On the edge of the most prosperous part of Europe, the Republic of Moldova is nonetheless one of the poorest countries of the Old Continent. Crushed between Romania and Ukraine, the country is experiencing a severe and ongoing political, economic and social crisis. The average monthly income per capita is around €266 euros, and the serious economic problems have had substantial repercussions also at the social level. According to estimates from the last census, carried out in 2014, the total resident population amounts to about three million people; somewhere between six hundred thousand and one million Moldovans have left the country seeking better opportunities abroad.
The hope of a better life, far from national borders, is particularly attractive for the younger generation. The result is that the most creative and dynamic minds have left, a vicious circle that continues to starve the nation of development possibilities. The flight of young people has weighty consequences for the demographic balance: the birth rate is particularly low, and if it remains at current levels, it could cause, according to experts, a decline in population of 40 percent by 2050.
The national economy is mainly based on services and remittances sent from the workers living abroad, and the percentage of the population living under the poverty line is around 9.5%. Tourism, which harbors great potential due to the stunning beauty of the countryside, is practically non-existent. Moldova is, in fact, one of the least visited countries in Europe, with just 133,000 tourists in 2017.
Two political and ethnic blocs
The political situation is just as unstable: two alternative political blocs, that support either integration with Russia or the EU, fight for the country’s government. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Moldova became one of the first nations in the world to be governed by a Communist Party that won regular elections. Subsequently, mostly pro-European political coalitions have held office, and for this reason, the country has moved closer to Brussels than Moscow. Still, given the low development of the nation, full integration in the European Union looks like a distant dream.
Politicians are not widely popular in Moldova. The scandals and corruption, which dominate political life and penetrate deeply into the bureaucracy, have contributed to a feeling of strong distrust among the population toward the political class, considered unreliable and inefficient. The current executive formed after elections last February, led by Europeanist Maia Sandu, is the result of a delicate compromise between the Party of Action and Solidarity, the Dignity and Truth Platform Party, both close to Brussels, with the Socialist Party, very close to Moscow. Prime Minister Sandu has already reached out Western partners to improve Chisinau’s image in the international sphere.
During a visit to Brussels on the 24th of July, a financial aid package to Moldova, worth US$45 million was signed. Mrs. Sandu will also try to persuade Washington that the country’s reform process is on track and to gain more financial aid. The new executive is however very fragile, given the different ideologies of the participating political parties. The prime minister was, for example, harshly criticized by President Igor Dodon, from the Socialist Party, for resuming agreements with the International Monetary Fund. These agreements, according to Dodon, threaten to impede further development of the country.
More profoundly, at the basis of Moldova’s divisions is the deep rift within the population, based on linguistic and cultural differences that became more acute over time. According to 2014 Census data, in fact, 78 percent of the population uses Moldavian or Romanian, which are closely connected, as the main languages in everyday life. About 14 percent, instead, speak mainly Russian.
There are also, on the national territory, ethnic minorities that contribute to further fragmenting of the demographic situation. The largest group are the Gaugazis, who make up about 4 percent of the population. They practice Orthodox religion and are of Turkish ethnicity. However, the fracture line that most significantly divides the citizens continues to be the one between Moldovans and Russian speakers. This has led, in the recent past, to serious problems that basically split the country apart.
The Transnistrian dilemma
The Transnistrian war, fought between March and July 1992, represented a moment of grave tension for the Republic of Moldova. The easternmost area of the country, with capital Tiraspol, has since been formally independent although not recognized internationally by any nation. The conflict broke out due to the lack of integration of the Russian-speaking population into the newborn Moldovan state. The short war ended with a stalemate: Chisinau’s army failed to reconquer separatist-held areas, and Russian peacekeepers settled to Transnistria to stabilize the situation on the ground.
Since that time, there have not been significant changes, and Tiraspol has practically built an entirely new state. There the national language is Russian, Soviet times are remembered with nostalgia, and renewed integration with Moscow is dreamed both as a way to escape poverty and gain the full benefits of such a union. In Chisinau, on the other hand, a large part of the population admires Brussels or more broadly, the West, speaks Moldovan, and uses the Latin alphabet.
These significant differences between the two territories are a source of continuous strife. Transnistria is closely linked to Moscow, both geopolitically and economically, and represents an essential area of Russian influence between Chisinau and Kyiv. Moscow helps the Transnistrian nation to stand on his feet, with economic support and the presence of military peacekeepers, to prevent an attack from Chisinau. Tiraspol has sought to reunite with Russia, but the latter has been so far silent on the issue since this would provoke a political earthquake in Eastern Europe.
The government of Transnistria, even after a renewal of the country’s leadership in 2011 — when long-time President Igor Smirnov was replaced by Yvgeny Shevchuk — remains authoritarian in nature. Shevchuk lost the presidential elections of 2016 to Vadim Krasnoselsky, but even with a more dynamic situation the essential nature of the state did not change. According to Freedom House, a non-governmental human rights organization that reviews political and civil rights around the world annually, the separatist nation is rated ‘not free’ both in the area of political rights and civil liberties for the year 2018 and in previous reviews. Democratic governance is much more developed in Chisinau, even with limits related to corruption and various inefficiencies.
The rise of Igor Dodon (a member of the pro-Russian Socialist Party) to the presidency of the Moldovan republic has revived hopes that, through dialogue, this forgotten crisis can be at least managed. In September 2018, President Dodon announced that Moldova would have to hold a referendum, after 2019 parliamentary elections, to decide how to pursue the reintegration of the separatist region and achieve the departure of Russian peacekeepers. This option has still not been implemented but makes clear the seriousness of Dodon’s commitment to achieving concrete results on the issue.
In June 2019, the head of state also spoke in favor of granting Moldovan passports to Transnistrian citizens and reaffirmed his willingness to find a full solution agreed between the two entities and without foreign influence. Then, in July 2019, Dodon affirmed that Russia has declared itself ready to dismantle large ammunition deposits that have remained in Transnistria since Soviet times. Moscow’s moves would be a way to ease tensions in the region.
Some other small but encouraging signs between the two sides have also recently been observed. In fact, talks have been periodically held, since 1992, between Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities in the 5+2 format — i.e. Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE participating as mediators and the United States and European Union as observers. In 2016, some limited deals were approved, under the so-called Berlin Plus program. Moldova has begun to recognize Transnistrian diplomas and car plates while the latter has permitted the opening of Moldovan schools on its territory. A new bridge on the river Dniestr that divides the two territories was opened, and some common use of borderlands was also agreed.
Broader progress is still hampered by some mutual distrust between the two governments. In July 2019 it was eventually decided that 5+2 talks will be held in Bratislava in around three months to find other common points to sign more deals and build confidence between the two sides.
Tiraspol policies look towards Moscow
However, unfortunately, some adverse developments have also occurred. In January 2019, Transnistrian authorities announced the opening of a diplomatic mission in Moscow. This event clearly signaled the intention of Tiraspol authorities to continue to pursue a policy of active recognition for their country. Russia, which has never recognized the separatist government, spoke in favor, in the past, of a federalist solution as a way to resolve the Transnistria question. The separatist region should enjoy a broad autonomy in a new Moldova.
The real problem of this frozen crisis is even graver still: it is hard to imagine how an almost Soviet breakaway republic can integrate itself in a more democratic nation without renouncing the privileges that it now enjoys. In case of reunification, after successful talks, Tiraspol would have to abandon the special relationship with Moscow and basically its independence. Transnistria has always stated that before any permanent settlement of the crisis it wants its statehood to be recognized internationally.
Mrs. Sandu recently emphasized that the Transnistrian problem must be resolved peacefully and that, Moldova being a neutral nation, Russian troops must leave. She also added that order in the economic sphere, in the separatist region, must be restored to try to settle the problematic situation. Transnistria has been, for many years, a source of smuggling and a place where criminal organizations can operate with impunity and launder the proceeds of crime. It will then also remain to be seen whether the Russian speakers and the Moldovans will succeed, in case of reunification, in living together peacefully by making the necessary compromises.
In this view, the role of language and the school system looks essential: linguistic minorities must be assured of the possibility to learn and develop abilities in their native language without any form of pressure or discrimination. The future prosperity of the Moldavian state, therefore, passes through the resolution of its many crises. These demographic, economic and political challenges make it a real mosaic of dangerous fractures.
Photo: DANIEL MIHAILESCU / AFP
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