Moldova: A Borderland Within the Borderlan
Moldova is a country in need of explanation; two explanations in fact. First, there is the question of what kind of country Moldova actually is. The second question is why anyone should care. I went to Moldova knowing the answer to the second. I left much less certain about the answer to the first question. Therefore let’s begin with the second.
“Borderland,” described the re-emergence of Russian regional power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian national security is dependent on two countries that became independent following the collapse. Belarus is the buffer between Russia and Europe on the north European plain. Ukraine is the buffer of Russia’s southern flank to the Carpathian Mountains. Neither country is simply subservient to Russia, but neither country is simply free from Russian influence. Both have an economic dependence on Russia and both are militarily inferior to Russia. There are complexities in both of their relation to Russia, but in the end, I think that both are embedded in the Russian sphere of influence. From the Russian point of view, dominating these countries is less important than that they not be dominated by Europe and the United States. At the moment the Russians have managed to achieve this.
If the Ukraine is the southern anchor of Russia—and its potential Achilles heel, then Moldova is the southern anchor of the Ukraine, and the Ukraine’s potential Achilles heel. This is not new. In 1939, the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. One part of the agreement partitioned Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. Another part of the treaty ceded Bessarabia to the Soviets, even though Bessarabia was part of a country allied with Germany, Romania. Need to explain clearer the relation between Rep. of Moldova and Bessarabia. Not all of Bessarabia is Moldova – North Bucovina (part of Bessarabia) and South Bessarabia belongs to Ukraine today even if most of Bessarabia is Moldova’s now. It doesn’t make much difference – except for the Moldovans and others that know this kind of details. The Soviets seized Bessarabia in 1940 and renamed it the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic.
There were many things the Soviets might have demanded from the Germans but this, along with eastern Poland was what they wanted. The reason was strategic. First, the eastern frontier of Bessarabia, and therefore of Romania, was less than 50 miles from the Soviet port of Odessa, its major outlet to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. With Romania allied with the Germans, and Germany as reliable a partner as the Soviets were, this was a tremendous strategic threat to the Soviets. Second, Romania was anchored in the east on the Dniester River. Should the Soviets decide to attack westward at any point, the Dniester was a formidable defensive line. Third, by taking Bessarabia, the Soviets eliminated part of a salient from which Kiev could be taken. Fourth they pushed their frontier to the Prut River. And finally, the Soviets could interdict the Danube, which ran into the Black Sea not far from the southern Bessarabian border. Close the Danube and European trade would be damaged—in this case, German trade.
What Stalin wanted to do was increase the security of the Ukraine and increase the vulnerability of Romania and the Danube basin. As obscure as it was to the rest of the world, Bessarabia became a key piece on the chessboard between Hitler and Stalin. Places that are of little interest to the rest of the world can be of great importance to great powers.
As it was, the bet didn’t pay off for Stalin, as Hitler attacked the Soviets and quickly seized all the regions conceded to them. What Stalin lost in 1941, he regained in 1944. He had no intention of returning Bessarabia to Romania, but created the Moldova SSR with some border adjustments. He shifted some Moldovan territory to Ukraine, and transferred some Ukrainian territory east of the Dniester River to Moldova. Since it was all under Soviet control, these were administrative shifts.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this became the Republic of Moldava. The portion east of the Dniester revolted, with Russian support, becoming an unrecognized region outside the effective control of Moldova, and a great bone of contention. But the area between the Dniester and the Prut, remained its potential importance. This potential didn’t become real unless the Russians revived and integrated—formally or informally—Ukraine into is regional system, so from 1992 until 2009 Moldova was just a place on a map. Then, when the Ukrainian election effectively repudiated the Orange Revolution there, Moldava suddenly began to shift from a piece of land between Romania and Ukraine, into the strategic asset and even obsession it once was to Stalin.
Let me emphasize the idea that it “began to shift,” and not that “it is now” a strategic asset. Its importance depends on three things. First, the power of Russia; second its power over Ukraine; third a response from some entity from the West. These are all moving parts; none are in place. Moldova is therefore a place of emerging importance, as the saying goes.
Moldova is not just a strategic chip. It is place where people live, caught between their Romanian heritage and their Soviet past. It is a mistake to think of Moldova as simply a part of the Romania that had been taken by the Soviets and that, once freed from Soviet domination, would simply rejoin Romania. Seventy years after the partition, Moldova has become more than a Romanian province and something less than a nation.
The Soviets brutalized Moldava, particularly after the end of World War II. I had a conversation with a Moldovan journalist in which, almost casually, he described how this family had been deported in 1948 to Tomsk in Siberia. He put it almost casually; it was the common heritage of Moldovans. Stalin was concerned that the Moldovans would want to rejoin Romania, and although Romania was a Soviet satellite, Stalin didn’t want to take any chances. His solution, repeated many times in many places in the Soviet Union was the deportation of the Romanian population, importing Russians, a small famine and the terror designed to break the Moldovan spirit.
The Moldovan Identity
The difference between Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union was driven home to me in Moldova. In the Eastern European countries the Soviet era was regarded as a nightmare and the Russians are deeply distrusted and feared. In Moldova, there is genuine nostalgia for the Soviet period. Moldova was ruled for years since 1992 by the Communist Party. The Communists were not so much an ideological party as a party that was linked to Russia both politically and culturally.
In Moldova, Romanian is not the only language spoken. Russian is widely spoken as well. Older Moldovans were taught Russian in school and learned to use it in everyday life. But younger Moldovans also speak Russian, and signs are in Romanian and Russian. In addition, Romanian spoken in Moldova is not quite the same as that spoken in Romania. It has not evolved the same way and ha an archaic cast to it, as if frozen in time.
The tension between the two linguistic groups is real. A member of our staff, who lives in Romania, accompanied us to Moldova. She told us about going into a store that sold chocolate, apparently quite famous for its confections. When she spoke, her Romanian Romanian was clearly distinguishable from the Moldovan variety and obviously from Russian. She was not served, ignored for a while and then shuttled between lines. I bet no one in Moldova will know who you are referring to here As she explained it, the Moldovans feel that Romanians look down on them and they resent them. (and also my observation – this only happens with Moldovans in Moldova not with those in Romania…but that makes it even more complicated) So there is a three way split between Romanian, Romanians who speak Moldovan, and those who speak Russian—Moldovans speaking Russian, not Russian expatriates. I just wonder if this is the best way to put it – we could be attacked of judging this based on one experience. However, I don’t have any other idea on how to explain this.
This defines the political fault lines. While there are those who want union with Romania, this is far from the dominant group. The struggle is between those who back the Communists who are rural and older, and those who support an independent Moldava oriented toward the EU and NATO. These are divided into a series of parties that vary by personalities more than ideology, which must form a coalition to govern. Should even one defect and join the Communists, they could retake power.
There will be an election on November 28. The country has bill boards with various candidates all around, and rallies throughout the country. Western NGOs are there, some funded we were told by the American National Endowment for Democracy, others supporters of NATO and so on. The Russians have learned the NGO gambit from the West by watching the various colored revolutions. Russian supported NGOs are in the country and, as one journalist told me, they are serving wine and cheese to young people, and having quite an impact.
However this election ends, what is clear to me is that Moldava has no consensus about its fundamental nature. There are nations that lack a state. Moldava is a state that lacks a nation. Nation building in Moldova is not so much about institutions, but on creating a national consensus about the nation.
As in Romania, the pro-western faction has a clear solution to their problem: membership in NATO and membership in the EU. If they get this, they feel, they will then have a secure definition of a nation—a European country—and protection from the Russians and others who might threaten them—NATO. But the reasoning behind this is different than Romania’s in a subtle way. Romania sees membership in these organizations as a way to overcome its past. Moldava sees this as providing definition to their country.
And this is the core problem in Moldava. The pro-western factions idea is to join the EU and NATO and have that stamp a definition on the country. It does not take into account the powerful Communist Party with its Russian ties, nor does it take into account the substantial portion of the country that identifies with Russia rather than with the west. I think they do – some of the coalition parties have gone to Russia; the Lupu’s party has done it openly; Filat’s party is doing it indirectly. So they do realize that identification with Russia but they are also trying to take advantage on the pro-west thing… combining the two – not too well, but still. In that sense, the country is in gridlock. Whoever wins this or succeeding elections governs a country that is significantly divided and with very different ideas about what the country should look like and who should govern it.
An Economy of Shadows
This is made even more difficult when you consider Moldova’s economic condition. It is said, by official statistics, to be one of the poorest countries in Europe. Over one-third of its GDP is provided by remittances of foreigners who have gone overseas legally or illegally. Romania has begun a program of providing Moldovans with Romanian passports. This allows the Moldovans to travel and work anywhere in the EU. They were already doing this illegally. Now the process of emigration and remittance has become formal. Some in Moldava charge that this is an attempt by Romania to undermine Moldova by encouraging emigration.
But the fact is that people leave. People in Moldova and in Romania have said that the largest export of Moldova is women, who are lured or willingly join (depending on who you might ask) the Moldovan Diaspora to work as prostitutes. Some say (and I can’t verify) that Moldovan women constitute the largest number of prostitutes working in Europe’s legal brothels. This is a discussion for which there are few valid statistics and many opinions. Yet in talking to people the claim does not seem controversial. If this is so, then it is a sign of a desperate country.
Consider this anecdote from a Saturday night spent walking the streets of Chisinau, the capital. The sidewalks of the main street will filled with young people, from the late teens to mid-twenties. I was told that there were no clubs for young people to party in so they gather in the streets. That’s not all that odd, as it reminds me of Queens Boulevard in New York during my high school years. What was odd was the way they clustered in groups of five to fifteen. At the center of each group was a small number of girls, one to three, all dressed stunningly to the boys who were slobs. The oddity was the extent to which boys outnumbered girls. I could never find out if the other girls were home with their parents or there was a shortage of young women but what my wife assured me of was that the girls were not wearing cheap clothes. She estimated the boots alone to run in the hundreds of dollars.
I don’t quite know how to read this, but add to this the fact that there were bank branches up and down the main street. When we visited a small town north of the capital, it also had a string of bank branches lining the street. Bank branches are expensive to build and maintain. They need depositors to keep them going, and when you have seven competing banks in a small town that means there is money there. Certainly the town didn’t look poor.
So you have this paradox. The numbers say that Moldova is extremely poor. Yet there are lots of banks and well dressed young women. The young men all seemed to have my taste in clothes, which might come from poverty, indifference or habit so I will discount that. But there is money in the country in excess to what official statistics would predict.
There are three possible explanations. The first is that remittances are flooding the country, from women or other expatriates, and that the banks are there to service the money coming in. The second is that there is a massive shadow economy, as they put it, that evades regulation and taxation. If that’s true, Moldova’s economy is far more robust than the official numbers. The third explanation is that the capital and a few towns are fairly affluent while the rural area is extraordinarily poor. I saw some Soviet era apartments that might confirm that. I suspect the answer is all three is correct, and explains the split politics in the country.
The Moldovan Republic has a profound identity crisis, a deeply divided political system and an economy which does not have, as they say, full transparency. An outsider can only gain glimpses of how that economy functions and it is clear that that is all that they intend to give an outsider. It is therefore difficult to think about it geopolitically.
Moldova and Strategy
From the Moldovan point of view, at least the pro-western factions, Moldova’s strategic problems begin and end with Transdienestra. They want to regain the east bank of the river. The region has little of value to Moldova, save a power plant. Like some other disputed territories in the former Soviet Union, it is the dispute more than the strategic value of the territory that is important. It is a rallying point—or an attempt to find one—for Moldovans.
The Germans, who are getting close to the Russians, have appeared to intervene, asking the Russians to negotiate a solution. The Russians may accommodate the Germans. But if they do, I doubt that it will be a solution that will deny the Russians control of the east bank of the Dniester. This was the line Stalin advanced from. It is a major defining line and a defensive one. Given the Russian history of war, defensive lines are not readily surrendered.
There is an oddity here, of course. I am talking about Russian troops on the Dniester but this is country surrounded by Ukraine and not Russia. But it is the Russians who are supporting the Transdienestran republic and the Ukrainians have not, since 1992, made an effective demand for the Russians to stop interfering in what is essentially a Ukrainian-Moldovan issue. This might be because the Ukrainians don’t want other land that had been taken from Moldova and given to Ukraine put on the table as a bargaining chip. But I suspect the reason is simpler. When it comes to the geopolitics of the region, the Russians are seen as the guarantors because they think strategically and geopolitically. Regardless of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians are the ones who care about things like a defensive river position and the Ukrainians are content that it be so.
On a map, Moldova is valuable real estate. It is a region that in the hands of NATO or any other Western power, could provide leverage against Russian power, and perhaps strengthen Ukraine’s desire to resist Russian power. Putting NATO troops close to Odessa, a Ukrainian port Russians depend on, would cause the Russians to be cautious. The problem is that the Russians clearly understand this and are doing what they can to create a pro-Russian state there, or at lease a sufficiently unstable state that no one can use it to threaten the Russians. That is certainly the reality that exists now.
Moldova is caught between its Romanian roots and its Soviet past. It has not develop a national identity independent of these two poles. As I said, Moldava is a case in which nation-building is about building a nation where there are now only inhabitants. Put another way, Moldova is a borderland within a borderland. It is a place of foreign influences from all sides. But it is a place without a clear center. On the one side there is nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Union—which gives you a sense of how bad things are now for many Moldovans. On the other side it is a hope that the EU and NATO will create and defend a nation that doesn’t exist.
If geopolitics were a theoretical game, then the logical move would be to integrate Moldova into NATO immediately and make it a member of the EU. There are equally strange nations that are members of each. But the Russians would see this as a direct threat to their regional interests, which is what it would be. They would respond in unpleasant ways. Geopolitics is not theory and Moldova is a bridge too far.
At the other end of the spectrum is Turkey, difficult in its own way, but indispensible. We head there next.