Editor's Note: Occasionally, circumstances demand that Stratfor break from its usual format and examine geopolitical issues in new ways. This essay, reflecting on history and geopolitics through personal experiences in two Eurasian borderland capitals, reveals the distinctions and uniformity that can occupy the same space in defiance of seeming logic. It is drawn from the notes of Eurasian analyst Eugene Chausovsky, who just returned from a trip through the region he describes.
As the standoff between Russia and the West continues over the fate of Ukraine, a similar but subtler competition is taking place in two of Ukraine's smaller neighbors in the Eurasian borderlands. Like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus have long been coveted by Russia and Europe, and the competition over them has never been limited to politics. Russian and European influence touches virtually all aspects of life in each country. As much as today's incarnation of the age-old East-West rivalry is visible in the headlines, its historical effects are evident throughout the streets.
For instance, on a walk down the Bulevardul Stefan cel Mare si Sfint, the main street of Moldova's capital, Chisinau, one finds oneself in a distinctly European atmosphere. It is pleasant and narrow for a central thoroughfare, shaded by large oak trees and lined with outdoor cafes. Several small parks and gardens line the street, where pedestrians can stroll and peruse the open-air stalls selling souvenirs, books and artwork. Over the street hang three flags — the red, yellow and blue Moldovan national flag, the white flag of Chisinau and the Council of Europe flag, blue with yellow stars.
The architectural landmarks are also distinctly European. Chisinau City Hall is an attractive yellow and white stone building designed in an Italian Gothic style. The Mihai Eminescu national theater, named for the Romanian romantic poet born in old Moldavia, rests on rustic Corinthian columns. The Triumphal Arch, a 12.8-meter-high (42-foot-high) white stone monument, is much more modest than the one in Paris but still regal and charming in its own way. There is the monument to Stephen the Great, a 15th century Moldavian prince and the country's national hero (shared with Romania), for whom the street is named.
Compare this to a walk down Prospect Nezalezhnasti, the main boulevard in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, where little seems to have changed since Soviet rule. There is no classical European architecture on this sprawling street. The city was leveled during World War II and rebuilt with large Soviet apartment blocks and sterile administration buildings, all five or six stories in height. These tower ominously over the sidewalks, where trees and pedestrians are made to feel small.
The street's landmarks complement this atmosphere. On one end of the boulevard, in Victory Square, one finds a large obelisk monument to the Soviet victory in Word War II, surrounded by light posts adorned with red stars. Farther down, one comes to a vast open square leading to the daunting Palace of the Republic, with its gray and austere rectangular columns and severe angularity. The street ends at Independence Square, another immense space lined with monotonous Soviet-era government buildings. Here a large bust of Lenin guards the presidential library, another ominous, cubic building still adorned with Soviet insignia.
The differences between these two streets — Bulevardul Stefan cel Mare and Prospect Nezalezhnasti — are more than aesthetic. They reflect the broader cultural and political dichotomy between modern-day Moldova and Belarus. The Moldovan government is oriented toward the West and wants to integrate further with Europe through membership in the European Union. Belarus, by comparison, is oriented eastward and is strongly allied with Russia on political and security matters. It is also a strong advocate of Russia's own integration bloc, the Eurasian Union.
The contrast between Moldova and Belarus is not trivial. The two countries currently find themselves on opposite sides of the crisis in Ukraine, a divergence born of their respective post-Soviet evolutions and from cultural and political influences that existed long before the ongoing unrest erupted in Ukraine.
Historically a part of Romania, Moldova did not yet have an independent identity when it was absorbed by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. Russia suppressed Romanian culture and promoted wide-scale Russification. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova returned to its historical roots, witnessing a revival of the Romanian language and the Latin alphabet at the expense of Russian and the Cyrillic script. The country transitioned to a market economy, initially generating rapid inflation but stabilizing over time. It also transitioned to a parliamentary democracy — a chaotic political evolution marked by perennial changes to the government.
Moldovan foreign policy has been relatively stable over the past few years, with the government dominated by the Alliance for European Integration, a coalition of parties that favors closer relations with the European Union. In 2009, after nearly a decade of Communist rule (largely unreformed since the Soviet era), Moldovans threw their support behind a government that looks west rather than east. The Alliance for European Integration, which has since been changed to a like-minded ruling entity known as the Pro-European Coalition, has opened negotiations with Brussels over association and free trade agreements — the very deals that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich rejected — which it will sign in June. The Moldovan government has criticized Russian actions in Crimea and supports the new Western-backed government in Kiev.
Belarus, a Slavic state, is much closer to Russia culturally. Most of the country still speaks Russian, even more so than the Belarusian language. An affinity toward the Soviet era, when Russian culture and language was emphasized over indigenous traditions and tongues, has persisted. Moreover, Belarus has yet to meaningfully reform its Soviet-era political and economic system. The government is still highly centralized under a strong executive, with a largely ineffective parliament. One leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled the country for more than 20 years. The president has had no appetite for Western integration, seeing the European Union as a threat to his rule, maintaining instead strong economic and military ties with Moscow. Rather than opposing Russian actions in Ukraine, Belarus has provided Russia an air base as a means of fortifying its Russian and Belarusian defenses, projecting power against Ukraine and any further Western encroachment.
Therefore, just as Moldova has sought to integrate more closely with the European Union in response to the Ukraine crisis, Belarus has drifted closer to Russia. And as the standoff between Russia and the West has intensified, so too has the polarization of the rival blocs to which Belarus and Moldova belong.
Juxtaposition and Contradiction
As in all borderland countries, Moldova's orientation toward the West and Belarus' toward Russia are not as clear-cut as they may appear. Attitudes within these nations are more complex than current government policies indicate, just as the main streets in Chisinau and Minsk paint only part of the picture.
Indeed, just a few streets away from Stefan cel Mare in Chisinau, the atmosphere changes dramatically. Outside the city center, the same sort of Soviet apartment blocks that dominate Minsk abound. And while the Latin script is predominant on the main street, many of the signs elsewhere in the capital remain written in Cyrillic. Venture outside Chisinau and Russia's remaining influence is more evident. Just 70 kilometers (44 miles) away, in fact, the breakaway territory of Transdniestria is not only dominated by Soviet-era architecture but also policed and protected by Russian troops. The only language used is Russian, and the vast majority of people want nothing to do with the European Union.
Similarly, though Russian and Soviet influence is evident throughout Minsk, just a few streets away from Prospect Nezalezhnasti one encounters the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary, constructed in the Baroque style. The cathedral was built in 1710, when Belarus was an integral part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and when Polish culture was predominant in Minsk. The church, along with many others in the country, reminds one that Belarus was firmly under European cultural and political control just 200 years ago.
Despite its strong orientation toward Russia, modern-day Belarus is still subject to European influence. Just 30 kilometers from the Belarusian border is Vilnius, Lithuania's capital and a fully European city. Lithuania, which ruled Belarus for centuries — first as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — is now firmly within the Western orbit as an enthusiastic member of both the European Union and NATO. Consequently, it is also home to many Western-backed Belarusian opposition parties and activist groups. The Lithuanian government has been a forceful advocate for bringing Belarus and other borderland states closer to the European Union, and it favors supplanting the Belarusian regime. Lukashenko's grip over Belarus may be strong, but Yanukovich's ouster shows what is possible.
These juxtapositions highlight complex, oft-contradicting political and cultural elements pervasive in modern-day Moldova and Belarus. As in Ukraine, they result from the perpetual contest between Russia and Europe for influence in Eurasian borderlands. The current standoff is merely the latest chapter in this competition. Each country's history — and thus its architecture, culture and politics — has been shaped by both Russia and Europe. And if history is any guide, the current orientation of each country toward one side or the other is by no means absolute.