Stepping through the minefield of history to probe the prospect of unity between two countries at the choke point between the EU and Russia
Text by Michael Bird. Graphics by Nicoleta Banila
European empires have spent centuries carving up the territory of today's Moldova, bartering pieces back and forth, stitching them together, attaching a section to the top or tearing another away from the base.
Some parts broke off, while others were left hanging, holding on by a thread to the rest of the country, threatening at any point to snap and fall.
Now Moldova is a precarious nation with a multi-ethnic mix and an unresolved conflict with almost a fifth of its own citizens.
The nation is a microcosm for many problems facing the EU - a fragile economy, weak currency, a migrant workforce, proximity to the Ukrainian conflict and a frontline for the stand off between Brussels and Moscow.
The country has swapped hands between Romania and Russia for the last two centuries, before wrestling free from the USSR in 1991 and consolidating its independent ambitions in 1994.
Yet now Romania has launched a parliamentary group called ‘Friends of the Union’ to promote the concept of unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova.
With 41 MPs in Bucharest, the group aims to increase economic and cultural ties between the two countries.
However the most controversial proposal - favoured by some of its MPs - is for Romania to make an “offer’ to Moldova to reunify.
Although Moldova has always been a foreign policy priority for Bucharest, this is the first time, publicly, Romania's lawmakers have come forward with such an initiative.
“We have to work with Moldova, help them find Europe and European values, if unity will be a solution accepted by EU and NATO, we will be glad to [unify],” says Ovidiu Raetchi, a National Liberal Party (PNL) MP in the Romanian parliament.
The issue opens historical wounds, which clash with present political complexities.
This includes the war in Ukraine and Moldova’s frozen conflict zone of Transnistria, a breakaway Republic in the east of the country with strong links to Russia.
It comes at a tense moment for Moldova - which suffers from an economic slump, a plummeting value in its currency and rampant corruption.
Leading Romanian politicians declare their undying support for a ‘union’, but speech has never turned into action.
Meanwhile pro-unionist movements on both sides of the border are promoting the union as an answer to Moldova’s problems.
“The Republic of Moldova does not have a chance of survival and the only solution to leave its crisis is a union with Romania,” argues Dinu Plangau, president of pro-unionist activist group, the Youth of Moldova.
They cite Romania as an example of economic and political success - due to its steady economic growth, EU and NATO membership and radical program of anti-corruption, where hundreds of politicians are now facing jail or arrest.
However in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, no parties in Parliament campaign on a pro-Unionist line.
Meanwhile Moldovans favour EU entry, but are cooler towards the prospect of NATO membership.
After last year’s election, the political colours of the ex-Soviet Republic are changing from Liberal and pro-European parties, towards the Communists and Socialists, who are closer to Russia.
Pro-Moscow parties have cast themselves as a force for change for many in the disappointed electorate.
“Discussion about unification is only making Moldovan politics more fragile,” says Nicu Popescu, senior analyst at the EU’s Institute for Security Studies, “it is feeding the anti-Romanian discourse of rising forces in Moldovan politics who are pro-Russian.”
The Socialist Party has the largest number of seats in the Moldovan parliament, while an uneasy coalition of Liberals and Communists runs the Government.
I ask Igor Dodon, head of the Moldovan Socialist Party, on his view on the union movement. I contact him through Facebook, as this seems the best method of catching his attention.
He answers and, although I ask him to elaborate on his view, he leaves me only with a symbol and a single word:
'Moldavia’, an area which includes areas on both sides of today’s border, was a proud and independent state in the 15th and 16th centuries, beating back empires, before ceding control to the rampant Ottoman Empire.
With a few exceptions, the territory remained a vassal state until the end of the Russo-Turkish war in 1812, when a peace deal split the territory in two, with the west staying with the Ottomans and the east granted to the Tsarist Empire.
It remained with the Russians until 1918, when Romania, flush from supporting the winning side in World War I, sought to advance its territories as the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires fell.
However by the end World War II the Soviet Union reconquered the zone, moving in more Russian speakers from its vast territories, especially in the eastern part of Transnistria, which became a military-industrial Soviet complex.
Nevertheless Romania argues that it has greater cultural links to the country - with the majority of people in Moldova speaking Romanian.
Historian and Ion Ratiu Fellow at Georgetown University, Dennis Deletant, writes that, excepting the period of Russian rule between 1812 and 1918, the population "shared a common ancestry, language and, for the most part, history with the Romanian people".
But while Romania promotes a union as ‘re-unification’, Russia argues this is ‘re-annexation’.
‘Friends of the Union’ has two aims.
First is the tough talk of unification - which is cheered on by a Romanian audience, but greeted with a muffled response from abroad.
Secondly, the group is promoting the soft politics of building up economic, social and cultural relations between Romania and Moldova - greater transport links, support for Moldova’s education system, supplying study grants in Romania for Moldovan students and increasing political dialogue.
“No one [from Bucharest] is talking to Moldovans about what they need - simple things such as [Romanian] books in high schools or universities,” says Ovidiu Raetchi.
“There is a lot more to do at a smaller level without taking unification into consideration as the most important objective.”
No official is talking of Romania forcing itself on Moldova against the will of the people and its Government.
“We - like Russia - are free to help Romanians there and to help Moldova as a whole to decide its identity and its future,” says Raetchi.
“It’s not for Romanians to decide, it’s for Moldova to decide.”
The mythology of reunification with Moldova is manipulated by Romanian leaders prior to elections as a short-term rouse to seduce votes.
The union is supported by 76 per cent of Romanians, according to an IRES poll in 2013 - and no major candidate in Romania’s presidential elections last year risked ruling such a union out.
Outgoing President Traian Basescu was most passionate in his desire for a union, which he called “the project of my soul”.
This was echoed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
Last September he gave a speech in Alba Iulia, a town which was the site of signing of a treaty in 1918 which consolidated Romania's expansion to Transylvania and parts of today’s Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria. This was called “the great union of Romania”.
Ponta stated: “My commitment is that together we make the second great union of Romania.”
Soviet Russia never recognised Romania’s absorption of what was then called ‘Bessarabia’ in 1918.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Ponta’s comments, expressing “concern’ and adding “certain political quarters in Bucharest are still hatching annexationist plans regarding a sovereign neighbouring country”.
Privately EU diplomats express similar worries about such revanchist chatter, but statements by Ponta and Basescu do not cause too much alarm.
This is because few in Brussels and Washington take what Romanian politicians say seriously.
“A lot of talk about unification happens in the Romanian domestic political context, which is not necessarily aiming to make this goal of unification closer,” says Nicu Popescu.
“Basescu was quite actively talking about this in his two presidential terms. For him this was a central discourse, but not a central preoccupation.”
After Basescu’s grandstanding, no one in Romania’s Government launched a feasibility study to see whether unification was possible.
“There is no project,” says Raetchi. "We have to work to see if there can be a project.
“There are lots of hypotheses and variables to take into consideration and then see if the project is possible. Maybe it is not possible now, but in a hundred years.”
Since 2010 Romania has increased its support for Moldova - particularly targeting the next generation of voters.
At that time Romania released 100 million Euro in aid to Moldova to support education and infrastructure. Moldovan students in Romania enjoy special privileges and last year Ponta gave 100 school buses to Moldova.
In the last ten years the numbers of Moldovans with access to Romanian passports has exploded - enfranchising tens of thousands of new voters.
“With each new election, more Moldovans with Romanian passports vote in Romanian elections - given how close some Romanian elections have been, suddenly there is a less theoretical interest in Moldova and a more concrete interest [from Romanian political parties],” says Popescu. “Moldovans with Romanian passports are now an electorally non-negligible force.”
However there is no boisterous talk of unification from new Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
He believes that reunification with Moldova does not represent a national objective, arguing for a move to a union at a “slow” rate, he stated last May when mayor of Transylvanian city of Sibiu.
He added that he did not believe Romania should have a “policy of persuading Moldovans to unite with Romania”.
But he has not ruled out the prospect.
Actiunea 2012 (Action 2012) is an umbrella group of 30 pro-unionist groups from Romania, Moldova, Switzerland, France, Italy and the USA who want Romania to make an offer to Moldova for reunification in 2016.
Its intentions are backed up by some members of the Parliamentary Group.
“Now Moldova is confronted with an economic crisis which is catastrophic and the single thing which can save the republic of Moldova is a union with Romania,” argues vice president of Actiunea 2012, Iulia Modiga.
Next year there will be Romanian parliamentary elections. Although Moldovan reunification does not top the concerns of the average Romanian, voters are more open to candidates who express pro-unionist tendencies.
Views are less enthusiastic to the east of Romania. The number of Moldovans who have expressed a desire for unification with Romania veers between 7.5 and 15 per cent, according to polls since 2012 from CBS-AXA and Eurasia Monitor.
However activists from Actiunea 2012 dispute the way pollsters put the questions in this poll. They cite a survey in March 2014 for the Romanian Centre for Strategic Studies, which found 52 per cent were strongly or slightly in agreement with a union.
But this poll excluded autonomous zones in Moldova - Gagauzia and Transnistria - which tend to be more pro-Russian.
Although Moldovan authorities were flirting with the prospect of reunification in the early 1990s, in 1994 the country launched a referendum asking its citizens to confirm its territorial integrity - a move backed by 98 per cent of adults.
“There was a slight window of opportunity [for unification] in 1992/1993, but from 1993 onwards there has been a stable situation where the unification of Romania and Moldova is not a realistic or a politically achievable prospect,” says Popescu. “Partly this is because the number of people wanting to reunite has not been rising.”
At a theoretical level, activists and some politicians are calling for a referendum on the union to happen in March 2018 in Romania and Moldova.
This date is politically loaded - as it is a century on from the union of parts of today’s Moldova and Romania.
“Maybe we will celebrate 100 years from reunification - having such a referendum,” says independent Romanian MP Remus Cernea.
But historical precedents are tricky regarding which pieces of land could join Romania.
Visitors to Bucharest are confronted by graffiti and stickers sprayed across the banks of its canals, abandoned buildings and toilet walls of its bars, declaring ‘Bessarabia is Romania’ - referring to the zone which was part of Romania between the first and second world wars.
Yet ‘Bessarabia’ includes areas north and south of today’s Moldova, which are now in Ukraine.
Bessarabia also excludes the majority of Transnistria, which is allied to Moscow and operates a separate state with its own currency.
Romanian politicians often talk about a reunification with Bessarabia - yet when activists and MPs are pushed on this, they claim they have no designs on Ukraine’s land.
Actiunea 2012’s Iulia Modiga says there is no struggle to regain ‘Bessarabia’ as it previously existed. Instead the movement is focused on a political union between Moldova today and Romania.
However never in history has the area of Transnistria east of the river Nistru belonged to Romania.
Transnistria has hosted Russia’s 14th Army since the end of World War II and contains a balanced ethnic mix of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians.
Activists from Actiunea 2012 want to unify with the entirety of Moldova, including Transnistria.
“We cannot give up that easily even if there is no precedent, we cannot abandon [these people],” says Actiunea 2012’s Iulia Modiga.
But what happens if the people in Transnistria want something different from those in Moldova?
“The union has become a scarecrow used by [authorities in Transnistria’s capital of] Tiraspol because they are very close to Moscow,” says Modiga.
The group does not favour separate referenda for Transnistria.
Neither does it believe there should be a separate plebiscite for Gagauzia, an autonomous state of Orthodox Turks in south Moldova, which also has strong political links to Moscow.
Modiga argues that the “worst scenario would be federalization” as even Balti - a city with a large Russian speaking community in the north of Moldova - may want to break away.
“For Moldova, a union is a road much better for them, indifferent if they are Gagauz or Transnistrian,” she argues.
But Remus Cernea believes that “we have to let the people of Transnistria to decide for themselves if they want to join Romania or not - we have to be pragmatic and realistic.”
Ovidiu Raetchi believes that Moldova has to decide on its own timetable concerning Transnistria, with agreement from the EU.
“The last thing we want is to take war to another place in the area,” he says.
However the majority of Transnistrians remain pro-Russian and sceptical of Romania’s intentions. Even though opponents to Russia claim Transnistrians are brainwashed by biased Russian media, this is not a situation that looks to reverse.
Romania is not viewed as an El Dorado in Tiraspol.
As one Transnistrian tells me: “Outsiders think of Transnistria as a Soviet state and many Transnistrians see Romania as a place from the 19th century, with horse-driven ‘gypsy’ wagons at every crossroads.”
Nevertheless Romanian politicians and activists are looking to sell Romania to Moldova as a miracle cure for its ailments - an economic success, a tested force in fighting corruption, a zone of stability in the region and protection from an American shield.
Modiga argues that consolidating the country would be "avantageous" for security of the USA and NATO.
However Moldovans oppose entry into NATO - with 48 per cent against, compared to 24 per cent in favour, according to a survey from the Moldovan Association of Sociologists in 2013.
The message Raetchi wants to play towards Moldova is that Romania has made a success of its EU status and its anti-corruption department has shaken the complacency of the Romanian political class.
But Nicu Popescu argues that most Moldovans “haven’t seen” Romania's tremendous socio-economic progress in the last ten years and “don’t necessarilly know” about the anti-corruption success in Romania.
Some MPs and activists argue that a union could bring stability to this part of eastern Europe - including gaining access to a larger market.
“It may be a good step for stability in region - maybe the economic cooperation of countries around will increase,” says Cernea.
However Nicu Popescu does not believe this will become a more prescient topic with the threat of an economic downturn.
“In the 1990s and in 2009, Moldova was in constant political and economic near-collapse,” he says, “and previous Moldovan economic collapses have not increased the chances of unification.”
Critics argue that it is not wise to begin expansionist talk at a time when the EU is trying to calm nationalistic tendencies among its member states.
It could exacerbate tensions in a region stricken with disaster on political, military and economic fronts.
“We know it’s a sensitive moment now to start this unity friendship because of the Ukraine situation,” says Raetchi.
Another major concern would be the geopolitical implications of such an approach towards a union - which is shorthand for ‘this would annoy the hell out of Russia’.
“We have looked too much at what Russia or what anyone else says about this issue,” argues Iulia Modiga. “If we wait to see what everybody says, including Russia or Brussels, we won’t do it. We should decide by ourselves.”
But the likelihood of such a plebiscite taking place in Moldova does not look possible at present.
“There is rising disappointment with pro-EU political parties in Moldova, not because the parties are pro-EU, but because they haven’t delivered on fighting corruption,” says Nicu Popescu.
“There is a rising support for pro-Russian parties, which come with the message of change, such as the Socialist and Patria parties. If anything the centre of gravity of Moldovan politics is moving away from EU and Romania-friendly forces and more towards Russia-friendly forces.”
There will be attempts to start a 'pro-unionist' group in the Parliament of Chisinau.
Unionists exist in all parties except for Communists and Socialists, but no group is openly unionist in their manifesto, although members of the Liberal Party have historically voiced support for such a project.
“In the last few years even the Liberal Party has drastically toned down its unification talk - since 2009, it has been implied they are in favour, but they are not spending that much time talking about it,” says Nicu Popescu. “They mainly talk about good and close relations with Romania, not unification.”
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not return an invitation to comment on this debate.
I also asked its counterpart ministry in Moldova for its reaction to the fact that a neighboring country had set up a parliamentary group promoting the concept of absorbing its territory.
But the Ministry told me it does not have the “competence” to give an opinion on the issue.