reflections

Apr 16, 2009 | 00:53 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Glimmers of Greater Romania?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on Wednesday said that talk of issuing Romanian passports to Moldovan citizens was "the best and clearest proof" that Romania wants to annex Moldova. Voronin was referring to Romanian President Traian Basescu’s remarks to the parliament in Bucharest, where he said he had asked for a legal change that would "speed up the process of regaining citizenship for those Romanians and their families who lost it abusively." Such a change essentially would give Romanian citizenship to Moldovans who have at least one Romanian grandparent — a criterion that would apply to up to 1 million people, or a quarter of Moldova’s population. For Romania, Moldova presents both strategic value and security liabilities. Its strategic value lies in geography and the fact that it buffers Romania against Russia. Romania, which shares its eastern borders with Ukraine and Moldova, joined NATO in 2004 — putting it squarely in the middle of the wider Russian-Western contest over Moscow's sphere of influence. The Russians have troops and significant political influence in territories claimed by both Ukraine and Moldova. The troop presence in Moldova’s breakaway Transdniestria region is particularly significant, since it places the frozen conflict in Moldova at Bucharest's very doorstep. Moscow could always reignite that conflict if it served the Kremlin’s interests — something Bucharest was reminded of by Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008. Like Russia, Romania also sees Moldova as a natural part of its sphere of influence. The Moldovan language is essentially the same as Romanian, and many Moldovans already hold Romanian citizenship. According to some estimates, as many as 800,000 others have filed passport applications. Furthermore, Moldova was part of the "Greater Romania" that existed between the first and second world wars. By (eventually) siding with the Allied Powers in World War I, Romania was granted new territories that included Moldova, but Moscow reasserted control of the region at the end of the World War II. But security risks for Romania also arise from Moldova. It is a haven for criminal groups trafficking drugs from Central Asia into Europe, and it is both a source and transit route for human smuggling operations. Because Romania is situated directly on the trafficking route to Europe, it must deal with the negative consequences of criminal activity in Moldova — and Bucharest has no power to address that problem at its roots. Meanwhile, Romania is using the opposition movement against Moldova's Communist government to wield influence — or at least build some up — in the region. For a long time, Romania was considered a laggard of the Balkans: It languished in relative isolation throughout the Cold War, while neighboring Yugoslavia played both sides of the conflict to its benefit. After democratic changes swept through the region, Bucharest again trailed behind a regional rival — this time Hungary, which joined NATO five years ahead of Romania, and became part of the European Union three years before. But Romania has the largest population in the Balkans — more than 21 million, more than twice the population of Hungary, the next-largest country in the region. Today, Romania too belongs to NATO and the European Union, putting it on par with its more advanced neighbors. And the collapse of Yugoslavia left behind several Lilliputian states that are incapable of competing on their own against Hungary and Romania. The field has been further leveled by the global financial crisis, which has struck particularly hard in Hungary. Romania certainly is not having an easy time either — both countries have received aid from the International Monetary Fund and the EU — but Romania at least is now seen as relatively comparable to the once much-praised Hungary. The question now is to what extent Romania is ready and willing to join the exclusive club of countries that create geopolitical realities on their own terms. To that point, Basescu followed up his comments about passports by concluding that if the Moldovan government continues to repress opposition protesters, "Romania will look into humanitarian aid and protection measures for people who are in physical danger." That kind of talk could be interpreted as a warning to the government in Chisinau that Romania is ready to step up and intervene in Moldova directly — potentially with force. The Kremlin’s perception of Basescu's comment will also be important. On one hand, Russia could see Romania as a rising regional player striving to advance its own interests, and it might look to bargain with Bucharest. But Moscow also might view Romania's meddling in Moldova as the opening of another front between the West and Russia, with Bucharest as a Western proxy. In that case, Russia would be much less accommodating to Romania's interests, and a clash could produce fireworks.

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