Shifting borders, migration and language experiments – why Moldova seeks to forge a national identity.
The partition of the Principality of Moldova in 1812 marked the start of a sequence of convoluted boundary changes, linguistic experimentation and population movements that diminished the idea of ‘Moldova’ and which play a part in contemporary tensions in southeastern Europe.
As the Russian empire moved westwards in the late 18th century it took advantage of the weakening of the Ottoman empire in southern Europe to acquire a portion of Moldova and control in the Black Sea. The Treaty of Bucharest divided the Principality along the axis of the river Prut: to the east of this river, Moldova became a Russian oblast called ‘Bessarabia’; to the west, the rump of the Principality remained under Ottoman influence but as the 19th century progressed, the Moldovan capital at Iaşi became a centre of political agitation for Romanian national unification. It was in Iaşi in 1859 that Alexander Ioan Cuza was elected prince of Moldova, the first stage in the process of Romanian unification which would be completed in the aftermath of the First World War.
East of the Prut, the Romanian speaking populace of Bessarabia endured generations of turmoil. The territory was subjected to ‘Russification’ under Tsarist rule in the 19th century and grotesque Stalinisation following the Second World War. Between the wars, Bessarabia was incorporated within the Kingdom of Greater Romania, when the fledgling Romanian state was able to incorporate the maximum amount of the Romanian-speaking lands into a unitary nation. Broken in the communist era, this expression of ‘Greater Romania’ endures as a political aspiration for some in post-communist southeastern Europe.
The territory of Bessarabia could not help but be a place of confused identity and status. Freed from incorporation within the USSR in 1991, Bessarabia – now the independent Republic of Moldova – faced the possibilities of re-unification with Romania or going it alone as a new nation state on the fringes of Europe. Against the expectations of political analysts and plenty of ‘pan-Romanian’ sympathisers in Romania and Moldova alike, the Republic maintained the course of independence. Economic travails in the post-communist era have been significant. Moldova has been classed ‘the poorest country in Europe'; Romania enjoyed mixed economic fortunes prior to EU accession in 2007 and both countries have been hit hard by the worldwide economic crises of the past five years. These have not been conditions conducive to unification. But nor has Moldova’s Romanian heritage – language, history and material culture – been enough to overcome this country’s abiding complexity.
A glance at the internal geography of the Republic of Moldova shows how the strains of the past continue to disrupt political development. The writ of the Moldovan government does not even extend across the whole of its territory. In the east, there is the bizarre secessionist area of Russian-speaking ‘Transnistria’, which is locked in a Stalinist timewarp; in the southwest there is the semi-autonomous Gagauz region, where an ethnic minority of Turkic origin has been granted rights to conduct its own affairs. Both of these subdivisions within the Republic were born from civil conflict in the early 1990s. The Transnistrian secession has inhibited Moldova’s economic prospects and has rendered the Republic an abiding problem for its neighbours, especially for the EU, membership of which is coveted by many in the Moldovan political class.
The contemporary fractures in the Republic’s territory are in keeping with the long-term threats to Moldova as a political unit. After all, the partition of 1812 was the making good of a threat which had hung over the Principality almost since its formation in the late middle ages. The medieval Romanian polities were squeezed between the territories of the great powers of the age: Moldova’s unfortunate geographical Iocation was exposed in a treaty of 1412 between Poland-Lithuania and Hungary, by which Moldova was obliged to lend military assistance to the Hungarian crown and was threatened with partition between the Catholic kingdoms should it fail to meet its obligations.
Despite the history of external threats and the pressures brought by internal division, the Republic of Moldova survives as an independent nation state and has tried to forge a status and identity of its own for the 21st century. The means by which this has been done can be curious. The state symbol and hero, Prince and Saint Stephen the Great, is a striking case in point. Stephen ruled the 15th-century Principality of Moldova from a heartland west of the Prut in what is now northeastern Romania and southwestern Ukraine. There are few sites of note associated with him in the territory of the Republic of Moldova. West of the Prut, Stephen is a key figure in the narrative of Romanian national heritage and since 1992 has been a saint of the Romanian Orthodox Church. East of the Prut, he has been made something more: a national symbol.
Stephen’s statue in central Chişinău is the focal point of the capital, the place where national ceremonials take place, the monument to which newlyweds will come to lay flowers, and at which protesters will gather. In the 2000s, the reformed Communist government of the Republic pursued a campaign making Stephen the embodiment of independent Moldova. The successful warrior who held invaders at bay and the great patron of religious art who helped to define Moldovan culture, Stephen became the shorthand for a concept of Moldova.
But there is an oddity in taking Stephen the Great as a symbol of the independence of the Republic of Moldova. It involves wishing away the realities of national borders and acquiring (at best, ‘sharing’) the cultural heritage of neighbouring states; or it involves aspiring to take back in some way the lands of the original Moldovan polity. Open arguments for the creation of ‘Greater Romania’ and ‘Greater Moldova’ may have faded in the era of Romanian accession to the EU. Yet the Republic of Moldova is still struggling with an anomalous status and with a need to cement its national identity. ■
Jonathan Eagles holds a PhD in Archaeology and Medieval History from University College London. His new book is Stephen the Great and Balkan Nationalism.