From the United States, the small, failed state of Moldova seems distant and irrelevant. The disputed election of a new Communist government headed by an ethnic Russian, Vladimir Voronin, produced anti-Communist rioting at the beginning of this month. Moldova seemed to embody, if more appropriately, Neville Chamberlain's infamous description, at the time of Munich, of the controversy between Sudeten Germans and then-Czechoslovakia: "a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing."
Yet, as with the Sudetenland affair of 71 years ago, Moldova merits a closer look, and from Kosovo and other troubled countries nearby, the events in Moldova appear to be serious warnings of future crises.
Street violence in Moldova was blamed by Voronin on neighboring Romania, which the Communist politician accused of an attempted revolution and annexation. Nevertheless, allegations of misconduct in the Moldovan vote have now produced a promise to recount the ballots. With his anti-Bucharest rhetoric, Voronin served as a puppet of Vladimir Putin, the Muscovite tsar-dictator. But Voronin's rants were historically perverse. In reality, Moldova is overwhelmingly Romanian in language and culture, and was ripped off from its western neighbor in 1940, as a consequence of the Stalin-Hitler pact. The existence of Moldova as a separate country represents the last unresolved item from the dark period of the dictators' pact. The Baltic states, which were also handed over to Stalin under the agreement with Hitler, have, of course, been free of Russian imperialism since 1991.
The rule of Stalin and his Communist successors in Moldova featured numerous bizarre elements of Sovietization. The Moldovans were forced to write Romanian in the Cyrillic rather than the Latin alphabet, and were taught as children that they were a separate nation from the Romanians. In another typical byproduct of Stalinism, the substantial Jewish population--mainly remembered today for their victimization in the bloody pogrom in Chisinau (Kishinev), now the capital, in 1903--was systematically undercounted. The survival of the Yiddish language in the former Soviet republic was ignored.
Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was reluctant to give up control over Moldova, notwithstanding its geographical separation from Russia, with the immensity of Ukraine between them. In 1990, simultaneous with the Yugoslav "experiment" in declaring "Serb Republics" inside Croatia, the so-called "Transnistria" was set up in eastern Moldova, where Russian-speakers claimed a majority. The pattern was repeated last year in the phony recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, accompanying the Russian invasion of Georgia. It was no coincidence, as Soviet politicians once habitually said, that Putin included Transnistria with South Ossetia and Abkhazia when he proclaimed their alleged independence.
The Moldovans, after 1991, responded to persistent Russian blandishments with small but significant measures indicating where their hearts and heads lay--westward. They adopted a flag almost identical with that of Romania, abandoned the Cyrillic alphabet, and raised the status of Yiddish, with television and other media in that language. But Moldova was destined to suffer isolation and misery. Notwithstanding Russian propaganda, Romania did little for its ethnic relatives, claiming that the existence of two Romanian-speaking members of the United Nations was better than one. Moldova became infamous as an exporter of women to brothels throughout Europe.
The new election of an outright Communist government was bound to stimulate discontent among Moldovan youth, who have never known the harsh realities of Slavic rule. But once again, in Eastern Europe the long-established historical paradigm defines reality. With apparent contempt for the flirtation with Moscow offered by the Obama administration, Putin and his gang are bent on firming up control over their former possessions and neighbors. A Communist regime in Moldova was merely a step, according to regional critics of Putin's intentions, toward a long-expected assault on independent Ukraine. And it was probably no coincidence that the upheaval in Moldova paralleled Moscow's assertion that Chechnya has been pacified. Chechnya borders Georgia, and many observers believe that Putin is preparing another attack on the latter country, later this year, perhaps crossing the Chechen area.
Meanwhile, down in Kosovo--whose independence was used as a spurious argument in Russian backing of South Ossetia and Abkhazia--Serbian aggression against the new republic continues. This month marks the tenth anniversary of the NATO bombing of Serbia, ending Belgrade's terror against two million Kosovar Albanians. While Montenegro, which historically trumpeted that it was more Serbian than Serbia, and Macedonia, also with a Slav majority, have both recognized Kosovo, Serbia remains stuck in its fantasy of recovering the territory, and refuses to recognize Kosovo's freedom. Defying the Kosovar authorities, Serbian president Boris Tadic crossed the border into Kosovo on April 17, claiming he wished to make a religious pilgrimage to the Serbian monastery of Decan on Orthodox Good Friday, even as Serbia presented a petition at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, against Kosovar liberty.
Predictably, European and UN officials in Kosovo, as well as the maladroit U.S. embassy personnel in Prishtina, pressured the Kosovars to allow Tadic's visit. Albanian activists rushed to the border crossing of Merdare to protest the Serb politician's expected entry by motorcade. I followed and watched--but NATO authorities helped Tadic dodge the Kosovars by providing him with a helicopter, as well as an armed guard.
In the frontline of opposition to revived Russian aggression, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kosovo are key players, inhabited by peoples who despise Putin and are also ready to fight for the freedoms they have gained in the past 20 years. Is Moldova worth American engagement? Probably not. But the likelihood that President Obama will abandon our commitment to place missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic would send the worst possible message to Moscow. Russian expansionism has gained new life, regardless of the blows of the global economic crisis. It can no more be ameliorated by diplomacy than can the threat of Iran and other extreme Islamist enemies of democracy, or the radical leftist upsurge in Latin America.
Let us hope that future historians do not look back at the events in Moldova and judge that obliviousness about such remote issues led us to new and worse appeasement. In the case of Moldova, we need to know now what Putin and his co-conspirators, including those in Serbia, intend, and to prepare for committed opposition to their brutal adventurism.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.