Romania and Moldova Square Up

Bucharest opposes neighbouring Moldova's swing back to Moscow.

Romania and Moldova Square Up

Bucharest opposes neighbouring Moldova's swing back to Moscow.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A diplomatic wrangle has broken out between Bucharest and Chisinau over moves to prise Moldovans out of the Romanian fold and back into the arms of Russia.

Angry words have been followed by expulsions of diplomats. Earlier this month, Moldova kicked out the Romanian military attaché and Romania sent home the Moldovan embassy's first secretary.

Moldova's president Vladimir Voronin accused Romania of meddling in his country's affairs. "They think the native people of Moldova are Romanians rather than Moldovans." The president said: "That is not true."

The trouble built up after Moldova last year elected a pro-Moscow communist government, the first post-Soviet republic to do so. In the election, Voronin capitalised on popular discontent over painful market reforms.

One of the new government's first acts was to make it compulsory for Russian to be taught in Moldovan schools whose pupils overwhelmingly speak Romanian as a mother language, even though they call it Moldovan. In Soviet days, the government tried to impose the Russian language on Moldova schools without success.

Moldova expelled Romania's military attaché, Ion Ungureanu, for allegedly joining in anti-government rallies. According to officials in Chisinau, videos made by local secret servicemen proved that Ungureanu met opposition lawmakers who resented government plans to bring Moldova closer to Russia.

In response, Romania ordered the Moldovan embassy's first secretary, Iacob Popovici, to leave the country. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said Chisinau officials have been trying to promote a politically immature and irrationally aggressive campaign against Bucharest. He accused President Voronin of "throwing venom on what is valuable in bilateral relations". Romanian foreign minister Mircea Geoana said Ungureanu's expulsion was unjustified.

Moldova and Romania have long had an uneasy relationship but the situation deteriorated sharply after the Chisinau communists came to power. Mass demonstrations took place across the former Soviet republic in protest at the planned introduction of Russian rather than Romanian history in local schools. Although the changes have reportedly been abandoned, protests have continued with calls for the resignation of the government for attempting to Russify Moldova.

For their part, the Chisinau authorities have accused Romania of supporting

demonstrations as a means of recapturing lands it lost during World War II. Prior to the Soviet invasion in 1939, the bulk of Moldova was part of Romania.

Bucharest insisted its only objective was to preserve the culture and language shared by the people of the two countries. Most in Moldova speak Romanian although they voted in a referendum to call it Moldovan.

Impoverished and unstable itself, Romania can ill-afford to be generous to its neighbour, despite close economic and cultural ties. Since 1990,

Bucharest allotted just about 1.5 million US dollars a year for "economic and cultural integration projects" between the two countries.

During the Stalinist era, a campaign of forced Russification - including mass deportations - altered the ethnic balance and national identity of Moldova. Some two-thirds of Moldovans are ethnic Romanians, while the rest are Russian-speaking minorities.

Russian was the only official language until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. And although more than nine-tenths of the population can speak Russian, the language remains a divisive issue.

Moscow, which still has troops on Moldova's soil, waded in to defend Voronin and lashed out at nationalist protesters. It believes that anti-Russian protests by Moldova's radicals have foreign backers and that their action creates the danger of yet another conflict in south-east Europe.

But Romania, which nurses ambitions to join the European Union, avoided commenting on the Russian statements and stressed its commitment to supporting Moldova's "democratic development".

"Since its independence in 1991, Moldova has struggled over whether to align itself with Romania - seen as a doorway to Western Europe - or to cosy up to Russia again," said Bogdan Sgarcitu, political columnist of the leading newspaper, Bursa. "Communists who won elections last year favour closer ties with Moscow, and Bucharest has now no choice other than to try help the ethnic Romanian population in the neighbouring country."

For many independent observers here, Moldova's case arguably indicates that ill-calculated ethnic policy moves, coupled with the country's unsolved

economic problems, could ignite a political crisis.

"It remains to be seen whether Moldova can learn from its recent history and

avoid the violent conflict of early 1990s," Sgarcitu added. In 1990, Trans-Dniester, a region of 700,000 populated mainly by ethnic Slavs in eastern Moldova, declared itself independent, fearing that Moldova would seek to reunite with Romania.

Chisinau tried to subdue the separatists by force and some 1,500 people died in the Trans-Dniester war before Russian troops intervened and stopped the fighting in 1992.

Marian Chiriac is a Bucharest-based journalist

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