Opinion | Moldova Is a Cautionary Tale for Ukraine

By Equipo
8 Min Read

More and more people, including Pope Francis, are asking Ukraine to drop its defense and sit at the negotiation table with Russia. Citing the stalemate on the battlefield and Russia’s superior resources, they urge Ukraine’s leadership to consider a deal. What exactly that would involve is largely left unsaid. But it would clearly involve freezing the conflict, resigning Ukraine’s occupied territory to Russia in exchange for an end to the fighting.

My country, Moldova, knows all about that kind of bargain. A small western neighbor of Ukraine, Moldova experienced Russia’s first post-Soviet war of aggression, which ended with a cease-fire agreement in 1992. Thirty-two years later, 1,500 Russian troops are still stationed on internationally recognized Moldovan territory, despite the Kremlin’s formal agreement to withdraw them in 1994 and then once again in 1999. The case shows that Russia simply cannot be trusted.

But there’s a bigger problem for Ukraine than Russian untrustworthiness. It’s that freezing a conflict, without a full peace deal, simply does not work. For three decades, it has fractured Moldova, hindered national development and given Russia continued opportunities to meddle with Moldovan life. A frozen conflict, we should remember, is still a conflict. Anyone calling for Ukraine to settle for one should heed Moldova’s cautionary tale.

The ground for the Russian-Moldovan war was Transnistria, a strip of land in eastern Moldova with about 370,000 people. With support from Moscow — but no formal recognition — the territory declared independence from Moldova in 1990, setting off violence that escalated into conflict. Russian-backed separatists clashed with government security forces, and troops from both sides fought each other. Hundreds of people died. Russia stopped providing Moldova with gas, leaving people in cities to freeze in their apartments and cook their food outside on bonfires.

After four intense months of fighting, a cease-fire deal was signed in the summer of 1992 by President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and his Moldovan counterpart, Mircea Snegur. It established a security zone to be patrolled by so-called peacekeeping forces, effectively locking Moldova out of Transnistria. For 30 years, Transnistria has maintained a separate government, set of laws, flag and currency — all under Russian protection. Moldova has never recognized Transnistria’s independence, nor has any other member of the United Nations.

The self-proclaimed republic hasn’t fared well. It has become known for its arms and drug smuggling and a poor human rights record. Dissenters are persecuted and independent journalists are detained; last summer an opposition leader was found shot dead at home. Most of the region’s economy is dominated by a single company, Sheriff, founded by a former K.G.B. agent.

Transnistria cleaves Moldova in two. On the left bank of the Dniester River, in democratic Moldova, there is a free press in Romanian, the official language of the country, along with Russian and other minority tongues. On the right bank, in autocratic Transnistria, the media is controlled by the authorities, who use it to transmit Russian propaganda.

Perhaps the starkest division is in education. Above Transnistrian schools, the Russian and Transnistrian — but not Moldovan — flags are mounted. There, as well as in the press, Romanian is written in Cyrillic rather than Latin script, just as it was in the Soviet Union. In history classes, pupils learn that ethnic Romanians on the right bank of the Dniester are fascists who want to kill them. With limited education and meager work opportunities, most young people leave the region after they graduate.

Some of them go to Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. But being in Russia’s sphere of influence has forestalled Moldova’s economic development. While Moldova used to export wines, fruits and vegetables to Russia, following the Soviet trade model, Moscow traded mainly gas and oil.

The Kremlin has always weaponized these commercial relations. In 2006, Moscow placed an embargo on Moldovan produce after Moldova refused to accept a Russian-devised federalization plan. The Kremlin came up with new bans on imports in the run-up to Moldova signing an association agreement with the European Union in 2014 and again after Moldova became an E.U. candidate country in 2022.

Similarly, Moscow has exploited Moldova’s reliance on it for energy. By signing contracts only at the last minute, reducing gas supplies ahead of winter and threatening to stop deliveries, Moscow exerts considerable control over the country. While Europe invests in good governance and infrastructure in Moldova, Russia has invested only in propaganda and agents of influence, fueling corruption, division and instability.

Russia has played on fears of renewed conflict since the 1990s. Since the invasion of Ukraine, those efforts have gone into overdrive. Rumors about Transnistria requesting Russian annexation and false reports of attacks in the region are common. Kremlin officials repeatedly threaten Moldova and claim it is a second Ukraine, adding to the anxiety people already feel living next door to a full-blown war.

This is a particularly bad year for Moldova to be under such pressure. In October, Moldovans will vote for their next president, as well as in a referendum on joining the European Union. With accession negotiations set to open this year, Moldova is looking to move closer to Europe. But Russia won’t let it go lightly.

For Moldovans, the war in Transnistria is a wound, constantly picked at in books and films. “Carbon,” released in 2022, is a good example. Set during the war in 1992, the film centers on a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and his younger neighbor who wants to enroll in the Moldovan volunteer troops. On the way, they discover a carbonized body, which could be from either side of the conflict. They try, often comically, to find out its identity and provide it with a dignified burial.

Based on a true story and made by a crew with personal connections to Transnistria, the film broke national box office records. Mariana Starciuc, the scriptwriter, summed up the subtext. “Transnistria,” she said, “is the root for all of our problems for the past 30 years.”

Today her words ring truer than ever. It is because of the frozen conflict that Moldova is still under Russian influence, with its constant threats and endless jeopardy. Yet Moldovans fear escalation not because we haven’t sat down at negotiation tables with Russians but because we have, and the result was deeply damaging. Ukraine must not make the same mistake.

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