Moldova in the Middle

The Newest Front in the Battle Between Russia and the West

A statue of Lenin in Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria.
A statue of Lenin in Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria. (Tetteroo Media / Flickr)

On April 3, the European Union announced that, starting April 28, it will grant visa-free travel within the Schengen zone for all Moldovans holding a biometric passport. In other words, with the right travel documents, 3.5 million Moldovans can now make short-term visits anywhere in Europe. The move was the latest salvo in a raging battle for Moldova, a second front in a struggle between the EU and Russia for the lands in between them.

It is easy to write off tiny Moldova, as the West effectively did after 1990, when the country won independence as the Soviet Union dissolved. Moldova, which is landlocked and tucked between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania, is the poorest country in Europe. Its major exports are wine (which Russia recently blocked), vegetables and fruits, and people. An estimated 770,000 Moldovans -- over half of the economically active population -- live outside of their country. Each year, they send home remittances equivalent to over 30 percent of Moldova’s GDP.

Moldova presents a striking contrast to neighboring Romania. Although Romania has grown swiftly within the European Union, Moldova has languished outside of it, a hostage to Russian foreign policy. That dates back to 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the new country struggled to maintain control of Trans-Dniester (or Transnistria), the sliver of territory bordered by the Dniester river in the west and Ukraine in the east. The multiethnic region hosted heavy industry and the Soviet 14th army, and had been part of the Soviet Union during the interwar period, rather than Romania as the rest of Moldova. Separatists in Transnistria, who are mostly non-Romanian-speaking and are opposed to making Romanian the sole official language and to changing the Moldovan alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, refused to submit to Moldovan control and appealed for Russian help. Russian President Boris Yeltsin installed Major General Alexander Lebed as commander of the 14th Army, and Lebed made it his mission to fight the Moldovan “fascists.” His efforts resulted in the breakaway Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic, headquartered in Tiraspol. 

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