Moldova is one of the least known and understood corners of Europe. Even amongst those with a strong grasp of geography, attempts to place the small, landlocked country on a map are met with awkward silences and shrugs of the shoulders.
Ironically, it is Moldova’s geographical positioning that lends it such geopolitical significance – at least at the moment.
For the uninitiated, Moldova is located on the European Union’s eastern flank, sandwiched in between Romania and Ukraine. While the residents of the country speak Romanian – and many of its residents freely describe themselves as “Romanians” – Moldova was a constituent part of the Soviet Union rather than independent, communist Romania. As a post-Soviet rather than a post-Ceau?escu state, Moldova has naturally maintained close links to Moscow since independence and has a mostly bi-lingual, Russophone population.
As such, while Russia has been powerless to stop Romania’s movement towards the European Union – and “the west” in general” – Moldova has remained Russian satellite state for much of its post-independence history.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has pursued a policy of exploiting, fomenting and sustaining internal ethnic conflicts in order to frustrate the ability of former Soviet states to pursue a policy course that is genuinely divergent from that of Moscow.
The examples are clear for all to see.
To this day, Russian juntas occupy the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – an area akin to 20 percent of the country’s sovereignty territory. Russian troops are stationed in both territories, forcibly preventing the country’s reunification. Prior to 2004 a third region, Ajara, was also under control of Kremlin-backed stooge Aslan Abashidze.
For more than twenty years, possession of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has been bitterly disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has repeatedly exploited the frozen conflict for its own ends; holding back Armenian wishes for closer links with the EU by threatening Yerevan with increased arms sales to Azerbaijan.
In the case of Moldova, a narrow strip of land on the country’s eastern border with Ukraine, home to roughly 500,000 people, has since 1992 been administered separately from the rest of Moldova as the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic – or Transnistria, as it is more often known.
In terms of ethnic composition, Transnistria has a plurality of Moldovans (or ethnic Romanians) at around 40 percent of the population, yet is a minority compared to the 55 percent or so of the population that are either ethnic Ukrainian or Russian.
In 1992, fears of ethnic-Romanian hegemony in the newly-independent Moldova spilled over into ethnic conflict with remnants of the Russian-aligned Soviet Army’s 14th Guards Battalion siding with ethnic Russians to drive out Moldovan forces. Since that day, Transnistria has been under the de facto controlled of Moscow. Residents all receive Russian passports and the region is heavily subsidised in terms of low-cost energy and bungs to prop up unreformed Soviet-era industries.
On the face of it, Russia has little to gain from supporting the separatist forces in Transnistria. The suggestion that the involvement of the Soviet Army in the 1992 conflict – or the continuing presence of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the territory – was for peacekeeping reasons or to prevent ethnic conflict is specious to say the least.
In reality, the purpose of the ongoing Russian presence in Transnistria has been twofold; first, to ensure the survival of a military presence in the region and secondly, to frustrate Moldova’s movement towards the west. Until now, the Russian position has been an effective one.
Transnistria’s shelf-life as a potent political pawn is, however, running out.
Recent history is littered with numerous attempts by Moldova to reach an amicable agreement with Russia on the status of Transnistria. Each of these attempts has failed.
Frustrated by the country’s crushing poverty and perturbed at being cut off from the regional development assistance and market access opportunities provided to its sister nation Romania inside the EU, Moldova has opted to pursue a different political course.
In November, the government of Prime Minister Iurie Leancă inked a wide-ranging free trade deal with the European Union that will effectively sever the country’s political ties to Russia. As part of the deal, Transnistria will no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of trade deals that Moldova is a signatory to. Up to now, Russian-owned manufacturing conglomerates in Transnistria have been able to gain preferential access to European markets by labelling their products as having been manufactured in Moldova.
Leancă has taken a gamble.
On one hand, denying the breakaway region access to the privileges associated with trade with the European Union could lead to a popular uprising calling for Transnistrian reintegration into Moldova. On the other, the Russian government may opt to step in and plug the 40 percent gap left in the breakaway territory’s finances by ending preferential trade, leaving it even more dependent on Russia.
It is clear that, while Leancă would prefer the former outcome to the latter, he and the Moldovan people can live with either. Vladimir Putin and the broader government of the Russian Federation now recognise that.
While the Transnistria issue will effectively be left to play itself out, more pressing concerns exist in relation to the 160,000-strong Autonomous Territorial Unit (ATU) of Gagauzia in the south of Moldova.
Scarred by the Transnistria conflict and scared of a repeat of ethnic violence in the country, an agreement was reached in 1994 to give ethnic Turkic (yet Orthodox Christian) citizens of Moldova a degree of independence inside the state. Unlike Transnistria, which forms a cohesive territorial unit that is physically divided from the rest of Moldova by the River Dniestr, Gagauzia is comprised of a series of enclaves that possess the right to pursue its own education, linguistic, social security and justice policies separately from the rest of Moldova. The areas under the control of the Gagauz AUT, which is fully enshrined in the Moldovan constitution, possess one administration yet take the form of effective bantustans surrounded by “ordinary” ethnic Moldovan areas.
On February 2nd, a non-binding referendum took place in the territory in Gagauzia in which residents were asked to vote on whether they supported Moldova’s participation in the EU trade deal signed by Leancă or whether they would back participation in a Russian-led Customs Union. Ninety-eight percent voted in favour of the Customs Union, rejecting closer western links.
The reasons for such a strong vote in favour of the Customs Union demand examination.
Historic concerns exist in among ethnic Gagauz regarding the possibility of overwhelmingly ethnically-Romanian Moldova seeking to federate with neighbouring Romania, a move that would see the end to the region’s autonomous status. Such a situation would see the uniquely Turkic yet Christian Gagauz minority subsumed into a state where they enjoyed no minority privileges.
Such concerns, however, fly in the face of the successful functioning of autonomy for Gagauzia for the past two decades, the Moldovan constitution, explicit denials of the suggestion by Prime Minister Leancă and statements from the EU Enlargement Commission Štefan Füle that unification would not be tolerated by Brussels.
Ethnic politics – whether in the Balkans, Carpatians or Caucasus – is an explosive issue. For that reason, the scale of Moscow-led interference in the Gagauzia is of profound concern.
In recent weeks, a number of members of the Russian State Duma including ultra-nationalist MP Roman Hudiakov have visited the region in order to advocate Gagauzian secession from Moldova. During his trip to the region, Hudiakov participated in joint rallies with pro-Customs Union Communist MP Igor Dodon in which he called for the outright rejection of the EU trade deal on the basis that it would lead to ethnic Romanian hegemony in the country and membership of the Russian Customs Union.
On January 31st, a team of Russian security service agents were detained and refused entry into Moldova at the Palanca border crossing in the south west of the country following evidence that the agents were working on campaigns to ferment ethnic unrest in Gagauzia. The referendum that took place on 2nd February, that was judged to be illegal under the terms of the Moldovan constitution, was openly financed by multi-millionaire Yuri Yakubov, a close associate of the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
It is clear that, with the issue of Transnistria lacking the potency and hold over Moldova that it once had, the Russian Federation is pursuing actions designed to ferment ethnic unrest in the very heart of Moldova. Russia knows that, if Gagauzia was to either unilaterally declare independence or take up arms against the institutions of the central government, the very viability of Moldova as an independent state – let alone a future EU member – would be at risk.
The actions of the Russian government and its allies in the region are intolerable and cannot be met with silence from Western European powers.
If Moldova is to complete its transition from failed Soviet state to market economy, urgent support is needed to bolster the country from external forces adamant it must remain aligned to Moscow.
As a starting step, financial assistance should be provided to Prime Minister Leancă’s government to ensure public services and transport infrastructure in Gagauzia is upgraded in in a show of commitment to the region. If this is not done, the Russian Federation will likely seek to replicate the significant investments already made in Transnistria.
It is also important that the Leancă government take measures to ensure that ethnic Gagauz feel part of the Moldovan state as opposed to an inconvenient addition to it. A starting point in this regard may be the appointment of members of the community to strategic roles in the country’s Cabinet of key concern to the Gagauz – possibly with responsibility for infrastructure and agricultural concerns. Such a move would be a powerful confidence-building measure.
Similarly, senior governmental and civil society figures from across the European Union must visit the region in order to directly respond to the burlesque propaganda that has been perpetuated by supporters of Russia’s Customs Union. In particular, specific promises should be made to defend Gagauz autonomy, matched with pledges to ensure preferential markets are found for the region’s agricultural goods and textiles.
The adoption of each of these measures would be a strong start to countering threats to Moldova’s sovereignty and stability.
Across the border from Moldova lies Ukraine. If the experience of the past months has taught us anything, it is that the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin are willing to fight for what they believe is theirs. It’s high time that Western democrats responded in similar terms – by defending Moldova’s independence – and its future.