Moldovan Ambassador to the United States Igor Munteanu spoke at Drexel University Oct. 28, lecturing on the precarious position of many states in Eastern Europe, where Russia competes for influence with the European Union and NATO.
He discussed how Moldova has been partially occupied by Russian troops supporting a separatist movement since 1992, likening his country’s situation to those of Ukraine and Georgia, which also face a tense military standoff with Russia. More positively, he reported Moldova is making very fast progress toward joining the EU. The event was jointly organized by the Drexel Student Alliance of the United Nations Association and the University of Pennsylvania’s International Relations Undergraduate Student Association.
The former Socialist Soviet Republic, landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It has faced conflict over its eastern boundary ever since, with separatists claiming a sovereign Transnistria. This disputed territory largely follows the borders of historic Bessarabia, a region partitioned between then-communist Moldova and Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1940. The conflict has ethnic dimensions; Moldova has Romanian as its official language, though recognizing Russian, whereas the Transnistrian government gives the two languages equal status.
“Everything that is geopolitical is of big interest to the United States,” the ambassador said when interviewed. He explained that global events are too influential and that, whether we take not of them or not, they will affect the United States.
Ivan Skakun, a graduate accounting student from Moldova, praised the economic development work the U.S. has done there. “I noticed how much the United States was helping out Moldova,” he said, pointing out a highway between Soroca and the capital city of Chisinau that was built with American funds. He believes American aid has become more effective over time. “Before, they would just throw in the loan. … Today, they have an actual agent,” he said.
Munteanu was dismissive of the Transnistrian separatists as an obstacle to progress. “This is an internal conflict. … I believe that the region of Transnistria will be part of Moldova because it is the Europe part of our statehood and there is no, really, kind of distinction between the population of the region and the rest of the population of Moldova,” he said.
The ambassador received his top diplomatic position when a political coalition favoring closer ties to the EU came to power in 2010. In that spirit the country has signed favorable customs and immigrations treaties with the EU, and Munteanu expects those will help resolve the “frozen” Transnistrian conflict as well.
“We try to defreeze it gradually by integrating the economy of the region into Moldova and by integrating the citizens of Moldova who are residing, who are living in the region,” Munteanu said. “Just to give an example, the biomedical passports issued by the government of Moldova which allows citizens to travel freely to Europe is very popular among Transnistrian population, because they want to get such a benefit. … In addition to that the business of Transnistria, this small region, is very much integrated with the European Union market and almost 80 percent of exports from the region of Transnistria goes to Europe, through Moldova.”
This does not mean Moldova is not rattled by the Russian annexation of Crimea at Ukraine’s expense in March. “Of course I worry. …We call it a threat to the region … because there is always a concern when countries settle their issues and relations by military force. That was the case of Crimean peninsula, which was taken and occupied by the Russian Federation against the existing international law. This is a very brutal infringement upon the provisions of international law and the UN charter. The fact that the political conflicts [degraded] into military hostilities, at least in part of Ukraine, is largely shame and blame to the Russian Federation,” he said.
As far as Munteanu is concerned, the path forward for Moldova is clear. “I think that global integration is one of the greatest offers to the Moldovan people. … The benefits of being neighbors to the European Union are quite high, but we are not only neighbors to the European Union; we are Europeans.”
Though Moldova may seem an unlikely candidate, being one of the poorest countries in Europe, he pointed out the inspiring example of Slovakia. Fifteen years ago, it was in a similar position, but is now an EU member.
He expects Moldova will formally apply for membership in late 2015. Nor will it be the last dark horse candidate to do so. “All the previous enlargement waves to the European Union were quite successful, in fact, provided incentives for tremendous historical transformations,” Munteanu said.
Although Munteanu has an academic background, the presentation was as much a pitch for Moldova as it was an academic lecture. He began by explaining Moldova’s linguistic, historical and geographic background, “Moldova — an inseparable part of Europe.”
After Moldova’s “traumatic birth,” Munteanu explained, the country has changed to meet the standards set by international organizations. He perceives Russian support of Transnistria as an economic punishment for independence.
Moldavia was then focused on heavy industry and the breakaway region contained nearly half of it. The ambassador outlined parallels with Ukraine: the Donbas region, in which an armed rebellion against the central government is taking place, is home to much of that country’s industry. He also rejects the Russian rhetoric of “returning” the Crimea, “What is to be returned if territory belongs to a different state?”
In Ukraine, “green men” in military uniforms with no distinguishable national emblems were the precursors of the Russian annexation. This is exactly what happened in Transnistria, Munteanu said, green men stoked up a dispute between regional leaders and the central government; war was created by outside intervention.
Munteanu also discussed the “competing narratives” in Eastern Europe. One side suggests overcoming the Soviet legacy by integrating with the West, while the other calls for preserving the traditional spheres of influence under a “Pax Russia.” He attributes to the second view to imperialism. To Russia “they are synonymous; Soviet Union heritage and Russian tsarist heritage.” In contrast, the EU speaks in terms of “common spaces” rather than spheres of influence, recognizing that its members are part of many different international organizations.
The ambassador seemed almost to smile when he discussed the way that, in his opinion, Russia is clouding its ambitions. He summed up the Russian policy as “We have to get a right to protect compatriots abroad. Doesn’t matter if they are Russians or not.” He pointed to the Russian practice of granting expedited citizenship to certain people as a means to create Russian citizens abroad needing protection. He also spoke against Russia’s claim of a “responsibility to protect,” a principle invoked by NATO during its intervention in the Yugoslav wars, reminding the audience of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
To Munteanu, the whole Transnistrian situation is a tool that Russia uses to prevent Moldovan integration with the EU, as though Russia were saying, “Don’t go there because Transnistria is still here.” He doubts the fundamental legitimacy of a separatist claim, “There is a critical gap between the political demand and the economic changes [in Transnistria].”
Regarding the Moldovan people’s ambivalence about further integration, as measured in surveys, he blamed Russian-media influence and the fact that integration talks are frequently of a highly technical nature. “Showing the benefits of integration takes time,” he said. “Visa-free [movement across borders] was one of the most important objectives and we delivered.”
Finally, he advised the audience members about the flashpoints in Eastern Europe, telling them not to expect stability would return on its own. “You have to intervene and you have to intervene wisely,” he said, placing distinct emphasis on the last word. “It’s better to have a cold war than a real war.”
“That’s really frank talk from a diplomat,” Daniel Friedheim, a former professor of political science at Drexel with extensive diplomatic experience, said. Friedheim played a key role in coordinating the event. The audience asked more questions than he had time to answer. Most notably, a discussion of Moldava’s well-known wine industry erupted, though Munteanu cautioned that the Moldovan information technology sector is now as big as agriculture — on his recent trip to Silicon Valley, he was pleased to note the presence of two Moldovan companies.
President of DSA-UNA Ann Marie Hager, a political science senior, was happy about the event.“The turnout was bigger than expected,” she said.
“[Munteanu] did an amazing job,” Skakun said. “This is probably the most brief and up-to-the-point presentation [I have seen].” He said Moldovans “are finally being integrated in European life.”