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The Georgias to Come

de (5-9-2008) | 9/5/2008

Those who thought that wayward Georgia marks the end rather than the beginning of Russia’s appetite for regional conquest should consider a recent headline from a Romanian newspaper: “The other Georgia to come: The 18 tanks of Transnistria could reach Chisinau in 30 minutes.” The August 22 article went on to warn that Russia now threatens Europe’s easternmost reaches.

This will indeed come as news to Americans, most of whom have never heard of Transnistria, a breakaway republic in Moldova, or of Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. Moldova, despite being a UN member state, is another of those legalistic entities – such as Somalia – whose existence is largely dependent on the willingness of powerful states to recognize it. Transnistria, a Stalinist creation like the now better known Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabagh, offers a militaristically resurgent Russia yet another opportunity to flex its muscles and presents the West with yet another insoluble problem. When it takes just 18 Russian tanks to reach the capital of a sovereign European country, that is cause for international concern.

To justify its military presence in Georgia and Transnistria, Russia has used the Kosovo analogy. Kosovo, it will be remembered, was part of one internationally recognized country, Yugoslavia, and later of another, Serbia. Because the local ethnic Albanian majority wanted to separate and claimed oppression or even “genocide,” the EU and NATO, without UN blessing, used force to expel the legal Serbian authorities. Earlier this year the same EU/NATO and the United Nations recognized a new state of Kosovo. Kosovo is in fact no more a viable entity than Abkhazia, albeit more viable than South Ossetia or Transnistria. Russia would like it’s occupation of sovereign countries to be seen in the same context.

There are, however, important differences between Kosovo and Georgia’s separatist regions that Russia prefers not to mention. Albanians in Kosovo were a clear majority for decades, while the Abkhaz represented only 17 percent of the region’s population by the early 1990s, when Russia helped evict the majority Georgians from the area. Ossetians in South Ossetia were about two thirds of the total for a long time, while Russians in Transnistria were for decades the third largest ethnic group, after Romanians (”Moldovans”) and Ukrainians, and Armenians in Nagorno Karabagh were always a majority.

Just as Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin’s hanging a Stalin poster in his office is a symbolic demonstration of the continuity of Russia’s imperial ambitions, Transnistria is the most concrete manifestation of Stalinist tactics. Created on a piece of Ukrainian land after World War I with a few Romanians on the left bank of the Dniester after the Soviets lost the historic Romanian province of Bessarabia (actually eastern Moldova, annexed by the Tsars in 1812), the grandly named Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was intended to create the impression that it represented the “real” Moldova, unjustly divided by the Romanian annexation of the right bank area. After World War II, Moscow re-annexed Bessarabia and, with Transnistria attached, renamed it the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. Today it has an area of 34,000 square kilometers and 4.3 million inhabitants.

Despite strenuous Soviet efforts at Russification, Bessarabia retained its Romanian ethnic majority (about 66 percent), even if not a very strong self-identity. The very term “Moldovan” as a national description is fictitious. Not only is most of the historic province still in Romania, but in language and religion Moldovans are as much a distinct “nation” vis-a-vis Romanians as Kansans are vis-a-vis Americans.

After the Soviet collapse there was a certain amount of pressure, especially among the young, to bring the area under the Romanian flag. Moscow, weak as it was at the time, still reacted rapidly, following a pattern similar to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Slavic majority in Transnistria (made up of both Ukrainians and Russians, despite Romanians being the largest single ethnic group) panicked at the idea of becoming a marginal minority in a Greater Romania. It proclaimed “autonomy”, requested and immediately received Russian military aid (a combination of “peacekeepers” and Cossack mercenaries) and annexed the city of Tighina on the right bank. Moreover, to further ensure that Moldova will never be a viable state, Moscow encouraged and supported “autonomy” within the remaining territory for the small Gagauz, an Orthodox Turkic minority (140,000 people on 1,600 square kilometers).

Russian “peacekeepers” have remained in Transnistria ever since 1993, despite Moldovan protests and Moscow’s promise to withdraw them, first by 1997 and again by 2002, in effect protecting a Mafia-run enclave, where, as this author has seen, admiration for Lenin and the Soviet Union are officially exhibited, giving the “capital” Tiraspol the atmosphere of an ideological Jurassic Park. Not surprisingly, the local “authorities,” who have repeatedly expressed their desire to join Russia, receive the enthusiastic support of Russian nationalists and systematically suppress all manifestations of “Moldovan” (i.e. Romanian) language and culture. As for the economy, just as in the case of other such separatist enclaves (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, indeed Kosovo), it amounts to a Russian subsidized smuggler’s paradise, with some arms exports, controlled or owned by a small clique around “President” Igor Smirnov, a former Soviet petty bureaucrat from Eastern Siberia who is still a Russian citizen.

While Moldova is powerless to resist Russian pressure and Transnistrian threats and blackmail, one should resist the temptation of sympathizing too much with its regime–or its voters. Government after government in Chisinau–and they have all been freely elected since 1991–has refused to make any hard decision regarding the country’s future. The best explanation is the confused identity of the voters themselves and of the political elites.

Throughout the Tzarist and Soviet occupation, the peasants, mostly ethnic Romanians and, unique in Europe, the majority, did cling to their language and identity against Russification efforts, but distrust Romania after two centuries of Russian propaganda. Many of them also distrusted capitalism to the extent that, when land was offered for private property, many still preferred Soviet-type collective farms. The young, while more pro-Romanian, mostly chose the easy option of having it both ways–obtain Romanian passports and using them to gain access to the European Union. The clearest manifestation of such behavior is the election and re-election of Vladimir Voronin, a former KGB Major General, leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists since 1994 and president since 2001. That makes Moldova the founding member of a club of two countries in Europe that have elected openly communist presidents (the other is Cyprus, which did so earlier this year). Not surprisingly, Voronin goes through the motions of moving toward “Europe,” mostly seeking economic aid and protection against imaginary Romanian annexation, while regularly, and more sincerely, expressing his friendship for Moscow and antipathy toward Bucharest and all things Romanian.

All of that explains why no serious political or popular pressure exists to force Chisinau to make the hard choices about Moldova’s future. Those choices are limited, and become more so in light of Russia’s newest demonstrations of military might. In descending order of their realism, those choices are satellization (worse than Finlandization) by Moscow and retention of Transnistria as a reward, continuation of the present situation and the associated realities of a continuous exodus of the young and deepening poverty, and unification with Romania, leaving behind the indigestible Transnistria and Gagauzia. Painful as each may seem, none of these choices is completely in the hands of Chisinau, but will mostly be decided in Moscow, Kiev and, to a lesser extent, Bucharest. If the present Russian plan for the federalization of Moldova – in effect making almost 4 million Romanians constitutionally equal with half a million Transnistrian Rusophiles is accepted, complete with a Russian military presence for decades to come, Moscow would complete its domination – legally, peacefully and at minimal cost.

For Moscow, the present situation is perfectly acceptable. Russia controls Moldova’s energy supplies, is by far the dominant market for its exports (mostly wine and fruits), and can manipulate the Transnistria issue should Chisinau exhibit any uppity behavior. The only problem may appear if Ukraine succeeds in safeguarding its independence, because then Transnistria, and by implication Moldova, would be cut off from Russia and become hostages of Kiev, rather than Moscow. From Russia’s perspective, the fate of Moldova is not just secondary but will be practically decided by the nature of relations between Moscow and Kiev.

For Ukraine, which has long behaved as if Moldova and Transnistria are of marginal interest, compared to its territorial dispute with Romania in the Black Sea and the Danube Delta, the events in Georgia should bring home the fact that a Russian-controlled Transnistria (and/or Moldova) on its west adds to the security threat of its long eastern border with Russia proper. That is a situation no independent government in Kiev could live with, but Kiev could handle it simply by isolating, and thus suffocating, Transnistria (and a satellized Moldova), probably in cooperation with Romania. Kiev could also remember that historically Transnistria was part of its territory–and that there are as many Ukrainians as there are Russians in that region.

On the other hand, if Moscow’s ultimate goal of bringing Ukraine into its area of control succeeds, the problem of Transnistria–or of Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity–will cease to be relevant.

Romania, albeit one of Moldova’s two neighbors and ethnically identical, has played a much smaller role than one could have expected. True enough, Romanian politicians have expressed concern, the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate has detached a minority of Moldovans from under Moscow’s religious authority, and Moldavians have received scholarships and, most importantly, passports, but Chisinau has resisted any closer cooperation, military or political, and, judging by this author’s observations, beyond a nostalgic solidarity that is more regional than widespread, the overwhelming majority of Romanians do not seem very excited about events beyond the Prut River–or prepared to do much to influence them. They instinctively realize that Romania does not really need and cannot really afford reunification with 3 million poor and resentful relatives, especially if the already high cost could include over a million inassimilable and hostile Slavs.

For a Europe that is largely unable to offer a strong and coherent response to Moscow’s mutilation of Georgia–which is pro-Western, much larger and more strategically important, and which has a well-defined national identity–the notion peddled by some in Chisinau and Bucharest of Moldova’s admission into the European Union (and NATO) is simply and realistically inconceivable. All that is left is, in effect, the next move by Moscow and the inevitably ineffective protests and expressions of concern from Brussels to follow.

The little-known developments in Moldova since the early 1990s should have rung alarm bells in Europe and Washington. They served as a model for what has been done in Georgia recently. The “international community” did nothing as a Russophile remnant of Stalinist political mapmaking was strengthened by Russian forces disguised as “peacekeepers”; a local puppet clique was installed, encouraged and subsidized by Moscow; and the legitimate government was blackmailed and threatened into tolerating the situation. Yeltsin’s Russia was too weak to fully apply this pattern beyond Moldova, but Putin’s has now taken it to its logical and intended consequences in Georgia, and very likely we shall see it repeated, on a much larger and more dangerous scale, in Ukraine.

All the ingredients are there. Crimea has a restive Russian majority, used to belong to Russia (after being taken from the Ottomans), the would-be “peacekeepers” are already there as the Russian Navy’s largest Black Sea base in Sevastopol, and Kiev’s ability to resist is undermined by the large pro-Russian sector of Ukraine’s population, its dependence on Russian energy and markets and the divisions in the country’s political class. The lessons of Moldova were not learned by Europe or Washington, and it may be too late to apply them to the coming Ukrainian crisis.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co – Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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