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Making Moldova Vanish

4 May 2009

Making Moldova Vanish

 By Gwynne Dyer

Most people have trouble finding Moldova on a map, and it isn’t getting any easier. A growing number of people are dedicated to making the country vanish from the map — and most of them are Moldovans.

It began when about 15,000 people, almost all of them young, came out onto the streets in Chisinau, the capital, a month ago to protest against the outcome of the recent election. They claimed it had been stolen by the Communist party, but that wasn’t their only complaint. When the scene turned ugly on 7 April and the crowd stormed both the parliament and the president’s offices, many of them were chanting “We are Romanians” and carrying Romanian flags.

The buildings were looted and partly burned, and President Vladimir Voronin’s government arrested several hundred of the rioters (although almost all have now been released). He also accused Romania of backing the protesters, expelled its ambassador and imposed visa requirements for Romanians. In reply, Romania’s President Traian Basescu declared that he would not tolerate a “new Iron Curtain,” and changed Romanian law to give Moldovans easy access to Romanian citizenship.

Since Moldova is Europe’s poorest country and Romania is a member of the European Union, a Romanian passport that allows visa-free travel to all 27 EU countries is a very attractive asset. Moldova already has one-third of its working-age population working in EU countries (mostly illegally), and depends on their remittances for over a third of its national income.

The Romanian embassy in Chisinau has received 650,000 applications for citizenship, says President Basescu, many of them covering several people. He suggests that up to one million Moldovans (a quarter of the total population) have already decided to seek Romanian citizenship.

Vladimir Turcanu, a member of parliament for Moldova’s ruling Communist Party, told the BBC that “This mass granting of Romanian citizenship is a way to assimilate the Republic of Moldova. We see it a threat to the statehood, a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of our country.” He is quite right, but it’s likely that a majority of the population in both Romania and Moldova see that as a good idea.

Moldova was part of the old Soviet Union, and Russia has already condemned the Romanian action. There are still Russian troops in a breakaway part of Moldova, the so-called “Transdnistrian Republic,” that illegally declared its independence in 1990. Are we heading for another confrontation like the Russian-Georgian one that exploded into war last year, only this time right on the borders of the European Union instead of on the far side of the Black Sea?

Probably not, although the situation is both tangled and fraught.

For one thing, landlocked Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has no common border with Russia. For another, the pressure to unite Moldova and Romania comes mainly from within Moldova itself, although most Romanians feel sympathy with it. Because, as the rioters succinctly put it, most Moldovans really are Romanians.

Moldova, also known as Moldavia or Bessarabia, was one of many former Balkan principalities that re-emerged from Turkish rule as the Russian empire drove the Ottoman empire south in the course of the 19th century. Most got their independence, including what is now Romania — but Moscow decided to keep Moldova even though it had always been Romanian-speaking. After the Russian revolution in 1917 Moldova did manage to unite with Romania for a couple of decades, but the Soviet Union took it back as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939.

There was a good deal of deliberate Russification in the following decades, and the narrow, industrialised, densely populated strip east of the Dniester River (“Transdnistria”) wound up with a two-thirds majority of

Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 they fought a small civil war and broke away from Moldova, fearing that the Romanian-speaking majority in the rest of the country would unite with Romania.

That didn’t happen: the European Union wasn’t interested in expanding that far east, and Romania didn’t want to sabotage its own chances of joining. But now Romania is safely in the EU, so that is no longer a consideration — and things are getting rough in Moldova.

The Moldovan government is not a tyranny. It is an elected government that is Communist in name only, and the most recent election was certified free and fair by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Older people, nostalgic for the stability of the Soviet past, vote Communist because they think their pensions will be safe

— and a high proportion of younger people have left the country in search of work.

The protesters claimed electoral fraud, but the split is really more generational than political, with younger Moldovans believing their future would be brighter as Romanians. In theory, the solution is easy: let Moldova west of the Dniester join Romania, leaving the Slavic majority in “Transdnistria” to become another outlying enclave of Russia.

But this is “post-Soviet space,” so nothing is easy and theory doesn’t work. This one will run and run.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Since…income”; and


Georgia: The Wine Wars

14 May 2006

Georgia: The Wine Wars

By Gwynne Dyer

It is the duty of freedom-loving people everywhere to drink Georgian wine, or at least so says Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Faced with a sudden ban on Georgian wine by Russia, which normally takes almost 90 percent of Georgia’s exports, the youthful leader of the “Rose Revolution” that overthrew Communist-era despot Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 is looking desperately for other markets. His government even offered Jennifer Lopez half a million dollars to come to Tbilisi later this month to do a celebrity endorsement of Georgian wine. (Unfortunately, J-Lo’s people didn’t think that was even close to enough money.)

More practically, Saakashvili urged the wine producers to act. “While the Agricultural Ministry is asleep, while the majority of our wine producers are asleep, Spanish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Czech wine producers … successfully tap markets,” he said. “Let [our wine producers] rise from their chairs, take our wine and carry it to the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine.” But all of those countries together are not as big as the Russian market, and the chances of Georgia selling large amounts of wine in Western Europe or the United States are not good.

In the old days when Europe was divided by the Cold War, Communist countries only drank wine made in Communist countries, and Russians, in practice, only drank wine made in the Soviet Union. Most Russians like their wine sweet, and their needs were mainly met by wines from Moldova so sweet that you could feel your teeth rotting as you drank them. Moldova can actually make good wines (it’s really a part of north-eastern Romania that fell into Russian hands long ago), but the market set the standard, and the market was Russian.

For the discerning minority of Russians, however, there were Georgian wines. Most Georgian wines were also too sweet for Western tastes, but they were less syrupy than Moldovan wines — and some of them were actually dry and quite drinkable. Georgia only sold about a quarter as many bottles as Moldova to the rest of the old Soviet Union, but it got a better price for them.

Now both Georgia and Moldova are independent countries, though they still belong to the “Commonwealth of Independent States.” (The CIS includes all the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union except the three Baltic states, and its main purpose is to maintain the free trade and visa-free travel that existed between these dozen countries in the old days.) But now neither Georgia nor Moldova can sell a drop of wine to Russia, because six weeks ago Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, declared that it was unfit for human consumption.

Onishchenko subsequently ordered the closure of the border to Georgia’s famed Borjomi mineral water as well, even though Russians depend on it as the one sure-fire hangover cure. Once again, his excuse was that it contained impurities, and that much of the product on sale in Russian shops was counterfeit. But the fact that counterfeiters are ripping off the recognised brand names both in Russia and even in Georgia itself is no justification for suddenly closing the Russian border to all of Georgia’s wine and water exports, which make up a large chunk of its foreign trade.

None of Georgia’s customers elsewhere in Europe have found the high levels of pesticides and heavy metals that Moscow now claims contaminate Georgian wine. Moscow is actually punishing Georgia for refusing to support Russia’s application for membership of the World Trade Organisation, and more generally for seeking to move out of the Russian sphere of influence. Saakashvili has expressed an interest in joining both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (although neither is likely to welcome Georgia any time soon), and he has insisted that all remaining Russian troops leave Georgia by the end of this year.

Moldova has similar disputes with Russia, and together with two other ex-Soviet countries that are now closer to the United States than to Moscow they make up the “awkward squad” within the CIS, the so-called GUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova). Georgia and Moldova both have breakaway bits of territory where rebellious ethnic minorities are being protected and perhaps encouraged by Russian troops (South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, the “Trans-Dnistrian Republic” in Moldova), and they been trying to get the Russian troops out by playing hard-ball over Moscow’s application to join the WTO.

Moscow is playing hard-ball back, and both Georgia and Moldova are in trouble because they have tailored their wine output so closely to Russian tastes. Georgia has now escalated the quarrel by declaring that it will leave the CIS: Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said on 14 May that the political decision has been made, and that “discussions are now about when and how to do this.” Seven of the eleven bilateral agreements that will be needed to maintain Georgia’s current free trade and visa-free travel arrangements with other CIS countries are ready for signature, according to State Minister for Economic Reforms Kakha Benukidze, and the other four are coming along.

Ukraine is also talking about leaving the CIS, though Moldova has not yet gone that far. The United States, which backs all the GUAM states, is quietly pleased at the way events are unfolding. The great-power game has resumed, and the smaller powers seek advantage where they can. But if you want to support plucky little Georgia by drinking its wine, a word of advice: choose the red Saperavi or the white Tzinandali; they’re not too sweet.