Dispatch

Moldova Welcomes Ukrainian Refugees but Fears for Its Own Future

The country has offered solidarity to neighbors fleeing Russia’s war. Will it get more support from the EU?

Ukrainian refugees at a relative's house in Moldova.
Ukrainian refugees at a relative's house in Moldova.
Kateryna Baidalina, 20, sits on a bed with her 18-month-old daughter, Ilona, while her mother, Natalia Kocelaevscaia, lingers in the doorway at a relative's house in Sireti, Moldova, on March 26. Betsy Joles photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Pakistan.

CHISINAU, Moldova—In the days after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, car after car pulled into the driveway of the La Costesti resort complex, carrying mothers who had crossed into Moldova with children in their arms and tears in their eyes. For the small country on Ukraine’s southwestern border, such support is a huge task—one that ordinary citizens have accepted without skipping a beat.

Veronica Bivol, who runs the tourist resort with her family, quickly got to work turning the lakeside holiday resort, located just outside the capital of Chisinau, into a temporary refuge for people fleeing the war. Neighbors contributed everything from bread to a freshly slaughtered pig, while Bivol’s family bought tickets to send some refugees to stay with friends in other parts of Europe. “They are like family. We are so bonded to them,” Bivol said in an interview in March.

Moldova has long sought to join the European Union, and the bloc has given the country fresh attention amid the conflict in Ukraine, which risks spilling over. Some countries have pledged money to assist with Moldova’s humanitarian response, and the EU has offered border support and more financial aid. But grappling with the effects of years of economic troubles and uncertainty about its future in the region, the Moldovan government is also looking to Europe for help with its domestic problems.

People stand on the banks of a lake outside La Costesti.

People stand on the banks of a lake outside La Costesti, a tourist resort accommodating refugees from Ukraine, as laundry dries in the distance in Costesti, Moldova, on March 29.Betsy Joles photos for Foreign Policy

CHISINAU, Moldova—In the days after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, car after car pulled into the driveway of the La Costesti resort complex, carrying mothers who had crossed into Moldova with children in their arms and tears in their eyes. For the small country on Ukraine’s southwestern border, such support is a huge task—one that ordinary citizens have accepted without skipping a beat.

Veronica Bivol, who runs the tourist resort with her family, quickly got to work turning the lakeside holiday resort, located just outside the capital of Chisinau, into a temporary refuge for people fleeing the war. Neighbors contributed everything from bread to a freshly slaughtered pig, while Bivol’s family bought tickets to send some refugees to stay with friends in other parts of Europe. “They are like family. We are so bonded to them,” Bivol said in an interview in March.

Moldova has long sought to join the European Union, and the bloc has given the country fresh attention amid the conflict in Ukraine, which risks spilling over. Some countries have pledged money to assist with Moldova’s humanitarian response, and the EU has offered border support and more financial aid. But grappling with the effects of years of economic troubles and uncertainty about its future in the region, the Moldovan government is also looking to Europe for help with its domestic problems.


In March, Moldova joined Georgia and Ukraine in submitting a bid to join the EU. Moldova maintains its neutrality, enshrined in its constitution, and does not intend to join NATO. But to the West, the membership bid signals Moldova’s alignment with European values. For many Moldovans, it is equally a request for financial support to aid in the country’s development. “The issues of the Moldovan Republic are first of all economic,” said Ion Jigau, the executive director of CBS-AXA, a research firm. “Our citizens see the EU as something that will help them overcome these [problems].”

Moldova is one of the most economically depressed countries in Europe, a situation that has been exacerbated by past corruption. In 2014, around $1 billion was funneled out of the banking system to offshore accounts; former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was sentenced to prison for his involvement. As the economy floundered, many citizens left for other opportunities. More than 1 million Moldovans—an estimated 25 percent of the population—live abroad, and remittances make up nearly 16 percent of the country’s GDP. More recently, Moldova has faced the economic effects of the pandemic followed by the gas crisis that caused energy prices to skyrocket.

Moldova’s pro-EU government has held a majority in parliament since last July, and it has made clear that it must seek help from the bloc while it can. Moldovan President Maia Sandu has appealed for assistance to defray the costs of humanitarian relief, further signaling her desire for European integration. But Moldova’s shift toward the EU is not linear, and many Moldovans have shaky faith in the pro-European administrations that also fell prey to corruption, even as the EU increased support for Moldova to improve its governance.

Over the years, the Moldovan government’s closeness to the EU has seesawed. After a 2014 agreement with the EU put Moldova on a preliminary track to integration, the government tilted back toward Moscow, leading the bloc to halt assistance. Since a pro-European government regained control, it has doubled down on promises to root out corruption and bring Moldova back into the EU’s fold. But as the country works to get its affairs in order, the war in Ukraine has heightened anxiety.

Concerns about violence spreading into Moldova have grown more acute in recent days after a series of explosions in Transnistria, a Moscow-backed separatist region in the country’s east. Although the source of the attacks is disputed, they have elevated fears among some Moldovans that they could become the next victims of conflict. Nevertheless, the communal strength that has emerged in Moldova since the war in Ukraine began reflects a feeling of solidarity with its neighbors: Moldovans have jumped at the chance to help those fleeing the war next door.


Ukrainian refugees at a relative's house in Moldova.

Kateryna Baidalina, 20, sits on a bed with her 18-month-old daughter, Ilona, while her mother, Natalia Kocelaevscaia, lingers in the doorway at a relative’s house in Sireti, Moldova, on March 26.

In Sireti, a village of around 6,000 people near Chisinau, residents are hosting dozens of Ukrainian refugees in their own homes—a trend seen across Moldova. Alexandru Iorga, the deputy mayor of Sireti, said people in his community have helped the displaced out of a sense of obligation. “Everybody is thinking in their heads that we could have the same danger as Ukraine. Now we are in the situation of hosting, but tomorrow we could also become refugees,” Iorga said.

Despite many people having limited means, almost everyone in the village knows someone who is helping out. In Sireti, Cristina Gherman has been hosting Valentina Papusa and her two small children, who came from Odesa, for almost two months. Down the road, Vera Vranceanu has taken in her Ukrainian relative Natalia Kocelaevscaia along with her daughter, Kateryna Baidalina, and her infant granddaughter, Ilona.

In an activities hall in the middle of Sireti, tables are stacked high with donated clothes and baby products; most people who have arrived from Ukraine are women with children. The owner of a nearby event hall has opened her kitchen to prepare for refugee shelters around Chisinau. In each of these shelters, dozens of volunteers unpack truckloads of boxes filled with supplies.

Women sit on beds inside a shelter for Ukrainian refugees in Moldova.

Women sit on beds inside a shelter for Ukrainian refugees set up inside an abandoned movie theater in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 29.

Gherman said people in the village were crowdfunding to provide refugees with necessities such as clothes and hygiene products, adding that they often used such funds to supplement what the local government contributes. “In Moldova, usually the government’s support for localities is very low,” she said. “Our community is actually very strong because we [have] had lots of moments where we had to help someone.”

Many refugees staying around Chisinau are from Odesa, which is just across the border. They say they plan to remain in Moldova until they can return to their city. Since early March, Tatiana Botia and four of her family members have shared a flat in Chisinau with a family of three from Odesa. “To be honest, we are very lucky,” Botia said about meeting the family who welcomed them into their home. When Botia arrived in Moldova, she said she expected to return home within a week. The family is still waiting on a sign that they can return.


Veronica Bivol and others stand outside the office of La Costesti.

Veronica Bivol and her aunt Zinaida Bivol stand outside the office of the La Costesti tourist resort in the town of Costesti, near Chisinau, on March 29.

Gheorghe Diaconu, who co-owns the La Costesti tourist resort, shares dinner with displaced men from Ukraine.

Gheorghe Diaconu, an owner of La Costesti, shares dinner with displaced men from Ukraine who are staying at the resort in Costesti on March 29.

Between late February and mid-April, more than 400,000 people crossed from Ukraine into Moldova, according to the United Nations. Of that group, around 100,000 remain, and the rest have traveled on to other countries. The EU has pledged 150 million euros ($159 million) in assistance through grants and loans for Moldova, as well as 8 million euros ($8.5 million) in humanitarian aid to help civilians affected by the war. This week, it pledged to step up defense support as well. The EU has begun working with Moldova’s border authorities, and EU member states have started receiving refugees relocated by the U.N. refugee agency.

How Moldova’s current government continues to respond to arrivals from Ukraine will be an important factor in its future with the EU, which has agreed to begin reviewing its membership bid. Support for refugees could be a feather in Moldova’s cap in its push for European integration, according to Vitalie Sprinceana, a sociologist and member of Moldova for Peace, a volunteer group helping to coordinate humanitarian efforts. “There is an intrinsic kind of intention to improve the image of the country.”

People arrive from Ukraine in Palanca.

People arrive from Ukraine at a reception area near the border in Palanca on March 24.

Moldovan leaders are vocal about their support for refugees, in part because it could push the country’s economic development forward, Sprinceana said. Ordinary Moldovans will be watching closely to see whether European assistance will trickle down to them. Sprinceana hopes that EU aid doesn’t lead to complacency among political leaders who have watched their citizens step up to help with no promise of support in return. “You cannot rely on the hospitality of people all the time,” he said.

Back at the tourist resort, Bivol and her relatives are doing everything they can to make sure displaced Ukrainians are well taken care of, even as they continue to stay free of charge. She said these new guests have pitched in with chores and administration. Still, the future of the business—as well as the future of its Ukrainian guests—remains uncertain. “It’s like another life now,” Bivol said. “Everybody’s asking us, ‘How long are you going to do this?’ We don’t know.”

Betsy Joles is a journalist based in Pakistan. Twitter: @BetsyJoles

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.