By Nicholas Dima l March 21, 2011
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to an overflow crowd in Chisinau, Moldova, March 11, 2011.
(Official White House Photos by David Lienemann)
Vice President Joseph Biden’s trip to the Eastern European country of Moldova on March 11 helped to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Moldovan independence. Biden is the highest ranking U.S. government official to visit this former Soviet republic, following stops in Finland and Russia. Prime Minister Flad Filat called Biden’s stop an “historic day.”
“And here – here in this region, it has been over 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States has worked with you for a Europe that is whole, free and at peace,” said Biden speaking in Chisinau’s Opera Square, once the center of the anti-communist protests. “I am here today to congratulate you, not only on the 20th anniversary of your independence…but also for the powerful message your journey toward democracy has sent to millions of people beyond your border.”
In a similar visit to Kiev in July 2009, Biden voiced his support for Ukraine’s European integration strongly rejecting “any sphere of influence” in the region, a clear reference to Russian intentions.
Moldova has become a battleground between Russia and the West. Securing its influence once again in the Ukraine, Moscow is now reasserting itself in what it considers its “near abroad” from Moldova to Georgia. However, the United States could not remain indifferent. Indeed, on February 8 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a detailed report regarding the U.S., Moldova and its break-away region of Transnistria. Then, on March 11 Vice President Joseph Biden paid an official visit to Chisinau and stressed America’s support for Filat’s new pro-Western Alliance for European Integration led by his Liberal Democrats. Why this sudden surge of interest? What could and what should America do?
Washington could help Moldova regain full control over all its territory. By doing so it would stabilize the region and promote America’s security interests in southeastern Europe. But there is an additional problem. Moldova is historically a Romanian land. Why is Washington ignoring this essential fact?
To understand the difficulties confronting Moldova, a few points should be clarified: 1) Moldova cannot be considered a fully sovereign and independent country as long as it does not control its territory; 2) It is hardly possible to understand Moldova outside its Romanian past; 3) Moldova, and especially Transnistria, is an important Russian geo-political pivot in southeastern Europe; and, 4) With Romania a NATO member and Ukraine once again firmly within the Russian sphere of influence, Moldova has become very important strategically. And the chief problem is Transnistria, the region located mostly on the left bank of the Nistru River and which declared its own independence. Actually, Moscow has never relinquished its grasp on this region. By controlling it, Russia encircles Ukraine and it keeps a foothold near the Balkans. Transnistria is thus a destabilizing factor on NATO’s eastern flank and an obstacle in America’s policy toward the Middle East.
The official Western policy toward Moldova for some 20 years now has been to recognize it as a legitimate state and to aim at integrating it into the structures of the European Union. However, Moscow has done everything to prevent this. First, it divided Moldova politically, weakened it economically, and made it impossible for Chisinau to adopt a clear pro-Western attitude. And second, Russia has rejected any solution regarding the Transnistria territorial conflict.
The Jamestown Foundation recently published two articles explaining the background and importance of Moldova and Transnistria. (V. Socor, The Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 15 and 16, 2011). This area took the first steps to split from Moldova even before Chisinau declared its independence. The split was planned by Moscow in anticipation of the Soviet disintegration and led to a short but costly war between Chisinau and Tiraspol, the capital of the split region. After the war, the two parts assisted by various mediators, engaged in on-and-off negotiations. Eventually, they settled on a 5 plus 2 formula that included Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, EU and the U.S., plus Chisinau and Tiraspol, but the process bogged down in 2006. Then, Germany tried to induce Russia to cooperate on this territorial conflict offering Moscow its mediation for the establishment of an EU-Russia political and security committee. Moscow agreed in principle, but only on its own terms. This year, the pressure to re-start the negotiations has intensified, but the results have been modest. Russia wants better relations with the European Union, but without linking them to the Transnistria conflict.
Moscow and Tiraspol “seem intent on stonewalling the negotiations indefinitely” writes Socor, adding that the authorities of Transnistria came up with “five or six counter-arguments and preconditions” against a resumption of negotiations. Tiraspol wants only a confederated link with Chisinau; it wants international guarantees with Russia and Ukraine as guarantors; and it asks that any solution must include the right to a referendum for Transnistria’s “independence and with its subsequent integration with the Russian Federation.”
“This land with roughly 500,000 inhabitants that runs along Moldova’s border with Ukraine ‘is the Russian empire’s frontier’,” wrote Gordon Fairclough on March 11 in the Wall Street Journal. And he stressed that Transnistria’s president, Igor Smirnov, declared without equivocation that this territory “will always be with Russia.” Moscow and Tiraspol also cite the case of Kosovo to justify the existence of Transnistria. In this vein, they ask: If the West recognized the independence of Kosovo, why apply different standards for Transnistria and the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Richard Lugar, former chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and currently its ranking Republican member, understands the importance of Moldova and has asked for a more active American policy in the region. The February 8 report on Moldova and Transnistria commissioned by Senator Lugar stresses specifically: “Recent events should provide the United States with an opportunity to renew high-level engagement in support of forging a solution to this conflict.” And then, it also recommends that “The United States should strongly support European efforts to resolve the conflict and thereby assist Moldova in advancing its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. A resolute U.S. commitment to this cause will ensure that we do not cede influence in a region of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy,” the report concluded.
Biden’s visit was highlighted in the STRATFOR Global Intelligence report as well as in all newspapers of Moldova. STRATFOR stressed the obvious: “Moldova has been kept in a state of political paralysis that has worked in favor of Russia’s interest…Biden’s visit is meant to reassure the tiny but strategic country that the United States is interested in building relations and that the West has not abandoned Chisinau.” The journal also stressed that “Moscow has engineered Moldova’s political deadlock…and that Russia has substantial levers in the country, the most significant being the allegiance of Moldova’s breakaway territory of Transdniestria, where 1,000 Russian military personnel are stationed.” A throwback to the Cold War era in a remnant of the old Soviet empire.
According to the Moldovan newspaper Timpul of March 12, during his brief visit Mr. Biden expressed the official attitude of Washington. He stated clearly that Moldova “must be part, and should be part, of Europe.” As for Transnistria, he declared that “the United States will support any effort which should resolve the conflict respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova.”
Actually, STRATFOR points out that Moldova is not currently a top issue between Russia and the West, but in the future it could emerge as a strategic battleground. Washington knows that at the moment Moldova is in Russia’s sphere of influence. In a way, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus are now in the situation of Eastern Europe before 1989. It will probably take an earth-shaking event to change the status quo. Such an event may happen and history could repeat itself catching America unprepared.
Before drawing a conclusion, the readers should know a few facts about Moldova. According to the latest 2004 Census, Moldova has a population of about 3.4 million inhabitants as compared to about 3.7 million in 1989. The roughly 275,000 fewer people can be explained through emigration. Consequently, the proportion of Romanian-speaking Moldovans increased from 65 percent in 1989 to over 72 percent in 2004. In addition, given the lack of local economic opportunities, it has been estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of the population has left the country in search of work, to pursue their studies, or to try to relocate permanently. The figure is imprecise because many people have left Moldova without proper documentation. An ever increasing number of Moldovans have obtained Romanian citizenship and passports.
During the Soviet era, the Moldovans were coerced under punishment of law to hide their Romanian identity and to declare themselves “Moldovans.” They were also forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Latin one. However, in 1989 Moldova reverted to the Latin alphabet and began to teach their students about their true identity. As a result, a younger generation of Moldovans has rediscovered and reaffirmed its Romanian roots.
There are a few thousand “Moldovans” who are working or studying, or who have settled recently in the United States. On March 5 those living in the Washington, DC, area organized the well-known Romanian spring holiday celebration called “Martisor.” Several hundred attendees, many of them dressed in folk costumes, speaking Romanian and singing traditional Romanian folk songs, made their identity known. Nothing can prevent the present generation from wanting to rejoin Romania. And this is the problem. America ought to know it. But Washington prefers to pretend that it does not.
U.S. policy makers should take a hard look at Moldova and place it in its natural Romanian context. Romania is now a member of the EU and NATO and a loyal ally of the United States. While the State Department is befriending the Bucharest government and now the government in Chisinau, it is ignoring the feelings of the Romanian people. It would be a good idea if Washington started at least to consider the possibility of a future reunification of Moldova with Romania.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to