April 25, 2014
As the West fixates on what Vladimir Putin is doing in eastern Ukraine, perhaps not enough attention is being paid to his other hand, which is hovering greedily over neighbouring Moldova.
Moldova and its three-and-a-half million people, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine behind the north-west shore of the Black Sea, has not had an easy time since it reluctantly emerged as an independent nation in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is the poorest country in Europe.
It got off to a bad start when independence led almost immediately to a civil war when the pro-Russian people of Transdniestr – that long sliver of Moldova lying east of the Dniester River – rebelled against the possibility of the country joining Romania. Intervention by Russian forces – 1,500 of them are still there – brought a peace deal in 1992, but Transdniestr and its 500,000 people remain a breakaway region, yearning either for recognized independence, a customs union with Moscow or absorption by Russia. The takeover of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, just round the Black Sea coast from Moldova, by Putin has encouraged many of Transdniestr’s people to hope that they may be next on the Russian President’s shopping list.
As well as already having troops in Transdniestr, Moscow gives about $1 billion a year in cash and natural gas subsidies to the Transdniestr government and parliament in the territory’s self-proclaimed capital Tiraspol. Moscow also tops up the pensions of retired people in Transdniestr with supplements of $15 a month.
Nostalgia for the certainties of life in the old Soviet Union runs high everywhere in Moldova, but particularly so in Transdniestr. The territory continues to use the hammer and sickle on its flag, status of Lenin abound and Transdniestr has turned its preservation of life in the hay day of the Soviet Union into a popular tourist attraction.
But for the Transdniestr politicians, uncertainty about their legal status as a nation is a constant concern. Last week, the parliament passed a resolution calling for international recognition of Transdniestr as an independent state. This was seen by some, especially in Western Europe, as a prelude to calling for absorption by Russia, and Putin responded carefully when asked about the resolution.
“Transdniestr people should be able to decide their fate,” Putin said, reminding everyone of the swift and decisive referendum he engineered in Crimea. However, he stopped short of giving official Moscow recognition to Transdniestr’s independence. It has become a classic Putin tactic to camouflage his intentions with as much uncertainty and ambiguity as possible until he is ready to act.
Moscow’s opaque intentions are adding to anxiety in Transdniestr that if civil war breaks out in eastern Ukraine, it will spill over despite the Kiev government’s efforts to keep the border secure. The population, despite its pro-Russian sentiments, is split roughly evenly between Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians, and there is concern ethnicity may trump political aspirations if fighting starts.
Of equal immediate concern is the firmly pro-European drive of the Moldovan government in the capital Chisinau. In August the Liberal Democrat government of Acting Prime Minister Iurie Leancă, who was appointed today after his predecessor resigned in March after being caught in one too many scandals, is due to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, a key step on the road to membership.
But enthusiasm for joining the EU, even in pro-European parts of Moldova, is waning fast. This shift stems from witnessing what has happened in other former Soviet states, especially Hungary and Bulgaria, where membership appears to have brought only debt and unemployment.
A recent poll found that only 44 per cent of Moldovans favour EU membership, while support for a customs union with Russia has grown from 30 per cent a few months ago to 40 per cent now.
Elections for the Moldovan parliament are due in the fall, and there is some expectation that the Communist Party will return to power. So, even if Chisinau does sign the Association Agreement with the EU in August, a new Communist government could annul it later in the year.
If Putin can keep Moldova out of Europe and within Moscow’s sphere of influence, either through a customs union or a Crimea-style takeover, it will be a significant check on the eastward march of the EU, and, for that matter, NATO.
A region of Moldova where EU scepticism is strongest and where Russian agents are said to be most active, levering open social and political fissures, is Gagauzia in the country’s south-west. The Gagauz are strong supporters of either independence, like their neighbours in Transdniestr, or union with Russia.
The President of the Gagauz autonomous region, Mihail Formuzal, recently staged a referendum asking if people wanted to join the EU or establish a customs union with Russia. The result has no legal status, but was 98.5 per cent in favour a customs union with Moscow – 68,000 votes for union with Russia against 1,900 for joining the EU according to the official count.
Moscow is said to have financed the referendum with a $73,000 donation to Formuzal.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
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