Moldova is looking for its place between Russia and the EU
A veteran of the Moldovan press and head of the Chişinău bureau of Radio Free Europe, Vasile Botnaru (62) tells Diplomaatia that in Moldova, where parliamentary elections are due to take place on 24 February—Estonian Independence Day—questions still linger about language because politicians are afraid to recognise officially that the Moldovan language is the same as Romanian, fearing that this might lead the public to want to join Romania completely.
Diplomaatia: How important or painful is the issue of identity for Moldovans?
Botnaru: So far, no one has managed to solve this issue. During the Soviet era, the strategy adopted was to cut us away, geographically, from Romania and Romanians so we wouldn’t look to the other side of the Prut [the river forming the border between Moldova and Romania]. Stalin said that we were a different nation and, since then, Soviet propaganda and schools worked to create a Moldovan identity. [In 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Bessarabia under the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and named it the Moldavian SSR.—JP]
As a student I worked as a guide for Intourist [an institution in the Soviet Union that was engaged in the reception of foreign tourists—JP]. The most difficult question to answer was: where was Mihai Eminescu from? [Eminescu lived in the 19th century and is the most famous Romanian poet to this day. He was born in what is now Moldova.—JP] The Romanians consider him to be one of theirs to this day, because he is buried in Romania. He was active when today’s Moldova and Romania were both members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Moldova area became Soviet Moldova, school textbooks described him as a Moldovan poet. This was very difficult to explain to foreigners.
Since Moldova became independent in 1991, our politicians have reluctantly started to admit that the Romanian and Moldovan languages are similar, but they say that we are Moldovans who speak a language similar to Romanian. They are afraid that if they admit it’s the same language and give an inch, people will take a mile and start demanding that the country join Romania. We have people who say they are two different languages, and even find words that are, to them, typical of Moldovan. One clever Dick even published a Romanian-Moldovan dictionary.
The well-known politician Marian Lupu [speaker of the Moldovan parliament (2010–13), who also served as the country’s acting president at the time for two years—JP] tried to build the theory that our languages are the same in scientific terms; but for political reasons, because language is one of the attributes of a country, we cannot say Moldovan is the as the Romanian language. In short, politicians are trying to pull the propaganda condom over people’s heads, so that we would not join Romania under any circumstances. They’re especially worried that Moldovans will see that Romanians have higher average salaries and pensions, and that the quality of the roads is better.
When our second president Petru Lucinschi [in office 1997–2001] was in power and a new Moldovan constitution was drafted, he tried to find a compromise and wrote Romanian in brackets after Moldovan and vice versa, but this did not go through.
This language problem symbolises our entire identity issue. The first step on this path was the transition from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in 1989, when a new law on the matter was very dramatically adopted.
The Communist Party wanted this law so the society could let off steam. They thought they could soothe the people: take the Latin alphabet, but shut up after that. Politicians are still playing the identity issue as a game of “Betrayal” [a card game—JP]. As some major and important problems arise, this issue pops up once again—Don’t you want to be Romanians? Would you like to join Romania?—and then find counterarguments themselves. This is the kind of game we are playing, although there is more to argue about here when even our Academy of Sciences has said that our language is Romanian. The Constitutional Court has made a decision on this, which makes it clear that it is Romanian. If there was the political will, it could be formalised in law.
How does the mass issuing of Romanian passports affect Moldovans?
Even people who insist that they are Moldovan, live in Moldova and are convinced that this country must last forever are happy to take a Romanian passport, which gives them all the rights that go with being part of the EU. Romania will issue passports to Moldovans using a simplified procedure. It is enough for your father or grandfather to have been born during the interwar period in Romania [i.e. before the occupation of Bessarabia by the Soviet Union in 1940—JP]. Passports have been issued on a massive scale, as people haven’t been granted visa-free travel to Europe with a Moldovan passport as of yet. Consulates accept many bags full of applications in a day. The authorities even feared that they would be left without any citizens. In any case, getting Romanian passports has raised people’s interest in the identity issue, although most used the possibility for purely pragmatic reasons.
How many Moldovan citizens are also Romanian citizens today?
It is said that there are already over one million Romanian citizens in Moldova. No one will tell you the official number. [3.5 million people currently officially live in Moldova, but at least one million Moldovans have been travelled to work and live in the EU, Russia and America.—JP] Even people from the unrecognised Transnistrian Republic (DV) took Romanian passports. They have their own unrecognised passport of their republic, with which they can only move internally, then they have a Moldovan passport to come here—which, by the way, Moldova gave them free of charge. Then there are Romanian passports, and many also have Ukrainian and Russian passports. An ordinary Transnistrian man looking for a job has his pockets full of passports. In order to obtain a Romanian passport, residents of the DV had to recite an oath in Romanian. The oath was learned by heart, often with errors and recited with a heavy accent. [DV residents are predominantly Russian-speaking.—JP] Romania was pragmatic about this and wanted to use it to instil a feeling of “look, even Transnistrian people want our passports”.
What do the young people think? What are youngsters taught about the Moldovan-Romanian issue at school? What are they raised to be?
Our young people, who were born in independent Moldova, study a subject called “Romanian” at school. Just as the Academy of Sciences said, schools no longer have Moldovan lessons, instead they have Romanian lessons, and they are taught the history of Romania. They learn and know that Moldovans are a part of the Romanian people and that some areas of Moldova were formerly under Romanian control. Imagine: the children of socialist politicians who are debating in parliament that there is no Romanian language, learn Romanian at school. It’s absurd!
Politicians cannot change this situation [i.e. ensure that the Moldovan language is taught in schools] because the language issue is highly controversial and could easily bring many people out onto the streets. We have three approaches to language: academic, political and pragmatic. [Laughs.] But yes, I think it is obvious to children who learn Romanian language and history that we are part of the Romanian people, and that sooner or later a merger will happen. As Traian Băsescu said, “we will meet in the European Union!”. [Băsescu was Romania’s president from 2004 to 2014, and strongly supported the reunification of Moldova and Romania.—JP] As long as our people do not see great benefits from independence, most will look to either Romania or Russia. Many are longing for the old times and think that we should go to the Russian market with our apples and wine. In fact, they used to send total garbage to Russia, and it’s a shame to call it wine! For many it was important that they could sell their old stock in Russia and were willing to accept any price. We still have the same issue: if there is a good harvest, we have too much of raw material for wine-making. Our wine-making infrastructure in yet that sophisticated.
What do the polls say about how many people want to join Romania?
Around 20%, at most.
So few! Why don’t people want to join?
A clear minority, yes. But the generations who learned Romanian language and history at school, and for whom it is self-evident, have not yet grown up. Their opinion is not taken into account at present and the majority of those still in power are those who grew up during the Soviet era.
It makes sense that politicians are opposed to this concept. For them personally, becoming Romanian serves no purpose, right?
Of course. Who would they be if Moldova joined Romania? Probably, in the best case, just a provincial deputy or a member of a rural municipality government. How would he be able to buy himself a state-of-the-art Mercedes with public money in such a scenario?
How does Romania view a merger?
Romania cannot force this issue. For one thing, it was the first to recognise Moldova’s independence. How can you then push for a merger, when you’ve legally recognised independence? There is even talk that Ion Iliescu, who defeated Nicolae Ceaușescu [the Romanian Communist dictator who was overthrown and executed in 1989 after ruling the country for 15 years; Iliescu became the acting head of state and was later elected president, serving from 1990 to 1996.—JP] recognised Moldova quickly, following Moscow’s instructions, just so Moldova didn’t talk about a merger. During the national renaissance from 1989 to 1991, unification was an option. At one point, there was a strong frame of mind for leaving the Transnistria area out, cutting it off like a tail and joining Romania without it.
[In 2018] Romania celebrated the centenary of the creation of Greater Romania, the unification of Romanian territories, but even during these celebrations they were very cautious about the issue. Their view is that if the people of Moldova themselves want to join and make a political decision to that effect, then they will also be supported at the political level, but so far support has only been at the level of NGOs and a few movements and parties.
The second point is that amalgamation requires a lot of money. Germany is still paying for its reunification. Last year, one Romanian economic expert calculated that Moldova’s merger with Romania would cost billions of euros. But he also pointed out the plus points.
What kind of pros did he mention?
In terms of territory, Romania would become an important European country. [It is currently the 12th-largest country in Europe with a total area of 238,000 square kilometres. If Moldova were to merge, the country’s territory would grow by 13% and Romania would overtake the UK in size. Romania would then be the 8th-largest country in the EU by area.—JP]. If Moldova became Romania’s periphery, this could help speed up its economic development.
What is Romania doing now to help Moldova?
I think the most important thing is the handing out of university scholarships, which began in 1990. This means 5,000 state scholarships with free accommodation each year. Most of the students will not come back, of course. But there are those who will. I myself have journalists in the editorial office who studied with these scholarships. As a result of their studies, they are, of course, quite differently oriented. Even if they are not obvious unionists [i.e. supporters of the unification—JP] they clearly support Europe; they are pro-Western.
Romanian money is used to repair kindergartens in Moldova, even in Gagauzia [a predominantly Russian-speaking, pro-Moscow region of Moldova—JP] where the West is not much loved. Roads are built and reconstructed. Romania is spending a lot of money on Moldova. The EU halted funding for projects [in the autumn of 2018—JP] due to delays in reforms, but Romania continues to finance these initiatives. It does not give money directly to the government but is happy to fund specific programmes.
What role does the Transnistrian Republic play in the issue of Moldova’s merger with Romania, which you say will happen sooner or later?
The DV wants to be completely separate from Moldova, but Russia does not want this. On the contrary, Russia wants to tie the DV to Moldova’s feet, so that it would have a veto in the Moldovan parliament. Then Moldova could join neither Romania nor NATO. In short, the DV would be a Russian agent. This is the ideal situation for Russia in Moldova. It is, of course, very difficult for the people of the DV to get away from Russia, because they are very dependent on it, especially culturally and linguistically. Although many people from the DV now work in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the state is still led by the same people.
The Socialists, led by the president, are very concerned about Romanian scholarships, fearing that the Moldovan youth will become pro-Western. When Igor Dodon [the current president of Moldova—JP] went to Moscow in the autumn, he told the rector of the University of Moscow that at least 1,000 scholarships could be awarded by Russia to young people in Moldova each year, instead of the current 500. He would like more young Moldovan students to study in Russian higher education institutions.
Is the merger with Romania likely to be an issue in the parliamentary elections to be held in late February? To what extent is it an important focus at the elections?
It is a subject with an indirect impact in the elections. If the socialists [led by president Dodon] win and form a coalition, it will mean a significant change in political orientation.
How likely is it that the Democratic Party (democratic only in name), led by Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is known as Moldova’s oligarch, will enter into government with the Socialists? The Democratic Party is very pro-European, at least in words. [Many in Moldova believe that Dodon was actually elected only owing to Plahotniuc.—JP]
He can’t resist. Of course, they will have to change the orientation of their foreign policy. They will say: “Look, European Union, you punished us, you were not happy when we were in power; now you have to deal with this kind of Moldova”. [The European Commission temporarily suspended projects in Moldova in the autumn, as the EU believes that rule of law and democratic principles in Moldova are taking a serious step backwards.—JP] Although I think the Europeans and Americans do not care about Moldova anymore. For them, it is important to keep Ukraine on [their] course. Their logic is that if Moldova is behind a pro-EU and pro-NATO Ukraine, it would be difficult for Socialist-led Moldova to do anything fundamental because we have no border with Russia.
It is not possible to build a European Cuba here, as Vladimir Voronin [president from 2001 to 2009, who led the Moldovan Communist party during that time] promised. If Voronin did not succeed, the Socialists will not succeed. [If he wins the election] Dodon will, of course, say that the association agreement with the EU must be reviewed. But Russian money will not come immediately, even then—if at all. It is also significant, in my opinion, that even Transnistria exports more of its goods to the EU than to Russia right now. Apart from being more profitable, it is also easier. And if their goods can meet EU requirements, they can export them to anywhere in the world. For them, it is more lucrative than exporting to Russia, where you rely on the whim of officials or customs agents. Our wine producers have also understood this: it is easier to make one-off major investments in production and try to get into the European market than to always beg for Russia to let them sell produce there.
Dodon and the Socialists have a good chance in the elections because the people’s mood is 50–50. Of this 50%, all pro-Russian votes will go to the Socialists. But I repeat, it is no problem for Plahotniuc to make a deal with Dodon. He certainly has files on him and other Socialist leaders, and he would have no difficulty blackmailing them.