Moldova's Separatist Conundrum

Transdniestria, a pro-Russian breakaway province, is keeping Moldovans out of the European Union. Sound familiar?
A statue of communist leader Lenin is seen near a poster with the official coat of arms in Tiraspol, in Moldova's self-proclaimed separatist Transdniestria region. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

CHISINAU—It's a bright, sunny day and Chisinau residents are enjoying the first whiff of spring. Couples stroll through Cathedral Park, children chase pigeons, and families pose for photographs with a statue of the Easter Bunny. In the shadow of the Arch of Triumph, a small crowd watches intently as two young men face off over a giant chessboard. The opponents are evenly matched. The board is nearly empty and the setting sun casts long shadows across the park as a draw is declared.

It could be a metaphor for the state of the nation. Torn between Russia and the West, Moldova's fault lines are visible everywhere and are rendered more volatile by the country's weak sense of national identity. And the tension is clearly being strained by the crisis in neighboring Ukraine, as well as by Moldova's successful European-integration drive—and Moscow's determination to prevent it.

"If it was possible in this way that Russia annexed Crimea, why not Donbass, Kherson, Mykolayiv, Odessa, Transdniestria, and so on, and so on," says Igor Botan, director of the Association for Participatory Democracy in Chisinau. "The situation is very, very fragile." Botan notes that Moldova was among the last Soviet republics to declare independence, doing so only in August 1991 following Kiev's lead. Now, he says, Moldova's future seems again to be linked to Ukraine.

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For more than a decade, successive Moldovan governments have pursued European-integration, and those efforts are now bearing fruit. Later this month, Moldovans will begin traveling to EU countries without visas; in June, Chisinau will sign an EU Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

Men play chess in Chisinau's Cathedral Park in Moldova. (Robert Coalson/RFE-RL)

But as those results come nearer, Moldova has come under heavy pressure from Russia and pro-Russian forces. "We have noticed since probably summer last year, 2013, an unusual activation of the Russian-speaking media in the Republic of Moldova promoting the alternative integrationist model," says Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and European Integration Natalia Gherman.

"Whereas we are pursuing European integration as an absolute priority of internal and external policy, the other side is advocating in favor of Eurasian integration and the Customs Union, which is officially the project pursued by the Russian Federation for many countries in the Russian neighborhood," she says.

Gherman admits that only "almost 50 percent" of Moldovans support the pro-EU course, saying the government has done a poor job to date of explaining the advantages of European-integration to average Moldovans in rural areas.

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One of those rural areas is the semi-autonomous region of Gagauzia in the country's south, between Ukraine's Odessa region and Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria province. Solid majorities here favor of joining Russia's Customs Union. In February, Gagauzia voted—in a referendum that Chisinau rejected—overwhelmingly in favor of closer ties with Russia. More than 97 percent voted against EU integration. 


Congaz is a lively town about 30 kilometers south of the Gagauz capital, Comrat. People sell cakes and vegetables or graze small flocks of goats on the side of the truck-clogged highway that bisects the settlement. Everyone you speak to voted in the referendum—and everyone voted for the Customs Union. "I am for the union that I grew up in. The Soviet Union was and I want the continuation of that," says Stepan, a friendly middle-aged man who complains that every passing truck causes a "two-point earthquake" in his roadside house.

Nearby, Pyotr and a couple of other men are trying to get a flock of sheep and goats across the highway as the sun sets. Pyotr didn't vote in the referendum because he was in Russia, working as a lumberman. But his relatives all cast their ballots. "All of them voted for the Customs Union because it is better in Russia," he says as sheep scurry around his legs. "That's why. That is more our style. How can I explain it to you? We go there to earn money, don't we? Everything is there. Russia also gives us gas, not Europe."

Almost everyone on the streets of Congaz has relatives working in Russia. Although the Gagauz are ethnic Turks, they speak Russian and have adopted Orthodoxy. They have a deep distrust of the "Romanians" who they think are plotting to unite Moldova with Romania under the guise of European integration. Stefaneta is a middle-aged woman selling Easter cakes by the highway. Her wares are covered with the dust kicked up by passing trucks. She sees Moldova's pro-European course as a U.S. plot and wants nothing to do with it. "Wherever the United States sticks its nose, rudely speaking, there is only blood and chaos," she says. Four of her six children have Russian citizenship and are living in Kursk Oblast.

To the northeast from Gagauzia, one of Moldova's most conspicuous fault lines is the administrative border between the breakaway, pro-Russian region of Transdniestria and the rest of the country. About 70 kilometers northeast of Chisinau, the picturesque village of Dorotcaia is pressed up tight against Transdniestria. It is one of a handful of settlements on the left bank of the Nistru River that are still in Chisinau-controlled Moldova -- although about 90 percent of the land the villagers farm lies in Transdniestria.

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