CHISINAU—Change comes slowly here in the Moldovan capital. Beyond the neon signs for fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or cellphone providers such as Orange, the drab, gray streets could easily form the backdrop of a gritty Cold War spy movie.
This former Soviet republic is within Europe’s eastern borderlands, where the competition to set the country’s future path, much like in neighboring Ukraine, plays out in the relative open. Almost three decades since its independence, Moldova—Europe’s poorest country, with a population of just 3.5 million—is a geopolitical battleground. An upcoming election here not only highlights the tension between the country’s Western-oriented leaders and its historic Russian ties, but presages what might be major campaign issues as the European Union holds its own parliamentary polls this year.
Moldova has been pursuing a pro-EU path for a decade and, in 2014, signed an association agreement with the EU, which allowed for greater economic relations and visa-free travel across the bloc, and which was supposed to signal a new chapter in Moldova’s troubled history. But that same year, a banking scandal hit: $1 billion, equivalent to an eighth of Moldova’s gross domestic product, went missing, and three of its largest banks ceased to exist. Leading political figures were suspected of being involved, though few have been brought to justice and little of the money has been recovered.