Konstantin Chernenko, predominant ethnic group, Dniester River, feudal state, local referendum
For most of its history, the majority of the territory that constitutes present-day Moldova was the region of Bessarabia, the eastern half of the historic principality of Moldavia. The name Bessarabia derives from a medieval prince, Basarab I, who at one time ruled the southern part of the region. The principality of Moldavia encompassed Bessarabia but extended west to the Siret River near the Carpathian Mountains. From north to south it stretched from the region of Bukovina to the Black Sea. Along with the principality of Walachia to the southwest, Moldavia was one of two principal regions inhabited by Romanian-speaking peoples (sometimes known as Vlachs).
In the mid-13th century Hungarian expansion had driven many Vlachs to settle south and east of the Carpathian Mountains. Legend suggests that in the 14th century Prince Dragos of Transylvania (then a Hungarian province) founded Moldavia and named it after a small mountain stream that his forces crossed upon entering the area. In about 1359 Bogdan I ruled the first independent Moldavian principality described in historical records. Moldavia was bordered to the southwest by Walachia, a feudal state that Basarab had unified in about 1310. Poland and Hungary lay to Moldavia’s north, often exerting some control over Moldavian princes. The Moldavians had to defend their eastern border against the Tatars and their southern border against the Ottoman Empire. During the late 15th century Moldavia came under increasing pressure from the Ottomans. Despite military victories by Stephen the Great, who ruled from 1457 to 1504, Moldavia ultimately succumbed and had to submit to the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1599 Michael the Brave, a Walachian prince, led a revolt against the Ottomans and united Moldavia, Walachia, and Transylvania (a third principality where Romanian speakers lived). However, following Michael’s assassination in 1601, the previous divisions reappeared, with the Ottomans regaining control of Moldavia and Walachia and Hungary taking Transylvania. The differentiation between the eastern and western parts of Moldavia, with the eastern half often identified as Bessarabia, began around this time.
Russia annexed the region of Bessarabia after the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812 as part of the Treaty of Bucharest, leaving a greatly reduced Moldavia still under Ottoman domination. The Ottomans gradually relinquished control of Moldavia to Russia as well. With Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Moldavia and southern Bessarabia gained independence from the Ottoman Empire and Russia, and the two regions joined again. Moldavia united with independent Walachia in 1859, when assemblies of both principalities elected a single leader, Alexandru Ion Cuza, as their prince. The united principalities assumed the name Romania in 1862.
Romania’s territorial integrity did not last long. In 1878 Russia regained southern Bessarabia, and the region remained part of the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution of 1917. In March 1918, toward the end of World War I, the legislature of Bessarabia voted in favor of unification with Romania. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1920, the United States, France, Britain, and other Western countries officially recognized Bessarabia’s incorporation into Romania.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which was founded in 1922 under Russian leadership, did not accept the unification of Bessarabia with Romania. In 1924 Soviet authorities established the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) east of the Dniester River, within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). The Soviet government used the Moldavian ASSR as a base for agitation to pressure Bessarabia to reunify with the USSR. The Ukrainian town of Balta was the capital of the Moldavian ASSR until 1929, when the capital was transferred to Tiraspol.
In August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the USSR acquired Bessarabia as a result of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which divided Central and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Soviet forces occupied Bessarabia in June 1940. In August the Soviet government proclaimed the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and abolished the Moldavian ASSR. The new Moldavian republic included the central portion of Bessarabia and the Trans-Dniester region, a narrow slice of territory east of the Dniester River that had been part of the Moldavian ASSR. Chisinau (Russian Kishinev) was named the capital of the new republic. The remainder of Bessarabia, including its southern section that bordered the Black Sea, was merged into the Ukrainian SSR. In 1941 Romania, an ally of Nazi Germany, declared war on the USSR and reclaimed Bessarabia with German military assistance. Soviet forces reoccupied the territory in 1944 and formally reestablished the Moldavian SSR.
After World War II, Soviet policy in the Moldavian SSR was devoted to integrating the republic’s economy, politics, and culture into the Soviet Union. Private ownership of land was abolished, and the state established collective and state farms on expropriated farmland. The Moldavian SSR remained predominantly rural throughout the Soviet period, although new industries were introduced in urban areas. Russians, who were officially encouraged to settle in the republic, became the predominant ethnic group in the cities. Although no official language was ever named in the republic, Russian was the preferred language in government, business, and education. The Soviet government attempted to negate the Moldavian SSR’s cultural ties with Romania. This was most evident in the Soviet language policy, which maintained that the language of ethnic Moldovans was entirely separate from the Romanian language. To reinforce this idea, the Soviets mandated that the Moldovan language switch from the Latin to the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Communist Party of Moldavia (CPM), a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), was the only party legally allowed to function in the republic. Two future leaders of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, held prominent positions in the CPM during the early part of their careers; neither of the two leaders were ethnic Moldovans. Brezhnev served as first secretary (leader) of the CPM from 1950 to 1952, and Chernenko was head of the party’s propaganda department from 1948 to 1956. After Brezhnev’s term, the leadership of the CPM was given over to ethnic Moldovans, who faithfully followed the official course set by the CPSU. The Moldavian SSR was among the more conservative republics of the USSR.
In the mid-1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced political and economic reforms that fostered the formation of quasi-political groups in the USSR. In the Moldavian SSR, several such groups emerged in the late 1980s but were denied legal status. In May 1989 these groups allied to form the Popular Front of Moldova (PFM). In June an estimated 70,000 people attended an anti-Soviet demonstration organized by the PFM. This was followed by large demonstrations in Chisinau in support of a government proposal to make Romanian the official language. A majority of the Ukrainians, Russians, and other ethnic minorities in the republic opposed the proposal, which was amended as a result. Under pressure from the PFM, the republic’s Supreme Soviet (legislature) in August 1989 declared Romanian the official language of Moldavia. Russian was to remain the language of interethnic communication.
In the Trans-Dniester region, where Russians and Ukrainians make up slightly more than half of the population, the local authorities refused to enact the new language law. A political movement called Yedinstvo (Russian for “unity”), which was growing in several Soviet republics facing nationalist upheaval, formed in Moldavia to represent the interests of the republic’s Slavic minorities. Yedinstvo was particularly strong in Trans-Dniester. In January 1990 voters approved a local referendum advocating greater autonomy for the Trans-Dniester region. Tensions developed between ethnic Moldovans and the Russian speakers in Trans-Dniester and the Gagauz people in southern Moldavia. The tensions eventually escalated into secessionist movements in the eastern and southern portions of the republic. The Gagauz people in the south declared a separate Gagauz SSR in August, which was followed by a similar declaration in the Trans-Dniester region in September. Although the Moldavian Supreme Soviet annulled the declarations immediately, the two regions proceeded to hold local elections for their own newly created legislatures. Negotiations were held in Moscow in November, but the two secessionist groups and the Moldavian government failed to resolve the crisis.
Meanwhile, elections to the Moldavian Supreme Soviet took place in February 1990. Parties other than the CPM were not allowed to publicly support candidates in the election, although a number of independent candidates were openly sympathetic to the aims of the PFM. The new Supreme Soviet elected Mircea Snegur, a reform-oriented CPM member, as its chairperson. (Snegur became the first president of the republic in September, after that post was created.) Like many other reform-oriented ethnic Moldovan Communist leaders, Snegur shifted loyalty to the PFM as the strength of opposition to the Soviet regime grew. In June the Supreme Soviet changed the republic’s name from the Moldavian SSR to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. In the first major step toward secession from the USSR, the Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration of sovereignty later that month. The legislature also declared the Soviet Union’s annexation of Bessarabia in 1940 to have been illegal.
On May 23, 1991, the SSR of Moldova changed its name to the Republic of Moldova, and the Supreme Soviet was renamed the Parliament. On August 27, following a failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow led by Communist hardliners, Moldova declared its independence from the USSR. The Moldovan parliament banned the CPM, CPM members became members of the PFM, and the PFM officially took control of government. In December Moldova held direct presidential elections, and Snegur was elected unopposed. Also that month, Moldova joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose organization of former Soviet republics, amid the USSR’s disintegration into 15 successor states.
When Moldova became independent from the USSR, the PFM-led government under Prime Minister Mircea Druc began to advocate Moldova’s unification with Romania. Sporadic conflict occurred in the Trans-Dniester area in late 1991, as the secessionists consolidated control over the region. In early 1992 President Snegur authorized military action against the rebels. The secessionists, aided by a Russian Cossack contingent and the Russian army forces stationed in the region, retained control over the disputed area. In July a cease-fire agreement was reached, and a combined peacekeeping force of Russian, Moldovan, and Trans-Dniestrian troops was deployed in the region.
In June 1992, meanwhile, the PFM-dominated Council of Ministers resigned. The PFM, which had renamed itself the Christian Democratic Popular Front, had lost popular support for its policies advocating unification with Romania. Failed domestic initiatives also had eroded the party’s support. By August a new government was formed. It was led by the Agrarian Democratic Party (ADP)—composed mostly of former Communists—which opposed unification with Romania. President Snegur, who allied himself with the ADP, strongly supported this stance. The ADP favored closer relations with Russia and the other members of the CIS.
In February 1994 Moldova held its first multiparty elections to the Parliament. The ADP won the largest number of seats. A bloc of socialist parties won the next largest number. In April the legislature cemented Moldova’s status within the CIS by ratifying the 1991 agreement that established the organization. However, Moldova declared that it would not take part in CIS military or monetary alliances.
In July 1994 Moldova adopted its first post-Soviet constitution. The constitution reaffirmed Moldova’s status as an independent political and cultural unit and included provisions for the autonomy of the breakaway regions of Gagauz and Trans-Dniester. It also referred to the country’s official language as Moldovan, rather than Romanian. The Gagauz leadership and the Moldovan government quickly reached an agreement under which the Gagauz region was to enjoy broad powers of self-administration. Meanwhile, Snegur refused to meet the Trans-Dniester secessionists’ demands for recognition of Trans-Dniester as an independent state, and the dispute continued in that region. Also in 1994, the government reached an agreement with Russia to remove all Russian troops from the Trans-Dniester region within three years.
In December 1996 Moldova held its first multi-candidate presidential elections. Snegur, who had formed his own party, the Party of Rebirth and Conciliation of Moldova, resumed a pro-Romanian position and campaigned for more rapid reform. He was defeated in the elections by Petru Lucinschi, a former leader of the Communist Party of Moldova. Lucinschi advocated closer ties with Russia and pledged to work to resolve the Trans-Dniester issue. He also argued for more efficient government and less corruption.
Negotiations between the Moldovan government and the Trans-Dniester leadership, which had been frozen since mid-1996, resumed in 1997. In early May both sides signed a memorandum calling for the peaceful settlement of their conflict. According to the agreement, which was mediated by Russia, Moldova will retain its present borders, including Trans-Dniester. The document envisions a large degree of autonomy for Trans-Dniester and calls for future talks to determine the official status of the region. The complete removal of remaining Russian troops depends on the two sides reaching a mutually acceptable settlement. As of early 1999 this had yet to occur.
In parliamentary elections in March 1998, the reestablished Communist Party of Moldova won the largest number of seats. However, the CPM did not have a majority, and a coalition of parties, led by the centrist Bloc for a Democratic and Prosperous Moldova and the reformist Democratic Convention, formed a ruling majority. Ion Ciubuc was appointed prime minister that month. In February 1999 Ciubuc resigned, saying that parliament and the ruling coalition stymied his efforts at market reforms. The parliament appointed Ion Sturza to replace Ciubuc in March.
A power struggle between parliamentary deputies and President Lucinschi ended in 2000 when the Parliament voted to abolish direct presidential elections. However, in December 2000 the Parliament failed four times to elect a new president, so Lucinschi dissolved the Parliament and scheduled parliamentary elections for February 2001. In the elections the Communist Party won 71 of the 101 seats. In April 2001 the Parliament elected Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin as president.
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