax demands and surprise inspections have disrupted construction work, leading to missed deadlines. In late May she rallied a crowd at the site to protest the government’s interference. Sandu and her party “are trying to steal our common dream,” she posted on Telegram.

Sandu questions the legitimacy of Gutul’s election and is refusing to sign a decree allowing her to become a member of the Moldovan Parliament and join the cabinet, as is traditional for the Gagauz leader, or Bashkan as she is known in the local Turkic language. 

Gutul “represents a corrupt group, she doesn’t represent the Gagauz people,” Sandu said in May, describing her as a security risk.

The response among the Gagauz community is siege mentality, Mihail Sirkeli, who runs the independent Nokta press agency, said in his office in Comrat above a travel shop advertising airfares to Moscow.

National polls suggest that Sandu will place first in the presidential election, but the opposition is working on fielding a unity candidate it has yet to name. Igor Dodon, a former president who leads the pro-Russia Party of Socialists, is polling in second place.

In written answers to questions, Dodon accused Sandu of neglecting Moldovan interests in pursuit of alignment with foreign powers on ideological grounds. “Citizens ended up worse off due to the hostile, Russophobic policy of Maia Sandu,” he said.

Dodon accused the government of  “brutal attacks” on Gagauzia’s sovereignty, saying that Sandu’s actions “create further reasons for tension” in the region.

Those tensions were on show earlier this year, when Sandu encountered a crowd of around 150 protesters during a visit to the Gagauz capital. Comrat Mayor Serghei Anastasov said people were paid 600 Moldovan lei — about €25 — to attend the protest and he presumes the money came from Russia.

The issue for Chisinau is that Gagauzians get their information directly from Russia, unfiltered. That poses a challenge for the likes of Svetlana Ghenova, the rector for international relations at Comrat State University.

She’s trying to educate the local youth through long-standing connections to Ukraine and Russia, but also to Turkey, the US and across Europe. Ghenova is keenly aware of the opportunities offered to the institution’s 2,000 students by possible EU membership. But as a Gagauzian, she knows the difficulty in persuading others of that path.

It’s “not too easy for me to live in this region,” she said. “All my relatives sleep with Putin and wake up with Putin. But this is my family.”

--With assistance from Irina Vilcu and Olga Tanas.

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