Eurasian Politician
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The Eurasian Politician - Issue 3 (February 2001)

Transilvania and Transnistria:

Background of Romanian Troubles

By: Anssi Kullberg, March 2001
(Click here for the Finnish version)


In January the OSCE met in Bucharest, and discussions were held, among other issues, on Chechnya, Moldova’s Transnistria, Russian troops on Georgian territory, and Kosova. It could be expected that Moldova would gain some attention on the agenda this year, when Romania acts as the chairman state of the OSCE. The Romanian Premier Mircea Geoana acted as the chairman of the meeting. The troika leading the discussions consists of Romania, Portugal and Austria.

Republic of Moldova is a Romanian state like its bigger western neighbour, and also known as Moldavia, but when gaining independence, Moldova wanted to adopt the local name Moldova instead of Moldavia, which, in Moldova, was connected with Russian language. Ironically, for many Westerners Moldova sounds more Slavonic than Moldavia – however, Moldova is pronounced "Moldóva", i.e. press on the second syllable. In fact the republic should be known as Bessarabia or Eastern Moldova, because it is only the easternmost third-part of the historical Romanian principality of Moldavia or Moldova. The two western third-parts are within present Romania, including the historical capital Iasi. Russia and later Stalin’s Soviet Union occupied Bessarabia from Romania and annexed it to Moscow’s empire. Bessarabia was renamed as the SSR of Moldova – probably as Stalin desired possible further annexations of Romanian soil ("uniting Moldova", i.e. occupying also Western Moldova).

Another result was the creation of "Moldovan nationality" which differed from Romanians by the use of Cyrillic alphabet and by Russianisation. Ironically, Romanians living in Ukraine and other Slavonic parts of the Soviet Union were labelled Romanians in the statistics, whereas according to the Soviet statistics there were no Romanians living in Moldova – only "Moldovans". Thus, when Stalin cut off two areas of the occupied Moldova, namely Northern Bucovina in the north and Southern Bessarabia in the south, and annexed these to Ukraine, the "Moldovans" living in these areas suddenly turned into Romanian minorities again.

The border changes that followed Bessarabia’s annexation aimed at ethnic manipulation and nested conflicts, in order to "divide and rule". Northern Bucovina’s annexation to Ukraine was completed with the annexation of Ruthenia from Slovakia, again to Ukraine. Ruthenia was historically inhabited by Slavonic Ruthenes (Rusyns) and Slovaks, but Northern Bucovina’s original inhabitants were Romanian and Hungarian. Southern Bessarabia – an area with historically Turkic settlement – was annexed from Moldova so that Moldova lost its connection to the Black Sea. As a very counterproductive "compensation", the Transnistrian stripe, with Slavonic majority, was annexed to the SSR of Moldova. It was a Trojan horse of Ukrainians (15 %) and Russians (14 %) to be planted within the Romanian state as a means of division and aimed Russification. Transnistria is the Romanian name, while the stripe is called Transdnyestriya in Russian. Here the name Transnistria is used mainly for its being easier to pronounce for most Europeans.

The Moldovan Popular Front (MPF) advocated reunification with Romania throughout the earlier half of the 1990s. Also the Congress of Moldovan Intellectuals was in warm favour of the unification. Their influence in the parliament was always replied by boycott of the Russian-supported separatists of Transdnestria, and heavy pressure of Russia – with the ignorant background chorus of the international community supporting Moscow. Mircea Snegur became president in Moldova as early as in February 1990, and an oppositionist premier, Mircea Druc, though representing MPF, was replaced in 1991 with Snegur’s supporter Valeriu Muravschi. On 8th June 1992 Muravschi was pressured to resign, and Andrei Sangheli (another man of Snegur’s) was appointed. Trying to get some more consensus and to convince the Slavic and Gagauz separatist representatives of the Parliament to end their boycott, Snegur dismissed two more pan-Romanian ministers, defence minister Ion Costas and security minister Anatol Plugaru on 16th July. Also this attempt failed – Russians continued their sabotage. Five days later Pavel Creanga and Vasile Calmoi were appointed.

When Moldova became independent in 1992, its eastern frontier, Transnistria, a narrow stripe on the eastern side of the Dnestr river, declared independence. The Slavonic (Ukrainian and Russian) separatists of Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, were supported in their bloody rebellion by the Russian 14th Army. The result was a cruel civil war – or rather a Russian-Moldovan war – that ruined the prospects of Moldova, in late Soviet times one of the most prospectful and European-oriented of the former soviet republics. Heavy fighting took place throughout the spring 1992, until in the summer the Russian General Aleksandr Lebed was appointed to new commander of the 14th Army in Transnistria.

On 21st July 1992, a peace agreement was signed between the Moldavian President Mircea Snegur and Boris Yeltsin – significantly Moldova had to agree with Moscow, not with Tiraspol. However, the agreement was unilaterally favourable for Russians. The conflict was harshly exploited by Moscow to change the Western and Romanian-minded leadership in Moldova and to annex the state into the CIS, which is a structure of continued Russian hegemony in post-Cold War world. On 24th December 1992, Snegur called for reunification of Moldova to mother Romania – an Anschluss that was more desired in Chisinau than in Bucharest. Snegur proposed a referendum to be held in 1993, which would ask if the citizens would like Moldova to be independent, unite with Romania, or join the CIS. Probably in 1993 majority would have voted for the reunification, especially if the Transnistrian Slavs would have boycotted the election in large number.

Russia, of course, wanted another kind of results, and power games hardened in Chisinau. On 29th Jan 1993 this led to forced resignation of Chairman of Parliament Alexandru Mosanu (who, however, supported reunification with Romania), as he was against the referendum. He was replaced with a pro-CIS politician Petru Lucinschi. However, thank to the majority of deputies favouring reunification with Romania, Moldova was not driven to all the pro-Russian policies. Thus, even after Moscow finally got Moldova annexed to the CIS, the country remained as an associate member only. Since the hardening Russian imperialism towards former Soviet countries, wars and coups d’état in Georgia and Azerbaijan – two other former Soviet republics who desired to stay out of the CIS – and increasing isolation and economic problems in Moldova, the country has remained out of the European integration train. Especially the large agrarian population has turned to vote for communists and probably to favour closer ties with the former masters in Moscow.


The Romanians are not Slavs. Their language is a Latin one, in spite of a high amount of Slavonic, but also Greek, Thracian and Dacian, loans and structures. Religiously, however, Romanians were subjected to the eastern, Greek Catholic or Orthodox, church, and Byzantine culture. When the Orthodox legacy became more and more claimed by Moscow and Slavs in general, the Romanians started to feel lonely in their Slavonic geopolitical surroundings – especially as the Western powers, especially their neighbours the Hungarians, did everything they could in order to brand the Romanians as Slavs.

In historical Central Europe the church boundary was traditionally understood being more important than the ethnic boundaries that became increasingly important only by 1800s. Therefore especially the Catholic Central Europeans still consider the Romanians to belong to the "eastern" reference group, and continue to spread the idea that Romanians would be Slavs who have been "converted" into Latin identity by Romanian nationalists. Especially Hungarians also claim that the Romanian myth of origin, based on Roman roots, is product of mere mythology. In fact, the Austrian Habsburg monarchy purposefully supported the Latin identity of Romanians in order to distract them from Panslavism. This does not mean that the Latin origin of Romanian language and the Latin connection of their identity would be mere imagination. All nations and nationalisms are products of political choices, myth-making and all nations interprete their history in selective ways. Romanians do not make any exception, but it does not mean that they would be "Slavs converted into Latin language" or that the Romanian claim of Roman ancestry would be "false". After all, it is much more plausible a claim than the Slavonic claim of "third Rome" and "Byzantine heritage".

Within the Orthodox Christianity, the Romanians are not the only non-Slavs. Greeks, of course, are not Slavs, and do not support the idea that Orthodox Christianity would be tied into Panslavism. Georgians are Caucasians, not Slavs. Meanwhile, also not all the Slavs are Orthodox: for example Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Croats are Catholic Slavs, and Bosniaks are Muslim Slavs. (Albanians, whose majority are Muslims, are non-Slavs and descend from the ancient Illyrians. The Hungarians are Fenno-Ugric and thereby not Indo-European at all, while Latin, Germanic as well as Slavonic languages are Indo-European.) The Orthodox church in Romania and Moldova is divided into Romanian and Greek Orthodox, and in many senses the religious affiliation of Romanians points towards south, Greece and the Balkans, than towards east and Russia.

The branding of Romanians into an eastern reference group in Central Europe must be understood against the background of the Hungarian-Romanian propaganda war over Transilvania – however irrelevant it in reality is who was first there in the ancient times, as peoples have been mixed thousand times meanwhile and all Europeans basically share each others genetic ancestry. The Transilvanian quarrel has produced many exaggerated and propagandistic interpretations of history and national, linguistic and religious identities on both sides.


In the new world some analysts, like Samuel Huntington, have desperately wanted to see religious fault-lines even where they have lost their meaning, and the fashion of seeing the world again through religions has gained much more attention than it would deserve when judging the reality. Some Central European politicians, too, have seized the rather failed idea of seeing the church boundary as a suitable border between Europe and Russia’s legitimate interest sphere. This church boundary is simplistically expressed as "border between eastern and western Christianity", failing to understand the variety on both sides. Not only Catholics and Protestants are disunited, but between Russian Orthodoxy and the Orthodox churches of Balkans and the Caucasus there are great differences in both theology and in political affiliation.

In reality, the church boundaries have appeared less important than the linguistic boundaries. The religious boundaries, on one hand, run in Romania among the Orthodox Romanians and the Catholic Hungarians in Transilvania (where there are also Unitarians, Calvinists and other Protestants), and in Ukraine between the Western Ukrainian Uniates and the Eastern Ukrainian Russian Orthodox. The linguistic boundaries, on the other hand, divide Hungarians and Romanians in Transilvania, but not the Uniates and Orthodox in Ukraine. Instead, the linguistic gap divides Moldova into the Romanian major part and the Slavonic Transnistria. The religious cap between Uniate and Orthodox Ukrainians has not produced any major conflict, while the linguistic gap between Romanian Moldovans and Slavonic Transnistrians has produced an armed conflict – though not without Russia’s active provocation.


In Transilvania, where Hungarians and Romanians are divided by both religious and linguistic terms, an ethnic conflict has so far been avoided. This has, however, been more result of both Hungary’s and Romania’s relative success in their post-communist development, than of lack of explosives in the Transilvanian ethnic powder keg – which is, besides Romanians and Hungarians, spiced with a large Gypsy population. Both Transilvanian Romanian ultra-nationalists – of whom the best known is Gheorghe Funar, mayor of Cluj (in Hungarian Kolozsvár, in German Klausenburg) – and their Hungarian counterparts have agitated national hatred. The official name of the Transilvanian university city in Romanian is Cluj-Napoca, where Napoca is the name of an ancient Roman colony that was situated about in the same place, and it has been added to the city’s name just to point out the "Roman heritage" and to manifest that the Romans were in Transilvania before Hungarians. In fact, the Romans had solid settlement only in Wallachia and Moldavia, while colonies like Napoca were rather just military posts. Funar has also regularly provoked Hungarians by his absurd and ultra-nationalist statements, by archeological digging threatening Hungarian national memorials and by opposing rehabilitation of the official status of Hungarian language.

Ethnic Hungarians of Transilvania played a crucial role in initiating the anti-communist demonstrations against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s tyranny, and the process leading to the communist regime’s collapse in 1989 started in the Transilvanian city of Timisoara (in Hungarian Temesvár) by an ethnic Hungarian Calvinist priest László Tökés. However, during the presidency of the ex-communist and member of the Ceausescu regime Ion Iliescu (1989-1996), the situation of Romania’s minority policy remained somewhat stagnated – though avoided open conflict. During the reign of the liberal President Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000) the relations between Romanians and Hungarians were considerably improved and for example, two ethnic Hungarian ministers served in the Romanian government.


However, in Transnistria the development was much worse than in Transilvania – mainly due to Russian involvement. A full-scale armed conflict exploded between Slavs and Romanians, when Russia sent its 14th Army to invade Moldovan territory – even though Russia had recognised Moldova’s independence. The major destabilisation led to a collapse of Moldovan regime. The right-wing regime, which wished Western and European integration, reunification with Romania, and wanted to stay out of the CIS, was changed into a centre-left government. The Western-oriented President Mircea Snegur was replaced with a more opportunistic former parliament chairman Petru Lucinschi, and Moldova was annexed to CIS. The Romanian reunification project, which had to be buried for the time being, has all the time been more popular in Moldova than in Romania, since Romania does not want the "Moldovan troubles" to endanger its desperate wishes of Western integration and membership in both European Union and NATO.

Since the invasion of Russian troops, Transnistria has actually been a Russian military base, where Stalinist regime and tyranny prevail, red Soviet flags fly, and Russian passports are being issued in Tiraspol. [More about the "little Soviet Union" between Moldova and Ukraine in the Eurasian Politician’s World Report in the 2nd Issue.] Even though Russia’s "interventions" to the territories of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan have been put under the umbrella of the OSCE, they violate both international law and Russia’s own legislation. After all, Russia has officially recognised the independence of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. What would Moscow think about a Romanian intervention in Bessarabia or in Northern Bucovina, or Georgian intervention in Chechnya, for instance with the support of NATO or Turkey?


Since the end of year 2000, Ion Iliescu has returned to Romanian presidency, but it is very improbable that he would any more radically turn the situation backwards, unless the Moldavian instability draws Romania into troubles. Nobody was specially terrified when the former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski won second term in Poland, or when former communists have earlier triumphed in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Lithuania. It is true that Iliescu was a member of Ceasescu’s regime, and still in 1989-1995 he used tyrannical methods in crushing Bucharest’s student demonstrations with the help of Jiu Valley miners. Iliescu also managed to brake the real start of economic reform five years. Still he is no longer what he was in 1989, and like the two KGB regents of Transcaucasia, Eduard Shevardnadze and Haidar Aliyev, he is an opportunist whose hope is now in Romanian independence and in the West – not in Moscow. Romania’s situation can be expected to stay calm and stable if only Romania is not isolated from European integration and thereby pushed alone to the Russian-hegemonised world of instability that prevails between Ukraine and Serbia.

The situation in Moldova is much more risky. This year’s electoral victory for communists in Moldova is something much more serious than the return of Iliescu’s ex-communist party into power in Romania. The reason is clear: Romania is not directly in the Russian sphere of interest, unless pushed there by the West. Moldova, however, has Russian troops on its territory and is openly "recognised" as a part of Russian interest sphere by Western powers. Romania’s turn towards authoritarianism would not be tolerated by Europe, while in Moldova’s case it is seen somehow "normal", if the country "returns" to some sort of Belarussian-type "union" with Russia.

The West should not forget that Romania is a large and non-Slavonic country with good basis for its present Western and European orientation. Although Romania’s economic problems are much more difficult than those of Hungary and Poland, they are much less difficult than those of Ukraine and Russia. The size of Romania and her agricultural sector cannot be overwhelmingly terrifying if Europe is going to melt down similar problems in Poland’s case, because Poland’s integration will inevitably force the EU to reform and liberalise its present agriculture subventionism. There is no point in fearing Romania for that, since Polish membership will already make the present subvention policy impossible. The progress that the West has over-optimistically hoped from Ukraine and Russia, has much more credible prospects in Romania.


So far, Romania has suffered from absurdly negative attention compared with many other countries like Bulgaria or Ukraine. In the Cold War era it became a habitual style of speaking about Eastern Europe to freely slander Romania and Albania, as these were the "rebels" even in the Soviet bloc and thereby "free prey" for both leftist and rightist media in the West. The sad result even today is that somehow the media language used for Romania and Albania still keeps on the yellow press level, while at the same time same kind of style cannot be used for Bulgaria or Kosova.

True, Nicolae Ceausescu and Enver Hoxha turned their own countries into concentration camps, but maybe exactly because of that the Romanians and Albanians today seem much more convinced of their belonging to Europe and not to Russian reference group than do Ukrainians, Belarussians and Serbs. Romanians and Albanians were annexed to the Soviet bloc without any "cultural" allegiance with Slavonic Russians – thereby their belonging to the Moscow-led bloc was equally artificial as that of the Central Asian and Baltic countries. Poverty has little to do in this sense: Yugoslavia used to be the most wealthy and politically freest part of the former socialist bloc.


In terms of European security Romania is a much more important ally for the West than Ukraine is, as Ukraine is after all very close to Russia in all cultural and political aspects. Romania is situated in a geopolitically crucial crossroads – between Central Europe and the Black Sea as well as between the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Romania is also situated between Serbian and Russian troops, which means that if Romania is to fall into Russian sphere of interest, like suggested by Huntington and other builders of religious boundaries, all Balkans will face total turmoil in Russo-Serbian hegemony. This is hardly what the West hopes.

In order to guarantee stability in South-Eastern Europe it is absolutely necessary for the Western powers to stop the present discrimination of Romania and instead, supply the country with assuring guarantees and support for Romania’s European orientation as well as the country’s prospects for future membership in both NATO and the European Union. Romania’s future will influence to the fate of whole Europe’s future and because of that Romania should not be treated like a pariah state because of poor economy. Economic progress, after all, largely depends on security and political stability, and these in turn depend on the status given to a country like Romania.

The development in Moldova can make the Prut river, which divides Romanians into two states, an eastern border of Europe. Even worse than that, however, is that the grey zone of instability would cover also Romania. This will be the fate of Romania if the West rejects it from the European integration. That could change the presently almost miraculous survival of Transilvania without an ethnic conflict, and what has happened in Transnistria, could happen in Transilvania, too. This is hardly within the wishes of those Hungarian nationalists who would now like to isolate Romania from European unity. Politically, Romania discriminated from Europe would be very vulnerable for development of the kind witnessed in Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus in north-east of Romania, or the ex-Yugoslavian states in south-west.

The most fatal failure of Western European policy towards the East has been relative ignorance and neglection of really democratising countries that have stayed miraculously stable despite circumstances – most significantly Romania and the Baltic states – and simultaneous attempts to "integrate" and "not isolate" countries whose democratisation has been very questionable – most significantly Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. The West’s support in 1992-2000 seems to have been gained by blackmailing rather than by politically deserving it.


Something should, of course, be expected from Romania and Moldova, too. They should realise that effective minority policy, granting more autonomy to the Hungarians of Transilvania as well as the Slavs and Gagauz of Moldova, only serves their own stability. Rather than leading into separatism, increase of autonomy may undermine the call of separatism. Romania should avoid imitating the French model of centralist state, because this could lead to the fatal mistakes that the paranoid ideas of "national unity" produced in Francisco Franco’s Spain and in present Russia. Romanian ultra-nationalists like Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Gheorghe Funar as well as the Moldovan communist leader Vladimir Voronin seem to favour the "national unity" paranoia of Franco and Putin. Tudor was also in background when in 1999 Miron Cozma tried to destabilise Romania through miner revolts of the Jiu Valley.

Iliescu should now keep Romania tightly off this development, and also use Bucharest’s influence on Chisinau, preferably with Western backing. Voronin has openly admired Putin and suggested Moldova to join Russia and Belarus in a union that would inevitably turn Moldova into an authoritarian state. So far Iliescu’s second reign has seemed much more promising than his first. In Premier Adrian Nastase’s government the economic policy has been moderate and continued the reform, finance minister being a non-socialist technocrat, and there have been no signs of the unconstructive minority policy or authoritarian tactics that were seen in Iliescu’s first reign – for example in crushing student revolts in Bucharest with Jiu Valley miners. This could promise that the return to power of former communists in Romania is nothing more serious than the same thing happening earlier in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Lithuania. In Poland and Hungary, for example, the socialist governments made more radical economic reforms than the nationalist governments preceding them.

The best strategy for both Romania and Moldova to save themselves from being cast out into destabilisation and Russian hegemony would be increased regional autonomy. Romania could transfer herself towards a federation like Germany or Switzerland rather than towards French-styled centralism. Moldova could still save herself by agreeing on some kind of federal model and supplying Transnistria and Gagauzia more autonomy – but simultaneously insisting on removal of Russian troops and hegemony and transferring the control for example to neutral OSCE countries.

In any case, the West should pay much more attention on both these two countries in order to prevent the destabilisation of this very important bridgeland. When instability reaches Romania, it is already too late to react. Besides the Baltics, Romania is the most crucial open security question of present Europe.

* * *

More about Moldova’s election results and the Transnistrian and Gagauz questions in Romania and Moldova Report, this issue.

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