As with other countries in the region, Moldova's history consists of being continually sliced, diced, tossed and wrested by one invading force after another.
Recorded history goes back around two millennia, when much of modern Moldova was home to Dacian tribes and later to outposts of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. During the early Middle Ages, the territory was subject to frequent Mongol and Tatar raids.
The Moldavian Principality & Ștefan cel Mare
An independent Moldavian principality – including much of the territory of present-day Moldova plus the current Romanian province of Moldavia – emerged in the middle of the 14th century. It reached its apex in the late 15th century under Moldavian Prince Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), to this day a hero on both sides of the Moldovan/Romanian border. Ștefan cel Mare, a skilled fighter who fended the principality's frontier from Ottoman incursion, is commemorated by a large statue in central Chişinău and is the face you see on every Moldovan banknote.
Moldova eventually fell to the Ottomans, and after the Turkish defeat at the hands of the Russians in the Russo–Turkish War of 1806–1812, the eastern half of the principality (more or less the territory of modern Moldova) was annexed by Tsarist Russia. The territory, then known as Bessarabia, was Russified and Romanian cultural and linguistic influences were effectively expunged.
The Two World Wars
A temporary union with Romania followed Russia’s collapse in WWI and the ensuing October Revolution. Bessarabia declared its independence and quickly decided to join with Romania. Russia never recognised this union.
During the interwar years, Romanian maps show Bessarabia as firmly belonging to Romania. This state of affairs lasted until June 1940, when the Soviet Red Army, in accordance with a secret protocol with its then-ally Nazi Germany, reoccupied Bessarabia. The Soviet government immediately joined Bessarabia with Transdniestr and named the new entity the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian SSR). Bessarabia suffered terrifying Sovietisation, marked by the deportation of 300,000 ethnic Moldovans (Romanians).
Just a year later, Nazi Germany declared war on Soviet Russia, and allied Nazi and Romanian troops invaded Bessarabia, bringing that territory and Transdniestr into Romanian hands. This reunion with Romania had tragic consequences for Bessarabia's large Jewish population. Tens of thousands of Jews had been exiled to Bessarabia under Catherine the Great. In accordance with strict antisemitic decrees, the Nazis sent all Bessarabian Jews to labour camps, where most of them were eventually killed. Finally, in August 1944, with the war turning against Nazi Germany, the Soviet army reoccupied Bessarabia and Transdniestr. Under the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Romania had to relinquish the region, and Soviet power was restored in the Moldavian SSR.
Once in control again, the Soviets immediately enforced a Sovietisation programme on the Moldavian SSR. The Cyrillic alphabet was imposed on the Moldovan language (a dialect of Romanian) and Russian became the official state language. Street names were changed to honour Soviet communist heroes, and Russian-style patronymics were included in people's names.
Independence & Ethnic Tension
Strict Soviet rule lasted until the late 1980s, when Soviet reform leader Mikhail Gorbachev eased conditions in the various republics. Gorbachev’s reforms paved the way for the creation of the nationalist Moldovan Popular Front in 1989. Moldovan written in the Latin alphabet was reintroduced as the official language, and in February and March 1990 the first democratic elections to the Supreme Soviet (parliament) were won by the Popular Front. In April of that year, the Moldovan national flag (the Romanian tricolour with the Moldavian coat of arms in its centre) was reinstated. Transdniestr, however, refused to adopt the new state symbols and stuck to the red banner.
In June 1990 the Moldovan Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty. After a failed coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow in August 1991, Moldova declared its full independence and Mircea Snegur became the first democratically elected president in December 1991.
But not all regions of the country were fully on board with the changes. Officials in Transdniestr as well as leaders in the Gagauz region, where a Turkic-speaking Gagauz minority is centred, were concerned that an independent Moldova would soon reunite with Romania.
The Gagauz went on to declare the Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic in August 1990. A month later the Transdniestrans declared their own independence, establishing the Dniestr Moldovan Republic. Gagauzia demanded only autonomy within Moldova, while Transdniestr vowed to settle for nothing less than outright independence.
Tension between newly independent Moldova and Transdniestr reached breaking point in March 1992, when Moldovan president Mircea Snegur declared a state of emergency. Two months later full-scale civil war broke out in Transdniestr, when Moldovan police clashed with Transdniestran militia, backed by troops from Russia. Somewhere between 500 and 1500 people were killed and thousands wounded in events that shocked the former Soviet Union.
A ceasefire was eventually reached in July 1992 and signed by the Moldovan and Russian presidents, Snegur and Boris Yeltsin. Provisions were made for a Russian-led, tripartite peacekeeping force comprising Russian, Moldovan and Transdniestran troops to be stationed in the region. Russian troops remain there today, maintaining an uneasy peace. Transdniestr continues to aggravate Chişinău and generate the occasional statement of concern from the EU.
In spite of the difficulties with the frozen Transdniestran conflict and years of economic mismanagement and corruption, Moldova has kept its sights on joining the European Union. During the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, the country lacked the political will to make meaningful strides in this direction.
A breakthrough came in 2009 with parliamentary elections that brought to power a coalition of Western-leaning political parties. A succession of parliament-picked presidents followed until President Nicolae Timofti was chosen for the role in 2012. Under Timofti, Moldova signed a 2014 Association Agreement with the European Union that was widely seen as a first step in a long process of Moldova joining the EU.
But this momentum was not to last. A wave of corruption scandals rocked the country, culminating in revelations in early 2015 that US$1 billion – equivalent to one-eighth of the country's GDP – had gone missing from Moldovan banks. The public backlash was swift. The president-appointed prime minister, Iurie Leancă, lost his job. When Timofti tapped Pavel Filip, another pro-EU ally, to replace him in early 2016, protesters took to the streets of Chişinău, demanding accountability for the heist and calling for more decisive action to end corruption and improve the faltering economy.
Amid that backdrop, support for pro-Russian parties has been on the rise. In 2016 Igor Dodon, head of the Russia-leaning Socialist Party, won the first general election for president since 1996. While most power rests with parliament, the socialists were widely expected to consolidate power by winning the 2019 parliamentary election. Warmer ties with Russia and a further thaw with Transdniestr could be on the horizon.