The following article was originally published in Serbo-Croatian on the online platform Bilten. It is republished here with that site’s kind permission.
A recent minor event sums up eloquently the current relationship between Romania and the Republic of Moldova and, more than that, allows us to understand the complex historical, geopolitical and psychological relationship between the two countries.
On January 3rd the current Moldovan president Igor Dodon revoked the Moldovian citizenship of the former Romanian President Traian Basescu. Basescu was sworn in as Moldovan citizen just few days prior to Dodon’s election on November 13th. According to Dodon, granting the citizenship to Basescu was illegal because at the time Basescu was under penal investigation in Romania. In addition, Dodon argued, Basescu was not suitable to become a citizen of Moldova because he denied the independent statehood of Moldova and argued instead for its unification with Romania. In return, Basescu retorted that Dodon’s actions were politically motivated and betray his envy of the popularity Basescu enjoys among a large segment of Moldovian voters. Ever since he finished his two constitutional mandates as President of Romania, Basescu was rumored to try to become the President of Moldova – a new law passed last year allows now for the President to be voted directly by the people and not by the Parliament as it was before.
The scandal passed without much echo in Romania and Moldova but it offers in micro a symptomatic diagnosis of the current relationship between the two countries. Traian Basescu was the embodiment of Romanian ruling class expansionism and colonialism towards Moldova. During his time in office as President he actively pursued a paternalistic policy in relation to Moldova, vowing to bring the country toward a “European course” which ultimately would have led to the unification with Romania. For Basescu, the fact that the two countries were separated was the outcome of an historical injustice and represented the cause of a geopolitical threat in the present. In both instances, Russia was at blame. So, for Basescu, historical revisionism and geopolitical pragmatism were united in a interventionist policy towards Moldova. During his tenure thousands of Moldovans received dual citizenship and by lobbying the EU, they could also travel visa-free in the Schengen area. This appealed to the broader public in Moldova, which led to the solidification of an important political base for Basescu. His popularity there is significant and it also brought him important electoral benefits in 2009 (when he was voted president for the second time by a narrow margin) and in 2016 when votes from Moldova pushed his small party over the 5% threshold and into the Parliament. In addition, this popularity offered Basescu the possibility to meddle in Moldovan politics. During the 2016 Presidential campaign he openly endorsed Maia Sandu, Dodon’s main rival, who eventually lost in the fiercely disputed second round.
Basescu’s Moldovan policy brought him the support of Romanian nationalists at home and the respect of unionists in Moldova. His anti-Russian posture and rhetoric was applauded in these corners and was understood to be a sign of Romanian strength and uncompromising attitude in the region. However, this policy also alienated other popular segments in Moldova and was met with outright anger by the Russian-speaking Moldovans. For many in Moldova, Russia is the country for labor migration, just as Europe is for others. Also, the aggressive policy towards Russia that the pro-European Moldovan governments pursued was also bad for business. Russia banned or limited the imports of Moldovan wine and apples–two of the most important items that Moldova (the poorest country in Europe) exports. Being a non-EU country, Moldova also has a cap on how much it can export within the EU, so political maneuvering led in practice to economic shortfalls.
This economic aspect was coupled with the abysmal political record of the pro-European forces (Basescu’s local allies) that got embroiled in corruption and sexual scandals after scandals (one involved the former Moldovan Prime Minister caught on tape having sex with a journalist while talking on the phone with Basescu). With 15% of the 3,5 million population working abroad, the economy is in tatters and the infrastructure is crumbling. Moldova is indeed the playground of local rich oligarchs with important ties to Moscow. The failure of the pro-European forces created a fertile environment for paternalistic and populist oligarchs to take over. Igor Dodon might be the new President endowed with more power following the change of legislation, but the main figure in Moldova now, the de facto ruler as many Moldovans believe, is Vlad Plahotniuc, a self-made billionaire. But he is not the typical post-communist oligarch, Ukraine-style. He is careful to cultivate good relations both in Moscow and in Washington. Following the election of Trump he gave an interview in which he stated the desire for Moldova to be a bridge between West and East and not a terrain of struggle. This was also the message that got Dodon elected as well. Under the informal leadership of Plahotniuc (who rarely feels the need to assume direct political power; his highest position so far has been that of vice-president of the Parliament), the country seeks a different course and therefore canceling Basescu’s citizenship was more than symbolic: it was a show of intent that his influence in Moldova and his style of politics are a thing of the past.
One should not read too much into such gestures. Unsurprisingly, the whole exchange was a mere footnote to the daily issues both in Romania and Moldova. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, neither Romania nor, even less so, Moldova has the capacity to really pursue an independent foreign policy and to be an active agent in the geopolitical competition. Romania is utterly subordinated to NATO maneuvering and to EU’s strategy. Sometimes the two are conflicting and even then Romania has little to say. Romania’s staunch pro-US and pro-NATO policy (with the underlining anti-Russian dimension attached to it) might be now challenged following the election of Donald Trump as US president and his (so far) amicable gestures towards Russia. This leaves the Romanian political class with quite of a conundrum to deal with and it is not yet clear which direction foreign policy will take in the upcoming months and years. Moldova, on the other hand is too small, too fragmented (internally along ethnic, linguistic and political lines and nursing the unsolved problem of the want-away pseud-state of Transdniester Republic that has Russia’s backing) and has a dysfunctional state. To put it differently, it has almost insurmountable internal problems in order to be able to concern itself with geopolitics.
This is hardly surprising given the process of Moldovan state formation, a fact that was largely overlooked both in Moldova and in Romania because of the overarching nationalist narrative that considered Moldova a de jure part of Romania. This cannot be further from the truth. When the Tsarist Empire annexed in 1812 parts of the historic Principality of Moldova, for strategic reasons under the twin pressures of Ottoman conflict and Napoleonian expansion, the Romanian Principalities (Wallachia and Moldova) were simple battlegrounds between the Austrian, Ottoman and Tsarist empires for almost a century. Such annexations were the norm at the time since both Principalities lacked juridical recognition in international relations. Romania as a unified state appeared in 1859 following a compromise of the Great Powers after the Crimean War and got its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 with the Russian help that sought expansion towards the Mediterranean Sea. A natural ally of the Romanian ruling class during the process of state formation in the middle of the 19th century against the Turks, the Tsarist Empire became the main enemy after the independence and the orientation of the country towards Central Europe at the century’s end. The Golden Age of Romanian nationalism was also the age when the myth of Bessarabia (the name of the territory annexed by the Russians in 1812, itself a misnomer) came into being with full force and it remained powerful enough until after WWI when, given the chaos provoked by the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution, the Romanian state annexed Bessarabia that together with other territories in the North, South and the West of the country led to the formation of Greater Romania in 1918.
After more than a century part of the Tsarist Empire, Bessarabia was a terra incognita for the Romanian state. Its harsh assimilationist policies and heavy handed administrative measures did little to in terms of integrating the region. The situation became complicated by the appearance of a Soviet Moldovan Republic within the Bolshevik state that was united with Bessarabia following an administrative reshuffling when USSR occupied the region in 1940 after the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Within the USSR Bessarabia witnessed at first a process of Russification concomitant with the affirmation of a distinct Moldovan statality and nationhood but also, after the 1960s and especially during the 1980s, a rekindling of national sentiments that brought back into consciousness the Romanian connection. This sentiment was spurred indirectly by the increasing nationalist turn of Romanian communism in the 1970s and by the affirmation of nationalities within the USSR during and after the Perestroika. But in contrast to other nationalities within the USSR Moldova had no clear state to revert to. The constant border shifting mentioned above pinpoint to the fact that Bessarabia was in fact a region that in its entire history was always part of some bigger (usually empirical) structures with strong statehoods and their own nationalist claims. The immediate context of the fall of communism in Romania in 1989 prevented the unification, even though it is highly disputed that this option was ever on the table. When Moldova declared independence in 1991 amid the general dissolution of the USSR it was a bold statement but also a disaster in the making. Due to the internal uneven development of the USSR, Moldova remained a largely rural backwater of the Soviet state, with little industry and a modest service sector. Its capital, Kishinev, small by the Soviet standards, dwarfs the rest of the cities in the country, concentrating most of the profitable economic activities, especially the wine-exporting sector. Ever since its inception, the post-communist Moldovan state lacked the basic infrastructure to become a self-sustaining, functional state. Retrospectively, it is possible to understand the appearance of the state just as the outcome of the local communist elites who, in the midst of the USSR collapse, were able to mobilize the national card (the Romanian one, but also the Moldovan one) in order to claim power for themselves in a newly formed state. For this reason, identity, language and ethnicity are so important in Moldova and usually monopolize the discussions about the future of the country and polarize political and ideological options. Their centrality is visible also by the fact that what defines the local left in Moldova is the attempt of precisely not speaking about these issues and turning attention towards the state and social issues.
Going back to the present, the second reason for Romanians’ lack of interest in what is going on in Moldova is that the function it had for them to have changed recently. I do not wish to suggest that there was ever a huge interest in relations to Moldova either. For the Romanians, Moldova functioned as a fantasy screen. Moldova enabled us to imagine ourselves as European, superior, civilized developed in relation to our “little brothers and sisters” and to assume the historical mission of civilizing them and bringing them to Europe. Moldova gave us the space to behave towards the Moldovans just as the Europeans were behaving in relation to us: a mixture of colonial superiority and paternalistic intervention. Moldova was the only place where Romania meant civilization and Europe and thus became an important ground for channeling the self-hatred and humiliations Romanians endured in Europe. Basescu’s policy towards Moldova emboldened this attitude by institutionalizing it. Cohorts of experts, specialists, NGOs, diplomats, journalists and politicians could officially go to Moldova and teach them what they had to learn in order to become like “us”, to become Europeans, completely disregarding, as it is usually the case in such situations, the local context.
What made this relationship possible was Romania’s EU membership doubled by the historical legacy of nationalism uniting the two states into a common fictional narrative. But in recent years this relationship began to change, for several reasons. First, EU’s internal problems and its unlikely expansion towards the East to include Moldova poured cold water onto local expectations. The situation in Ukraine compounded the matter and brought forth not the specter of EU integration, but that of civil war. Secondly, as mentioned above, the dismal record of pro-European forces and the economic consequences of antagonizing Russia also contributed to a sobering attitude towards the EU. Thirdly, if a decade or so ago for many Moldovans Romania was as far West as they could go, the only taste of Europe they could get, now the situation has changed and they can travel and work everywhere in Europe. Moldovan and Romanian workers compete equally for the same menial jobs on the continent. This also quelled the Romanians’ civilizing mission. After Basescu’s time in office came to an end, the funds also dried up, forcing people to find more lucrative avenues for their project-based expertise.
Paradoxically, this mutual ignorance or disinterest is closer to a more realistic relationship between the two countries. Nationalists in Romania and Moldova asking for unification will always exist, just like Moldovan nationalists affirming a distinct Moldovan nation and ethnicity. But beyond these fringe groups and the fantasmatic narratives that animate them, the chance is that the real situation might appear: that of two countries trapped, in different ways and circumstances, between two global geopolitical structures and being providers of cheap and precarious labor force. Whether this awareness will cancel Romanian’s sense of superiority remains to be seen.
Florin Poenaru is an anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac. He works on issues of class and post-communism.