Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

The Historical Geography of Ukraine: An Overview

Updated and expanded on 24 August and 2 September 2014 with additional information.

Given all the discussion about Ukraine’s regional divisions, I thought that it might be useful for observers if I gave a quick overview of the historical geography of Ukraine by the larger regions within the country.  This may help sort out the uses and abuses of history in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Regional Map of Ukraine

Regional Map of Ukraine

Western Ukraine:

Location of Galicia in Ukraine

Location of Galicia in Ukraine

Galicia:

  • Contemporary regions: Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasti
  • Major cities and towns: Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk
  • Notes: Part of Austria-Hungary and then interwar Poland before becoming part of the USSR. It must be emphasized that this region was never part of the Russian Empire, though it was a principality of the old Kievan Rus’.
Location of Volhynia in Ukraine

Location of Volhynia in Ukraine

Volhynia:

  • Contemporary area: Volhyn and Rivne oblasti
  • Major cities and towns: Lutsk and Rivne
  • Notes: Part of the Russian Empire and then interwar Poland before becoming part of the USSR.
Location of Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia in Ukraine

Location of Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia in Ukraine

Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia:

  • Contemporary area: Chernvisti oblast
  • Major cities and towns: Chernvisti and Khotyn
  • Notes: Though geographically part of the West, this region has voting and linguistic patterns that are similar those found in Central Ukraine. The locals largely speak the mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk (spoken by most in Central Ukraine) and elections here are very close. There is also a large Romanian minority (about 20% of the total population) which plays an additional factor in the region’s politics. The area was part of the interwar Kingdom of Romania and Romanian nationalists in Bucharest still claim the region as rightfully their’s.
Location of Carpathian Rus' in Ukraine

Location of Carpathian Rus’ in Ukraine

Carpathian Rus’, also known as Subcarpathian Rus’ or Transcarpathian Rus’:

  • Contemporary area: Zakarpattia oblast
  • Major cities and towns: Uzhgorod, Mukachevo, Khust, and Rakhiv
  • Notes: Part of the Kingdom of Hungary within Austria-Hungary and then part of interwar Czechoslovakia before becoming part of the USSR. The homeland of the Carpatho-Rusyns, Carpathian Rus’ is sometimes considered its own distinct region due to its unique ethnic, linguistic, and cultural character. There is also a 12% Hungarian minority in this region. Hungarian nationalists in Budapest who refuse to recognize the 1920 Treaty of Trianon still claim the region as rightfully their’s.
Location of Dnieper Ukraine in Ukraine

Location of Dnieper Ukraine in Ukraine

Central Ukraine:

Dnieper Ukraine:

  • Contemporary area: Most of the Central oblasti of Ukraine, particularly the Kiev, Cherkasy, Poltava, and Zhytomyr oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Kiev, Cherkasy, Poltava, and Zhytomyr
Location of Podolia in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of Podolia in Ukraine and Transnistria

Podolia:

  • Contemporary area: All of the Vinnitsyia and Khmelnytskyi oblasti, with the southwesternmost parts of the Kiev oblast, the westernmost parts of the Cherkasy oblast, the northern portions of the Odessa oblast, and the northern parts of the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova.
  • Major cities and towns: Vinnitsyia, Khmelnytskyi, Kamianets-Podilskyi, and Rybnitsa
Location of Polesia in Ukraine

Location of Polesia in Ukraine

Polesia:

  • Contemporary area: Northern parts of the Zhytomyr, Kiev, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasti, sometimes including the northern parts of Volhynia too.
  • Major cities and towns: Chernihiv, Shostka, Nizhyn, and Korosten

Southeastern Ukraine:

Location of Zaporozhia in Ukraine

Location of Zaporozhia in Ukraine

Zaporozhia:

  • Contemporary area: The core territory of this region encompassed the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, the northern portions of the Zaporozhia oblast, and virtually all of the Central Ukrainian oblast of Kirovograd. Additionally, it included the very small southernmost portion of the Poltava oblast south of the Dnieper River, around the southern side of the industrial city of Kremenchuk.  Zaporozhia also extended east to include parts of the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti and south to include the northernmost portions of the Nikolayev and Kherson oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, Kryvyi Rih, and Kirovograd
  • Notes: The word “porozh” in Ukrainian and Russian indicates “rapids” so the name literally means “land beyond the rapids” (referring to the rapids of the river Dnieper).
Location of Sloboda Ukraine in Ukraine

Location of Sloboda Ukraine in Ukraine

Sloboda Ukraine (Free Ukraine), also known as Sloboda Zemlya (Free Land) or Slobozhanshchina:

  • Contemporary area: Almost all of the Kharkiv oblast, except for the southernmost parts.  Also included were the southern portions of the Central Ukrainian Sumy oblast, the northernmost portions of the Donetsk oblast, and the areas of the Luhansk oblast north of the Seversky Donets river.
  • Major cities and towns: Kharkiv, Sumy, Izyum, and Starobilsk
  • Notes: The Tsarist-era Kharkov guberniya approximately corresponds to the boundaries of Sloboda Ukraine.  According to the Tsarist census of 1897, the guberniya’s population was majority ethnic “Little Russian” (i.e., Ukrainian).  Also, until 1939, the city of Sumy and the southern portions of the modern-day Sumy oblast were part of the Soviet-era Kharkov oblast.
Location of Donbas in Ukraine

Location of the Donbas in Ukraine

The Donbas:

  • Contemporary area: The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti (also the breakaway “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk).
  • Major cities and towns: Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol, Slavyansk, and Kramatorsk
  • Notes: The name is short for “Donets Basin.” In Tsarist times, the Donbas region was administratively divided. The northern portions of both oblasti were part of the Kharkov guberniya (the historic Sloboda Ukraine), while their western portions were part of the Yekaterinoslav guberniya (the eastern part of historic Novorossiya), and their eastern portions were part of the Don Host Oblast which also included significant portions of Southern Russia. Due to the latter fact, some might argue that the eastern Donbas was once “part of Russia.” However, such an argument is problematic because, in this region, the distinction between what is “Russian” and what is “Ukrainian” becomes increasingly blurred. For instance, this area between Russia and Ukraine is so demographically mixed that some Ukrainians might conversely claim parts of Southern Russia as “Ukrainian.” The blurriness is compounded by the fact that the Cossacks who historically lived in these areas were not from an exclusive national group. They were both Russians and Ukrainians.
Location of Crimea

Location of Crimea

Crimea, also known as Taurida:

  • Contemporary area: The Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol administered by Russia, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, claimed by Ukraine.
  • Major cities and towns: Sevastopol, Simferopol, Kerch, Feodosiya, and Yalta
  • Notes: In addition to the Crimean peninsula, the Tsarist-era Taurida guberniya also included significant portions of the modern Kherson and Zaporozhia oblasti in contemporary Ukraine. However, this “mainland” part of the guberniya (also considered to be part of “Novorossiya proper”) significantly differed demographically from the peninsula. According to the 1897 Tsarist census, the mainland’s population was primarily “Little Russian” (Ukrainian) with a significant “Great Russian” (ethnic Russian) minority, while the population of the peninsula was largely “Great Russian” and Tatar with a significant Ukrainian minority and additional ethnic minorities of Germans, Jews, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Poles, and others.
Location of the Budzhak in Ukraine

Location of the Budzhak in Ukraine

The Budzhak:

  • Contemporary area: Portion of the Odessa oblast situated south of Moldova, east of Romania and the Danube, and west of the Dniester, on the Black Sea coast.
  • Major cities and towns: Izmail and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (Akkerman)
  • Notes: Historically the southernmost part of Bessarabia, this region was part of the interwar Kingdom of Romania until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. In Soviet Ukraine, it was administered as the Akkerman oblast, later renamed the Izmail oblast. In 1954, the oblast was abolished and incorporated into the Odessa oblast. A multiethnic region, the Budzhak is majority Ukrainian with substantial Bulgarian, Russian, Romanian, and Gagauz minorities. The name “Budzhak” is derived from the Turkish word “bucak,” meaning “district” or “corner.”
Location of the Yedisan in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of the Yedisan in Ukraine and Transnistria

The Yedisan:

  • Contemporary area: The southern portions of Transnistria and the Odessa oblast (excluding the Budzhak), the southern portion of the Nikolayev oblast, and the southwestern portion of the Kherson oblast.
  • Major cities and towns: Odessa, Nikolayev, and Tiraspol
  • Notes: The name “Yedisan” (alternatively transliterated as “Edisan” or “Jedisan”) is derived from a nomadic Nogai Turkic tribe who once inhabited this area. It literally means “seven titles” referring to seven different subdivisions among the tribe. In the 17th century, the region was incorporated into Imperial Russia by Catherine the Great as part of Novorossiya and settled by Ukrainians (Malorussians), Russians, and others. The area was also known as “Ochakov Tartary” after the historic fortress of Ochakov located in the contemporary Nikolayev oblast.
Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Novorossiya (New Russia):

  • Contemporary area: The Nikolayev and Kherson oblasti, the southern portions of Transnistria and the Odessa oblast (excluding the Budzhak), the southern part of the Zaporozhia oblast, the southeasternmost area of the Kharkiv oblast, the Western half of the Donbas (including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk), and most of the historical region of Zaporozhia. Novorossiya also occasionally included Bessarabia (Moldova proper with the Budzhak region of the Odessa oblast), Crimea, and the Don Host Oblast (the eastern half of the Donbas and significant portions of Southern Russia).
  • Major cities and towns: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, Tiraspol, and Berdyansk
  • Notes: It must be emphasized that, with the exception of its southeasternmost area, much of the territory of the modern-day Kharkiv oblast was not part of Novorossiya. Further the majority population of the core territory of Novorossiya (Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, southern Transnistria, western Donbas, and historic Zaporozhia) in the 1897 Tsarist census were identified as ethnic “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) with significant minorities of “Great Russians” (ethnic Russians) and, in the Odessa area, Jews. Consequently, the idea of making this region a part of Soviet Ukraine was logical from a geographic and ethnographic standpoint. Thus, it must be emphasized that the assignment of these territories was not a “great mistake” by the Bolsheviks as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and others have been claiming. Indeed, it is likely that Putin is advancing the Novorossiya claim to placate hardliners like Rogozin in the Kremlin who want to invade Southeastern Ukraine and are attempting to use historical revisionism to show that the region is “another Crimea” in order to justify such actions. However, no invasion can be justified and would be a disaster for both Russia and Ukraine.
Location of Novaya Serbiya in Ukraine

Location of Novaya Serbiya in Ukraine

Novaya Serbiya (New Serbia):

  • Contemporary area: Northern portions of the Kirovograd oblast, with some adjoining areas of the neighboring Cherkasy, Poltava, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Novomyrgorod
  • Notes: Founded by Tsarist Russia as a military frontier with Poland in the 1750s populated by Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, and others from Habsburg Austria (hence the name). The territory was later abolished in 1764 and incorporated into Novorossiya.
Location of Slavo-Serbiya in Ukraine

Location of Slavo-Serbiya in Ukraine

Slavo-Serbiya (Slavo-Serbia):

  • Contemporary area: Border regions between the modern-day Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Artemivsk (Bakhmut)
  • Notes: Founded by Tsarist Russia as a refuge for Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Greeks, and others. The territory was later abolished in 1764 and incorporated into Novorossiya.

For more information on Ukraine’s diverse regional divisions, see my earlier post, What is Ukraine? from March here, now updated and expanded to include the latest information about Ukraine.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

Moldova and Transnistria: An Overview

Updated and revised on 20 September 2016 with additional information, including the economic and political roots of the Transnistrian conflict (in addition to the historical factors). Please note that this entry was originally written in April 2014 and thus does not cover subsequent political developments in Moldova, such as the rise of the Euroskeptical and pro-Moscow Party of Socialists and Patria-Rodina bloc. It also does not cover subsequent events in Ukraine, such as Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment to the governorship of the Odessa Oblast.

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria have been in the news a lot lately. I will attempt to give some historical background to this complex borderland in my analysis below.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program included within its scope the six countries of the former Soviet west. These were Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Caucasus. Of the six, Belarus and Azerbaijan expressed little interest in the project. However, the remaining four states – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – actively participated in it. The motives of these states’ involvement in the EaP varies. In the cases of Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the leaderships of these countries used the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West to get the best terms for their countries. Armenia’s Sargsyan and Georgia’s Ivanishvili have both played this chess game especially well as their countries have a history of playing Great Powers off of each other to their own advantage. In this respect, they are neither categorically “pro-Russian” nor “pro-Western,” but rather “pro-Armenian” and “pro-Georgian” respectively. Ukraine’s Yanukovych attempted to play this game too but proved far less decisive and pragmatic than his Caucasian counterparts. Meanwhile, the leadership of Moldova has pursued an entirely different path. It seeks to fully free itself from Moscow’s orbit and to integrate into the EU regardless.

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Indeed, if there is one state out of all the EaP countries that is thoroughly committed to Europe and sincerely interested in leaving Moscow’s orbit once and for all, it is Moldova. The leadership in Chișinău, under President Timofti and Prime Minister Leancă, is entirely committed to the idea of firm and total European integration. Additionally, out of all the EaP states, Moldova is arguably in the best position to become a candidate for EU accession geographically, politically, and economically, making it an “easy pill to swallow” by EU standards. Within the EaP, Moldova also represents a very unique case because their main backer within the EU is Romania. Romanian President Traian Băsescu has lobbied hard for Moldova’s integration into the bloc and would never allow his ethnic Latin Vlach cousins to end up outside of the EU. In the early 1990s, Romania was the first country to recognize Moldova’s independence. It also has allowed for Moldovan citizens to obtain Romanian passports. This has caused a large flow of Moldovans to enter the EU “through the back door.”

Historical background

Mihai Eminescu in Prague in 1869

Mihai Eminescu in Prague, 1869

The reasons for the close Romanian-Moldovan relationship are both ethnic and historical. Moldova corresponds almost exactly to the historical Romanian region of Bessarabia, located between the Dniester and Prut rivers. The majority of its population are ethnic Romanians, who speak Romanian. The colors on the Moldovan flag are almost exactly the same as those on the Romanian flag. Likewise, both countries consider the Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu to be their national poet. Along with a good portion of eastern Romania, Bessarabia had once formed a major portion of the old Vlach-speaking principality of Moldavia. In 1812, it was annexed by the Russian Empire, but after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the region’s local leaders formed a National Council (Sfatul Ţării) and voted to join the Kingdom of Romania in 1918. It remained a part of Greater Romania for much of the interwar period.

As a challenge to Romania’s control of Bessarabia, the Bolsheviks created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1924 in Soviet Ukraine. Most of the territory of the Moldavian ASSR corresponds to the now-breakaway region of Transnistria. Inhabited primarily by a mixed population of East Slavs and Romanians, this territory was never part of Bessarabia or the historic principality of Moldavia. The Soviets instead used the region as a means of arguing that the Moldovans were not a branch of Romanians but an entirely unique people.

“Scholars from the West, in particular the German ethnographer Gustav Weigand, had noted earlier in the century that Romanian-speakers in Bessarabia and Bukovina spoke a dialect distinct from those in the Romanian kingdom,” wrote historian Charles King in his excellent overview, The Moldovans, “but these differences were no more striking than regional variations inside Romania itself. In the MASSR, however, these distinctions were imbued with political meaning.” These dialectal differences served as the basis for the creation of a new “Moldovan” language, which, despite its Cyrillic alphabet, was virtually identical to Romanian.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows "Greater Romania" including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows the interwar Kingdom of Romania including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

In June 1940, the USSR annexed Bessarabia as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Most of the area was united with much of the old Moldavian ASSR (modern Transnistria) to form the new “Moldovan SSR.” When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Romania under the fascist leadership of Ion Antonescu joined the German war effort. The Romanian forces not only regained Bessarabia from the Soviets but pressed on further east to take all of the territory between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers, including the historic city of Odessa. The new territory, administered by Romania, was called “Transnistria.” Hitler granted it to Antonesu as compensation for giving Transylvania to Horthy’s Hungary in the Second Vienna Award. The Romanian administration of this “Transnistria” was very brutal for the local population, especially for the Jews. When the tide turned in the war, the region was recovered by the Soviets along with Romanian-speaking Bessarabia. By the end of the war, the 1940 borders between the Soviet Union and Romania were now reestablished.

With the onset of perestroika, nationalist elites in Moldova began to gain power and sought to reunite their republic with Romania. However, political concerns prevented this from occurring. Reunification was especially rejected by the people of Transnistria who bristled at the new nationalistic rhetoric from Chișinău.  In contrast to the nationalist elites gaining influence in the capital, the Transnistrians argued that they had never been part of historic Bessarabia.  Many also still had memories of the brutal wartime administration of Transnistria by Antonesu’s Romania. “The Transnistrian war was in no sense about ancient hatreds between eastern Latinity and Slavdom,” wrote King, “but history did play an important role.”

No less significant to the conflict were economic, social, and political factors.  Whereas most of Moldova west of the Dniester was largely rural and agricultural, Transnistria was mostly urban and industrial.  Moreover, after the war, the region became an important industrial center in the Soviet economy and played a significant role in the Soviet military industrial complex.  “After 1945,” wrote King, “Transnistria became a central component of the Soviet defense sector and its heavy industry.  Some four-fifths of the region’s population was employed in industry, construction, and the service sector.”

The industrialization of Transnistria in the Soviet era also fueled the migration of East Slavs into the region, thus making it more distinct from the rest of Moldova and more “Soviet.”  “Internal immigrants arrived to work in the new factories, increasing the Russian and Ukrainian portions of the population,” wrote King.  “The key issue… was not how Russian the region became after the war, but how quintessentially Soviet… The primary loyalty of individuals in the region was not to Russia – even though most spoke Russian and had ties to the Russian republic – but to the Soviet Union.”

Attempts at centralization by the nationalist government in Chișinău only exacerbated the differences with Transnistria.  “Soviet” elites in the latter began reacting to the nationalist elites in Chișinău.  “Already in the late 1980s,” wrote King, “there developed a dynamic that would culminate in full-scale war by 1992: Every move in Chișinău that pulled the republic further away from Moscow was met by a countermove in Transnistria that drew the region itself farther away from Chișinău.”  This eventually led to Transnistria militarily breaking away from Chișinău to form its own self-proclaimed republic in 1992.

Moldovan elites were likewise concerned about the Gagauz, a unique group of Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christian people whose homeland straddles the southern boundaries between Moldova and Ukraine. After the Soviet collapse, the Gagauz “made common cause with the Transnistrians” but did not go so far as to proclaim their own independent republic. Still, in December 1994, Chișinău granted them their own autonomous unit in the south known as Gagauzia. The situation has been stable and the Gagauz have likewise been granted the right to secede if Moldova decides to reunite with Romania. Chișinău offered a similar deal to Transnistria, but there has been no resolution on this to date.

In the 2000s, the head of the Moldovan Communist Party, Vladimir Voronin was elected President of the country, the first such case in the former USSR. Though claiming to be supportive of European integration, Voronin, a highly Russified Moldovan, also sought to expand ties with Russia. However, his administration did little to improve the lives of everyday Moldovans, and poverty and corruption remained major problems. A victory for the Communist Party in Moldova’s April 2009 parliamentary election, though hailed as free and fair by European observers, sparked major protests and civil unrest. Student demonstrators clashed with police, stormed the parliament, and carried the flags of Romania and the European Union, chanting slogans like “We are Romanians!” and “Down with Communism!” At least five students died because of the riots. President Voronin responded by placing the blame for the unrest on Bucharest, which denied any involvement. Three months later, Moldovan state prosecutor Valeriu Gurbulea confirmed that Romania had nothing to do with the protests.

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Though successful in the April 2009 elections, the newly elected parliament was unable to elect a President in June. Consequently, Voronin had to dissolve parliament, thus paving the way for snap parliamentary elections in July 2009. This election brought to power a new governing coalition of liberal political parties collectively known as the Alliance for European Integration (AEI). Voronin resigned from the presidency in September but the AEI was unable to elect a president until March 2012, when the independent judge Nicolae Timofti was finally voted into office.

As their name implies, the top priority of the AEI and its successor the Pro-European Coalition (PEC) has been EU integration and EU membership. It took advantage of Moldova’s position with the Polish-Swedish EaP initiative and quickly emerged as the most progressive ex-Soviet state in terms of EU reforms. Among other things, the AEI advanced the issue of visa liberalization in Moldova. On April 3, 2014, it was announced that there will now be a visa-free regime between Moldova and the EU’s Schengen Area. Moldova also confirmed the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit to be signed in June 2014.

Further, under the AEI and PEC, Chișinău also moved increasingly closer toward Romania. In December 2009, the AEI announced that it would be removing the barbed wire fence separating their country from Romania. On December 5, 2013, the PEC recognized Romanian as the official language of the Moldovan republic. This move was welcomed by Romania’s Traian Băsescu who has long favored reunification with Moldova. On the eve on the Vilnius Summit, he stated:

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

When a nation has the opportunity to be together, it should not give up. It may not happen straightaway, but it will happen one day, because blood is thicker than water. I think this is the right time to say that we have this objective, if Moldovan people want this. I am convinced that if Moldova wants to unite, then Romania will accept.

He also stated that after joining the EU and NATO, Romania’s third priority must be reunification with Moldova, though given official Chișinău’s concerns with ethnic minorities such as the Gagauz, it would likely be less enthusiastic about taking such a step.

Băsescu further cautioned that “the big risk for Moldova would be a treatment with arrogance by EU – be aware, I use the word with responsibility – which would not take into account the electoral realities in Moldova.” Moldova still faces many challenges to its EU road, both domestic and foreign. Internally, Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party advocate a strongly pro-Russian stance, ultimately favoring membership in the Eurasian Customs Union. The Communists adhere to a strong Moldovenist position, advocating a unique “Moldovan” identity and firmly rejecting the idea that the “Moldovan language” is in fact the Romanian language. “Moldova can become a European country only by joining the Customs Union,” the 72-year-old Voronin told a crowd of largely elderly anti-EU activists from the Communist Party.

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

However, Voronin and the Communists are not a spent force. As Băsescu alludes, they have a substantial following within Moldova. Though they lost the July 2009 parliamentary election to the AEI coalition, the Communists still garnered 44.69% of the vote. They poll especially well in the north of the country and also among the substantial East Slavic minority of Moldova proper, which numbers about 14% of the total population. They also do well among the Gagauz in the south who fear that closer relations with Romania could threaten their hard-won autonomous status. Consequently, the possibility of Moldova’s pro-EU coalition losing to the communists is very real for Moldova in terms of its future geopolitical orientation. Still, for the immediate future, this risk is mitigated by the fact that Moldova’s next parliamentary election will not be held until November 2014, several months after Chișinău is set to sign the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU in June 2014.

There are also external challenges. Like Ukraine and Armenia, Moldova too is heavily dependent on Russian energy. It currently imports all of its natural gas from Russia, though the newly-inaugurated Iași-Ungheni pipeline with Romania promises to undermine this total dependence. A wine-producing country, Moldova also exports 28% of its wine production to Russia (for comparison, 47% of Chișinău’s exports go to the EU). A recent embargo by Moscow of Moldovan wine, due to an alleged trace of plastic contamination found in barrels of devin, has been a serious issue for the country. Some claim that the ban was politically motivated as a means of pressuring Chișinău to change its pro-EU geopolitical orientation, an assertion that Moscow has flatly denied. In addition, as many as half a million Moldovans are estimated to work illegally in Russia. Significantly, approximately the same number have Romanian passports and have departed the country to work in Western Europe, with Traian Băsescu provocatively claiming the number to be much higher, up to 1.5 million.

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in the February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

However, Moscow’s biggest cards to play with regard to Chisinău’s EU ambitions are its distinct ethnic regions of Gagauzia and Transnistria. Gagauzia is not a breakaway region but rather an autonomous unit comprised almost entirely of ethnic Gagauz. Though content with remaining part of Moldova, the Gagauz are concerned about how joining the EU could affect their future, especially given Romania’s involvement. Recently, the Gagauz leadership held a referendum in February 2014 that rejected the country’s pro-EU aspirations and reaffirmed its right to secede from Moldova in the case of reunification with Romania. Though condemned by the Moldovan court as “unconstitutional,” this referendum was clearly intended as a warning to Chișinău against the possibility of a future reunification with Romania in which the Gagauz autonomy might be threatened. For the record, ex-communist Romania has consistently refused to grant autonomous status for any ethnic minority in its country including, most notably, the ethnic Hungarians of the Székely Land. Traian Băsescu himself has ruled out any possibility of a future Hungarian autonomy. Following the referendum, the pro-EU Moldovan government sought to reassure the Gagauz that a reunification with Bucharest was not imminent, and that the EU will actively work to better guarantee their minority rights. Whether or not the Gagauz will be adequately convinced of Moldova’s European choice remains to be seen. If left unresolved, this issue could devolve into a very serious crisis.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Most significantly of all, there is the unresolved conflict over Transnistria. The majority of Transnistria’s population is East Slavic (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who collectively make up 60% in total according to the 2004 census) and Russian is the dominant language. Politically, the pro-Russian orientation is strong here and is reinforced by the presence of the Russian 14th Army (now known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova). Aleksandr Lebed, the Bonapartist Russian strongman from the 1990s, played a key role in Transnistria’s 1992 war of independence from Moldova proper. He viewed himself as the liberator of Transnistria from the “fascists” and “ideological heirs of Antonesu” in Chisinău. He is regarded as a hero here.

Towards a potential solution

While Moldova is officially committed to returning Transnistria under its rule, it is unclear what benefit this would bring to the country as a whole. For one thing, Transnistria does not have a deep historical relationship with Moldova. Even the poet Eminescu in his famous work Doina spoke of the Romanian nation as only stretching “from the Dniester to the Tisza.” Unlike Georgia’s conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in which the Georgians attach deep emotional and historical significance to their breakaway regions, the same really cannot be said for Transnistria and Moldova. Transnistria was attached to Moldova proper in 1940 and thus was only associated with it for 52 years until its secession in 1992. Compare that to the Georgian-Abkhazian or Georgian-Ossetian relationships which extend back several centuries into history.

Indeed, most Moldovans, according to various opinion polls, are indifferent toward Transnistria. For the vast majority, the issue ranks as the ninth or tenth priority for the population of Moldova proper. Fewer than two percent consider the issue to be the most pressing, while “five percent consider it second, well behind issues such as poverty, crime, or inflation.” According to one observer, “this stands in striking contrast to the much higher preoccupation with frozen conflicts in other post-Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia.”

In addition to this, Transnistria can be viewed as more of a major economic liability for Chișinău than a benefit. Though Moldova currently owes virtually no debt for its gas imports from Russia, Transnistria owes approximately $4 billion to Gazprom. Moscow presently holds Chișinău accountable for this debt. The only way to get rid of it would be for Moldova to entirely relinquish its claims to the disputed territory.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Meanwhile, Transnistria’s current President Yevgeny Shevchuk, while not the Kremlin’s choice in the Transnistrian election, has continued to maintain strong ties with Moscow. An ethnic Ukrainian, Shevchuk studied in both Ukraine and Russia and was elected as a reformer committed to challenging corruption and oligarchy, not as an advocate for reunification with Moldova. After his election in 2012, he immediately met with Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest associates and an influential member of his inner-circle. He also advocated that Transnistria adopt the Russian ruble and Russian laws, with the ultimate aim of Transnistria joining the Eurasian Union.

Observing this scenario, it seems that while Moldova proper is increasingly moving closer toward the EU, Transnistria is moving very much in the opposite direction toward the Eurasian Union. A potential, logical, and peaceful solution to this problem would be the formal separation of these two entities from each other. Moldova’s pro-EU leadership could recognize Transnistria and relinquish all claims to it, while working with the authorities in Tiraspol to delineate the border between the two states.  Given Transnistria’s limited viability as an independent entity, Moscow could work with Tiraspol and Ukraine to consider the possibility of reuniting the former with the latter.   A solution like this would satisfy Transnistria’s pro-“Soviet” and pro-Slavic sentiments and would absolve Moldova of any lingering debt to Gazprom. It would also help reduce any sort of ill feelings in Ukraine toward Moscow for its recent incorporation of Crimea.  However, such a resolution is entirely contingent on the people and the elites of Moldova and Transnistria and on how the situation in Ukraine develops.  It could only work if a new government more amiable toward Moscow and Tiraspol emerges in Kiev.

It also should be noted that Moldova proper is of marginal significance to Moscow. The country is poor, landlocked, and Romanian-speaking, with few natural resources and very little geostrategic value. It is already very much integrated with the EU and a sizeable number of its citizens already have Romanian/EU passports. Additionally, the inauguration of the Iași-Ungheni pipeline will likely substantially reduce Moldovan energy dependence on Moscow. Thus, the best and most logical solution to the ongoing Transnistria problem would be its split from the Moldovan state and its eventual reunification with Ukraine.