A plot to attack Moldova's capital and establish a Russian separatist republic similar to the ones in Eastern Ukraine was reportedly foiled on Thursday when Moldovan police detained 13 suspected members of a paramilitary group.
Moldova's General Police Inspectorate said the group wanted to attack state buildings in the capital Chisinau and seize control of Balti, a city approximately 120 kilometers due north that has a majority Russian population. The group allegedly planned to storm the prison in Balti and release sympathetic prisoners that they felt could be recruited for further attacks on Balti state officials and private companies.
Police said the suspected ringleader of the group is from Eastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reported.
When the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014, some political analysts feared the unrest would spill over the border into Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. A sliver of land alongside its Ukrainian border known as Transnistria or Trans-Dniester remains a pro-Russian separatist region, which has tentatively maintained a ceasefire with Moldova's capital since 1992.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Moldova to join the Moscow-dominated Eurasian economic union he is planning, which he sees as having the potential to rival the strength of the European Union. When Moldova teetered toward reaching an association agreement with the European Union two years ago, Russia retaliated by banning the import of Moldovan wine, one of the country's major exports.
Moldova has also seen widespread protests in recent months over $1 billion that disappeared from the country's banking system. The fraud exposed endemic corruption in the country, and caused a rapid depreciation in the national currency. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Chisinau in September, calling for the resignation of President Nicolae Timofti.
According to William Hill, who formerly headed the OSCE Mission in Moldova, Moldovan authorities have become increasingly wary of allowing Russian forces to travel to Transnistria through their airports "ever since the demonstrations in Odessa last year," referring to the south Ukrainian port city not too far from the border.
Hill also said that there were "widespread reports" that "the Russians and the eastern Ukrainian rebels were trying to slip special forces through Trans-Dniester into Odessa to seek to boost protest activities."
There is also a Russian-backed separatist movement underway in Gaguazia, in southern Moldova. The Gagauz are a predominantly Russian-speaking minority group that rejects Moldovan affiliation with the EU.
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