Influx of wealthier Ukrainian refugees raises eyebrows in impoverished Moldova

Some in Europe's poorest country have criticised what they regard as a sense of entitlement among those who have fled war in Ukraine

Mothers with their children at the Palanca border crossing into Moldova having fled Ukraine. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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All along the narrow, two-lane highway that stretches from the Ukrainian border through Moldova’s wine country, little white tents have sprung up at the turn-offs to vineyards or alongside petrol stations in recent days.

Manned by Moldovans proffering free cups of hot tea, sandwiches and sweets to passing cars crammed full of refugees, they are part of the overwhelming response Europe’s poorest country has mustered to help those fleeing the war next door.

Despite lacking the financial support of EU membership or the security of Nato allyship, Moldova has taken in nearly 350,000 refugees, a higher number per capita than any other European nation since the war began nearly three weeks ago.

The government has organised a massive triage centre in the capital Chisinau, staffed by an army of volunteers, while all around the country Moldovans have donated their time, means and even their own homes to support the effort.

But not everyone feels such warmth towards Moldova’s new arrivals.

As is common in conflict, the first to flee are often those who can most easily afford to leave, and Chisinau’s streets are now brimming with SUVs and European luxury cars sporting Odesa plates.

These vehicles would be well beyond the means of most Moldovans, some of whom watched as well-dressed women and men arrived at a chic downtown cafe for the free meal being offered to refugees.

“You kind of feel uneasy about it, seeing someone in a Lexus getting a free lunch,” said Tatiana Agarcova, an accountant in Chisinau. She feels the influx of wealthy Ukrainians has stoked Moldova’s internal tension around its Soviet past and Russian-speaking minority, to which she belongs.

Though many Moldovans are bilingual, speaking both Romanian and Russian, language plays a large part in the uneasiness around the war.

Since 1992, a group of Russian-backed separatists have claimed a narrow strip of land on the country’s eastern border, known as Transnistria, as their own. Though the region is not internationally recognised, even by Moscow, which supports it financially and has 1,500 troops stationed there ostensibly for peacekeeping, many worry if the war progresses to Ukraine’s western border, Transnistria could be President Putin’s next target.

At a market in Causeni, the city nearest to the border, a vendor posted a sign, handwritten in Russian, at his booth of a Karl Marx quote: “He who doesn’t know the language of the country he is in is either a guest, an idiot or an occupier, planting the seeds of his own tongue.”

But most who are frustrated by some of the country’s newcomers see resources as the problem, rather than language. Moldova buys much of its grain, produce and meat from Ukraine and is bracing for a crisis for its own people as imports of those commodities are cut by war.

Food donations are sorted and stored in the Moldexpo centre in Chisinau. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Masha Kinas, a pilates instructor and social media influencer in Chisinau, who spent the first week of the war ferrying families from the border, took to Instagram to vent her frustration at those she perceived as entitled guests.

“You do know that Moldova isn’t exactly the world’s richest country,” she wrote. “Yet our people are picking you up in their own cars to take you from the border into their own houses and feed you from their own refrigerators … and you without a hint of gratitude.”

Others took to TikTok to point out bad behaviour. “Moldovans are giving you their last piece of bread,” one young man said in a video. “If you don’t like it, go back where you came from.”

Still, Ms Agarcova, the accountant, feels that the crisis will only worsen if people build animosity towards each other. “Thirty years ago, no one was a Moldovan or a Ukrainian or a Russian. We were people, we were children. We still are. That’s what we need to remember.”

Updated: March 16, 2022, 4:57 PM