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Anti-government protesters in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 12.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

International intrigue swirled around Moldova on Sunday as thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through the country’s capital and police said they had foiled a Russian-backed plot to turn the protest violent.

The protest, and the police assertion that it foiled an operation “to organize mass disorder and destabilization,” came on the heels of a warning from the White House that the Kremlin was seeking to stage a pro-Russian “insurrection” in the country.

Moldova – which is wedged between Ukraine and NATO member Romania – has publicly sided with Ukraine since the Russian invasion of that country, while President Maia Sandu has sought to speed up her country’s integration into the European Union.

Concerns about violence spiked ahead of the Sunday afternoon protest when Moldovan police reported that they had detained a suspected member of Russia’s infamous Wagner mercenary group upon his arrival at Chisinau International Airport. Wagner fighters have played a front-line role in the year-old Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war that many here fear Moldova will be dragged into.

But while thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through the centre of Chisinau on Sunday, creating an hours-long standoff with riot police guarding the country’s Government House, the feared escalation never materialized. The tensest moments were a series of emotional shouting matches between those calling for Ms. Sandu’s ouster and a smaller group of her supporters who accused the protesters of serving the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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National police chief Viorel Cernauteanu said in a news conference that an undercover agent had infiltrated groups of “diversionists” – some of whom were Russian citizens – who had been promised US$10,000 each to help turn Sunday’s demonstration violent. Seven people were detained in connection with that alleged plot, while 54 others were detained at the protest for “questionable behaviour,” including carrying knives and other weapons.

An anti-government protester.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The street showdown was just the latest in a series of dramatic episodes for this country of 2.6 million people. The past month has seen warnings of a coup d’état, claims of a high-profile assassination attempt and the cancellation of some flights to the country over security concerns.

The situation is exacerbated by the presence of several thousand Russian “peacekeepers” who have been stationed in the breakaway Transnistria region of the country since a brief war in 1992. Though the Russian contingent is small, Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that it could be used to either intervene in any turmoil in Moldova, or to create a new front against Ukraine.

“Russian actors, some with current ties to Russian intelligence, are seeking to stage and use protests in Moldova as a basis to foment a manufactured insurrection against the Moldovan government,” John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council co-ordinator for strategic communications, warned on Friday. The goal, Mr. Kirby said, was to establish “a more Russian friendly administration” in the country that would abandon the policy of EU integration.

Olga Rosca, chief of staff to Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, told The Globe and Mail that the Moldovan government agreed with the White House’s assessment. She accused Moscow of deploying “a full spectrum of hybrid techniques” to cause turmoil in Moldova, including cyberattacks, fake bomb alerts and paying people to protest against Ms. Sandu’s government.

The country has received more than 400 hoax bomb threats since last summer – including four more on Sunday, one of which forced Chisinau airport to close for several hours.

Ms. Rosca said Moldova, supported by both Ukraine and the West – who have helped the country reorient its economy from its previous reliance on the Russian market, and in particular on Russian energy – had thus far been able to withstand Moscow’s provocations.

But that doesn’t mean the pressure will ease any time soon. “Given the fact that we were pretty good at holding the line, I don’t rule out the Russians will have to become more creative, more sophisticated,” Ms. Rosca said.

A key player in the anti-government protests is Ilan Shor, a fugitive oligarch who has been hit by U.S. and British sanctions (though not by Canada or the EU) over his political co-operation with the Kremlin. Mr. Shor has been living in Israel for the past four years after being convicted in connection with a US$1-billion bank fraud – a theft equivalent to one-eighth of the gross domestic product of Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Most of the demonstrators on Sunday were supporters of Mr. Shor, who has been accused of using his wealth to pay people to take part in demonstrations.

Marina Tayber, a member of Shor Party, speaks to followers at the protest.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Though Mr. Shor’s party won less than 6 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections two years ago, his supporters shouted that Ms. Sandu – who was elected in 2020 with almost 58 per cent of the vote – was “a dictator” and demanded that she resign.

Many in the crowd complained of rising costs of food and energy in the country. Others said they had come into the streets to show their support for Russia and to demand that Moldova stay neutral over Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are not 99 per cent for Russia – we’re 100 per cent for Russia,” said Vladimir Marian, a 57-year-old retired boxing coach who was carrying a handmade sign reading “Work for peace and not for war.” He said that Moldova, as a “spiritual country,” was more aligned with Russia than the EU on issues such as same-sex marriage.

The U.S. “insurrection” warning came one day after Russian media reported that security services in Transnistria had foiled an assassination attempt against the region’s leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky. Russian media reported that Ukrainian special services were behind the alleged plot, an accusation that Kyiv dismissed as an “informational provocation.”

Dionis Cenusa, an analyst at the Eastern European Studies Centre, a think tank based in Lithuania, said it was difficult to take the claim of an assassination attempt seriously. He said Russia had been trying to construct the improbable narrative that Ukraine was planning an attack on Transnistria.

The likely intent of the Kremlin’s efforts in Moldova, Mr. Cenusa said, was to force Ukraine’s military to pay attention to its western border – and to force it to pull resources away from the heavy fighting in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region. “The destabilization of Moldova counts in the big picture of undermining Ukraine’s efforts to focus its military attention on the southeastern front line against Russian military actions.”

Wizz Air, a Hungarian-owned airline, added to public worries when it announced on Feb. 28 that it would stop services to Chisinau starting March 14 because of the “high” risk of flying in the country’s airspace. Several Russian missiles have crossed through Moldovan airspace on their way to targets in Ukraine over the past year, and Moldova briefly closed its airspace on Feb. 14 to investigate a “balloonlike object” that appeared near the country’s border with Ukraine.

Protesters from different camps argue through the fence.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

A small group of pro-EU counterprotesters who came into the streets of Chisinau on Sunday, waving EU flags from the other side of the police line in front of Government House, said the pro-Russia crowd was helping Mr. Putin spread chaos in the region.

“They want to bring the war here. They want to bring the mafia back to power,” said Maria Olar, a 56-year-old who took turns shouting obscenities about Mr. Putin through a megaphone on Sunday.

Though they were outnumbered by the anti-government protesters, the pro-EU demonstrators said the past election showed that the vast majority of Moldovans wanted closer ties with Brussels, not Moscow.

“They are a few thousand over there,” said Maxim Nedelca, a 39-year-old historian. “We are hundreds of thousands. If we all come into the streets, we will show them their place.”