Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe, declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The country’s main ethnic group, Moldovans, are largely similar to their Romanian neighbours: they speak the same language with minor differences in vocabulary, and the two were part of the same country, Greater Romania, until 1940. Due to this common past, there was a significant movement for unification between Moldova and Romania immediately after independence.
However, Moldova is also home to several major ethnic minority groups, who in total compose up to 20% of the population. These minorities are concentrated in areas around the country, most prominently in Gagauzia and Transnistria, two autonomous regions internationally recognised as parts of Moldova. Because of Moldova’s Soviet past, there is a large population of Slavic and Turkic peoples currently living in the nation, many of whom are opposed to Moldovan unification with Romania. In fact, this opposition led to Transnistria, which has a majority Slavic (mainly Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian) population, declaring independence from Moldova in 1990.
Like other ex-Soviet nations, Moldova has gradually moved towards the Western bloc and has expressed interest in joining the European Union (EU). While this move is mostly supported by ethnic Moldovans, it is opposed by most ethnic minorities in the nation. What is causing this split in political opinion, and how do ethnic divides continue to shape modern Moldova?
The Pro-Russian Stance in Gagauzia and Transnistria
Both Gagauzia and Transnistria are overwhelmingly pro-Russian. Gagauzians and Transnistrians, who are distinct from the majority ethnic Moldovans, view the similarities between Moldovans and Romanians as a threat due to past reunification attempts. Thus, they see Russia as a liberator. This is perhaps best demonstrated with the 2014 Gagauz referendum on independence and preferred alliances, in which 99% of the Gagauz population voted to reject integration with the EU and instead voted for further ties with Russia. To this day, the residents of Gagauzia and Transnistria largely speak Russian as a first or second language and move to Russia for jobs and higher education.
Meanwhile, since its declaration of independence in 1990, Transnistria has remained independent in all but name. The region retains its own separate governmental institutions and foreign relations, which has allowed Russia to use Transnistria as a tool to exert its influence beyond its borders. For example, Russia continues to station 2,000 troops in the region that perform regular military exercises and has repeatedly pushed for a plan for a federal Moldova that would give the pro-Russian Transnistrians and Gagauzians two-thirds decision power over the Moldovan state. This plan would give Transnistria and Gagauzia veto power over Moldova’s joining of any organisation, including the EU.
Due to the perceived threat of Moldovan integration into the EU, independence and even annexation into Russia have been thrown around as options for Gagauzia and Transnistria, respectively. This would strengthen Russian power in the region, especially given that Russia and its allies would surround Ukraine on three sides due to the geographic location of Transnistria and Gagauzia to the southwest of Ukraine.
The Pro-Western Argument – Romanian Moldova
For most ethnic Moldovans, the roles are reversed: Romania is largely seen as a brother, and Russia as an occupier. After all, Russian activity in the region is not new; the separation of Moldova from Romania was due to a Soviet ultimatum in 1940, and the Russian Empire had controlled what is now Moldova for over a century before World War I. The attempted Russification and assimilation of Moldova into Russia (later the Soviet Union) caused a backlash among the population post-independence, which led to Moldova and Romania’s attempted unification.
After Romania joined the EU in 2007, many Moldovans wanted to follow its path and also integrate into the Western bloc. This is reflected by the overwhelming victory of President Maia Sandu and her pro-EU PAS bloc in recent Moldovan elections, instead of the pro-Russia BeCS party. In a time of increased East-West tensions in Europe over Moldova’s neighbour Ukraine, the PAS victory is a vote of confidence in the Western bloc and undermines Russia’s attempts at exerting control over its former Soviet borders. The contemporary Moldovan state is on a path of integration into the EU, with Moldova joining the EU’s Eastern Partnership program in 2014.
However, it is worth noting that not all ethnic Moldovans are pro-EU and supportive of strengthening Moldova’s ties with Romania. Some Moldovans are pro-Russia, in part due to Russian propaganda and Moldova’s continued reliance on Russia for jobs and economic development. Some Moldovans also insist on a Moldovan identity separate from Romania, based on the historical state of Moldavia.
Unification with Romania Today?
Polls have shown that support for Moldovan unification with Romania has grown steadily in recent years after a drop post-independence, with current support in Moldova at 44%. However, should Moldova ever seem to move towards reunification, tensions in the country could flare because Gagauzia and Transnistria are strongly against any integration into the West. In this case, these two Russian-allied regions may further embrace their former ally. This may then heighten tensions in the wider Eastern European region, especially as Russia continues to act aggressively toward Ukraine.