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Friday, August 7, 2015

Moldova: Squinting towards Europe and Romania

The Republic of Moldova, a small Romanian-speaking country to the southwest of Ukraine, formed a coalition government recently consisting of three different pro-European Union parties.

Even though the left-wing, pro-Russian Party of Socialists won the most votes and the most seats overall in the Moldovan Parliament, the drop in support for the Party of Communists ensured that the pro-European coalition in Moldova would be ruling the country as it has a total of 55 seats compared to the 45 total seats occupied by the Socialists and Communists.

Moldova, like Macedonia and Ukraine, has been grappling with a sharply divided population since it became an independent country, separated into pro-European and pro-Russian camps. Similar to Ukraine and Georgia, it also has not yet found a resolution to the frozen conflict that sits on its eastern border.

As Moldova became an independent country in the early 1990s, it was almost immediately pushed into a conflict with the tiny de facto independent state on its eastern border known as Transnistria" or "Pridnestrovie". Transnistria is a thin sliver of land that never wanted to leave the USSR, but with growing nationalist sentiments rising in the 1980s, it found itself with nowhere to go sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Fortunately for the Transnistrians, they outnumbered the ethnic Moldovans in their small strip of land. The Supreme Soviet of Moldova, dominated by nationalists as the USSR crumbled, started to enact policies that, despite not being outright discriminatory in nature, alienated many people living in Transnistria. War broke out, and the Transnistrians with the help of Russian and Ukrainian volunteers (in addition to help from the Russian Army), were able to fend off the Moldovans and implement a ceasefire. Transnistria has been de facto independent ever since. 

If Transnistria was recaptured by Moldovan troops there is a possibility that the region would be able to tip the election to the pro-Russian side. 

While the pro-European parties in Moldova have "won" the most recent election, they still must fight an uphill battle because of significant support for the opposition, corruption, poverty, and the frozen conflict. Moldova is dysfunctional to say the least. 

If Moldova's government can jolt the country to life, it will likely pursue closer ties with the European Union, but if not, the Socialists and Communists could claw back into power. 

Pro-European sentiment seems to be on the rise in Moldova. Throughout the 1990s, the Party of Communists had a strong hold on power, but the last five years have revealed a tide of pro-European parties gaining ground in the country.

The other dynamic that is interesting in Moldova is the possibility of reunification with Romania. Both countries speak Romanian, and Moldova's national anthem upon independence was the same as Romania's. The idea is still popular in Romania but more controversial in Moldova, and the pro-EU parties in Moldova have been more concerned with EU accession than a union with Romania. Still, the countries share common ground and if Moldova was able to pick itself up and become more economically powerful by meeting the various requirements for EU membership, reunification could come back into the country's political dialogue. 

If Moldova wants to do anything, though, they're going to have to look internally first. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and is plagued by corruption and ineffective leadership. 
The major problems to address are as follows.

First of all, Transnistria simply cannot be ignored. Every frozen conflict that has emerged has crippled and undermined the countries that have been involved. It may be, at this point, better for Moldova to cut its losses with the rebellious sliver of land where the sickle and hammer still flutters above government buildings. This could be a difficult pill to swallow for Moldovans, but it would effectively let the country focus internally on its own problems. Re-absorbing the breakaway country would make resentment fester and present an electoral challenge for the pro-European government.

If Moldova does eventually choose to retake Transnistria by force, it's taking a huge risk.  More than a thousand Russian troops still patrol Transnistria, and the Kremlin has shown that it is not afraid to act militarily if its perceived interests are threatened, not to mention the possibility of a second breakdown of talks in the Donbas War not so far away.

In theory, economic sanctions could be a third alternative. Transnistria's tiny size and border between Ukraine and Moldova (two countries with pro-EU governments) means it is heavily dependent on the countries around it. If Ukraine and Moldova cut their trade with the region, Transnistria will have no choice to capitulate to their demands...but the threat of Russian military action would still be a possibility.

A fourth option could be to kill them with kindness. Moldova is a tiny country. It is not a member of NATO or the EU. Realistically, it invites risks it won't be able to deal with if it deals with Transnistria forcefully. If this relatively new government steps up investment and development with EU approval, it could effectively swing the region into considering a return to Moldova. Chisinau will have to ensure the ethnic minorities in the region (mostly Russians and Ukrainians) are respected and given levels of self-governance, but Transnistria is small and unrecognized. It does not possess leverage. This isn't to say Moldova's very powerful itself, but Moldova does have a pro-European government and the European Union may see this as an opportunity to both expand influence, appease its Romanian contingent, and develop stronger economic development in the face of Kremlin aggression.

Moldova also needs to look internally. It's richer than its breakaway region, but still extremely poor and dysfunctional. Fortunately, it might not have to look too far to find a neighbor willing to assist it.

Romania ascended into the European Union in 2007 with Bulgaria, but was decried for its poverty and corrupt government at the time. Since becoming part of the EU, though, the country has cleaned up its act and sent dozens of government officials to prison for corruption. Romania is on the up and up since it entered the EU, and the political will to help Moldova exists as many Romanians hope for an eventual reunification with Moldova-the countries speak the same language, share a religion (Orthodox Christianity), and now their ambitions towards Europe are similar, not to mention they were once one country many years ago.

Whether it is in Moldova's best interest to unify with Romania is unclear as of now. To do so now would be difficult and controversial since Moldova is so much poorer than Romania, but down the road and provided the Moldovan government can put the country on the right track, the possibility of reunification may emerge stronger in the years to come.

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