Part I in an ongoing series analyzing competing views of potential conflict zones, influencing factors, and geopolitical implications.
Moldova, like Ukraine, is home to a geopolitical tug-of-war between “West” and “East”, further complicated by ethnic, political, and religious divisions at home. Due to the clear parallels between the countries, the results of the ongoing Minsk cease-fire negotiations will undoubtedly affect the frozen conflict in Transnistria and the independence ambitions of the Gagauz people. Russia and Western countries support their respective allies, but the real concerns of the factions have been overshadowed by the political objectives of major powers.
Moldova is a state that is inherently divided on lines of ethnicity, language, religion, and history. Situated at the crossroads of the Latin, Turkish, and Russian civilizations, Moldova has always found itself at a geopolitical fault line. Following the independence of the modern Moldovan state in 1991, the country was quickly plagued by armed separatist movements seeking self-determination.
Since 1992, an uneasy ceasefire has maintained an overt peace, with the separatist Transnistrian republic holding de facto independence. Russian troops have been stationed in Transnistria since this time, acting as peacekeepers. The breakaway region is home to the largest portion of Moldova’s Ukrainian and Russian minorities, and for this reason volunteer fighters from both Ukraine and Russia assisted during the war.
Recent events in Ukraine have sparked fears that Moldova could be the next flashpoint in the tug-of-war between NATO and Russia. Given the parallels between pre-war Moldova and Ukraine, this is worth examining in some depth. Before analyzing the prospects of renewed armed conflicts in the country, it is necessary to examine competing Western and Russian narratives on Moldova as this helps to inform the policy-making logic of the nations concerned.
By and large, Western countries maintain their support for Moldova against Transnistria, which is largely regarded as a Russian proxy blocking Western/NATO activities in the region. For Moldova, EU integration “is an irreversible strategic objective of the foreign and domestic policy” and the government remains deeply committed to the Eastern Partnership of the EU. The country is also a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace program but is not a formal member of the military coalition. The independence of the Transnistrian Republic is not recognized by any Western country and the anti-EU sentiment of the Gagauzia people is marginalized.
On EU Accession
Despite the commitment of the Moldovan government to the European Union, several issues linger that prevent closer association and eventual membership. The territorial disputes with Transnistria (see below), the low standard of living, and high levels of corruption prevent Moldova from meeting the criteria for EU membership. Despite this, Moldova has signed on to the EU-Moldova Action Plan and several of their politicians are optimistic about EU accession by 2019, when Romania will hold the union’s rotating presidency.
Prominent Eurosceptics meanwhile are firmly opposed to Moldova’s entry into the already stressed union, where electorates are increasingly turning against the European project. Concerns expressed over the influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants into the troubled Western European economies are applicable to Moldova and other EU aspirants in Eastern Europe. Given the ethnic, economic, and political tensions already present in the European core, the EU is unlikely to extend itself into the region in the foreseeable future.
Another factor preventing EU accession is the opposition to the project by the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. The Gagauz are a Turkic-speaking people native to Bulgaria and southern Moldova. Their origins are somewhat obscure, with some believing they are the descendants of Turkic nomads who settled in the area and others maintaining that they are a people native to the Black Sea who were ‘Turkified’ at a later date. Regardless, their (non-Romanian) Orthodox profession and historical conflicts with the ethnic-Romanian majority of Moldova have resulted a clear pro-Russian position in national politics.
Unlike Transnistria, Gagauzia does not claim total independence from Chisinau. Instead, Gagauzia has special, constitutionally-guaranteed, autonomy as specified in the 1994 Gagauz Autonomy Act. This specifies that if Moldova votes to unify with Romania, the people of Gagauzia would have the right to self-determination.
Western support for the Gagauz people has been more-or-less nonexistent, with many believing that moves for greater autonomy are simply another Russian ploy against Moldova. In both Moldova and Ukraine, autonomy movements aligned with Russia for economic, cultural, or political reasons are marginalized or declared illegal, with the majority of EU and NATO states supporting the territorial integrity of Moldova and Ukraine.
Relations with Transnistria are even less cordial. Not a single European or Western country recognizes the independence of the republic and many support restrictive measures against the breakaway region’s leadership.
Recent moves to appeal for membership in the Russian Federation are widely seen as another step of Russian expansion. Some support for such a move does exist in Russia, but no official steps have been made. It is likely that formal unification will not take place, as Russia already has a satisfactory position with the current status quo. Russian troops already move freely in the country, there would be no tactical or strategic benefit to such a move.
Given the Crimea controversy, Russia will likely act more covertly. An appeal from Donetsk to join Russia has already gone unanswered, further supporting this conclusion.
What is perhaps more interesting is the apparent willingness of Moldovan diplomats to formally drop claims to the territory in exchange for EU membership. Even if this were to occur, it is still unlikely that Russia will formally admit Transnistria to the Federation, for the same reasons discussed above.
Forecasts for the Near Future
Developments in Moldova will undoubtedly be affected by the future of Ukraine. At this time, ceasefire negotiations are underway in Minsk. Representatives from the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics are meeting with officials from Kiev, Belarus, Russia, and the EU. The arrangements made there, if they prove to be enduring, will likely be applied to Moldova. Both Ukraine and Moldova have dis-enfranchised Russian speaking populations, both countries have disputed territories with separatist republics, and both countries have long and complicated histories, not only with Russia, but with their Western neighbors and national minorities as well.
Until the results of these negotiations are known, it is difficult to give a reliable forecast for the future, other than to say that diplomatic parallels will be seen. If Donetsk and Lugansk have their independence recognized by Kiev, Transnistrian independence will become much more likely in the long-term. If Kiev accepts federalization, the same will likely happen in Moldova. If the current negotiations break down, Moldova will likely maintain the status quo. Moldova was unable to defeat the Transistrians in the 1990s when the separatists were alone; it is highly unlikely Chisinau will attempt to forcefully reintegrate the region in the face of Russian military presence.
It is also likely that Moldova lacks the political will to force Transnistria back into their already impoverished state. The Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, the single largest party in the country (the current pro-EU stance is maintained by a political coalition of smaller parties that barely forms a majority), has no desire to force an armed conflict in the country. Despite their official ideology, the Communist Party is communist in name only; their policies resemble a center-right stance and the party looks to the east economically and politically. As long as Moldova remains internally divided, we can expect a continuation of the status quo.