The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment which will send ripple effects through European politics for decades to come. Two of Ukraine’s neighbors, Romania and Moldova will be particularly affected by the war taking place right next to their borders. Will the war accelerate a trend that has been very visible over the past 6-7 years, namely the growing support in Moldova for unification with Romania?
As recently as in 2015-2016, only between 15-20% of Moldovans would say in opinion polls that they are for their country to merge with Romania into a new state. By 2021, that figure had risen to well above 40% in several polls, marking a significant change in public opinion. What had happened in the preceding years?
More than anything, the COVID-19 pandemic had shown Moldovans on whom they could count for help. While Russia failed to live up to its promises to quickly supply Moldova with large quantities of its Sputnik V vaccine, Romania came to the rescue with western vaccines, doctors, medicines, and PPE.
The help sent during the pandemic made support for unification rise from around 30% to more than 40%, but there had also been a rise in support from around 15-20% to around 30% predating COVID-19. This trend can only be explained by several other factors working in unison.
Poverty, political crisis and emigration
Moldova has for years been one of Europe’s poorest countries together with Ukraine and Albania. In 2014, the country was rocked by a bank fraud scandal that was dubbed “the heist of the century”.
Funds worth USD 1 bn were illegally transferred to UK and Hong Kong shell companies from three Moldovan banks which all went bankrupt. In the end, the state intervened by bailing them out in a move that created a deficit in Moldovan public finances equivalent to an eighth of the country’s GDP.
The scandal was the final straw for many Moldovans, who then gave up on trusting the country’s elite.
Not seeing prospects of obtaining a decent living standard in Moldova in the foreseeable future, many chose to leave for the European Union. To obtain a Romanian passport, which makes it possible to live and work in any EU state, Moldovan citizens must prove that their ancestors were citizens of Romania. It is an easy task for most Moldovans, as the country was a part of Romania between 1918-1940.
The number of Moldovans with Romanian passports has risen sharply in recent years and now stands at one third of the total population. Meanwhile, the Moldovan diaspora has become a political force to be reckoned with, and they vote overwhelmingly for pro-EU options in every election. Many of them believe that the only way Moldova can ever become an EU member is through unification with Romania.
Romania-Moldova unification: language and history
Almost 80 percent of Moldovans speak a language that is nearly identical with Romanian. As the Soviets had been implementing a policy of erasing Romanian identity in Moldova following their annexation of areas in 1940, a new Moldovan language and identity was officially established and promoted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Following the independence gained in 1991, children are taught Romanian as the official subject in school and are given classes on Romanian history, leading to a gradual change in how they perceive their own identity.
In 2018, the 100th anniversary of the unification of Moldova and Romania in 1918 was celebrated, resulting in increased interest in a new union between the two states. The Romanian Parliament even adopted a resolution stating that the country’s intent is for the two states to unify in the future, a path which is supported by around 70% of Romanians.
Just two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the governments of Romania and Moldova met to sign a number of important agreements, bringing the two countries closer to each other than ever before.
The deals included Romania granting Moldova EUR 100 mln in non-reimbursable aid for development projects as well as strengthened cooperation on investment and energy security. The importance of the latter part was made abundantly clear when the Iasi-Chisinau pipeline between Romanian and Moldova became operational in October 2021. It linked Moldova to the European gas transmission system for the first time, just as Russia started blackmailing Moldova by cutting its access to the Russian gas that up until then had accounted for 100% of Moldova’s gas imports.
The cooperation within the energy sphere is set to continue, with Romania’s Minister of Energy, Virgil Popescu, stating on May 4th that Moldova will get priority when Romania starts extracting gas in 2026 from its Neptune Deep field in the Black Sea.
Apart from energy security, physical security has become a major concern in Moldova since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation escalated in late April and early May when several suspicious attacks took place in Transnistria, an area of Moldova which declared itself an independent state in 1992 and has since been protected by a unit of the Russian Army stationed there.
The shared history with Romania, coupled with the ambition to raise living standards through by joining the European internal market and to increase security in the face of the Russian Army battling Ukrainian forces in Mykolaiv, only 150 km from the Moldovan border, both EU and NATO membership are becoming increasingly attractive to a large part of the Moldovan public.
As EU membership seems particularly distant, or even impossible, due to the unwillingness of a number of EU member states to accept new members via the regular accession process, unification with Romania could be the only path to join both organizations.
The issue of Transnistria is currently the major obstacle to such a scenario, but a Russian defeat in Ukraine could transform the situation almost overnight. Experts specializing in International Relations will certainly keep a watchful eye on developments in Moldova in the coming months. Old truths are increasingly becoming invalid. Russia’s invasion has thrown everything in flux, and nowhere more so than in Moldova.