On Monday 5 March protests began in the Republic of Moldova against changing the constitutional name of the state language from Moldovan to Romanian. Last week, the parliament of the Republic of Moldova supported a bill to change the name of the language by a simple majority in its first reading. However, to amend the constitution, at least two-thirds support is needed. In addition, a state of emergency is currently in force in Moldova, which prohibits amendments to the basic law of the country.
Deputies from the opposition Bloc of Communists and Socialists refused to participate in the consideration of this document, stressing that the initiative was unconstitutional. They pointed out that, judging by the polls, Moldovan is also considered a state language by the majority of the country’s population.
In their turn, the authorities cited the decision of the Moldovan Constitutional Court, which in 2013 declared Romanian the official language, citing the “prevalence” over the basic law of the text of the Declaration of Moldovan Independence, which mentioned the Romanian language. The document was approved by parliament in 1991, which the declaration’s authors admit was drafted with the help of diplomats from neighboring Romania.
The issue of language and identity is a painful one for Moldova. It is a state that emerged on the territory of the former USSR after its dissolution in 1991. Until 1812, the territories of the present Republic of Moldova were part of the Principality of Moldavia, which was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, and which in 1859 was united with the neighboring principality of Wallachia (also dependent on the Ottomans). This state was named Romania. However, since 1812, the territories of the modern Moldova were a part of the Russian Empire, from 1918 to 1940, they were a part of Romania, and from 1940 to 1991, they were a part of the Soviet Union. For neighboring Romania, Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian and Moldova is a historical region, half of which is part of what is now Romania, while the other half forms an independent republic with the same name. For a great number of Moldovans in Republic of Moldova, they are a separate from Romanians, albeit a kindred nation with its own language and culture.
The identity issue also has a geopolitical dimension. Romania is a part of NATO and the EU. The Republic of Moldova is part of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The change of the name of the language is seen by many in the Republic of Moldova and beyond as a preparation for the absorption by Romania, and thus the expansion of NATO. This is painfully perceived by Russia and the inhabitants of the de facto independent Transniestrian Moldovan Republic, a strip of several kilometers stretching along the left bank of the Dniester River.
The Transniestrian problem
The Transnistrian Moldovan Republic was declared in 1990, against the background of attempts by the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic to secede from the USSR and join Romania. Transnistria comprised territories that had not been part of Romania between 1918 and 1940 and where there were no sentiments for unification with Romania. The region, inhabited in equal proportions by Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians, retained much of its old Soviet identity, which is reflected in the official symbols of the unrecognized state. After an armed conflict with the Republic of Moldova in 1992, which was halted by Russian intervention, the Transnistrian conflict is de facto frozen. A Russian peacekeeping contingent of 1,700 people is present in the region.
In the last few months, the Moldovan leadership has taken several steps that can be perceived as preparations to unfreeze the conflict in Transnistria. On March 18, the “law on separatism” will come into force. These are amendments to the Moldovan Criminal Code, introducing articles such as: “separatism”, “conspiracy against Moldova” and “creation of an illegal information structure”. Depending on their qualification, they provide for up to 12 years of imprisonment or big fines. During the preliminary hearings on the law, representatives of the Moldovan secret services made no secret of the fact that it would be directed against Transniestria.
The de facto law closes off any possibility of negotiations between the Transniestrian and Moldovan leaderships. Now, for example, a Transniestrian foreign minister in Moldova may be arrested or convicted even if he comes for negotiations.
“We consider the adoption by the Moldovan parliament of a bill that creates grounds for politically motivated criminal prosecution of almost every resident of Transnistria as an act of aggression aimed at undermining the negotiation process and a deliberate prologue to massive human rights violations,” the Transniestrian Foreign Ministry said.
The Republic of Moldova is constitutionally neutral but is now ruled by the pro-Western PAS party. The president is Romanian citizen Maia Sandu. The leadership of the ruling party consists of representatives of Western foundations and NGOs working in the interests of the US, EU and NATO. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022, Moldova initially adopted a neutral stance, but in the second half of 2022 it supported Ukraine. Some reports suggest that arms and fuel from NATO countries are supplied to Ukraine via Moldova. There are also attempts to destabilize the situation in Transnistria. The Russian military contingent stationed there is isolated. There is no more convenient way for the Republic of Moldova, Romania and NATO to achieve the liquidation of Transnistria by military means.
Are Chisinau and Kiev going for the escalation?
In the second half of 2022, Chisinau violated the contract and limited gas supplies to Transnistria, which led to the reduction of electricity production and the introduction of the state of emergency in the region. In December 2022, Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebrian stated that the role of Romania and the EU in the negotiation process to resolve the Transdniestrian conflict would be strengthened. On 16 February 2023, Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean said he intended to urge the withdrawal of the Russian military from the territory of the unrecognized Moldovan Republic of Transdniestria (MRT) and seek its “demilitarisation”.
In its turn, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of an attempted provocation in Transnistria. According to the Russians, Ukraine was allegedly preparing a staged attack by Russian troops from the territory of Transnistria. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that military equipment and personnel of Ukrainian units were deployed to the Transnistrian segment of the border with Moldova, artillery was deployed, and Ukrainian drones flew over the territory of the unrecognized republic more frequently.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak formally denied the Russian accusations. However, he hinted that Kiev was indeed ready for a military operation in Transnistria if it received a corresponding signal from Chisinau:
“The decision to settle the Transnistrian issue belongs only to the Moldovan side. De jure, the Moldovan side, if it needs the support of Ukraine, should seek help from President Zelensky who, for his part, will take relevant decisions”.
The Ukrainian side, against the background of the defeat in Bakhmut, which it suffers not even from the Russian army, but from the formations of PMC Wagner, is interested in a demonstration victory. Such a victory may be the elimination of an isolated grouping in Transnistria and the Transnistrian statehood, and putting the territory of the region under the control of Ukraine. If Ukraine decides to do that, then the Russian side will have almost no opportunity to save its grouping and citizens in Transnistria (230,000 people with Russian citizenship live on that territory). Russia will have either to land marines in Odessa or undertake extremely risky and technically impossible air operation or switch to using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, which, however, will not save Transnistria itself from defeat.
Moreover, Ukraine is interested in putting under its control the huge military stores that are located in Transnistria, near the village of Сobasna. These are some of the largest arms depots in Europe, dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, which has a shortage of ammunition, is interested in getting it.
According to various estimates, the depots contained up to 22,000 tons of ammunition (shells, aerial bombs, mines, grenades, ammunition). The possible detonation of the ammunition could be compared to the 10-kiloton nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
The Ukrainian factor in Transnistria
However, it cannot be ruled out that the pressure of Chisinau and Kiev and the demonstration of force are aimed at forcing the Transniestrian authorities to cooperate with Kiev. The fact is that Transnistria as a de facto independent region emerged with the support of not only Russia, but also Ukraine. Both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists fought on the side of Transnistria in the war with official Chisinau. Transniestrian elites are economically linked to elites of Ukraine, especially regional elites in Ukraine, primarily in Odessa region. Almost all goods were brought into Transnistria from Ukraine until the Ukrainian side closed the Transniestrian section of its border with Moldova after 24 February 2022. Many residents of the region hold Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian passports simultaneously and have relatives in Ukraine.
Since 24 February last year, Transnistria has had little comment on the fighting between Russia and Ukraine and has not formally supported the Russian special military operation, but has not spoken out against it either. Although traditionally Transnistria has been seen as an outpost of the “Russian world” in the west, in reality the situation is much more complex.
Furthermore, Transnistria is a pressure point for Russia. Ukraine is now insisting on extending the “grain deal”. It expires on March 18. Türkiye has already expressed a desire to extend the deal by six months. However, Russia sees fewer and fewer benefits for itself as the West prevents export of Russian grain and fertilizers. Ukraine insists on including the port of Mykolaiv and Ochakov in the “deal”. Previously, Ukrainian grain exports in previous versions of the deal went through the ports of Odessa.
Mykolaiv and Ochakov are in close proximity to the front lines and Russia-controlled Crimea, and theoretically if grain can be exported from them, weapons and ammunition for the Ukrainian Army can also be imported. If Russia makes this concession, it opens up the prospect of an escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the Crimean direction. And this, as Western experts also admit, could lead to Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons.
The Gagauz issue
Political instability in Moldova, where the pro-American and pro-Romanian government has made no economic progress and is further dividing the country under the guise of a struggle for identity, is extremely dangerous. Chisinau could go along with Kiev, Washington and Brussels and initiate military pressure on Transnistria. This is fraught either with a new conflict in the Northern Black Sea region (on the territory of the Republic of Moldova) or it can create an extremely dangerous situation in the Crimean direction. In both cases the risks of nuclear escalation are high.
If escalation has to be avoided, the protest potential accumulated and inflated by foreign policy players will tear apart Moldova from within. Fomenting of nationalistic sentiments by the ruling circles of the Republic of Moldova endangers not only Transnistria but also Gagauz autonomy. Gagauzians are Turks, though of the Christian Orthodox faith. Their language is close to Turkish and they relate very well to Türkiye. Türkiye traditionally perceives the Moldovan Gagauz as its brothers, develops political and cultural relations with the Gagauz autonomy.
Under the current law “On special legal status of Gagauzia”, “in case the status of Moldova as an independent state changes, the people of Gagauzia have the right for external self-determination.”
However, this law can be repealed by Moldovan Parliament if three fifths of elected members of Moldovan Parliament vote for it.
In December, the deputy from the Moldovan ruling party PAS Oazu Nantoi stated that the ruling party could abolish the special status of Gagauzia.
Former Minister of Defense of Moldova Anatol Salaru agreed with him. He accused the Gagauz of working for Moscow and hinted that Gagauz who disagree with the actions of Chisinau could be deported from Moldova.
“The Gagauz came to our land, they did not bring it with them and cannot take it with them to Russia,” the politician said. “All politicians, local leaders and other influential people at the district level who wait for the Russian world, cannot do without Putin and hate the Romanian language and Romanians in Moldova have only one way out – a suitcase, a train station and a good road to the Russian world.”
In turn, the deputy from People’s Assembly of Gagauzia (local parliament) called to turn to Russia and Türkiye “with a request to support the rights of Gagauzia by all possible diplomatic methods.”
The political crisis in Moldova, the actualization of the pro-Romanian nationalist narrative by the Moldovan authorities is destabilizing the situation in the region. A new conflict could erupt in the Northern Black Sea region or the broken balance of power could lead to a nuclear escalation within the existing Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
Western countries and NATO and the EU as supranational structures are pushing Ukraine, Moldova and Romania to take radical actions. However, it is in the interest of the peoples of the region that red lines are not crossed. Türkiye plays a special role in the Black Sea region. It is now the only pillar of stability. Türkiye has natural interests both in Ukraine and in the Republic of Moldova. Türkiye will not be able to remain indifferent if the rights of the Gagauz Turks are violated. The diplomatic skills of Turkish diplomats and Ankara’s position largely determine whether an uncontrolled escalation in the Northern Black Sea region can be avoided and whether a just and peaceful solution to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict can subsequently be found.