By Nicholas Dima l May 4, 2009
Moldovan students raise the Romanian flag in protest
Europeans have very long memories and understanding current conflicts often requires incursions into their history and culture. The socio-political conflict that occurred recently in the Republic of Moldova is one of them. The post-Soviet republic is just the truncated eastern part of the old Romanian Principality of Moldova, a part that was better known as Bessarabia. An American scholar wrote in 1944 that Bessarabia was “the most critical territorial problem bequeathed to the present generation as a direct legacy of the old-age Eastern Question.” The territory was a problem then, is still a complicated one today 65 years later, and will remain a problem for as long as the world ignores its real significance.
The province, located between the Prut and Dnestr Rivers, was occupied for the first time by tsarist Russia in 1812. At the time, its population was overwhelmingly Romanian although they called themselves Moldovans (Moldoveni in Romanian). The modern name of Romania was adopted following the union of Moldova and Vallachia in 1859. Part of the province was reintegrated with Romania after the Crimean War ended in 1856, but it was annexed again by Russia in 1877. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the province voted to reunite “once and for all” with Romania, but the new Soviet authorities did not recognize the union.
In 1940, after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, the Red Army invaded Romania and annexed this province once again. The annexation was followed by mass arrests, deportations, summary executions and other unspeakable atrocities. It has been estimated that about one million people, mostly ethnic Romanians, suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime. To further weaken the Romanian character, the annexed province was dismembered and its northern and southern areas became part of Ukraine. At the same time, and to complicate the issue, a slice of land located on the left bank of Dnestr River was given to a newly formed Soviet republic. Ever since, this trans-Dnestr piece of land, has remained a hub of Communist activities led by its Russian minority.
Throughout the entire Soviet period from 1917 to 1991 it became Kremlin policy to relocate many local Romanians, chiefly to Kazakhstan, and to bring in ethnic Russians. Despite this Soviet relocation policy, when the USSR began to implode in 1989, about 65 percent of the population of the republic remained ethnic Romanian. During the Soviet years, however, the local people were forced to call themselves Moldovans and to use the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Latin in their writing. This was the only cultural difference between them and Romania.
When I visited there as a Voice of America (VOA) reporter in 1989, the local scene was explosive. Huge masses of people were demonstrating with Romanian flags, asking openly for a change of language and alphabet and indirectly for reunification with Romania. At the time, Romania was still under the Communist regime of Ceausescu, who was afraid of losing his own power. Shortly thereafter, Communism was overthrown in Romania and Ceausescu was executed. He was replaced with Ion Iliescu, a disgruntled Communist who had studied in Moscow where he had been a colleague of Mikhail Gorbachev. To win the presidency of Romania, Iliescu agreed to leave Moldova in the Russian sphere.
Ever since its post-Soviet independence, Moldova has been a Russian puppet state. However, because Moscow did not trust the Romanian majority of the republic, it encouraged its trans-Dnestr region to proclaim separate independence as the Dnestr Moldavian Republic. Since the beginning, Moscow assisted and controlled this region, which remained nominally Communist, but is a hub for underground arms trafficking and illicit activities. Even as late as April 17, 2009, Russia’s foreign minister declared that Moscow would continue to assist this break away region. As for Moldova, a Russian journalist wrote that Moscow was spending more money there than on any other former Soviet republic to keep it within its sphere. The stakes are geopolitical.
Since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s geopolitical game has changed tactically, but strategically it has remained very much the same. Initially, Russia still wanted to play a strong hand in the Balkans, but the breakup of Yugoslavia and the reorientation of Bulgaria toward the West, blocked Moscow. The Kremlin also alluded that it might agree to let Romania regain Moldova provided Romania would not join NATO. Then, when Romania joined NATO, Moscow tried to oppose the installation of American military forces on its territory. Losing its grasp on the Balkan Peninsula, Moscow concentrated on its regional position. What became clear then was that in no way would Russia allow Ukraine to join NATO. From this point of view, Moldova and its trans-Dnestr region acquired a renewed importance as pawns on the Western flank of Ukraine. And since Moldova itself is not safe, Moscow is backing the Dnestr republic.
Recent Political Turmoil
Over the past 20 years, the majority of the people of the Republic of Moldova have rediscovered their Romanian roots. However, Moldova fell into economic decay, corruption and extreme poverty. By any measurement, Moldova is the poorest European state and its people are desperate. A large number of them have left for the West, and a multitude applied for Romanian citizenship. Under such dire conditions and with strong backing from Moscow, in 2001 the local Communists regained power. They were and still are led by Vladimir Voronin, a former KGB general and an unreformed Communist. Since his rise to power, the socio-economic situation of Moldova has deteriorated even further. Despite being president, Voronin’s position is not strong politically. As pro-Russian, he had hoped to receive Moscow’s support to regain control of the trans-Dnestr region. Moscow, however, needs this region for its own geopolitical designs. Russia maintains the remnants of the former 14th Soviet Army with some 3,000 troops and huge quantities of munitions in this self-proclaimed republic. For the time being, Voronin is still useful to Moscow, but he is also expendable.
In recent years, the population of Moldova became increasingly stressed and dissatisfied, and the younger generation is more and more vocally pro-Romanian, pro-democracy, and pro-European. The last hope of the population was the election of April 5th for which several opposition parties were prepared to challenge the Communists. As for Voronin and his party, throughout their years in power, their biggest fear was Romania. They continuously denounced, accused, and attacked Romania as having designs on Moldova. Indeed, Romania has been offering scholarships to young Moldovans and has granted Romanian citizenship to some applicants. Nevertheless, as a member of NATO and the European Union, Romania has been very careful with its former province. Nonetheless, the Moldovan Communists kept accusing Bucharest of interference. In a way, the Communists are right! The biggest “interference” is that the majority of the people of both countries are Romanian and that cannot be hidden anymore. At the surface, what triggered the April protests and the clashes with the police were the cries of the population that the Communists have again rigged the election. But this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It was only the latest cries of the population who were fed up with living under the Communists, away from Romania, and under Moscow.
The election was held on Sunday April 5th and the next day the Communists announced that they had obtained over 50 percent of the votes. The truth is that the Communists have the upper hand because most of the young people have gone to work abroad and they do not vote. At the same time, the retirees and those who still work at home, are under the thumbs of the former Communist bosses who control the economy. No one, however, believed that the vote count was honest.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Monday after the election crowds of young people began to gather in downtown Chisinau for peaceful protests. The next days, there were over 20,000 demonstrators. The Communist regime answered with brutality. The demonstrators became more unruly too, and the two sides began to collide. The demonstrators carried a sea of Romanian flags and chanted: “We are Romanians; we want to be with Romania.” Voronin and his Communists were enraged. Security police began to club the students and to arrest them. Many journalists, especially from Romania, were expelled from the scene and all Moldovan students studying in Romania and wanting to return to Chisinau were stopped at the border. Yet, the clash with the police escalated. The demonstrators singled out the parliament and the government’s building as symbols of Communism and stormed them. They occupied the tall building of the parliament and raised the Romanian flag. Later, with police brutality escalating, the students set the building afire and at least two floors were trashed before the blaze was extinguished. Twenty years ago, Moscow helped overthrow Ceausescu. Some observers see the same scenario now in Chisinau. If so, what is Russia’s goal?
Since the 20th of April, it has been reported that some 200 students have been arrested and at least three of them were tortured to death in police custody. Their names and pictures were published in the press. At the same time, several young female students were badly beaten, sexually abused, and raped by the police. During the student revolt, Romania was rather quiet except for the people who organized peaceful demonstrations of support. Chisinau, nevertheless, expelled the Romanian ambassador, Filip Teodorescu, making him a scapegoat. In response, the president of Romania, Traian Basescu, summoned the Parliament, denounced the Communist government of Moldova, and asked the legislature to immediately pass a new law that grants Romanian passports to many Moldovans.
The Western European media covered the conflict to a limited degree only. But it did mention that Moldova was a non-state, implying that the very need for its existence is questionable. Officially, the European Union and the United States appealed for calm, for negotiations, and for a peaceful resolution. The European Parliament also decided to fully investigate the turmoil. Unwisely, however, the U.S. and the EU refuse to acknowledge the real problem. The problem is that Moldovans are Romanians and they want to rejoin their true country. On the other hand, Russia, which is aware of the reality, is practical. Moscow suggested that it would allow the return of Moldova to Romania if Bucharest would recognize the independence of the Dnestr Republic.
The leadership of the European Union is not unified on this issue and is unwilling to accept the reality. For its part, Washington has an ambiguous attitude which in the end could turn against America’s security interests. Washington wants military bases in Romania and Romanian soldiers in Afghanistan, but it ignores the feelings and aspirations of the Romanian nation. As for now, the age-old Eastern European question of Bessarabia is still an open wound. One day, though, Russia itself could decide to return the province to Romania, and America will be left on the sidelines. Only then will Washington understand that its top advisors have not acted with America’s best interests in mind.
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