An interview realised by Victor Martin on 06/28/2022
Vincent Henry is a doctor in political science, a research associate at the LIPHA laboratory at the University of Paris-Est, and also teaches at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca (Romania). In 2021, he defended a thesis on the Republic of Moldova and its political transformation under the influence of the European Union after having devoted several research papers on Moldova and Romania.
Victor Martin (V.M) : We have seen that the war in Ukraine has had important consequences on the world economy and in particular on inflation, which is now breaking records. How are the countries of Southeast Europe affected by this economic and social crisis?
Vincent Henry (V.H) : The region is strongly affected by the economic consequences of the conflict in Ukraine. Moldova is undoubtedly the country most directly affected, on several levels: While the European Union has been its main trading partner for several years, trade with Ukraine and Russia remains important and has been strongly impacted by the war. Moldova has no direct access to the sea, so the port of Odessa played an important role for its exports and imports, it is now blocked. Moldova is almost totally dependent on Russia for energy and is extremely sensitive to any increase in energy prices, to any interruption in deliveries, Russia has a major means of pressure. It is interesting to recall that Moldova condemned the Russian aggression from the first day of the war but did not follow the European Union in imposing trade sanctions.
In addition, Moldova is the European country that has received the most refugees in proportion to its population, despite international support, which puts great pressure on Moldovan society, on public services and on an already fragile economy. All of these disruptions and the uncertainty that hangs over the country have led to very high inflation, at nearly 30%.
The Romanian and Bulgarian economies are less directly affected because trade is less, but both countries remain dependent on Russia for their gas and oil supplies, Bulgaria even more so than Romania. Both countries benefit from their status as members of the European Union, but their economies remain peripheral, they are not in the euro zone and do a lot of subcontracting for the large European economies. a slowdown has strong repercussions on the Bulgarian and Romanian economies. Inflation is already approaching 15% in these two countries and the states hardly have the means to support their populations.
V.M : Overall, has the war in Ukraine added tension and confrontation within the countries of the former USSR by pitting pro-Russians against pro-Ukrainians, or, on the contrary, has it helped to unite the populations in the face of a common threat? What are the common points? The differences?
V.H : Russia has long been perceived as a hostile power by the vast majority of the Romanian population. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unanimously condemned. The arrival of refugees and the fear of an extension of the conflict initially created a surge of national cohesion. This had important political consequences. Before the war, Romania was witnessing the rise of a virulent nationalist party, AUR (Alliance for the Unity of Romanians), against a background of general discontent with the political class, the current government and the deterioration of economic conditions, which were already very noticeable before the war began. The rise of AUR, a Eurosceptic party with an ambiguous position on Russia, was brutally curbed by the war.
However, after the initial shock, the main priority for Romanians is again the difficult economic situation.
In Moldova, the fear of destabilization or even invasion has made it very difficult for the parties that were in favour of Russia, especially Igor Dodon’s socialist party, and has, on the other hand, reinforced the popularity of President Maia Sandu.
Here again, the economic difficulties “allow” the opposition parties to get back into the game. We have seen recent demonstrations by the Șor party, a populist, rather pro-Russian party. The opposition’s angle of attack is criticism of the government’s overly Western stance and worsening economic conditions. However, no Moldovan political party has defended or justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Historically and culturally, the relationship between Bulgaria and Russia is close: the Russian Empire is still seen as the power that enabled Bulgaria to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire.
At the political level, the question of the relationship with Russia is an important marker. The parties that are openly pro-Russian and anti-Western are the ultra-nationalist parties, like Renaissance today.
Since the fall of the socialist regime, power has been shared between the centre-right parties, currently GERB and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The PSB has often been more favorable to Russia and Russian investments than its opponents. The GERB of former Prime Minister Boïko Borissov, used this argument for years to present itself as “pro-Western”. Of course, there are ambiguities in the positions of the PSB, but making it a “pro-Russian” party was mainly an electoral strategy. All governments have had to rely on Russia, they depend on it for energy and a large part of public opinion wants to keep strong links with this country. These are levers of pressure for Russia; Bulgaria was one of the first countries for which Russia stopped delivering gas in order to weaken the very pro-European government currently in power.
V.M : Could you remind us how Moldova and Transnistria were built, especially in relation to Romania and Russia? After the invasion of Ukraine, concerns have turned to Moldova and there is a possibility that Russia is trying to destabilize this country, especially using the separatist region of Transnistria. How credible do you think this threat is and how might it play out?
V.H : Moldova’s history is very complex. It emerged in the Middle Ages and remained independent before becoming a vassal of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
In 1812, the Russian armies, in their effort to push back the Ottoman influence, this “help” to the Romanian Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, had a cost: Russia annexed the eastern part of Moldavia. During the 19th century, this region was integrated into the Russian Empire under the name of Bessarabia, while at the same time, Western Moldavia and Wallachia finally united to create a modern and independent Romanian state. The Moldovans of Bessarabia did not participate in this phase of national construction. At the beginning of the 20th century, the rare protest movements in Bessarabia took place within the framework of the Russian empire to demand greater autonomy. During the First World War, Russia and Romania were allies until the outbreak of the 1917 revolution. The fate of Bessarabia then became very uncertain, at the end of the war and in the middle of the revolutionary chaos, the assembly of Bessarabia voted its union to Romania.
Romania was on the winning side of the war and agreed to most of its territorial claims. However, it faced the difficulty of integrating Bessarabia into the Romanian national project and modernizing a region that Russia treated as an agrarian colony. In 1940, the German-Soviet pact forced Romania to evacuate the territory, which fell under the control not of Russia but of the USSR.
Transnistria, on the other hand, is not historically part of Moldova, but it plays an important role in the history of the current Republic of Moldova.
During the interwar period, the USSR refused to recognize the union between Romania and Bessarabia, and instead tried to destabilize the region, first directly and then by creating a counter-model. The Soviets developed an autonomous Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic to the east of the Dniester, which marked the border with Greater Romania. It is a question of setting an example of Soviet development against Romania. This presupposes the development of heavy industry and the invention of a Moldovan identity that would be distinct from the Romanian identity. This identity was developed in particular by working on dialectal differences. Transnistria was thus the crucible of Soviet Moldovan identity, and even today the split between distinct Moldovan identity and Romanian identity is an essential political marker, which explains the persistence of the linguistic question in Moldova.
It is difficult today to assess the real risk that Transnistria represents. The Russian army is present there, although the pacification process conducted under the aegis of the OSCE provided for their departure in 2003. This Russian presence is nevertheless limited to 1,500 soldiers, assigned mainly to guarding a large arms depot, the real state of which is difficult to know. The secessionist republic of Transnistria has an army of 8,000 men, which would represent a significant threat to the modest Moldovan army.
However, it is difficult to know what Russia’s real objectives in Transnistria are today. The Transnistrian authorities also play an important role and want to avoid entering the conflict at all costs because they have no interest in the territory being annexed by Russia. They are certainly supported by Russia, but they take advantage of their in-between position to benefit from each other: Transnistria sells electricity to Moldova thanks to Russian energy that it hardly pays for, its industrial activity is oriented towards the EU, but its social budgets are largely taken care of by Moscow. Transnistria has long allowed Russia to put pressure on Moldova, but the main beneficiaries of this situation are the Transnistrian authorities themselves.
V.M : Moldova has also applied for EU candidate state status and last Friday the European Commission gave a positive opinion. In your opinion, was this decision precipitated by the war in Ukraine? Is the anchoring of Moldova in the European camp being concretized by Russia’s actions?
V.H : For years, Moldova’s European course has been very much linked to the events in Ukraine. Since 2009, Moldova has been part of the Eastern Partnership, an EU neighborhood policy initiated by Poland and Sweden in 2009 to counter rising Russian ambitions after the war in Georgia. There was no consensus on the purpose of the Eastern Partnership, with some countries seeing it as a pre-accession stage and others seeing it as a strengthened partnership.
What happened in Moldova’s neighbourhood, and more particularly in Ukraine, directly accelerated the process of Moldova’s integration into the EU: in 2009, riots against the communist government of Vladimir Voronin plunged the country into instability and eventually brought a “pro-European” coalition to power. The new government was enthusiastically welcomed by its European partners, but it soon disappointed, as it was involved in massive corruption and numerous breaches of the rule of law. In 2014, however, the annexation of Crimea and the secession of the Donbass republics from Moldova allowed Moldova to obtain the status of a country associated with the European Union. Moldova is no longer a model of the Eastern Partnership, it is first and foremost a country not to be lost. European policy is no longer based solely on the export of norms and values, it takes on a clearly geopolitical dimension. The Russian invasion of 2022 gives a new boost to the European agenda of Moldova, which has just obtained its candidate status in record time, which was unimaginable just 4 months ago.
V.M : Moldova has neutrality defined by its constitution. Could this war push the country to change its constitution and apply for NATO membership?
V.H : In 1991, Moldovan independence was ambiguous: part of the population was in favor of independence, but the most visible political movement saw it as a preliminary step to unification with Romania. This perspective was met with hostility from the Russian-speaking population. This led to regional secessions in Transnistria and Gagauzia. The secession of Transnistria, which was the industrial heartland of Moldova, had several causes: ethnic and cultural differences, an opportunity for a local elite to increase its power, and an opportunity for Russia to have leverage over Moldovan politics.
In 1992, Russia intervened directly to support the Transnistrian secession. The Moldovan defeat had many consequences, including putting an end to the idea of a union with Romania. In 1994, a new constitution was adopted following a referendum: Moldova would be an independent and neutral state in which several languages and ethnic groups cohabit. This constitution grants Gagauzia a high degree of autonomy in relation to the central power, the case of Transnistria must be resolved by a process of negotiation which is officially still in progress. Moldova’s neutrality stems from the Transnistrian conflict, and was used to ease tensions with Russia. At the time, the Moldovan authorities defended the idea of a “bridge” country between Russia and Europe, so neutrality was widely accepted.
Today, it is not on the agenda and would be difficult to challenge because it is enshrined in the Constitution. The current opposition defends it as a defining element of Moldova. However, in the face of the threat, the situation is changing rapidly. The EU has recently promised to help strengthen Moldova’s military capabilities, which are currently very weak, which is a real novelty. However, the question of NATO membership is not on the agenda.
“Transnistria is in a legal limbo between East and West, but if the dialogue between the two sides is broken, Transnistria loses its possibility to exist as an “independent” entity”.
“In Moldova, the fear of destabilization or even invasion has made it very difficult for the parties that were in favour of Russia, especially Igor Dodon’s socialist party, and has, on the other hand, reinforced the popularity of President Maia Sandu. Here again, the economic difficulties “allow” the opposition parties to get back into the game”.
“At the time, the Moldovan authorities defended the idea of a “bridge” country between Russia and Europe, so neutrality was widely accepted. Today, it is not on the agenda and would be difficult to challenge because it is enshrined in the Constitution. The current opposition defends it as a defining element of Moldova. However, in the face of the threat, the situation is changing rapidly. The EU has recently promised to help strengthen Moldova’s military capabilities, which are currently very weak, which is a real novelty. However, the question of NATO membership is not on the agenda“.
V.M : Romania hosts NATO troops and many armaments, including French troops, and has often had a difficult relationship with Russia. Are there any political forces today, any political movement that supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or has its condemnation been unanimous?
V.H : The war in Ukraine has momentarily stifled a strong social discontent and the Romanian government has played a lot on the feeling of national unity. The population’s support for the EU and NATO is overwhelmingly majority and no party opposes the government’s position on Ukraine.
That said, as elsewhere in Europe, public fatigue with the war is beginning to show. The economic difficulties are worsening and there is a risk that the protest movement will gain momentum, possibly to the benefit of the protesting right, which, if not openly pro-Russian, is clearly anti-Western and Eurosceptic.
V.M : Romania and Moldova have always had a special relationship, how is this relationship reflected in the Ukrainian crisis?
V.H : Romanian-Moldovan relations are complex and sometimes difficult, but this does not alter the very close ties between these two countries. Romania fully supports Moldova on its way to joining the European Union, and this support has been strengthened by recent events. Romania’s security also depends on Moldova’s.
V.M : Bulgaria has a special relationship with Russia, which still has some influence in the country. What is the exact influence of Russia in the country and how did Bulgaria react to the invasion of Ukraine? How can the overthrow of the Bulgarian government on June 23 be analyzed in this context?
V.H : The communist period in Bulgaria is not as closely associated with the imposition of an external system and its condemnation has been less strong than in many other countries.
In fact, on this issue as on others, one can observe a kind of sociological divide. The most traditionalist and nationalist part of the Bulgarian population is turned towards a particularism of which the proximity with Russia is a constitutive element. The less conservative, often more urban and wealthier part of the population looks towards Europe and the West in general. This is a historical divide that has been perpetuated in the post-1989 political landscape. The process of European integration has led the governing parties, including the Bulgarian Socialist Party, to become “centrist” and to support this process. The only openly anti-Western parties are the extreme right-wing parties (successively the historic VRMO, Ataka in the 2000s, and renaissance today).
Russia has an important influence in Bulgaria. The cultural and historical proximity, the historical economic links, the presence of Russian nationals but also the geographical position of the country have favored the development of Russian investments in the country since the 90s. These investments are important in key sectors of the Bulgarian economy: real estate, financial sector, tourism. The state companies are very involved in the strategic energy sector (gazprom, rosatom..). Bulgaria is both a final customer and a transit country.
To understand the current Bulgarian political imbroglio, we need to go back a bit. Bulgaria has been going through a period of great political instability for several years. For almost 15 years, the main figure in Bulgarian politics has been Boiko Borissov, the leader of the centre-right GERB party. Borissov is a controversial figure; accused of keeping Bulgaria in endemic corruption, he is also the one who was able to present himself as the guarantor of the country’s pro-European orientation. Things began to change in 2017 with the election of President Rou-men Radev, supported by the Socialist Party. Borissov had to deal with a strengthened opposition and face large street protests against corruption. Fragilized, GERB is finding it increasingly difficult to find a governing coalition, which leads to a series of early legislative elections (April and July 2021), with short-lived governments following one another without a stable solution being found.
Rouman Radev emerged as the guarantor of the constitutional order. During this turbulent period, new parties appeared: new liberal parties, new extreme right-wing parties, but above all a populist catch-all party “There is such a people” launched by the humorist Salvi Trifonov. To everyone’s surprise, Trifonov’s party won nearly 25% of the vote in the summer of 2021, but no stable coalition was found. In the new elections of November 2021, a new party won about a quarter of the seats in parliament: Kiril Petkov’s “We continue the change” is defined as a reformist and very pro-European party. Petkov managed to form a coalition with “Democratic Bulgaria”, a party that is ideologically close, with the Socialist Party and with “There is such a people”, but it is a fragile coalition because it is not very coherent.
With the war in Ukraine, Russia works against the Europhile and Atlanticist Prime Minister. A few days after the war, the socialist Minister of Defense (is li-mogado for having shown little enthusiasm for the commitment of Bulgaria alongside its NATO allies. Shortly afterwards, the Russian ambassador made a speech hostile to the Bulgarian government’s positions at the commemoration of the Battle of Shipka, a Russian military victory and a major milestone in Bulgaria’s independence. At the end of April, Russia stopped its gas deliveries to Bulgaria, while the country’s dependence on Russian gas is 90%… The intention to weaken the government in Sofia is obvious.
On June 22, the Petkov government was toppled by a motion of no confidence after the withdrawal of “There is such a people” from the governing coalition. Petkov was accused of mismanaging the state budget, but also of having lifted the Bulgarian block  on the EU membership application of Northern Macedonia.
Without a government, with negotiations at an impasse, Bulgaria may soon need new early elections. The country is therefore politically unstable, economically fragile, affected by the consequences of the war (inflation, energy). Political instability is primarily an internal problem, but Russia is working to accentuate it.
“In fact, on this issue as on others, one can observe a kind of sociological divide. The most traditionalist and nationalist part of the Bulgarian population is turned towards a particularism of which the proximity with Russia is a constitutive element. The less conservative, often more urban and wealthier part of the population looks towards Europe and the West in general. This is a historical divide that has been perpetuated in the post-1989 political landscape”.
V.M : How have Emmanuel Macron’s words and the expression “not to humiliate Russia” and his proposal for a European Political Community been received in the region?
V.H : Emmanuel Macron’s position represents a long-term vision. Russia will not disappear and we will have to deal with it after the war. This allows France to position itself as a balancing power.
Moreover, many scientific works explain the role of feelings in international relations and the idea of a humiliation of Russia has been circulating for a long time, it is even a major element of Russian discourse.
In spite of these explanations, the declaration was not appreciated in Eastern Europe, which saw in it a desire to find a compromise that it refused.
The proposal for a European Political Community was also badly received. It is perceived as a desire to impose a new stage before accession to the EU, a stage whose purpose and functioning are unknown.
V.M : Moldova has been granted candidate status to the EU. Do you think its membership is realistic? Do you think that this status does not risk provoking Russia and pushing it to further destabilize the country?
V.H : The expansion of the EU is increasingly geopolitical, but should this lead to the abandonment of the rules that were imposed on other candidates? That is the question.
Under the current conditions, it is not realistic to talk about a rapid accession of Moldova and Ukraine to the EU: both countries have occupied territories, there are major problems of corruption, major economic difficulties, serious deviations from the rule of law… In short, they do not meet the current membership criteria.
These candidacies must be seen as strong political gestures. They have a strong symbolic dimension of support for these two countries, their governments have a vital need for it.
Today, the Moldovan government is unambiguously pro-European, which has not always been the case. However, it is important to remember that Russia has a lot of leverage, as mentioned earlier. The closer Moldova gets to the EU, the more Russia will try to create political instability and pressure on the economy. European support will have to be unwavering.
 This blockage concerned the Macedonian language, which Bulgarian historiography considers a simple dialect of Bulgarian. The lifting of this blockage allows the Western Balkan countries to revive their applications for EU membership. These countries are unhappy to see Ukraine and Moldova become candidates while their applications have been stagnating for years. The lifting of Bulgaria’s opposition to northern Macedonia is a sign in their favour, but it has provoked the anger of a section of public opinion.