CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — For tiny Moldova, an impoverished, landlocked nation that borders war-torn Ukraine but isn't in the European Union or NATO, it's been another week plagued by bomb threats.
On an overcast day outside the international airport serving Moldova's capital of Chisinau, hundreds of people lined up this week as bomb-sniffing dogs examined the vicinity. That's now a common scene in Europe’s poorest nation as it battles what observers believe are attempts to destabilize the former Soviet republic amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Since the beginning of July, Moldova has received nearly 60 bomb threats — with more than 15 reported so far this week — at locations ranging from the capital’s city hall, to the airport, the supreme court, shopping malls and hospitals.
While no one has yet been charged for the bomb threats, most of which have arrived via email and all of which have turned out to be false, officials say they have traced computer addresses to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
“It is part of the disinformation war against Moldova, which is ongoing,” said Valeriu Pasa, an analyst at the Chisinau think tank Watchdog.md. “It could be part of the Russian effort to destabilize Moldova, as they use many different methods to do so.”
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Moldova, which has a population of 2.6 million people, has faced a multitude of crises. It has received more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other country; tensions have soared in the country's Russia-backed breakaway region; it is dealing with an acute energy crisis; and like much of Europe it is battling skyrocketing inflation.
The frequent bomb threats are only adding pressure to the country's already overstretched authorities.
“It blocks a lot of the resources — police, investigators, technical services — it’s a type of bullying I would say, or harassment, of Moldovan state systems and public services,” Pasa said.
Maxim Motinga, a prosecutor from Moldova’s Office for Combating Organized Crime, told The Associated Press that since the bomb threats started “practically every day we open criminal cases.”
“At the moment, all criminal investigations are ongoing,” he said, adding that requests have been made for official assistance from Russia and Ukraine if “certain tracks leading to the respective countries were established.”
“I hope we get some answers from those countries,” he said.
For Veaceslav Belbas, a 43-year-old Moldovan businessman returning from Turkey to Chisinau on Monday, a bomb threat left him frightened as his plane circled the capital’s airport for 30 minutes. After that, the plane did a U-turn and went back to Turkey.
“We prayed a lot and finally landed,” he said. “For me, it was such a big shock that I told my wife that this is my last flight.”
Tensions in Moldova soared in April after a series of actual explosions occurred in the Russia-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russia bases about 1,500 troops in a so-called frozen conflict zone. It raised fears that non-NATO, militarily neutral Moldova could get dragged into Russia’s war orbit. At least one Russian official has spoken openly of snatching enough land in southern Ukraine to link up Russian-controlled areas from the mainland to Transnistria.
Observers pointed out that the blasts came as Moldova — which has historically close ties with Moscow — showed a growing Western orientation and after it had applied to join the EU, which it did shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. It was granted EU candidate status in late June, shortly before the bomb threats started.
Since Moldova gained independence in 1991, it has been plagued by organized crime and official corruption. After an election in 2019, a local oligarch attempted to seize power, which triggered mass protests before he fled the country. In 2014, several politicians and oligarchs had alleged ties to a scam in which $1 billion vanished from local banks. No one has yet been convicted in that case.
Galina Gheorghes was returning to England from Moldova last month after attending a family get-together when a bomb threat canceled her flight. She says she is angry that no one has yet been caught.
“It is very bad what’s happening … unfortunately, the ordinary people suffer,” the 35-year-old Gheorghes said.
Amid a seemingly endless pattern of disruptive and costly threats, Moldova’s Internal Ministry said it wants to toughen punishments for anyone convicted of false bomb alerts by ramping up fines and handing out lengthier prison sentences.
Chisinau Airport has been hit by dozens of bomb threats since July and has bolstered security in response. Radu Zanoaga, head of border police at the airport, says a specialist unit has been established to save security officials the trouble of traveling in from the city center each time a bomb threat is made.
“At the moment, we are dealing with the situation in cooperation with other (state) bodies and institutions that operate within the airport,” he said. “There have been bomb alerts before — but not as many and not as frequent as now.”
Stephen McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Cristian Jardan And Stephen Mcgrath, The Associated Press