Straddling the Dniester: Will Moldova’s Dodon besiege or befriend Transnistria?

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November 28, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ – translated by J. Arnoldski –

Following the victory of Igor Dodon in presidential elections in Moldova, a fundamentally new situation has formed in relations with the country’s two main neighbors – Romania and the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic. 

It’s difficult to call these changes irreversible, as the histories of Moldova and neighboring Ukraine teach that seemingly pro-Russian forces can easily abandon earlier slogans in favor of a pro-Western orientation. For this reason I prefer to call Dodon not a pro-Russian, but a pro-Moldovan politician. But one thing is certain: this candidate’s victory has strengthened Moldova’s sovereignty. 

The foundation of Moldovan statehood not only cracked – it was threatened with complete collapse, as Moldova would be absorbed by Romania. Supporters of Moldovan sovereignty and national identity are a weak minority in the Moldovan political establishment, unlike the people of this country, among whom ideas of “unionism” (Moldova’s absorption by Romania) are widespread but nonetheless not decisively supported.

In my opinion, Dodon’s victory is a symbolic breaking point in the prospects of Romanianization and Moldova’s absorption by its neighbor. This is a revenge of those forces that are widely represented in society but poorly represented in the official establishment. This threat has been felt in Romania. 

Ex-Romanian president Traian Basescu has stated his intentions to run for parliament. In his own words, he will do everything to hasten the unification of Romania and Moldova. Basescu has even promised to create a Ministry of Unification. It should be noted that it would be more correct to call this a takeover, not a merger, since the weight of the two countries is incomparable. Basescu also stated that he would take the necessary steps to cancel the fees paid for restoring Romanian citizenship. 

The new Moldovan president, Igor Dodon, has countered such statements. In his opinion, Romanians and Moldovans are “brothers, but each of us should have their own home.” He said: “I am not anti-Romanian and never have been, but I am an anti-unionist. Sure, we have common historical roots, and we are brothers, but each of us should have our own home.” In Dodon’s words, Romanians “should not encroach upon the statehood of Moldova.”

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The contradictions between Moldovan patriots and unionists are so deep that Igor Dodon has even refused to meet with Basescu even though the latter is in Moldova as part of his election campaign to the Romanian parliament.

Basescu should pay more than a little attention to neighboring Ukraine as well. The policy of issuing Romanian passports to Ukrainian citizens has led to at least 50,000 citizens of Ukraine becoming Romanian citizens simultaneously. This data is unofficial (there are no official statistics on this, since it is too explosive for the Ukrainian authorities), but it is likely that even this figure is grossly underestimated and, admittedly, is from 2010. Romanians and Romanian citizenship holders live in Ukraine quite compactly – in Chernivtsi, the western Odessa region, and in Transcarpathia. As the leader of Romanian nationalism and unionism, Basescu will probably compete for the sympathy of this rather large electorate. 

But let us return to Moldova. Striking the positions of unionism simultaneously opens a window of opportunity for the federalization of Moldova itself, which Igor Dodon has even spoken on. This would mean not only granting legal rights to the virtually autonomous Gagauzia region, but also the possibility of discussing returning Transnistria to the “new” Moldova. Dodon is not only an enemy of unionism – he, like any Moldovan politician, is against the independence of Transnistria.

The fundamental difference between Dodon and his colleagues rests in the resolution of the “Transnistrian conflict” not by military means, but through federalization. In this respect, the victory of the “pro-Russian” candidate Dodon represents a larger threat to Transnistria than a victory of the unionists. 

The president of Transnistria, Evgeny Shevchuk, has already commented on Dodon’s plans and statements. Shevchuk categorically rejects the possibility of the republic returning to Moldova, even by means of federalization. 

The new Moldovan president has found himself in a difficult situation. The country’s national interests demand the speedy improvement of relations with Russia and, as a minimum, ending the blockade of Transnistria, which Moldova is jointly holding with Ukraine. Lifting the blockade, however, is contrary to the expansionist aspirations of the Moldovan establishment. It is important that Dodon does not become a hostage of his own image as a patriot and strong leader, as this would negate the positive results of his victory. 

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It seems to me that Dodon could opt for the path taken by the current authorities of Georgia, who have chosen a more pragmatic path for relations with Russia. Only real steps in the direction of Russia and Transnistria can melt the ice of distrust towards Moldova. Lifting the blockade of Transnistria and restoring economic and social cooperation between the states on the two banks of the Dniester would create the psychological preconditions for a normalization of dialogue between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Moscow will be closely following this. 

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