By Tony Barber
The Financial Times
White-haired, ruddy-faced, the monotonous fluency of his speech betraying his earlier career as a Soviet Communist party apparatchik, Vladimir Voronin has the glint of political battle in his eyes.
As he explained this week during a visit to Brussels, his adversary is Romania, the country that borders Moldova, of which he is president.
Mr Voronin was Soviet Moldavia’s interior minister in 1989 when the republic’s communist authorities used force to disperse thousands of anti-Soviet demonstrators in Chisinau, the capital.
Now Moldavia is Moldova, an independent but poor and fragile country of 4.3m people, vulnerable to pressure from Russia and Romania, its more powerful neighbours.
Mr Voronin, an ethnic Russian who became president in 2001, once pursued overtly pro-Russian policies. He adjusted his stance in 2003, largely because of Moscow’s support for Trans Dnestr, a separatist region of eastern Moldova inhabited mainly by Russians and Ukrainians.
If Moldova’s eastern, Russian problem refuses to go away, so too does its western, Romanian one.
In Brussels, Mr Voronin spoke forcefully about what he portrayed as a Romanian attempt to subvert Moldova’s independence.
“Romania doesn’t recognise our national identity. They don’t recognise a Moldovan ethnicity or Moldovan language. For them, there is no Moldovan history,” he told the Financial Times and two other reporters.
“Our relations are really difficult now with Romania. We understand that Romania is a European Union and Nato member, and we cannot afford to make political attacks on Romania. But we’ve discussed this with our European friends. More than that, I will send a message to all leaders of EU member-states in the next few days to explain the situation.”
The core of the issue is Moldovan identity. Many Romanians and foreign experts think there is practically no difference between a Romanian and a Moldovan in language and culture.
In its World Factbook, the US Central Intelligence Agency, which has no particular axe to grind on this subject, lists Moldova’s largest ethnic group as “Moldovan/Romanian, 78.2 per cent”.
The CIA also describes Moldovan as “virtually the same as the Romanian language”. Both entries neatly capture the difficulty of deciding if Moldovans are a nationality distinct from Romanians.
Much of modern Moldova fell under the Russian empire’s control in the 19th century, formed part of Romania between 1918 and 1940, and was under Soviet rule from 1945 to 1991.
In Mr Voronin’s view, Romania went beyond acceptable limits last week when its ambassador to Moldova said Bucharest would not sign a treaty recognising today’s Romanian-Moldovan frontier as delineated in a 1947 Soviet-Romanian accord.
For Moldova’s leaders, the implication was that Romania might one day lay claim to Moldovan territory. Mr Voronin said Romania was already undermining Moldovans’ identity by encouraging them to acquire Romanian passports.
“Some 10,000 Moldovan students study in Romania each year. After graduating in these institutions, the Moldovans come back with Romanian passports,” he said. “Moldovans can get Romanian citizenship on easy terms. For example, each of us can apply for Romanian citizenship by e-mail.”
However, asked if Romania might one day absorb Moldova, he strikes a defiant note. “No country has united with another one after joining the EU. It can’t be done. Moldova has existed for 650 years and will exist for at least another 6,500,” he told Moldovan TV last week.