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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


15 February 2016

Buridan’s Ass and its Historical Traumas

When on 22 January 2016 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that President Vladimir Putin and the permanent members of the Russian Security Council discussed in detail “the worsening situation in Moldova”, some democratic activists in the small post-Soviet republic rejoiced: perhaps Western statesmen and media would at last pay more attention to their cause now it has become known that Mr. Putin also spends his time pondering over it.

Protest in Chişinău, September 2015 (source: moldovanpolitics.wordpress.com)

Protest in Chişinău, September 2015 (source: moldovanpolitics.wordpress.com)

Endemic corruption and a stolen billion

Moldova is once more on the forefront of the conflict between East and West, and Russia can easily capitalize on the country´s disastrous situation after more than six years of pro-European government. Under the pretext of imposing much needed economic reforms, local politicians have been in fact working hard to strip the republic of its last remaining state assets. Corruption skyrocketed, allowing these imaginative entrepreneurs to earn huge fortunes. The “robbery of the century” was a veritable masterpiece of fraud: in November 2014 almost 1 billion US $ (about 12 per cent of Moldova’s GDP) vanished from three local banks in three days, generating a sharp fall of the national currency and severely injuring the already struggling economy. The publication of an international independent report directed public discontent against the entire governing coalition. However, democratic activists fear that such domestic crisis could favour the return to power of pro-Russian parties aiming to drive Moldova closer to the Eurasian Customs Union.

Protest in Chişinău, September 2015. “Down with the oligarchs!” (source: wikimedia commons)

Protest in Chişinău, September 2015. “Down with the oligarchs!” (source: wikimedia commons)

Political turmoil and geopolitical significance

The Alliance for European Integration has governed Moldova since 2009, but corruption scandals, the republic´s intricate constitution, and the huge vanity of its too many political leaders have continuously eroded the coalition’s credibility. In a spectacular parliamentary coup in October 2015, the climax of this political drama, former prime minister and party leader Vlad Filat was indicted and eventually arrested on fraud and bribery charges by the country´s general prosecutor, whom the governing alliance wanted to remove the same day on allegations of being a puppet of media mogul and political éminence grise Vlad Plahotniuc. Prime minister Valeriu Streleț was dismissed by the Parliament shortly after, making pro-European activists and pro-Russian supporters join forces in large anti-corruption protests. It was only on 20 January 2016 that a new prime minister was accepted by the Parliament, amidst the ongoing violent protests for early parliamentary elections. President Putin´s interest comes in these complicated circumstances and could have significant geopolitical consequences for Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood, located as Moldova is in a strategic hotspot between NATO and Ukraine.


Protest in Chişinău, mid-January 2016 (source: www.moldova.org)

Protest in Chişinău, mid-January 2016 (source: www.moldova.org)

Buridans´s ass or Moldova’s tormented history

Such twists and turns are not new in Moldova’s tormented history. In the past two decades, the country has been the perfect representation of Buridan’s ass. Placed midway between two piles of hay, the poor donkey slowly dies of hunger as it cannot decide on which pile to feast. Moldova seems similarly unable to choose between Russia and the EU. Its hesitation stems not only from the donkey´s engagement with historical emotions, trauma, and nostalgia, but also from the conflicting stimuli sent by the two interactive piles of hay, making the donkey’s indecision even more acute.

 Historicizing contemporary indecisions

Moldova has always been a borderland of East and West. Tsar Alexander I annexed it in 1812, but it was Napoleon, who, from half a continent away, indirectly decided on the size of Russia’s prize, as the butterfly effect of Napoleon’s burgeoning Russian campaign hurried the conclusion of the Treaty of Bucharest. Moldovan territory was organized as a Russian province (Bessarabia) that witnessed all the ‘benefits’ of tsarist enlightened autocracy. Its ethnic structure gradually changed through colonization, and several enclaves scattered throughout Bessarabia would prove useful bones of contention in future imperial and post-imperial politics. Southern Bessarabia, the area adjacent to the Danube, was restored to future Romania in 1856 by the Western powers, only to be taken away again twenty years later. The tragic story of the lost Bessarabian brethren has played an important part in the making of Romanian nationalism ever since.

The fall of Tsarist Russia in 1917 allowed a revival of pro-Romanian sentiments in Bessarabia, in 1918 voted for union with the Romanian ‘Motherland’. The act was contested by the Soviet Union, which forged a Moldavian Socialist Republic on Ukrainian soil in Transnistria (literally ‘beyond the Dniester River’). Romanian misadministration during the interwar years was followed by the province’s tragic fate in World War II, when Bessarabia and Transnistria became the scene of atrocious crimes committed by the Romanian authorities. When Stalin’s troops returned as liberators in 1944, the Moldovan territory was once again split, and the local population was to suffer a new phase of purges, repressions, and deportations.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union also brought the dissolution of Moldova’s fragile unity, in a matryoshka doll succession of secessions. Moldova declared its independence in 1991 and in 1992 fought for its territory in Transnistria, where a de facto independent republic had been created, backed by the lingering remains of the Russian 14th army. Transnistria is now one of the frozen conflicts in the Black Sea area, with which Russia can effectively curb Moldova´s European aspirations.

The Republic and Moldova and the separatist republic of Transnistria (source: wikimedia commons)

The Republic and Moldova and the separatist republic of Transnistria (source: wikimedia commons)

Between East and West

Moldova is torn by its history and identity issues. Political decisions still greatly depend on ethnic allegiances, but also on nostalgia for the more prosperous communist times. Population figures decreased by 25 per cent in the past ten years (from 4 to about 3 million) as young workers sought jobs in European countries and Russia. Public support for democratic institutions plummeted in the past year, and the EU is greatly compromised by its association with the ‘greedy oligarchs’. Romania, the one EU actor most directly interested in the area, is largely culpable for a risky double game. On the one side it invests in those Moldovans who still dream of national unity and on the other it backs corrupt statesmen who seem to efficiently work against Moldova’s European future.

Moldova looks East and West, then West and East, enchained as it is by a traumatic history and split identity. It keeps circling around its geopolitical peg, unable to get to any of the two piles of hay. It has inched towards the Western heap in the past six years, but it takes further patience and painfully small steps to approach it. The Eastern pile of hay, as suggested by spokesman Peskov, is eyeing the poor beast and might be willing to provide it with a feast of cheap gas and other economic cakes, as a good donkey properly deserves.