The United States has an interesting dynamic with the rest of the world; everybody knows what’s going on here, but the U.S. doesn’t know what’s happening in other smaller countries. I’ve personally experienced this imbalance while living in Moldova studying Russian with the State Department. It is very rare for Moldova to be mentioned in the news, or even come up in conversation between American citizens. Yet studying here, I find it hard to avoid discussing American politics. I believe American indifference towards the internal politics of other countries puts it at a disadvantage in being apart of the future of not just Moldova, but of every other country in Eastern Europe.
Moldova is a parliamentary republic situated between Romania and Ukraine; as a result, it is geographically cut off from the Black Sea. After enduring a decade of economic stagnation, Moldova is experiencing a fascinating political transformation, its future unclear. Beginning in parliament and spreading like wildfire all across the country, major debates are taking place regarding Russia, the EU, and the government’s role in society.
All contentions originate from the ethnic differences created during the Soviet Era. For the first half of the 20th century, Moldova, previously known as Moldavia SSR, was comprised of a majority Romanian population with a small Turkic minority. Soviet leadership was prone to moving populations around during this period as a form of punishment against dissent. Many ethnic groups including Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and Georgians were moved to Moldova over several decades, creating a multitude of minorities within the country as a result of this Soviet tendency.
However, a more influential ethnic group arrived through a different manner: Russians. Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, was dramatically expanded to create a hub for Soviet administration and bureaucracy. Thousands of Russians were moved to the city to lend their individual expertise at the capital.
While each of the Soviet Republics officially have diversified economies, it is commonly known that most tend to focus on only a few vital industries. For example, Ukraine was famously deemed the ‘Breadbasket of Europe,’ for obvious reasons. Since freedom of movement in the USSR was limited and leaving was made even more difficult, MSSR became a popular vacation destination. It’s warm climate and proximity to the beach added more pull factors to immigration. This dependency on the Soviet Elite vacationing in MSSR created an artificial economy based almost entirely around tourism. Once the USSR had collapsed and Moldova had declared independence, former Soviet citizens were suddenly allowed visit more “exotic” locations, causing the Moldovan economy to collapse.
Like most post-Soviet countries after the economic collapse, Moldova attempted to form closer ties to Western Europe. However, a large minority of ethnic Russians located between the Dniester River and Ukraine wished to remain close to Russia, if not part of it. Once they saw that the rest of the country was moving towards the West, they declared independence in the hopes that Moldova wouldn’t be willing to try and retain them, given its uncertain situation at the time. They were wrong and a deadly conflict ensued. Eventually, the Russians occupied the territory in order to resolve the situation, and they have remained there since. Transnistria (as this new pseudo-state was called) now effectively functions as its own country with a national government and currency.
This ethnically diverse and economically impoverished country has been searching for a new economic model via switching up its government every few years. Until recently, the Moldovan Parliament had been controlled by a single entity for one of the longest periods in its history. A coalition headed by the Democratic party has consistently held a majority by promising economic reforms and closer ties to the EU. However, these reforms, while slightly helpful, ultimately changed little, and in 2015, a prominent coalition member and businessman was implicated in what would be deemed “the Heist of the Century,” wherein 1bn dollars vanished from Moldovan banks, nearly a 6th of the nominal GDP.
A lot of pent up frustrations have boiled up to the surface of Moldovan political discourse in the past year. Despite changes made to the electoral process that benefitted the incumbent government, a new coalition managed to oust the controlling party and form a new government this past February. This new coalition consists of two populist parties with diametrically opposing views. The first is ACUM, a new pro-EU party that essentially promises those ideas which the Democratic Party originally proposed but failed to commit to and supported mostly by the mid to upper class of most ethnic groups. There is also the Socialist Party, drawing most of its support from the Russian minority and the lower class. It is led by Moldova’s current president, Igor Dodon.
After doing what many thought impossible by removing the incumbent government, this new coalition had another interesting surprise: it fell apart almost immediately. The Socialists are pro-Russia, in support of seeking closer economic and diplomatic ties. Meanwhile, ACUM and the Democrats want closer ties to the EU. So, while ACUM mainly works with the Democrats, they officially remain in their coalition with the Socialists in order to prevent the Democrats from gaining a majority, basically undermining the power of both groups in an effort trying to benefit from each of them.
ACUM and the Democrats continue to move towards the EU despite threats from Transnistria of complete secession if Moldova were to join it, putting the country in an endless tug of war between Russia and the EU. Dodon has expressed a desire to federalize Moldova in the past. However, many are opposed to this, believing it would strengthen Russian interference and empower Transnistria, causing Dodon to officially reversed his stance. Yet, recordings were released in July in which Dodon proposed a new federalization plan to a Democratic Party member. Dodon claims this is a U.S. driven plot, but the opposition is criticizing Dodon and claiming he is attempting to rid himself of legislative oversight.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the U.S. is ramping up diplomatic efforts in Moldova, hoping to steer them towards the West while Russia tries to draw them back into its sphere of influence. Moldovan politics are a more similar to American politics than one might think: two ideological rivals constantly undermine and accuse each other of tyranny while the country’s problems remain unsolved. Consider this: when somebody brings up a country you don’t know much about, learn more about it, because I can assure you, they know a lot about you.