For more than a decade, Romanians have become used to seeing -- emblazoned on buildings or on walls beside busy highways -- three words book-ended by red, yellow and blue: ‘Basarabia e România’.
Bessarabia no longer exists, but when it did it was the land that Russia and later the Soviet Union occupied between the River Prut and both banks of the River Dniester, as far east as the border with Ukraine and west with Romania.
It is the land now known by another name, Moldova.
For a long time, the identity of the graffiti artists was a mystery. In an interview with Romanian media in 2015, one artist said anonymity would prevent their identities from detracting from their message.
It is a mystery no longer.
“Yes, I wrote this graffiti on many walls, as did friends of mine,” George Simion said. “It is everywhere.”
For those who know Simion, the revelation may not come as a huge surprise. Before he was co-leader of the Union for the Alliance of Romanians (AUR), he was a pro-union activist that had been involved in high profile acts of protest and who, even now, is banned from Moldova.
His AUR was formed with the express intention of lobbying for the unification of ethnic Romanians in Romania, Moldova and parts of Hungarian Transylvania even if -- since it won 12% of the vote in national elections in 2020 -- it is no longer a single-issue political party.
Modelled on Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), the AUR is expected to increase -- even to double -- its vote if, as expected, the country has new snap elections within the next 12 months. It has fused social conservatism on issues such as migration and LGBT rights with scepticism over European green energy targets and stinging attacks on Romania’s current political elite.
But in an interview with Euronews, Simion said he had by no means abandoned the issue that brought him into politics.
“The union between Romania and Moldova is extremely important to us. We are a single nation thrust apart by unfortunate historical circumstance. We share the same historical culture, and two-thirds of Moldovans are Romanians,” he said.
“The Germans managed to successfully unify despite any dissimilarities that emerged between the East and West after the war. Most people in the world hope for an eventual unification of the Koreas. We must also follow our dream of uniting our nation. It is a legitimate wish.”
There have only been two decades in modern history that the statement "Basarabia e România" was fact. In 1918, after a century of occupation by Moscow, Romania and Moldova became a single nation. In 1940, after a brief and not entirely happy union, Moldova was handed back to Moscow under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
After the war, the victorious Soviets had no intention of handing territory over to Romania, and Moldova remained under Moscow’s yoke until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its rich soil helped feed the Soviet people and its relatively good weather made it a popular holiday destination for the Soviet elite. On Soviet weather reports, Moldova was illustrated by palm trees.
Leonid Brezhnev, a future leader of the USSR, even cut his teeth as commissar for Moldova, where his penchant for sharp suits and expensive cigarettes reportedly turned a lot of heads.
Despite a noisy movement advocating union with Romania when independence came in 1991, Moldova became an independent state - and three decades later it remains so. In its 1994 constitution, Moldovan was classified as distinct from Romanian, despite the languages being almost identical (similar, linguists argue, to the difference between English and Scottish).
A separate Moldovan identity was directly encouraged by the Soviet Union prior to 1991 and as far back as the first Russian occupation of Bessarabia in 1812, the authorities sought to play down the territory’s Romanian roots. Russian replaced Romanian as the language of education and the country’s elite gravitated towards Moscow rather than Paris, as was common a century earlier.
Language is still a hot topic today. Just 10% of Moldovans speak Russian as their first language but in December 2020, Moldova’s pro-Russian parliament passed legislation that required Russian labels for medicines and other goods against the objection of the country’s new pro-EU president, Maia Sandu. The law was ultimately overturned by the constitutional court.
The push and pull between Russia and Europe, between East and West, has featured at every election since independence. In 2016, it pitted an outspoken Vladimir Putin ally, Igor Dodon, against Sandu and resulted in a Dodon victory. Over the next four years, Dodon visited Russia dozens of times and relations with Bucharest and the European Union hit rock bottom.
Then in 2020, Sandu beat Dodon and, the following year managed to overturn the pro-Russian Socialist Party’s majority in parliament. In the months since, Sandu and her parliamentary party, the PAS, have begun to restore relations with Brussels. In June, the EU promised Moldova €600 million over three years to help it rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike some other potential EU member states, such as Serbia, pro-EU sentiment in Moldova is high -- as is pro-Romanian -- particularly among the million-strong Moldovan diaspora, the majority of which live in European states and left their homeland because of economic malaise and corruption. In 2020, the diaspora voted overwhelmingly for Sandu, and in 2021 for the pro-EU PAS.
But being pro-Europe as opposed to pro-Russian does not mean that the majority of Moldovans want to see a union with Romania in the form that Simeon would like to see it take. The AUR advocates a complete fusion between the nations, with a shared government and shared institutions. It would effectively be an entirely new nation, with a shared capital city, a flag and a national anthem.
And it would need a new name.
Simion does not think that the last requirement should -- or would -- be controversial. (It doesn’t matter - what matters is that we are together,” he told Euronews.) But history suggests that it may well be.
Historian Rebecca Haynes writes in her book Moldova: A History that Romania and Moldova’s intention to unify in the wake of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War actually collapsed because the parties on either side could not agree whether Bucharest of Chisinau would be the capital.
Simion suggests that it would be Bucharest, but also suggests Brasov, in Transylvania. He does not mention Iasi, but Romania’s cultural capital was the actual capital of the medieval state of Moldovia before becoming part of Romania. It is also 300 kilometres close to Chisinau than Bucharest.
As for the country’s new name, he posits the United Romanian States.
But again, he does not think it matters.
“What matters is to do right where criminals like Hitler and Stalin did wrong. We need to help our people in Moldova escape a failed state,” he said.
It is unlikely that even the harshest critics of unification would disagree about the role of Hitler and Stalin, nor about the current state of affairs in Moldova. The country is Europe’s poorest and a huge slice of it, Transnistria, has effectively been under Russian military occupation since 1992.
But while Romanians may want to save their Moldovan neighbours, their Moldovan neighbours may not want to be saved.
"Romania has a big affection for Moldova, considering itself the wealthier brother, the brother that has a duty to assist and help," said Radu Magdin, an analyst in Bucharest.
While a majority of Moldovans may agree that their country is an economic basket case, that does not necessarily mean that they want it to effectively cease to exist. Moldovan national identity may have been promoted and encouraged by the Soviets and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but that does not mean that it does not exist and is not important to people in Moldova.
While over half of Moldova’s active population, for example, have Romanian passports -- allowing them to live, work and travel freely in the European Union -- 75% of people identified as Moldovan and just 7% as Romanian during the country’s last census. In 2004, 60% of people said their first language was Moldovan and only 19% said that their language - the same language - was Romanian.
Moldovans could also legitimately claim that the name of their country -- or, at least, ‘Moldovia’ -- far precedes Romania, much of which was referred to as Wallachia until the 20th century. While around 60% of Romanians are in favour of a union with Moldova, even the most optimistic polls in Moldova put the equivalent level of support at just over 25%.
“We have a contradiction of identity in Moldova. People have two passports [and] when they go to Romania they are Romanian and in Moldova they are Moldovan. It is a fusion of self-identity,” said Vadim Pistrinciuc, executive director for the Institute for Strategic Initiatives in Chisinau.
Moldova is also home to ethnic minorities including Ukrainians (6.6%, in the 2014 census) and the Gauguz (4.6%), who live in an autonomous region in southern Moldova. In Transnistria, where the last census was held in 2004, a third of the population identify as Russian and another third Ukrainian, with the final third Moldovan - in the de-facto capital, Tiraspol, that figure is just 15%.
“Moldova is a multi-ethnic society and important parts of that society disagree on unification. But not all of them disagree to European integration,” said Pistrinciuc.
Indeed, Romania joining the EU in 2007 provided a far more uncontroversial argument for unionists that, in Moldova, were failing to win over three-quarters of Moldovans to the idea of a full union. The argument runs that if Moldova joins Romania in the EU, the two countries will effectively be unified anyway, under the huge rainbow umbrella that is the European bloc.
It is certainly a safer argument for politicians like Maia Sandu to adopt. Her opponents -- Dodon’s Socialist Party included -- had long told their supporters that a vote for Sandu and the PAS was the first step towards the disappearance of Moldova as an independent state and a union with Romania. In the 2020 elections, such scaremongering was a key part of the opposition’s campaign literature.
For Simion, however, Moldova’s "union" with Romania in the EU is a pipe dream. Contrary to the media reports that describe the AUR as Eurosceptic he is in favour of Moldovan accession, he tells Euronews, and wants the country to be an EU member state. Not least, as a protection against an expansionist and increasingly belligerent Russia that still has designs on its former province.
The EU, Simion argues, has shown in the Western Balkans that it is no longer serious about expansion. Moldova’s only door to Europe is as part of the United Romanian States.
Or whatever it ends up being called.
“Many more Moldovans will favour a union once they understand that the EU enlargement process has now come to a halt. The only realistic option for EU enlargement for Moldovans is through Moldova’s unification with Romania,” he said.
For the time being, one immediate obstacle to a union -- at least, as far as Simion is concerned -- is that the AUR leader is currently banned from Moldova.
Simion was live on Facebook on March 14, 2021, as officials at the Albita-Leuseni border crossing refused to allow him into Moldova. Simion was told he was a persona non grata.
It isn’t the first time that Simion has been refused entry to Moldova, indeed he has been arrested and banned numerous times over the last decade. But this is his longest yet - lasting until 2023 and still in force despite the end of the Igor Dodon reign and the election of Maia Sandu.
Euronews contacted government and judicial spokespeople in Moldova for clarity on Simion’s ban and the procedure for making someone a persona non grata, but emails and calls were ignored.
Simion has compared himself to Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, and his party, the AUR, to Fidesz, and the two men certainly have one thing in common. AUR co-founder Claudiu Tarziu made his political career campaigning against the introduction of gay marriage, and Simion has backed Hungary’s anti-LGBT law and wants to see similar legislation introduced in Romania.
It is for this, Simion believes, that his party has gained the unfortunate moniker of ‘far right’, adding to their political toxicity both at home and abroad. That, the AUR leader says, is unfair.
Largely as a result of our view on gay marriage, AUR has been mislabeled wrongfully as radical, “ultra-right,” and “far-right,” when, on most issues, our policy is aligned with the Christian conservative mainstream,” Simion aid.
“More than 80 per cent of Romanians are Orthodox Christian and over 90 per cent represent various Christian creeds. We do not believe that gay and lesbian relationships should have the same legal status as traditional marriage in our country.”
But while Orban and Simion may be able to bond on a shared antipathy towards gay and lesbian citizens enshrining their unions in law -- as well as a desire for power -- their friendship may fall down over the other big issue for European nationalists, past and present: that of land.
Hungarians make up over 6% of the Romanian population, concentrated in Transylvania, which was part of Hungary before World War I. While Hungary no longer claims Transylvania, Hungarians in Romania are a key constituency for Orban. In 2013, he extended voting rights and passports to ethnic Hungarians and he visits the region often.
Simion also visits the Hungarian-majority areas of Romania, but for different reasons. In 2019, he visited a World War I graveyard in a Hungarian-majority area of Romania after reports that Hungarian nationalists had desecrated the graves of Romanian soldiers buried there.
Simion, again live on Facebook, was physically attacked in the clashes that followed his visit.
He has been openly critical of Hungarian-minority parties in Romania and accused of inflaming ethnic tensions between Romanians and Hungarians in Hungarian-majority regions.
George Simion’s story began with slogans dubbed on the walls of abandoned buildings and highways and passed through nationalist stunts in northern Romania and on the Moldovan border. But it will be in Bucharest that his story is either taken up a notch or unceremoniously forgotten.
If the former, it would not be the first time that massive public anger against the political class coupled with economic malaise had brought a nationalist, populist government to power in Europe.
Is there a world in which George Simion - an activist-turned-politician who made his name fighting for something that most people didn’t want, in Moldova, at least - holds the balance of power, or even power itself, in Romania?
“Honestly,” said Magdin, “it depends how bad it gets.”
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