Moldova, one of the smallest, poorest and most obscure of the 15 republics that once comprised the Soviet Union, is suddenly being portrayed in world headlines as the next flashpoint in a Cold War that millions of people had assumed was long over.
The tiny country has been on edge since March, when Russian President Vladimir Putin engineered an independence referendum in Crimea that was overwhelmingly approved by Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority after protests in Kiev toppled Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych (also see “Crimea: Failure of Diplomacy Becomes Russian Fait Accompli” in the April 2014 issue of The Diplomat). That led Moscow to annex the Black Sea peninsula and has sparked fears that Putin’s next gambit will be to dispatch his troops to eastern Ukraine under the guise of protecting the ethnic Russian population there. While he’s at it, observers worry he might head westward to wrest the breakaway Transnistria region from Moldovan control.
“This is what frightens us,” said Igor Munteanu, Moldova’s articulate, urbane ambassador to the United States who has suddenly found himself in the media limelight. “If nobody will take the necessary steps to de-escalate this conflict, then nobody is protected against other attempts of deliberate aggression.”
Munteanu, who’s been in Washington since September 2010, compared Russia’s takeover of Crimea to the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s bloodless occupation and annexation of Austria in 1938.
“We are very much worried about the recent conflict in Ukraine,” he said. “When part of a sovereign state is taken by force, it’s a blow to the security of Eastern Europe. The Russian Federation has occupied part of a sovereign nation in spite of the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki principles. This precedent can then be used in other places wherever there’s a group of Russian speakers.”
He added: “Instead of achieving harmony and building on consensual policies around delicate matters, such as language issues, religious differences and national minorities, one may get violence at a very large scale. I don’t believe we need this sort of Hobbesian ‘war against all’ model in modern global affairs.”
Munteanu, 48, spoke to The Washington Diplomat from his third-floor office, whose windows overlook the intersection of Florida and S Streets near Dupont Circle. Hanging behind his desk are 18 framed photographs of the ambassador posing with luminaries such as President and Mrs. Obama; Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton; House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio); and the State Department’s former chief of protocol, Capricia Marshall.
There’s also a certificate from Virginia State University thanking Munteanu for his attendance at an April 2011 forum on newly independent countries and a plaque from Lakeland, Fla., which maintains a sister-city relationship with Balti, one of Moldova’s biggest towns.
Yet expecting average Americans to be familiar with Moldova is asking a lot when they’re generally clueless about its much bigger neighbor, Ukraine — the largest country located completely in Europe. In a recent nationwide survey of 2,066 Americans, only one in six could locate Ukraine on a world map; some placed it in Kansas, Brazil or Australia. More tellingly, the less Americans knew about Ukraine (regardless of their political affiliation), the more likely they were to support U.S. military action there.
So here are some basic facts: Moldova produces excellent wine and measures just over 13,000 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Maryland and the District of Columbia combined. Its population is about 3.6 million, with 500,000 or so inhabitants in Transnistria (also spelled as Transnistria and Trans-Dniester), which is much poorer than the rest of Moldova.
“There are four or five important factories [in Transnistria], but before, there were hundreds,” Munteanu said, explaining the poverty that since its self-declared independence in 1990 has plagued this sliver of land wedged in between Ukraine and Moldova proper.
Transnistria’s bid for independence was driven by separatists who balked at becoming a part of Moldova, whose people are more closely related to their Romanian neighbors. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian-speaking enclave has been in legal limbo, not recognized by anyone other than Russia — much like the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. In a 2006 referendum that had echoes of the recent Crimea ballot, the region voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. Moscow declined, though it maintains about 1,500 troops in Transnistria.
Moldova itself traces its modern roots to the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was cobbled together in 1940 from parts of neighboring Ukraine and Romania. As such, it was the second-smallest republic in the U.S.S.R. (only Armenia was smaller). The forced collectivization schemes of the Stalinist era led to widespread famine in the late 1940s and early 1950s, though the Leonid Brezhnev years brought substantial Soviet investment to Moldova in the form of subsidized factories and public housing.
By 1991, the country’s annual per-capita income was eight times higher than that of Romania. But once the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Moldova’s situation took a turn for the worse.
“During Soviet times, we had a lot of heavy industries — steel, textiles and machinery — under centralized planning,” Munteanu explained. “But in 1992, a year after independence, a civil war broke out in Moldova, and when Transnistria declared it wouldn’t be a part of Moldova, they took with them 40 percent of our economy and 56 percent of our factories.”
Today, Romania’s annual per-capita income is roughly $13,000, while Moldova’s hovers around $3,600. More than 23 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Moldova has effectively replaced Albania as Europe’s poorest nation — a situation Munteanu says cannot endure.
Munteanu began representing his government in 1992 following independence. A longtime political commentator for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he worked for Moldova’s first president, Mircea Snegur, for three years and also established the country’s first think tank, IDIS Viitorul, which he ran from 1996 to 2010.
“In 2009, we had a power shift, a new coalition of political parties that came out of nowhere. Their main objective was to accelerate Moldova’s integration with the EU,” he said. The following year, Munteanu was sent to Washington as ambassador.
The government has followed through on its pledges, taking the bold step of seeking closer political and trade ties with the European Union despite the threat of blowback from Moscow, which banned wine imports from Moldova and hinted it might hold back Russian gas in response to the move.
Moldova’s turn toward the EU stood in stark contrast to ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s decision to spurn those very same EU agreements in favor of $15 billion in loans and discounted gas from Russia. Moldova was rewarded with a brief visit last December by Secretary of State John Kerry, who drank a glass of Moldovan wine and said the U.S. “believes deeply that European integration is the best road for both security and prosperity in Moldova.”
“This is a critical time for my country because we are about to take a very important decision: to move closer to the European Union,” Munteanu told us. “The EU is moving institutions, funds and political resources to Eastern Europe under the so-called Eastern Partnership — a policy of transforming borders into bridges and creating opportunities for nations of the former Soviet Union to develop their identity freely.”
In addition to lowering tariffs on Moldovan wine, in early April the 28-member EU formally agreed to lift visa restrictions on Moldova, allowing its citizens for the first time to travel throughout the Schengen passport-free zone as long as they have biometric passports.
But Moldova’s efforts to get closer to the EU have provoked threats from Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister and Putin’s special representative to Transnistria. Last year, Rogozin warned that Moldova could lose Transnistria if it continued seeking warmer ties with Brussels.
At the moment, Russia has 440 “peacekeepers” along a narrow buffer zone that separates Moldova and Transnistria, along with several hundred soldiers guarding Soviet-era arms stocks. It has also amassed an estimated 40,000 troops near Ukraine’s eastern border since the Crimea referendum.
“After events in Ukraine, it is of great urgency that the Europeans sign the association agreement with Moldova very quickly,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the former premier of Luxembourg and a candidate to become head of the European Commission, in comments to the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag. “We have to steal a march on Putin. He has to know that he cannot do in Moldova what he did in Crimea. Otherwise, Moldova could be the next victim of Russian aggression.”
Meanwhile, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, warned that Moscow could seize Transnistria and that the Russian buildup along its border with Ukraine was “very, very sizeable” and “very, very ready.”
“There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that,” said Breedlove, “and that is very worrisome.”
Munteanu notes that Moldova’s 1994 Constitution steered clear of NATO membership to avoid inviting Russian aggression. “We are not ready to join NATO because Moldova is a neutral country by its Constitution. Instead, we care about enhanced cooperation with NATO on the basis of IPAP [Individual Partnership Action Plan],” he said.
NATO has been stepping up its cooperation with former Soviet states to ease their fears of a Russian incursion. Among other things, the bloc plans stronger military ties with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova, and it may open a liaison office in Moldova ahead of the country’s scheduled signing of a trade and political pact with the EU in June. NATO has also beefed up its presence in its 28 member states.
Political journalist Michael Totten argues that Russia’s support of Transnistria virtually guarantees that Moldova will never be accepted by NATO.
“Putin did the same thing to Georgia in 2008 when he lopped off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he did it for the same reason,” Totten wrote in the World Affairs Journal online. “Putin couldn’t care less about what happens in Transnistria, but he keeps Russian troops there because they ensure Moldova stays out of NATO. That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.”
Munteanu agrees and says Moscow’s claims of protecting ethnic Russians are bogus. “More Russians live in the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, than in the whole region of Transnistria; thus, every single claim of ‘defending Russian speakers by creating a statehood of their own’ is a fake argument,” Munteanu told The Diplomat. “It is obvious that the real reason for a territorial conflict emerged as a tool to keep us outside of any potential integration with EU, to install fears, and increase vulnerability and various economic traps to Moldova.”
Yet Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said he’s more concerned with local troublemakers in Transnistria than with any grand strategy by Putin.
“Any one of those leaders could sense a moment of opportunity with the Kremlin over a barrel, having set the precedent that if ethnic Russians appeal to Moscow for protection, then the Kremlin will act,” he said. “So if you are a local rabble-rouser with aspirations to greater power, now is your opportunity.”
He also cautioned that Moldova’s flirtation with the EU is a double-edged sword.
“Part of the provocation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine was its geopolitical orientation against the will of the population of Crimea. That would be true in Transnistria as well,” said Rojansky, who warned that the economic strategies initiated by Moldova in 2009 have not been given sufficient time to work.
“Rushing that process, trying to artificially force Moldova into a Western mold without having brought the economy up to Western standards, isn’t going to do an authentic job of persuading Transnistria to come back to Moldova,” he said. “Those who are cynical will remain cynical, and those who are scared will remain scared.”
Munteanu remains firm that his country’s future lies with Europe and says his government must overcome Moscow’s “propaganda campaign against the EU, the West and the United States” to convey this message to the public ahead of November’s parliamentary elections.
“Identity is a very important force in my country, as it is in Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltics,” the ambassador said. “We want to call ourselves Europeans, but we also want to have a country that’s fully integrated with the European Union.
“Every step that we achieve in driving Moldova closer to the EU is not a gift, but a result of laborious work, strategic vision and considerable sacrifices. The fact is that our close friends and neighbors — Hungary, Romania, Poland, Czechs and Slovaks — succeeded in joining the EU through an intense effort of national cohesion,” he added. “Poland is a brilliant example of how difficult their previous experience was. But it’s also shown very successful growth, a stable currency and responsibility for its neighbors.”
However, that hasn’t convinced everyone in Moldova that embracing Europe is the right course to take. “In the last few years, because of propaganda from Russia, there’s been an increase in the percentage of those who don’t want to be part of the EU,” Munteanu conceded, citing a recent poll showing only a 44 percent level of support for a Moldova-EU accord. That compares with 40 percent for a customs union with Russia.
“I don’t believe you can equate this customs union with the sophistication of the EU,” Munteanu argued. “It’s absolute nonsense, but if you repeat this nonsense enough times, it becomes reality in the minds of the public.”
He’s equally dismissive of Transnistria’s longstanding push to join Russia. In a 2006 referendum, 97 percent of the people of Transnistria voted for independence — but Munteanu insists this is simply a way for locals to extract money from the central government in Chisinau.
“In fact, they already held five consecutive referendums in the past two decades, and every time the effective result of their effort is to … stir public support for purely populist purposes. Usually, they use the referendums to extort additional resources from Moscow, or attempt to get various concessions from the Moldovan government,” he said. “They trade as a legal entity of Moldova, since they are not recognized by anybody. They use Moldovan customs documents to export, but they don’t pay any taxes. We are happy to provide them legal status, because it is our policy to reintegrate Transnistria. This is a part of indivisible and sovereign Moldova. We cannot give up, because we have a legal responsibility to the citizens of this region.”
But Munteanu said crime is spiraling out of control in Transnistria because it’s not completely under Moldovan control. He charges that the region is plagued by gangs that regularly close down schools and extort money from local businesses. (To be fair, Moldova itself has a serious crime problem, with rampant corruption and human trafficking.)
“The gangs are protected by the Russian peacekeepers. We cannot go there and prosecute because this would be seen as a war. We need to evacuate Russian troops and restore our authority in the region,” Munteanu said, adding that, “Moldova has a responsibility for its citizens living in Transnistria. But in practical terms, because it’s a separate entity, we cannot apply our laws.”
The ambassador also claims Putin is stirring up ethnic tensions to keep Moldova from reaching out to the West.
“As our friends in the U.S. say, a lot of propaganda and a little maskirovka [deception] incited the population to rebel,” he said. “It’s mainly about geopolitics. The aim of the Russians is to have control over the same space as the Soviet Union.”
That, of course, is precisely what Moscow accuses the United States and Europe of doing — using NATO to encircle Russia and erode its influence in its own backyard.
Moldova, though, doesn’t seem intimidated by Putin’s bluster. As if to thumb his nose at Moscow, Prime Minister Iurie Leancă visited Washington in March to launch a strategic dialogue with U.S. officials that focuses on three pillars: trade, energy and security. And in June 2012, seven lawmakers inaugurated the Moldova Congressional Caucus, which is chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Despite the growing ties, at present, Moldova’s annual trade with the United States comes to a paltry $100 million, compared to $1 billion in trade with Ukraine.
Still, Munteanu insists that his country’s relations with the United States are of “existential importance” to Moldova.
“It’s a matter of life or death for us,” said the ambassador. “With a longstanding history of supporting democratic transitions, the United States was seen as a true defender of the democratic West in two world wars, a recognized global counterweight to Soviet totalitarian state and a clear victor of the Cold War. Today, the United States continues to project its power across the transatlantic rim and is keen to defend its allies in Europe.”
The ambassador said John Kerry’s December 2013 visit to Moldova was “a sign of solidarity” immediately after the Third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in late November.
While that summit moved Moldova one step closer to the EU, Munteanu says, “There are no shortcuts for integrating Moldova into the EU without making necessary adjustments. Our counterparts in the State Department understand very well that an invitation to join the EU will transform the country, like it did for our Central European neighbors.”
Some 55 percent of the country’s exports already go to the EU. Until 2006, about 80 percent of its wine went to Russia, but that year, Moscow slapped a ban on Moldovan and Georgian wines to punish both countries for pursuing anti-Russian policies. Today, Moldovan wines go mostly to Western Europe, the United States and China.
“We have shifted trade from East to West, now that the EU has lifted restrictions on our wine exports,” Munteanu said. In addition, “we are building alternative gas pipelines with Romania as an alternative to [Russian natural gas giant] Gazprom. Right now, 100 percent of our gas comes from Russia and 70 percent of our electricity from neighboring countries. Of course we are vulnerable because of this dependence. That’s why we want to become part of a network of energy suppliers in Europe. We see a lot of benefit for U.S. companies coming into Moldova and developing this market. But we certainly need to do more work to attract strategic investments.”
Yet Munteanu, whose term as ambassador expires in four months, is under no illusions that either Americans or Europeans will go to war to defend tiny Moldova.
“We understand that nobody will intervene in military terms to stop an invasion,” he told us. “Our most important objective is to create local capabilities to defend our countries and create a unified front.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.