Few European states have experienced more upheaval than Romania. In the last 150 years Romania has declared its independence, fought in both world wars (seeing its territory shrink and then double), become a democracy, then a dictatorship, and then a free nation again after the collapse of the USSR. Currently Romania is a NATO and EU member with an economy that was growing strongly until the global financial crisis in 2008. However, for all the country’s successes since independence in 1989 a shadow has hung over Romania’s foreign affairs, and surprisingly for Eastern Europe, it is not Russia. Rather the 2.5 million Romanians who live over the country’s eastern border in Moldova and the question of whether they are in fact Romanian has been a cause of significant tension in the region.

Moldova has not enjoyed the relative success of Romania, not by a long shot. An ugly war saw the state of Transnistria break away from Moldova in 1992: the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” has enjoyed de facto independence ever since, although it is effectively under the control of Russia. Moldova also enjoys the dubious distinction of the poorest country in Europe with 20% of the population living below the poverty line. The country has traditionally relied upon heavy industry and agriculture as the basis of its economy but their decline in recent years has seen around 25% of the population emigrate to work abroad. Unsurprisingly, Moldova is a deeply troubled nation: widespread unrest in 2009 saws tens of thousands take to the streets in protest against the ruling Communist party. The riots saw the Communist party, in power since 2001 ousted in snap elections by a coalition of opposition parties known as the “Alliance for European Integration”.

Comparisons between Romania and Moldova are relevant not just because the two countries share a border, but because Moldovans are by many measures Romanian. Almost ethnically and linguistically identical, Moldova itself is primarily located in the Bessarabia region, an area long claimed by Romania. Indeed, Moldova’s modern origins can be traced to the 1940 when the U.S.S.R demanded and received Bessarabia from Romania as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Unsurprisingly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Romanians were optimistic about a reunion with their Moldovan brethren.

Instead, Moldova and Romania have endured a tense, and at times, since Moldova blamed the 2009 riots on Romania provocation, antagonistic relationship. The two countries have been unable to agree on even the most simple of bilateral treaties; the status quo is maintained by a series of de-facto agreements. For example hundreds of thousands of Moldovans were granted dual citizenship by Romania, an act tolerated by the Moldovan government although dual citizenships were illegal. Currently, Moldovan citizens are under pressure to create their own culture and ethnicity separate from Romanians, mainly to avoid annexation by Romania.

The Romania-Moldova relationship is an excellent example of how one people can be separated entirely by political barriers, and how the success of a nation is dependent on good government and not some quirk of culture or race. While not a powder keg, this tense relationship represents an ongoing concern for the entire region, not least because it risks pitting the EU aligned Romania against the Russian leaning Moldova. As the world continues its drive towards nation-states the Moldova-Romania split appears more and more obscene. These two countries should be growing together, for both their benefits, not apart.