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Moldova/Romania: Many Obstacles Still Prevent Unity

Romania and Moldova share a common language and heritage yet efforts to unite the countries, an option favored by many Moldovan citizens, face severe obstacles. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde traveled to Moldova recently and looks at historical and contemporary reasons for and against a union.

Chisinau, 23 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Romania elects a new president on Sunday, it won't be just Romanians who are doing the choosing.

As many as 30,000 Moldovans who hold dual Romanian citizenship are also expected to turn out at the polls.

Although Moldova forbids its nationals from holding dual citizenship, as many as 70,000 people, out of a population of more than 4 million, have acquired Romanian citizenship and can take part in the election.

The "Moldovan vote" is seen as so important by some Romanian politicians that they have even traveled to the country to solicit support.

The citizenship issue is only one of many ties that link the two neighbors and the issue of formally merging the countries is never far from the political agenda in the capital Chisinau.

Moldova and Romania share a common language and culture. Much of present-day Moldova was part of Romania until as recently as just before the Second World War, when it fell under the control of the Soviet Union.

The Romanian influence is still felt strongly in schools. Many Moldovan textbooks are printed in Bucharest, and children often return from their first days at school with phrases like: "My parents are Romanian, I live in Romania."

Nevertheless, our correspondent reports that the issue of a union with Romania remains controversial. This is particularly true among the large groups of non-Romanian speaking Moldovans in disputed areas around the country.

The most serious obstacle to union is probably Transdniester, a Slavic enclave in the southeast of the country. The area, which does not have historic ties to Romania, was attached to Moldova by Soviet officials after World War II.

About 2,600 Russian troops are still stationed in the mostly Russian-speaking region and a self-declared government there opposes the departure of the Russian army and any proposed link-up of the country with Romania.

Russia agreed last year to withdraw the troops before the end of 2002. But little has been done so far to put the agreement into practice.

Another autonomous territory, Turkic-speaking Gagauz in the south, is also opposed to union with Romania. Only the guarantee that Moldova will remain a separate country has managed to maintain peace there.

Boris Marian is the editor of the Russian-language newspaper "Independent Moldova." He says people aren't ready yet for serious talk of a merger with Romania:

"Union [with Romania] right now would be premature; in principle it could happen in 50 or 100 years, but the present population can't make the decision. Another generation should settle this problem. In Moldova, besides Moldovans, who are let's say 65 percent [of the population], there are other nationalities. We need to take into account the opinions of these people: Bulgarians, Gagauz, Ukrainians, and so on who are categorically opposed [to union with Romania]. Most Moldovans don't agree with this idea. If it happens now, it will mean civil war."

Parliamentary deputy Iurie Rosca, who heads the pro-union Moldovan Christian Democratic People's Party, sees the issue differently.

His party has 9 seats in the 101-seat parliament, a not insignificant indicator of the popularity of the idea of a union.

He tells our correspondent:

"I'm confident union will happen, and in the foreseeable future, and it will happen according to all democratic international norms, with the blessing of all the citizens of this state. There's no need to see a tragedy in the disappearance of a state, because it's well known Moldova never existed before, it was the accidental result of the destruction of the Soviet empire. The economy will improve, we will have a completely different standard of living approaching Western standards. I don't know who can object. It will be better for everyone -- who needs this banana republic?"

The desire for better living conditions is a strong motor for union, one that will only get stronger as Romania gets closer to membership in the European Union.

Although Romania is one of the poorer countries in Eastern Europe, it is still considered a better bet than Moldova, where conditions are even worse. When Romania became a formal candidate last year for EU membership, many Moldovans did not want to be left on the wrong side of the border.

Oazu Nantoi, from the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, says:

"[European Union membership] is the theoretical possibility to skip the queue for a visa to go somewhere to earn a living. One explanation why we are not yet part of Romania is because culture is a commodity which is not in demand at the moment. And if we talk about solving this problem of who we are, Moldovan or Romanian, the political solution of the problem can be only by way of Moldova's integration, parallel with Romania, in the European community."

One step toward closer ties is a bilateral treaty between the two. The text has been worked out and both sides have already initialed it.

One sticking point, though, is that Romania refuses relinquish claims to the pre-World War II borders. Parliaments in both countries must now ratify the text, and the border issue is expected to delay ratification in the Romanian parliament.