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Crisis in Moldova

01 May 2002

One could have been forgiven for thinking that little had changed since the 1980s when, in late February, thousands of pro-Romanian demonstrators took to the streets of Chisinau, Moldova's capital, to protest against government measures seen as pro-Russian. Moldova is led by the Communist Party, which won a majority in parliament last year and elected a communist president, Vladimir Voronin. The protestors called on him to abandon proposed measures that would establish Russian as Moldova's second language and revise the school history syllabus to downplay Moldova's Romanian past.
Facing massive protests, Voronin retreated. Intent on maintaining the pressure, however, the Christian Democratic Popular Party, Moldova's pro-Romanian party, has since called for early parliamentary elections. While this plea will not be heeded, these events highlight a crisis gripping one of Europe's forgotten corners.
For all the apparent similarities, Moldova is different to what it was in the 1980s. It faces a crisis that has four interwoven strands. First, the protests underline discord over Moldova's identity. Historically, Moldovan Bessarabian lands were a part of Romania. Moldovans constitute 60 per cent of the population, and the Moldovan language is Romanian. However, Moldova has always been close to the Slavic world. Ukrainians represent 14 per cent of the population and Russians 13 per cent. Bessarabia was incorporated into the USSR after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Under Soviet rule, Moscow sought to create a Moldovan identity distinct from Romania. Naturally, in 1990-91, Moldova's movement towards independence focused at first on the Moldovan language. However, the goal of a 'return to Romania' was abandoned, as Moldovan leaders preferred to be kings in their own land than governors of a Romanian province. The recent protests, however, are a reminder that questions of identity are not resolved.
The second strand is profound social and economic weakness. Formerly one of the USSR's poorest republics, Moldova is today Europe's poorest country after Albania. It has made headway towards reform, which is reflected in its accession to the WTO in 2001. However, Russia's 1998 crisis was a severe blow. Growth rates slipped, output fell, inflation rose, public salaries fell into arrears and Moldova's balance of payments plummeted. Some 800,000 Moldovans left the country.
External pressures form the third strand. Moldova's external debt is one such weight. In 2002, debt servicing will reach close to 70 per cent of the budget. In addition, the IMF has suspended credit pending a range of reforms that are difficult for the communist leadership to swallow. Failing debt rescheduling by the Paris Club, Moldova is likely to default. Moreover, Moldova's relations with its neighbours are not smooth. Moldova's $300 million debt to Russia, which provides it with energy, is a bone of contention. A bilateral treaty was initialled with Romania in 2000 but not signed by the new Romanian government that came to power in 2001. Ties with Ukraine are strained because of Moldovan allegations that Kyiv has not cracked down on smuggling into Moldova.
These pressures are linked with the fourth strand, that of the separatist region of Transnistria (Pridniestrovskaya Moldovskaya Respublika, or PMR). On the left bank of the Dnestr river, the PMR has developed the features of statehood, including armed forces and a president (the Russian Igor Smirnov). The conflict there has an ethnic shape (Russians and Ukrainians represent about 51 per cent of some 650,000), but its root cause is not ethnicity: there is no ethnic animosity. Rather, it is a political struggle by PMR elites to control their area.
The PMR impacts on the other three strands of the crisis. An authoritarian throwback, the region is deeply criminalised, affecting Moldova through massive losses in revenue and impacting on the region with arms and other forms of smuggling. Moldova's pipelines pass through the PMR, which also contains a range of modern industries and Moldova's only energy plant, so that meaningful economic reform is impossible without it. In the 1990s, Russia provided limited support to the PMR, through gas supplies and the presence of peacekeeping forces. Under Putin, Russian relations with the PMR have become more circumspect and close ties have developed with Voronin.
The EU has a low profile in Moldova. Some shifts occurred in 2001, when Moldova joined the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe and the Commission agreed to a Strategy Paper 2002-2006. However, the spirit of EU policy has not changed: Moldova has largely been forgotten and there is no strategy on the PMR. The centre of gravity of Moldova's problems lies in the PMR, however, so EU strategy should focus on this pressure point in order to prise loose the other problems.
Settlement of this crisis is feasible but it will require a kick-start. The essence of any EU strategy should be an enhanced political presence that seeks to break the impasse. The aim should not be to displace the OSCE, which has played an effective role in overseeing Russia's military withdrawal from the PMR. EU involvement could start with a greater political presence to push, with Russia, for four objectives: first, to link Moldova with the Balkans peace process and accord it a higher status than hitherto; second, to work with the more pragmatic government under Vladimir Putin to further demilitarise the PMR; third, to strengthen Moldovan law enforcement to halt smuggling; and finally, to push for joint checkpoints on the PMR's border with Ukraine to halt the flow of goods to and from Transnistria.
An enhanced EU role would fall in line with Russia's interest in supporting the new Moldovan leadership. Such cooperation might even add substance to the Russia-EU 'strategic partnership.' Certainly, an EU strategy towards the PMR is vital in order to work towards resolving the challenges facing a part of Europe which can no longer be ignored.