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