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People & Power

Moldova: Under the influence

With the conflict between Russia and Ukraine getting bloodier, fears are increasing that Moldova could be next.

Last updated: 17 Jul 2014 15:22
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The central European Republic of Moldova is divided along many of the same political fault lines similar to that of its eastern neighbour Ukraine, of which it has witnessed a descend into violence in recent months.

Part of the former Soviet Union until it broke away and declared independence in 1991, this small landlocked country (bordered on its western flanks by Romania) used to be relatively prosperous, famous for its vineyards, fertile soil and temperate climate.

But in recent years, its battered economy had badly deteriorated. Many Moldovans have left looking for work elsewhere. Eventually, tension between those who would look to either the European Union or Russia for financial and political support has worsened.

Now, with the conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and the government in eastern Ukraine getting bloodier by the day, there are increasing fears that Moldova could be next. People & Power sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to find out why.

Filmmaker's view

By Glenn Ellis

'Perhaps a storm is coming'

As I fly into Moldova, I wonder what to expect. This former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, was once the primary supplier of fruit, vegetables and wine. But since the collapse of the USSR, it has suffered a difficult transition and now languishes at the bottom of most economic indicators, with rampant poverty and what can only be described as an exodus of people leaving the country in search of a better life.

One half of our parliament would meet Russian troops with a bunch of flowers, another half will run.

Oazu Nantoi, Director of the Institute of Public Policy - Moldova.,

On the main expressway, which cuts right through the middle of the capital city of Chisinau, one can see street hawkers dart between cars, selling EU and Russian flags; providing the perfect metaphor for the choice that now faces Europe’s poorest country. Moldova is at the cross roads and is being pulled both East and West.

It was one of a swathe of former Soviet republics that included Ukraine, which in 2009 were invited to sign an association agreement with the EU. Since then, Brussels has poured a fortune into the tiny country - more per capita than anywhere else outside the EU - as it seeks to take Moldova from the Russian sphere of influence. For his part, Russian premier Vladimir Putin has tried everything he can to entice Moldova to join his own Customs Union, a sort of Eastern EU for former soviet republics. But when Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca signed the EU association agreement last November, it was clear that Putin’s strategy had failed.

Moldova, of course, was only the cherry on the cake for Putin – the real target of his attentions had been Ukraine, Moldova’s neighbor, whose then president, Victor Yanukovich, rebuffed the EU overtures and sided with Russia.

Nonetheless Moscow punished Moldova for choosing the EU by hiking gas prices, banning wine imports and threatening to impose visa restrictions on Moldovans working in Russia. A showdown of sorts seemed inevitable.
It was this state of flux I wanted to quiz Oazu Nantoi about. He is the director of the Institute of Public Policy in downtown Chisinau, a respected and seasoned political commentator. I ask him if what had happened in Ukraine could happen in Moldova.

"One half of our parliament would meet Russian troops with a bunch of flowers, another half will run," he tells me, grinning, "We are conscious of the existence in the Republic of Moldova of a fifth column financed by the Russian federation. The Russian Federation promotes a soft power policy. In Moldova Russia tries to create a negative image of the European Union. The EU is identified as homosexual, as a threat to the family. But Moldova was saved by Ukraine and Moldova is now in the magnetic field of the European Union."

It’s a surprisingly upbeat assessment given that just 40 minutes drive from where we are sitting, Russian tanks have been conducting maneuvers. Transnistria, a tiny pro-Russian sliver of land which seceded from Moldova in 1990 after a short but bloody struggle, is home to Russia’s 14th Army. The breakaway enclave on the east bank of the River Nistru is not recognized by any country other than Russia, but it’s become a self-styled police state where dissent and a free press are simply not tolerated. Added to this it is home to one of Europe’s biggest arms dumps, 22,000 tons of weapons and ammunition. It’s a throwback to the Soviet era when Lenin was venerated.

"The population on the east bank of the Nistru is living in an atmosphere of fear," Nantoi said. "There still exist the political police: the KGB, they have a problem with imagination and use the same name like the Soviet Union." Nantoi chuckles at his observation but his expression soon becomes serious. "The people from the very beginning are manipulated by propaganda," he tells me, "a policy of brainwashing is promoted. The Republic of Moldova is the enemy." 

But how serious should Moldova take this potential threat? I put this question to Viorel Cibotaru, a former colonel in the Moldovan Army and now a military analyst.

"Russia could swallow Moldova in a matter of hours," he says. "Our armed forces are at the same stage of repair that Ukrainian armed forces were at the time of the Crimea crisis."

Cibotaru, points to a map on the wall, showing Transnistria’s key strategic position between Ukraine and Moldova. "They came into the Transnistrian region as private persons and then they’ve been deployed in Transnistria and haven't exited Transnistria."

The apparent calm I had noted in the capital suddenly seems superficial; perhaps a storm was coming. On the streets as I make my way back to the hotel, I notice more people speaking Russian than Moldova’s official language, Romanian.

A 'New Russia'?

The next day, my cameraman, fixer and I set off early for Transnistria. A short drive from the parliament building takes me to the offices of the Communist Party where Oleg Horjan, the Transnistrian Communist Party leader, and the breakaway region’s most popular politician, is waiting for me. I’m led through a hall filled with Communist memorabilia. Horjan’s office is no different; from a portrait on the wall, Lenin gazes down benevolently.

I want to find out where Transnistria figures into the current geopolitical tussle. There’s been much talk among pro-Russians of the concept of Novorossiya, or ‘New Russia’, which would incorporate Eastern Ukraine, Transnistira and much of Moldova into the Russian Federation. Does Horjan believe this is a good idea?

"If you look at it from the perspective of the current moment of history then it could be good idea." Transnistria had recently asked to become part of the Russian Federation. "We have held three referendums on this issue. The last one was in 2006, in which 97 percent of the population voted for independence from the Republic of Moldova with subsequent accession to the Russian Federation. We did it democratically. Furthermore, you know that Gagauzia has also held a referendum, and more than 95 percent of Gagauzians voted for the same outcome."

The referendum Horjan is referring to took place last February in the province of Gagauzia, another autonomous region in the south of Moldova with a pro-Russian population. But of course there’s no way of knowing how fair and comprehensive the ballot was – or if, for example, only those in favour of autonomy were allowed to take part. I can't help remembering how a referendum in Crimea earlier this year was used by Moscow as a pretext to annex the region and wonder if a similar fate awaits this province in Moldova. 

Community under siege

I want to ensure we can counter the communist and Russian propaganda which is very poisonous and extremely aggressive.

Iurie Leanca, Moldova's prime minister

The next morning we hear about a meeting taking place at the village of Dorotskaya. It's one of a number of villages located in the conflict zone between free Moldova and Transnistria, a band of land which separates the two sides. Although the village is geographically located in Moldova, as a consequence of the secessionist war the population’s agricultural land is in what is now Transnistria.

Following Prime Minister Leanca’s signing of the EU accord, the villagers have been forbidden access to their crops. As with the other villages in the conflict zone, Dorotskaya is surrounded by Russian soldiers. It’s as if the community is under siege. At a meeting in the local community center we find scores of angry farmers haranguingthe mayor, Andrei Lesco, but there is little he can do.

"In Dorotskaya we only have our houses." He tells me, "By not having access to these lands, citizens don't have sources of survival. They don't have anything to feed their children with, and so it’s a critical situation." There is a palpable sense of fear and frustration in the air.

Our final venture in Moldova takes us back in Chisinau to interview the Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.

The Prime Minister gives the appearance of a man in a hurry. "I want to ensure we can counter the communist and Russian propaganda which is very poisonous and extremely aggressive," he tells me as the microphone is attached. This prompts a question about Vladimir Putin’s recent televised statement that Transnistria should decide its own fate. "Well, I saw that comment," he tells me, "but in the same comment he also made references to the official Russian Federation position which is that Russia supports Moldova’s territorial integrity."

Given what many here regard as the Russian threat, one might expect ordinary Moldovans to be generally enthusiastic about closer links with the EU. After all, Brussels has been pouring money into the country and opened its borders for those wishing to travel to within the Union. So why, I ask the Prime Minister, are there still so many people here who remain sceptical about the benefits of those ties?

"Moldovans are decent people," he says. "But many of them, because of these hardships during this extremely long transitional period, got quite pessimistic about the chance to see a better future; and when you don’t trust the future you are usually thinking with nostalgia for a past which doesn’t exist any more but which seems today so safe in terms of social security, in terms of jobs – and the distrust in this European integration is very much linked to our inability in the first 23 years to have a clear vision and to pursue this line. But because they are decent, these Moldovans, they are eager to listen and they could be convinced once they have the facts."

In his brief tenure Iurie Leanca has managed to steer his country through the geopolitical mine fields that still dog this region 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Moldova continues to edge towards Europe and away from its totalitarian past, with a more assertive Russia watching and waiting, the danger is intensifying. I can't help but think he is a man balanced precariously on a tightrope. I wish him luck and leave.

It's my last day in Moldova and on my way to the airport I pass the Romanian Embassy. Large crowds have gathered there for the fortnightly citizenship ceremony. As if Moldova didn’t have enough to contend with, the controversial Romanian President Traian Basescu has entered the fray by stating publicly that Moldova should become part of a Greater Romania and offering Romanian citizenship to those who want it, which judging by the crowds is quite a lot. It seems that everyone wants to become involved in the affairs of this tiny, battered but beautiful country. As I board the plane I reflect that if only Moldova were allowed to pursue its destiny free from outside interference then the people here might have much more to look forward to.

People & Power  can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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