In the discussion of the legal aspects of Crimea's separation from Ukraine, the exemplary function this bears for other separatist movements is frequently overlooked. In the Republic of Moldova, two regions pursue closer relations with Russia and, in doing so, reject the EU. A background article by Kristina Holzapfel
In February 2014, a referendum was held in the south of the Republic of Moldova, in the area of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. 98.5 percent of the votes were in favor of an affiliation with the Russian-dominated customs union and against closer relations with the EU. An equally large percentage voted for Gagauzia’s independence from the Republic of Moldova.
The Republic of Moldova, especially its two stubborn regions Gagauzia and Transnistria, are so unknown to the German public that their existence is questioned from time to time. Nevertheless, the Gagauz people’s referendum did appear in the German news, while the Transnistrians’ plea for inclusion in the Russian Federation was even subject of a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in March 2014. The separatism furthermore threatens to wreck the prepared association and free trade agreement between Moldova and the EU.
Disappointment over EU politics in Eastern Europe
Putin saw Ukraine as a deciding player in the construction and expansion of the customs union which is supposed to take the form of a counterpart to the EU in the future. Knowing about Ukraine’s importance for the customs union’s economic development was surely a reason why the EU’s sympathies – despite the lack of knowledge about the Ukrainian opposition’s goals – were distributed clearly.
The pro-European activists on the Maidan, with their blue European flags, are by no means to be taken for granted in Eastern European countries anymore. Whereas, up until a few years ago, the EU had been regarded as a guarantor of progress and hope for the future by the people in Eastern Europe, it now finds itself increasingly confronted with rejection. In the case of Ukraine, this divides the population and the country.
Gagauzia turns towards Russia
Gagauzia is located in the south of the Republic of Moldova. About 150,000 Gagauz people of a total of 200,000 live here. Mostly, they are Russian-speaking, although their traditional language is a Turkish dialect that is spoken primarily at home and hardly put into writing. Their efforts to establish their own country, which have been on-going since the early 1990s, were accompanied by the development of an ethnic identity that orientates itself towards Turkey linguistically, but towards Moscow religiously. Apart from economic drawbacks, the Gagauz people fear a nationalistically motivated union between the Republic of Moldova and Romania and, along with it, a linguistic disadvantage for themselves.
Whereas, until 2009, the population had much sympathy for the EU and largely wanted to join quickly, the situation has changed significantly today. The vote not only made the deep disappointment over the lack of support and accession offers clear, but also to what extent economic facts determine public opinion. Russia solicits the Gagauz people with cheap gas and the purchase of agricultural products, whereas the EU’s affectionate words and moral admonitions do not reach the utterly impoverished population.
The economic dependency on Russia is mostly due to a large part of the employable population working abroad and sending money back to Gagauz relatives because of the poor economic situation. It is estimated that about 25,000 Gagauz people work in Russia. Another 5,000 work as babysitters, house cleaners or cheap labor in Turkey.
Desire for a Russian superpower
Gagauz people in the south, the inhabitants of the already de facto independent Transnistrian Republic want closer relations with Russia as well. This state, situated east of the river Dniester and internationally unrecognized, already voted in a 2006 referendum for complete independence from the Republic of Moldova and for the accession to the Russian Federation. On 18 March 2014, the Supreme Soviet of Transnistria directed an official request for the admission to the Russian Federation to the Russian Duma.
The Moldovan state does not recognize the referendum in Gagauzia or Transnistria's policy, but it now has to increasingly deal with resistance. An armed conflict, like in 1992, would probably be won by Transnistria with the help of the 14th Russian army that is still deployed there, but Russia’s interest is limited. To date, Russia does not recognize the area as a state despite maintaining a “peacekeeping force” there, and even though the region was a popular retirement place for officers and militiamen during the Soviet-era. Today, an accordingly Russia-loyal population there holds on to Soviet symbolism and defines itself through a glorified memory of a giant Soviet empire. Indeed, nostalgic feelings play a part on Crimea as well, but a serious Russian interest in Transnistria and Gagauzia seems quite meager in view of their economic weakness.
In Transnistria, the economy has largely come to a standstill; without Russian help, the state could not maintain and carry out its functions. Since the Republic of Moldova, of which Transnistria is de jure a part of, does not recognize the state and, by implication, the drawing of boundaries, trade is impossible between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria. Since 2006, but especially during the current developments in Ukraine, the interim government in Kiev intensified the isolation. Trade as well as personal and goods traffic are only possible in a very limited way; able-bodied and Russian-speaking men are prohibited to enter Ukraine especially. The import of groceries for Russian troops was blocked multiple times, too. Kiev fears the entry of pro-Russian provocateurs in advance of the presidential elections at the end of May.
Failed EU neighborhood policy?
The current government of the Republic of Moldova wants to sign the association and free trade agreement with the EU by all means over the summer. In November, parliamentary elections are due; according to current surveys, the Communist Party is ahead of the currently ruling pro-European alliance of parties. If the Communist Party wins the election, it has already announced to nullify the association agreement. Thus, the conflict in Gagauzia and Transnistria impacts not only the whole Republic of Moldova, but also the relationship to its East European neighbors.