Recent developments in Moldova have placed the former Soviet republic, strategically placed at the hub of Central and Southeastern Europe’s energy corridors, at the center of Russia’s occasionally tense relations with the West. On February 7, echoing the rhetoric and mindset of half a century ago, Senator Richard Lugar, a leading NATO expansionist and Russophobic hawk, demanded that Obama put pressure on Medvedev to “solve” the issue of the Trans-Dniester region that seceded from Moldova in the early 1990s. It’s as if the Berlin Wall had never fallen . . .
Mr. Lugar’s idea of a solution is to have the region absorbed into Moldova in exchange for limited, pro-forma autonomy. This is opposed by the inhabitants of the breakaway region, who overwhelmingly support independence, and by Moscow. The position of Kiev is ambivalent, however: the supposedly pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, has suggested a solution broadly in line with the preferences of the authorities in Kishinev. At the same time, somewhat surprisingly, the pro-Romanian and “pro-European” interim leadership of Moldova is making conciliatory gestures to Moscow. The acting president Marian Lupu met with Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov over the weekend and expressed his desire for a “strategic relationship” with Russia.
The current political and constitutional deadlock in Moldova is an example of how the “international community’s” meddling in the affairs of former Soviet countries causes instability and tension. Since early 2009, Moldova has been without an elected president and in April of that year endured deadly riots in the failed “Grape Revolution.”
Since becoming independent in 1991, Moldova has struggled with its identity. Moldovans are an ethnic group closely related to Romanians but with a strong Slavic (mostly Ukrainian and Polish) admixture due to the fact that the area now known as Moldova was part of the Russian Empire until 1918 (when it was seized by Romania) and part of the Soviet Union from 1940-1941 and 1944-1991. The Moldovan language is a dialect of Romanian with borrowed Slavic words.
The Soviet authorities were supportive of the development of a distinct Moldovan culture as a matter of state policy. The fruits were considerable, especially in the field of folk music and literature. The government also implemented an affirmative action-style program which made it fairly easy for Moldovans to obtain university degrees and leadership positions, at the expense of Slavs and Jews. For the first time in history, under the Soviet auspices in the decades following the Second World War, Moldovans acquired an indigenous intelligentsia.
With the relaxation of controls on speech and thought under Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, newly risen Moldovan intellectuals began to advocate a Romanian identity for Moldovans and clamor for “reunification” with Romania. They adopted the Greater Romania ideology of Corneliu Codreanu and Ion Antonescu, which called for Moldova and parts of Ukraine with Moldovan minorities or which used to belong to the Greater Romania of 1918-1940 (i.e. Bukovina and southern Bessarabia) to be reabsorbed into Romania. A vociferous Russophobia and disdain of all things Slavic have been a cardinal component of Greater Romanian irredentism. The perestroika proponents of Moldova’s Romanian identity were nevertheless careful to avoid the virulent Jew-hatred which had been the hallmark of the Romanian fascist movement. The pro-Romanian intellectuals knew that they depended on the support and good graces of the “international community” which they were loath to antagonize.
The pro-Romanian agitators seized control of Moldovan politics and journalism in the late 1980s. They began a vociferous campaign for reunification with Romania and the curtailment of the rights of Russian-speakers, who were harangued and assaulted. Ironically, the people who were denouncing and denigrating all things Russian had come to occupy their academic and political positions because of the policies of those hated “Russophone occupiers.” The anti-Russian agitation and threats caused a territorial split in Moldova when the Trans-Dniester region seceded in the early 1990s. Trans-Dniester is the territory between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border and is mostly populated by Russians and Ukrainians, with a significant Moldovan minority. This area was never part of Romania. The inhabitants of Trans-Dniester declared first autonomy and then complete independence. Their action was very similar to the Krajina Serbs’ attempted secession from Croatia. Like Croatia, Moldova responded with violence.
Starting in 1990, Moldovan paramilitaries infiltrated Trans-Dniester and murdered both officials and ordinary civilians. The skirmishes resulted in relatively few casualties until Moldovan troops, backed by Romanian volunteers, launched a full-fledged attack on the Trans-Dniester city of Bendery, breaking a ceasefire with the Trans-Dniester authorities. The city was indiscriminately shelled, causing the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and then ransacked by the Moldovan forces. Russia’s 14th Army, then led by the famous Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, finally intervened when Moldovans attacked his soldiers. Together, Russian and Trans-Dniester forces beat back the Moldovan advance and a ceasefire was declared later that summer. The uneasy status quo is still in effect; like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Trans-Dniester is de facto independent but not recognized by the “international community.”
The pro-Romanian agitators were finally driven out of power in 2001, after their rule made Moldova the poorest country in Europe and one where over a quarter of the adult population lived and worked abroad (mostly in Russia). The Party of the Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) came to power and its leader, Vladimir Voronin, became president (in Moldova, presidents are elected by at least 61 votes of the 120-seat parliament). Belying its name, the PCRM is a social-democratic party that originally advocated a pro-Russian foreign policy free of the infatuation with NATO and the EU.
Voronin soon became antagonistic toward Russia, however, and made overtures to the West, but his belated genuflections did not result in any Western support for him and his party. When he stepped down in 2009 due to term limits, the “international community” backed the newly resurgent pro-Romanian faction. The PCRM won the election, but failed to gain enough seats to elect the new president. At that moment pro-Romanian agitators, egged on by their Western backers, launched a series of riots known as the Grape Revolution. The riots were soon suppressed, but not before the marauding youths succeeded in looting and torching the country’s parliament and the presidential offices. A new election in the summer of 2009 again gave the PCRM the highest number of seats but not enough to choose a president. Ever since, Moldova has been “governed” by a coalition of pro-Romanian parties with the parliamentary speaker in the role of “acting president.”
This present imbroglio is due to endless Western meddling in Moldova’s affairs. By encouraging Romania’s irredentist interference, the “international community” has destabilized the country. The West should recognize that Moldova is dependent on Russia for natural gas, oil, and labor markets—things that Romania cannot provide. By letting Moldova take its rightful place in the Russian sphere, a major point of contention between Russia and the West will be avoided. The last thing the West needs is an armed conflict between Russia and Romania over Moldova and Trans-Dniester.