Chisinau, Moldova – Soviet songs blared from loudspeakers in the center of the Moldovan capital Chisinau on Monday as the annual Victory Day march continued with a new war raging in Europe.
The May 9 event is celebrated by former Soviet states and honors Soviet soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II.
“Today is a big holiday, we have liberated Europe. We are just like in us, the Soviet Union, in which I was born,” Sergei Izbas told Al Jazeera from under the city’s triumphal arch, adding that his mother took him to Victory Day celebrations as a child. .
Like many others, Izbas wore a military green cap with a red Soviet star.
He was with a woman wearing the same cap, paired with a large Soviet star buckle belt and a Louis Vuitton handbag.
“When I came back from the army, I threw my Soviet cap in the trash,” said an elderly man, pointing his finger at Izbas. “Why are you wearing that?”
Izbas rolled his eyes and asked if the man supported unification with Romania – the two countries were one until 1940, when Moldova seceded from Romania and joined the Soviet Union.
“Yes,” the man muttered, saying that he considers himself a Romanian living in Moldova.
Another woman yelled at the former soldier: “For Romania? You are going to Romania.”
A hostile exchange that represents the frictions that arise in Moldovan society as the war devastates Ukraine.
The Republic of Moldova, which gained its independence at the same time as Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, has 3.5 million inhabitants and is deeply divided between those who lean towards Russia and those who favor European Union policies.
The Moldovan government, constitutionally neutral, has banned pro-war symbols linked to glorifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as the letters V, Z and the orange and black striped Saint George ribbon — commonly worn on May 9.
Observers had feared this year’s celebration would exacerbate the divisions, but Moldovans leaning both west and east came to celebrate an important holiday – without violence or major incidents. Some went against the orders of the government and wore the ribbon, and others, like Izbas, had heated discussions.
In late April, explosions shook Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, bringing the prospect of conflict in the country closer than ever.
The war that broke out in 1990 between pro-Transnistrian separatists and pro-Moldovan forces ended two years later in a ceasefire that has been in effect for 30 years.
But since then, the Russian army has been present in the region; there are now about 1,500 soldiers, who are called “peacekeepers”.
And now Russian officials have said they are looking for easier access to Transnistria, 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, as part of a plan to take southern Ukraine.
But as Ukrainian forces have stopped the Russian advance into Mykolaiv, the prospect of this scenario has faded.
Divisions about the EU
Maia Sandu, the pro-European president of Moldova, was unable to attend the march due to health problems, but paid her respects at a memorial service for veterans.
In March, Sandu, together with Ukraine and Georgia, applied for EU membership. Although her government is the most democratic and pro-European in Moldova’s history, many criticized her during the march.
Eugenia Borozan, a former television factory accountant, begrudged the post-Soviet breakdown of the factories in which Moldovans like her worked.
She celebrated at the Eternity Monument, where Monday’s victory march ended.
Previous democratic governments are responsible for Moldova’s poor economy, she said, which is why she has always voted for pro-Russian socialists, who are championed by former Moldova president Igor Dodon.
Dodon wore the forbidden ribbon and also attended the march.
Chisinau’s decision to join the EU has reignited divisions, with the official application in March prompting the Transnistria region to declare its independence from Moldova.
As the Russian invasion raged, the EU recognized the Transnistria region as occupied by Russian forces.
The Kremlin, in turn, alleges that Russian-speakers are discriminated against in Moldova — a story also used to justify its war against Ukraine.
On April 26, explosions destroyed two radio antennas and damaged the security forces headquarters in Tiraspol – the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria – bringing Moldova even closer to a possible flare-up.
Mariana Bogdan, a social worker from Chisinau, said she tries to avoid the news.
“I’m scared, especially because the well-being of my children is at stake,” she said.
The government declared a state of emergency to deal with what it saw as a worrying escalation.
While Russia blamed Ukraine for the attacks, Dionis Cenusa, an expert at the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Lithuania, believes they may have been orchestrated by Russia.
“Provocation could have been used by local influence groups from Transnistria to pressure Moldova into making concessions regarding import restrictions imposed by Chisinau for failing to comply with Moldovan laws,” Cenusa told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Moldova has decided to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
EU Council President Charles Michel said on a recent visit to Moldova that the bloc is considering “significantly increasing” military support to Moldova, including non-lethal military equipment and cyber defense equipment.
“Regional security conditions are pushing the current [Moldovan] government to take a tougher stance on Russia,” said Cenusa, the security expert.
“Russia cannot currently deploy other instruments, such as energy, while the Moldovan government cannot be stricter on Russia due to a series of structural vulnerabilities and declining popularity in the country, which the pro-Russian opposition is trying to take advantage of.”
The government’s decision to ban symbols related to the Russian invasion caused discomfort to people who wore them in recent years.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they banned this ribbon, it has nothing to do with what’s happening now,” said Sergei Rus (not his real name), a Transnistrian presenter at the victory march, who asked for anonymity.
Dressed in a 1943 Soviet uniform, he came in honor of his two grandfathers who fought for the Soviet Union in World War II.
However, he admits that he does not know if he could fight if a war happened to Moldova.
“Even if I wanted to go to war, my heart wouldn’t allow it, I’m a Transnistrian, but if I’m going to fight for Transnistria, I’ll point a gun at my relatives in Moldova. If I fight for Moldova, I will shoot my Transnistrian relatives,” said Rus, who is Romanian-Ukrainian.
He drew parallels between the conflict in Transnistria and that in Donbas, saying that they were all called separatists and that the repression of Russian-Transnistrians is comparable to that in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“In Ukraine, these criminal groups have been killing in Luhansk and Donetsk for eight years and everyone is silent,” Rus said. “That is not true.”
While May 9 passed without major events, many Moldovans still live in fear that their country could be dragged into the war.
“I fear that pro-Russian politicians here pose a greater danger at the moment than a possible attack by Russia itself,” said Mariana, the mother.