By Raluca Besliu in Bucharest
While Transylvania has remained part of Romania since 1918, Bessarabia became the Moldavian Socialist Republic in 1940, after a Soviet Union ultimatum.
It only gained independence as the Republic of Moldova in 1991, following the Soviet Union’s fall. Since then, two divergent perspectives for Moldova’s future have developed. On the one hand, a strong Moldovan-Romanian nationalist movement has emerged to promote reunification with Romania, which has become a topic of socio-political discussions in both territories.
On the other hand, Russia still considers the former Soviet Member as part of its sphere of influence and presses it to join the Eurasian Union. This is an eco-political entity comprising former Soviet members and centered around Moscow. Moldova is currently caught between these two potential paths for the country’s future and seeks to navigate between them.
In line with public opinion, Romanian politicans have typically talked up the prospects of union with their neighbour. A survey conducted by The Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy (IRES) suggested that three quarters of Romanians are pro-union. Only one fifth declared themselves outright opposed.
In Moldova, opinons are much more divided. The country’s pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon, has vocally opposed reunification but prime minister Pavel Filip has opposed efforts to align the country with Moscow, pushing instead to advance European Union membership prospects, with the backing of Bucharest. Political support for a comprehensive union with Romania is low, with pro-unification candidates getting fewer than 2 percent of votes in the 2016 presidential election.
Research commissioned in 2016 by the Black Sea University Foundation (FUMN), found that around 28 percent of Moldovan citizens would be in favour of unification with Romania, while 47 percent would oppose it.
A large part of the opposition can be attributed to the Russian minority, the second largest group in the country and composed of immigrants who arrived during Soviet times, as well as other Russophone populations. For them, reunification could mean being relegated to second-class citizens in a greater Romania and seeing their ties to Russia severed.
In addition, Russian language and identity have become part of Moldovans’ daily lives. As much as 80 percent of all mass-media content in Moldova is rebroadcast from Russia.
A convenient untruth?
Iulia Modiga, a leader of the unionist platform ‘Action 2012,’ a nonprofit coalition fighting for reunification, claimed another factor bolsters reticence among the population: “Moldovan politicians often falsely polarise society by claiming that Russia would react aggressively in the case of a reunification, in order to avoid any changes to the status quo and their financial power and control,” she told Euronews.
“Given the political elites’ involvement in managing capital in the country, including over areas such as the food industry and wine factories, they benefit from maintaining this state of neutrality, of constantly swinging between the West and the East,” she adds
Opponents of unification can point to the example of Germany, suggesting that Romania is not capable of shouldering the burden of bridging the economic divide between the two in a way that even West Germany struggled to do.
In contrast, Russia offers Moldova an alternative development path: remaining in its sphere of influence and becoming part of the Eurasian Union, whose underlying goal is to increase Russia’s regional and international power. In this context, Russia has no interest in losing Moldova as a potential member by allowing it to tighten its relations with Romania.
The example of Transnistria offers evidence of Russia’s interest in the region. An internationally unrecognized statelet within Moldova, it separated in 1992 after a short conflict. Russian peacekeeping troops remain stationed there since the end of the conflict.
As Moldova’s largest individual trading partner, Russia also has economic leverage in the country, which, could be used to strive to influence decisions in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. In 2014, for instance, Russia imposed a cattle, beef, wine and fruit import ban on Moldova following a series of political decisions in favor of EU rapprochement.
Under the leadership of President Dodon, Moldova has been increasingly oriented towards Russia. On December 21, 2017, during an address to the nation, Dodon put his case thus: “Moldova will not be able to go on, to survive without a strategic partnership with Russia. If we don’t have good relations with Russia, Moldova will cease to exist as a state.”
Nevertheless, he also emphasized that the country needs to maintain good relations with the EU as part of a “struggle between West and East”.