The Republic of Moldova, although being a relatively young independent state in the region of Eastern Europe, it has a complex history of positioning itself between the West and the East. As a former Western Soviet country, after gaining independence in 1991, it maintained significant links to Moscow while also showing aspirations to get involved in the process of European integration. This article aims to analyse the developments and the determinants of this process in the Post-Soviet context. It takes into consideration the historical factors that led to the current situation in Moldova, the existing links to Romania, Russia, the Post-Soviet Institutions and the European Union, capturing a comprehensive picture of the current situation in the country.
The Republic of Moldova is a country situated in Eastern Europe bordered to the West by Romania and to the East, North and South by Ukraine. Most of its territory is part of the historical region of Moldova, originating in the medieval principality established in the 14th century, nowadays split between Romania, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. (King, 2000).
Throughout its history, the country’s development was largely intertwined with the politics of first the Russian Empire, later the USSR and even nowadays with the influence of the Russian Federation. Under the Russian rule, the Oblast of Moldavia enjoyed initially a great degree of autonomy, however later undergoing a deep and complex process of imposed assimilation known as Russification. Gradually, the official use of Romanian language (the language spoken by the Moldovans) in state business and church practice was restricted. Throughout the 19th century the Russian authorities encouraged large-scale colonization of the region leading to a diminishing of the originally Romanian-speaking (Moldovan) population from an estimated 86% in 1816 to about 52% in 1905.
Following the end of World War 2 the Russian influence over the region grew again, in correlation with the Soviet policy of promoting the Moldovan cultural and ethnic identity as distinct from the Romanian one. The Moldovenist theory was largely developed on political grounds, and it claims that the Romanian and Moldovan language are distinctive. In order to accentuate this, the state imposed that the language has to be written in the Cyrillic alphabet just as other languages from the USSR, while Romanian language uses the Latin script.
During the Glasnost and Perestroika period in the late 80s, a democratic movement has emerged in Moldova as well, which became known as the Popular Front of Moldova (‘Frontul Popular din Moldova’). FPM was largely popular, therefore threatening the ruling Communist Party in that it promoted an anti-communist agenda, Cristian democracy, Romanian nationalistic and even unionistic objectives. In 1989, FPM organised several mass demonstrations which pressured the government to adopt a Language Law that would recognise the Romanian identity of the national language of Moldova and change its spelling to the Latin script. The law was adopted on 31 August, but major riots continued to be organised in November that year, leading to the organisation of first democratic elections at the beginning of 1990 (Wilders, 2022).
The Romanian factor and the question of reunification
The new democratically elected parliament of Moldova adopted in August 1991 the country’s ‘Declaration of Independence’, stating among other things that the national language of Moldova is the Romanian language, the flag is the Romanian flag with the Moldovan coat of arms defaced on it and the anthem of Moldova is as well the Romanian anthem (King, 2000).
The question of reunification with Romania was actively debated at the beginning of the 90s in the context of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the fall of Communist regimes in Moldova and Romania and especially after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In 1990, following decades of strict separation, border crossing restrictions were temporary lifted between Romania and Moldova. Although the intellectual elites of those times argued for the ‘reunification with the Romanian Motherland’, the majority of the population was indifferent or not interested in this project (Wilders, 2022). Moreover, the majoritarian Slavic population of Transnistria was strongly opposing such an idea, and tensions generated by the fear of the rise of Romanian nationalist movements in Moldova and the possibility of joining Romania contributed to the escalation of the military conflict in the region, resulting in a brief war between the Transnistrian separatists and the Moldovan Police in 1992. Russia intervention on the Transnistrian side ended up with a ceasefire and the establishment of a security zone under the control of Moldovan, Transnistrian and Russian forces (1500 Russian peace keeping soldiers remained there ever since). The events led to the creation of a de facto independent Transnistrian Republic with its capital in Tiraspol, out of the control of the government in Chisinau (Szeles, 2021).
Regardless of the reunification euphoria of the early 90s, internal fight for power and disagreements between the leaders of the Popular Front of Moldova, sent the party into the opposition after the 1994 elections, which further split into smaller fractions. The new governing party, the Agrarian Party of Moldova, had a policy of distancing itself from Romania, changing the national anthem and writing in the 1994 Constitution that the national language of the country is ‘Moldovan’. However, the Constitutional Court of Moldova decided that the Declaration of Independence of 1991 takes precedence over the Constitution and established that the official language of Moldova is indeed the Romanian language. Furthermore, the agrarians organised a referendum known as ‘the Referendum for remaining independent’, aimed at specifically excluding any possibility of the union with Romania (Wilders, 2022).
Although no actual steps were ever implemented for the reunification of the two countries, the topic is recurrent on both sides in political debates. Ion Iliescu, the first Romanian president was criticised for not concluding the union during the first years after the Moldovan independence (Bucataru, 2012). The Russian political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky has proposed in an interview with a Romanian publication a plan of Moldova joining Romania and excluding Transnistria. There were speculations whether these ideas were approved or supported by higher circles in the Kremlin, but it was never confirmed (Szeles, 2021).
Following the 2022 Ukrainian crisis events, the idea of Moldova joining Romania and therefore the EU and NATO, was once again vehiculated by several public figures from both countries. The argument supporting this relates to the strengthening of the Eastern Flank of NATO and offering security guaranties to the territory of Moldova in case of Russian intervention under the pretext relating to Transnistria. Nonetheless, the Moldovan President Maia Sandu said that this is something that the people of Moldova would have to decide, and the Prime Minister dismissed such plans given that Moldova intends to join the EU but not the NATO (Wilders, 2022).
Besides the extensively debated question of reunification, Romania has offered the people of Moldova the possibility of obtaining Romanian citizenship based on descendance since 1991. Estimates indicate that over 1 million Moldovans have obtained a Romanian passport, implying that 1 in 3 people from Moldova have acquired Romanian citizenship. Among the reasons why they opt for dual citizenship, the Moldovans indicate: feeling Romanian, the opportunity to visit/ work in Romania and the opportunity to visit/ work in the EU.
Political & economic context since 1991
Moldova has had many challenges during its first 30 years of independence, especially concerning the economic and the political spheres. After opening their internal market and starting the process of transition to a liberal market economy, Moldova was confronted with skyrocketing inflation that led to serious and devastating economic consequences bringing the majority of the population below the poverty line. It was not until the 2000s when Moldova’s economy started recording GDP growth, and since then it maintained a relatively constant 5-10% yearly economic growth. At the same time, Romania’s fast-growing economy determined interest in the prospects of investments in the neighbouring country, investments that helped significantly the Moldovan economy. In addition to that, the Moldovans that emigrated in the 90s and early 2000s to Western Europe and Russia as well, sending money to their families at home, constitute 38% of the country’s GDP, the second highest figure in the world (Szeles, 2021).
In 2014 a large-scale fraud scheme was exposed when the Central Bank of Moldova took over the Deposits Bank, the biggest lending bank in the country, indicating that 1 billion US dollars have disappeared from the accounts of the bank’s clients. Compared to the size of the Moldova’s economy, the fraud was catastrophic, the case being intensively promoted by the pro-Russian Party of Socialists.
In the following years more cases of corruption and fraud were revealed, the independence of the juridical system was questionable and the influence of oligarchs over the government decisions became apparent.
In 2019, a constitutional crisis shacked the political scene when Moldova effectively had two governments ruling the country at the same time. For over one week the newly formed government led by Maia Sandu, supported by the president Igor Dodon activated simultaneously with the previous cabinet led by Pavel Filip. The situation caused chaos in the country and brough international attention over the country.
During the 2020 presidential election, the public opinion favoured the opposition candidate Maia Sandu, who became the first female President of Moldova, defeating the former president Igor Dodon. After the Covid-19 state of emergency was lifted, Sandu dissolved the parliament calling for snap elections. The results of the 2021 parliamentary elections were clearly in favour of the pro-European former opposition party PAS - Party of Action and Solidarity. As a result, a new cabinet was formed by PAS under the lead of Natalia Gavrilita.
Moldova as part of International Organisations
On 21 December 1991, Moldova, and most former soviet republics signed the document constituting the Post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) but it did not join the military branch of it, positioning itself as a neuter country (Szeles, 2021).
In 1998, Moldova was one of the founding countries establishing the regional Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development GUAM together with Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The initial agreement included also a mutual defence programme, but Moldova refused to take part given its neutral stance.
Relations with NATO started in 1992, when Moldova joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and further developed to the point when it became part of the Partnership for Peace Programme in 1994. In 1997 Moldova established a permanent Mission to NATO, and in 2006 it signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan. However, given that military neutrality is enshrined in the country’s constitution, there are no prospects for joining the alliance. NATO officials have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Russian armed forces from the Moldovan territory of Transnistria in order to ensure the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of the country (Szeles, 2021).
EU – Moldova Relations
The relations between Moldova and the European Union were formalised through the framework of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that was signed in 1994 and entered into force in 1998 for the following 10 years. The strategic objectives of cooperation between EU and Moldova were outlined in the Action Plans elaborated for periods of 3 years and concerning cooperation in the political, economic, commercial, legal, cultural and scientific fields. The provisions of the PCA were aimed at supporting further integration in the European economic mechanisms, creating legal approximation and bringing norms and standards closer to the ones of the European Union (Bucataru, 2012).
Since 2009, the Eastern Partnership represents the framework regulating relations between the two providing access to EU funded comprehensive programs aimed at the improvement of Moldova’s economy and administrative functions.
In 2011, Moldova received an Action Plan from the EU Commissioner for Internal Affaires concerning the possibility of the establishment of visa-free regime for short travelling periods in the EU, which was eventually approved in 2014 by the European Parliament (Chirila, 2014).
Starting from 2010, Moldova and the EU have begun negotiations for an Association Agreement that would replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and would include a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area which was eventually signed in 2014. Although it included many important provisions for the deepening of the relations between the EU and Moldova, the Association Agreement does not provide any prospects for future EU membership (Council of the EU, 2016). Nonetheless, the leaders of Moldova have expressed hopes for first joining and later finishing the formal application procedure for the EU membership by 2019 when Romania was holding the EU presidency.
Throughout the years, the European Union has provided substantial multi-million euros funds and grants to Moldova in order to adapt to the EU norms and standards with the most recently approved Macro-Financial Assistance Operation accounting 150 million euros. Those financial packages have determined the public opinion to be in favour of the prospects of joining the EU very soon. Latest polls suggest that 61% of Moldovans are supporting the idea of becoming a member of the EU.
Two of the main impediments for the Moldovan ascension to the European Union are represented by the unsolved conflicts in the separatist regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia. The people of those regions have expressed fears that if Moldova would join the EU, the country would end up swallowed by Romania’s sphere of influence and they would rather support the idea of Moldova joining the Eurasian Economic Union (Chirila, 2014).
In the context of the 2022 political and military crisis regarding the situation in Ukraine, the Prime Minister stated on 28 February that Moldova needs to move rapidly to become a member of the European Union. On 3 March, the country submitted the formal application for the EU membership together with Ukraine and Georgia.
The Republic of Moldova had a complicated journey since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 in establishing a democratic system, functioning market economy, ensuring the rule of law and positioning itself on the international political scene. Starting from unionistic ideas that were never put in practice but had a significant role in ensuring the reestablishment of good relations with neighbouring Romania, to governments leading to the European integration of Moldova or favouring better relations with Russia and the Post-Soviet Institutions, the country has experienced a rollercoaster of political and economic unpredictable changes. To add up to the factors that generated instability, the governments of Moldova had to deal with separatist movements in two of its regions – Gagauzia and Transnistria, the second becoming a de facto independent republic within the Moldovan State, supported by Russian military troops situated there. With corruption and fraud scandals or continued political crises, Moldova’s aspirations to accelerate the process of European Integration seemed very ambitious but to some extent unrealistic. Nevertheless, Moldova demonstrated that despite all those problems it remains the most willing Post-Soviet state to eventually become a member of the European Union. The EU has supported Moldova’s intentions and it offered through several programmes in different stages assistance in the process of the domestic reformation. Under the current political leadership, Moldova seems more ready then ever before to fulfil its wishes of joining the EU but it remains to be seen how long this process will take.
Bucataru, V. (2012), “Moldova and European Union: from cooperation to integration” (2011-2012) Available at: http://ape.md/lib.php?l=en&idc=156&year=2012
Chirila, V., Bucataru, V. and Grau L. (2014), “Is Moldova’s European Integration Irreversible?”
Available at: http://ape.md/libview.php?l=ro&idc=152&id=2114
Council of the EU (2016), “EU Council conclusions on the Republic of Moldova” Available at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/02/15- fac-moldovaconclusions/
Wilder, A. (6 Jan, 2022) “Assessing a Possible Moldova-Romania Unification”. Geopolitical Monitor. Available at: https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/assessing-a-possible-moldova-romania- unification/
Szeles, M. (15 Jan, 2021) “Examining the foreign policy attitudes in Moldova” Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245322