Moldova stuck in limbo between its east and west

Drawn to both the EU and Russia, Chisinau may cosy up with Bucharest

"Dracula is watching us to make sure it happens." Bogdan Diaconu drags on yet another cigarette and smiles. The Romanian politician, president of the recently formed United Romania Party, chain smokes avidly as he enthuses about the reunification of Romania and Moldova.

Romania has long dreamed of reuniting with Moldova. The two were one from 1918-1940, until the latter handed the former to the Soviets in a carve-up agreed between Stalin and Hitler. But their ties go as far back as the 15th century, when Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampirical Count Dracula, helped his cousin Stephen the Great on to Moldova’s throne.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of reunification has sort of hung in the air. Now, Russia's neo-imperialist advances – not only to the east in Ukraine, but also in the Moldovan enclaves of Transdniestria and Gagauzia – have given the idea a shot in the arm.

It seems that Romania wants to assume the role of saviour to its vulnerable brothers across the Prut river. Liberal politician Ovidiu Raetchi, a member of a cross-party parliamentary group lobbying for unification, concedes that Romania's fellow EU members will take some convincing. But Germany, which was itself divided, should sympathise.

Anyway, he says, “it is our historical duty”.

Across Bucharest, graffitied messages proclaim Bessarabia to be Romanian. Bessarabia, roughly speaking, is Moldova’s historical name. More than three-quarters of Romanians want Bessarabia back. Activists are touting 2018 – a century on from the last union – as the year it will all happen.

This is all very well, but what do Moldovans think?

Soviet memorabilia

The Moldovan capital of Chisinau seems rather forlorn compared to bold Bucharest. On the hushed streets, you can hear both Romanian and Russian. Old ladies in headscarves sell daffodils in Romanian. A group of street traders sell Soviet memorabilia in Russian. Billboards and shopping centre announcements come in both languages.

In Moldova, it turns out, vampires really do exist. The country, already sucked dry by rampant corruption, is reeling after a banking swindle that cost it $1 billion, the equivalent of an eighth of its gross domestic product. In relative terms, it’s been called one of the greatest heists in history – all under the watch of a pro-EU government.

Pro-Moscow forces in Moldovan society are jubilant. But Moldovans were already at the end of their tether with the pro-EU coalition anyway, which has failed dismally to tackle corruption. Last year's EU Association Agreement is delivering little more than edicts on poultry sanitation right now. And integration? Pure science fiction.

A recent poll by the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldovan think tank, put support for the unlikely prospect of EU integration at 32 per cent, against 50 per cent who want to join Russia’s customs union. It’s clear the EU is losing the battle for hearts and minds. The country’s Russia-dominated media doesn’t have to work too hard to convince Moldovans what they really need is a good blast of strong-arm Russian leadership.

For Moldovans who don't believe in Russia, but have lost faith in the EU, there is an alternative: Romania.

In May, thousands took to the streets to call for unification with Romania. Young activist Anatolie Ursu says he sees Romania as an “escape door” – not only from Russia, but also from the ineptness of his own government. “It will take us too long to enter the EU. Romania is our only hope now,” he says. His pals nod enthusiastically.

Transdniestrian enclave

But, it seems like grasping at straws. For now at least, Moldovans – both Romanian- and Russian-speaking – are being pulled back into Moscow’s orbit. Unification seems unlikely, especially when the complications of an EU border and the frozen conflict in the Moldovan enclave of Transdniestria are taken into account.

“It’s a dream,” says Oazu Nantoi, a politician and political analyst, a dream that miraculously survived over five decades of Soviet oppression, but which has little relevance in today’s Moldova. The country’s real issue, he believes, is a lack of dignity. Moldova’s civil society is weak and afraid of change. Moving towards the EU, says Nantoi, seems like an “unsurmountable psychological challenge”.

It will be a long, hard pull for Moldova. And, while Dracula may be watching, it appears the country has enough vampires of its own. Ridding itself of the blood-suckers is Moldova’s most pressing challenge.