Moldova and Romania: The Broken Engagement

By Chris Springer

Does time heal all wounds? The nations of the former Soviet bloc had reason to hope so. From Prague to Vladivostok, communism mutilated nations in the name of "internationalism." National languages and cultures were suppressed, national histories erased, and national consciousness crushed. But the collapse of communism gave numerous peoples the freedom and the opportunity to undo some of that damage.

For a couple of nations, the healing process in the post-communist era involved the prospect of reunification. East and West Germany reunited after 45 years of separation. And some hoped that Moldova -- annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 -- would also rejoin its one-time "motherland," Romania. But when Moldova gained its freedom in 1991, it chose not to reunite with Romania. Why?

Historical background

For most of its history, Moldova has been a political football, grabbed by several regional powers in succession. Initially an independent principality, Moldova was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. In 1812 the Russians wrested control of the land between the Prut and Dniester rivers, which constitutes most of the territory of today's Republic of Moldova. (As a region, Moldova includes land in present-day Romania; for the purposes of this essay, however, "Moldova" refers to the modern republic). When the Russian Empire disintegrated in World War I, this part of Moldova joined Romania. (A strip of Moldovan land east of the Dniester River remained in Russian -- later Soviet -- hands.) In World War II, the Soviets, under the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact with Nazi Germany, occupied Romania up to the Prut. Moldova was subsequently turned into a Soviet republic.

National awakening

Though the country's political status fluctuated wildly, its main ethnic group remained more or less constant. This group was considered to be of Romanian stock and (with some regional variation) to speak the Romanian language. However, the Soviets labeled these people "Moldovan," asserting that they were not ethnically Romanian. Moscow also called their language "Moldovan," not Romanian, and accentuated this false dichotomy by outlawing the use of the Latin alphabet and requiring the use of Cyrillic letters. The authorities fabricated historical justifications for these measures. In truth, however, they were designed to cut off those in Moldova from their kin in Romania and thereby bolster Soviet claims to the territory.

Deep-seated resentment to the Soviet language laws eventually catalysed a nationalist movement in Moldova. The movement came out into the open in 1988, in the heyday of glasnost. Though led by intellectuals, the campaign was soon joined by maverick politicians. Mircea Snegur, chair of the Supreme Soviet of Moldova, took on the Moldovan Communist Party over the language dispute. It was a challenge not only of government to party but of the republic to Moscow, and of nationalism to "internationalism". Snegur emerged victorious. In August 1989, the Moldovan Supreme Soviet took the watershed step of declaring that the "Moldovan" language was in fact Romanian, that it would thereafter be written in Latin letters, and that it would be the official language of the republic.

A national consciousness was emerging -- one that was implicitly Romanian-oriented. The Moldovan state chose a new flag based on the Romanian tricolor and adopted the Romanian national anthem as its own. And nationalist demonstrations in 1989, joined by hundreds of thousands of Moldovans, denounced the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the basis for the Soviet annexation of Moldova from Romania.

As central Soviet authority dissolved, some activists broke the last taboo. In mid-1990, the Moldovan Popular Front (an alliance of the opposition groups that had fought the language law) explicitly called for union with Romania. Reunification did not command the support of a majority of the population: backers of reunification (hereinafter the "irredentists") were concentrated mostly among the intelligentsia of the capital city, Chisinau. However, they included some of the country's most powerful political figures. To those who supported unification, the border between Moldova and Romania was a communist-inflicted scar, one of many left on their country, but one of the few that could be healed.

The minority issue

But not all of Moldova's citizens had ethno-linguistic ties to the Romanians. One-third of the Moldovan population consists of Slavic (mostly Russian and Ukrainian) or Gagauz (Turkic) minorities, most of whom live in the eastern and southern areas of the country. The rising nationalism of the indigenous ethnic group spurred these minorities to launch rival nationalist movements. This was particularly true in the strip of Moldova east of the Dniester River - a place known as Transdniestria - where Slavic peoples accounted for about 60% of the population.

The most contentious issue, the language laws, sparked strikes, demonstrations and calls for autonomy. Across Transdniestria (which historically had never been part of Romania), Slav-dominated city councils refused to implement the laws deeming Romanian to be the only official language, or mandating the use of the Latin alphabet. The minorities feared being "Romanianized," either through union with Romania or assimilation to the ethnic majority in Moldova. And as popular support increased for a break with Moscow, the minorities laid down this challenge: they would secede from Moldova if Moldova strayed from central Soviet authority.

In summer 1990, the minorities made good on their threat, declaring the "Republic of Gagauzia" and the "Republic of Transdniestria." Their local militias seized police buildings from the Moldovan authorities. The ragtag militias had a powerful ally on their side: the 14th Soviet Army. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the breakaway mini-states continued to be propped up by Russian armed forces, in a clear violation of Moldovan sovereignty.

The Moldovan authorities initially avoided armed confrontation, but they began resisting the militia take-overs in 1992, sparking a civil war. Several hundred died in clashes before a cease-fire was proclaimed and negotiations began.

It became clear that reunification with Romania would lead to continued bloodshed in Transdniestria and the likely loss of that economically vital region (containing numerous power plants and factories, as well as the supply routes for fuel and minerals from the Commonwealth of Independent States). Some irredentists were prepared to sacrifice lives and territory, and to open up a Pandora's box of other problems, to achieve a Greater Romania. But most of the population was not.

Looking across the Prut River

In the communist era, contact between Moldova and Romania was extremely limited. But after both countries opened up, Moldovans got to know a great deal more about Romania, through news reports, visits and cultural exchanges. Most Moldovans were not impressed with what they saw. Romania was a country in turmoil, with serious social problems and an undeveloped political culture. In Romania (unlike Moldova), totalitarianism collapsed virtually overnight, leaving no time for reformists to emerge and consolidate power. Thus the "new" leaders in Bucharest had many of the same authoritarian notions as their communist predecessors. In one memorable incident in 1991, the Romanian government mobilized club-wielding miners to break up a peaceful student demonstration. Naturally, Moldovans were loath to put themselves at the mercy of such authorities: - even irredentists opposed the Romanian leadership.

Romania also had a poor track record on minority rights. It was not likely to provide Moldova's ethnic minorities with linguistic or cultural autonomy (such as minority-language schooling and publishing). Moldovans of all backgrounds, however, supported such autonomy as an insurance policy for inter-ethnic harmony.

Nor did economic circumstances favour reunification. Romania could not play the role of western Germany, financing the transformation and modernization of its "lost territories." Romania was itself one of the poorest states in Europe and was just starting off on its own rocky trek to a market economy. It failed to pursue even the limited economic cooperation proposed by Chisinau, such as Moldovan-Romanian joint ventures. Furthermore, Moldova's economy was still tied to the Commonwealth of Independent States and dependent on CIS energy imports. Romania was in no position to replace those imports; in fact, Romania was import-dependent as well. The Moldovan and Romanian economies were not symbiotic; both were based on the export of similar agricultural products. And by joining Romania, Moldova would risk losing its CIS markets. Thus not even irredentists could deny that reunification might be a net loss for the already struggling Moldovan economy. Ironically, it was Moldova that ended up assisting Romania (by donating farm equipment and fuel).

The historical record of Romanian rule also gave Moldovans pause. When Bucharest took power in Moldova after World War I, it sharply curtailed local sovereignty. Romania also imposed excessive taxes, contributing to economic stagnation. And, as Moldovans vividly recalled, carpetbaggers had rushed in to take government positions at the expense of local jobseekers. It had hardly been a golden age, as even irredentists admitted. Why would a future Greater Romania be any better for Moldova than the past one?

In some ways, a future union threatened to be worse - because now, Moldovans had the additional baggage of 50 years of Soviet rule. The Soviets, like the Romanians, had stocked Moldova's political and economic elite with settlers, stifling the growth of a native professional class. Moreover, the long-isolated Moldovans would have had to learn about and adjust (unilaterally) to Romania's cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies: Moldovan distinctiveness would become a handicap. Moldovans feared the arrival of another wave of carpetbaggers, reducing them to second-class citizens in their own homeland.

This fear was compounded by longstanding Romanian prejudices against Moldova. Romanians, who widely supported unification, nevertheless regarded Moldovans as backward and provincial. And the Romanian government treated its eastern counterpart with considerable arrogance. For instance, although Romania became the first state to recognize Moldova's independence in 1991, officials in Bucharest spoiled that gesture by subsequently branding the new republic an "artificial state."

A Moldovan nation?

Perhaps the largest disincentive to reunification was that the Romanian speakers of Moldova by and large considered themselves ethnically distinct from Romanians. In a survey published in 1993, members of this group were asked to identify their ethnicity as either "Moldovan" or "Romanian": an overwhelming 87% declared themselves Moldovan.

This identification stems from Moldova's distinct history. As part of the Russian Empire, those living east of the Prut River in the 19th century were cut off from the Romanian national awakening and the emergence of the Romanian state. Even after World War I, when they became citizens of Romania, many Moldovans asserted that theirs was a separate ethnicity. (Then, as now, this ethnic consciousness was strongest in the rural areas): True, the Moldovans chafed under the Soviet policy that isolated the republic from Romania and imposed the concept of a separate "Moldovan" language and ethnicity. But, ironically, the process of enduring Soviet rule united Moldovans in the kind of shared struggle that sometimes forges nations. Those in Romania had not shared in that formative experience.

Irredentists on both sides of the border had difficulty understanding Moldovans' indifference to reunification. Why was this offshoot of the Romanian nation tossing away its invitation to the family reunion? Irredentists scorned the Moldovan population as "denationalized," Sovietized, and politically manipulated into surrendering their "true" Romanian identity. The irredentists denounced "Moldovanness" as an artificial identity, even "an invention of the communist regime." But the legacy of a half-century of Soviet rule was not simply a nightmare from which Moldovans could awaken. Nor was the Moldovan consciousness simply a product of Soviet brainwashing. National identity was not clay to be reshaped at will: perhaps the mold had simply been cracked for too long.

Government policy

Mircea Snegur, elected president in a 1991 landslide election, had helped win national independence and was determined to preserve it. But Chisinau faced challenges from both east and west. On the one hand, the need for energy imports and the unresolved Dniester conflict pulled Moldova closer to the CIS. (Moldova joined the CIS's economic agreement in 1994, citing pressing economic concerns. But Chisinau avoided more extensive ties, fearing that the CIS might turn into another Soviet-style centralized union.) Yet the same Romanian-nationalist passions that had helped pull Moldova out of the Soviet orbit threatened to hand Moldova over to Bucharest. Snegur's strategy was to chart a careful course between Moldova's two neighbors.

In the first year of its independence, Moldova positioned itself as a "second Romanian state." The government promoted cultural links with its western neighbor, including student exchanges and the reception of Romanian television broadcasts. Romanian history also became a required subject in schools. But even as Moldova asserted this ethnic kinship, it refused to relinquish political independence. Snegur did not entirely rule out unification but maintained that the question had to be postponed "for at least another generation."

However, when radical irredentist statements threatened to torpedo government negotiations with the Transdniester rebels, Snegur stopped straddling the issue and explicitly renounced reunification. He even began to point out distinctive features in Moldova's history and language, backing away from the Romanian-nationalist stance employed in the independence struggle.

Snegur sought to cobble together a new base of support that embraced all those who, regardless of ethnic origin, supported Moldovan independence. This tactic isolated the radicals on both sides: those who wanted to join with either Romania (the irredentists) or the CIS (the Transdniester separatists). In 1993 the government stopped calling Moldova an ethnic-Romanian state and redefined it as a multiethnic state. The gesture was designed not only to forestall reunification but also to assuage minority concerns about forced assimilation.

Serious differences remained between Chisinau and the Transdniester authorities. The latter turned out to be not only Moscow-backed Russian nationalists but also reactionary hardline communists. However, the Moldovan government's conciliatory approach reduced popular support among the Slavic minorities for separatism; for many Slavs, Chisinau's liberal policies on minority schooling, publishing and cultural expression had shown that the Moldovan government could be trusted. This flexibility kept the conflict on the negotiating table and off the streets.

Snegur still faced challenges from the irredentists, who enjoyed a disproportionately large power base in Parliament. Seeking to prevent Moldova's independence from becoming irreversible, the irredentists blocked state-building measures such as approving an electoral law and a new constitution. In order to silence this tiny group, Snegur backed proposals for a referendum on reunification. The irredentists called for a boycott of the referendum, maintaining that it should not be held at a time when Chisinau was not in control of all the republic's territory. (Romania chimed in, protesting in vain that a proper referendum should include its citizens.)

In the leadup to Moldova's February 1994 elections, the irredentists -- aware of the unpopularity of reunification -- played down their own agenda. Instead they tore at Moldova's leaders, blasting them as unreconstructed communists who wanted to place the country under the CIS's control. This stridently ideological approach had the same effect in Moldova that it did throughout Eastern Europe: it helped get reform communists (in this case, Snegur's allies) re-elected.

And the next month, the referendum on reunification was held, with a decisive 75% of the Moldovan electorate participating. The verdict was overwhelming: 95% said yes to independence and no to union with Romania.


Reexamining the "Moldovan question" in 1994, Charles King wrote in the Slavic Review that "the real surprise about Moldovan identity is not the fact that Moldovans have rejected their ostensible Romanianness, but rather the fact that so many western observers, both journalists and scholars, predicted that they would embrace it."

Such cocksure analysis is easy to make in hindsight. Certainly, many of the factors cited earlier militated against the creation of a Greater Romania. But who is to say that reunification was never a possibility? In the last decade, Eastern Europe has tossed up more than its share of surprises. And unforeseen political pressures (domestic or foreign) can sometimes dramatically reverse or even override public opinion (witness the out-of-nowhere support for Ukrainian independence in 1991, or Slovakia's top-down push for independence). Regional specialist Vladimir Socor predicted in early 1992 that international recognition of Transdniestria's independence would leave Moldova so economically crippled that it would have no alternative but to join Romania.

Pondering what might have been is not, in this case, an exercise in irrelevance. Moldova's failure to reunify with Romania has to do largely with historical circumstances, but the strategy of the political actors involved also had an impact - particularly the irredentists' refusal to address the practical disadvantages of unification, and Snegur's successful efforts at coalition-building. Interested parties might yet learn several lessons from this struggle (as might others in comparable geopolitical situations - say, those calling for a Greater Albania). After all, although reunification now appears unlikely, Moldova's future relationship with Romania remains unwritten.



Go back!