Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe between Romania and Ukraine, has a tumultuous history. Its vulnerable geographic location situates it in the crossfire of the cultural battle between Romania and Russia. Although the majority of Moldovans share a common heritage and language with Romanians, periods of Russian rule, particularly during the Soviet era, strongly influenced both their culture and ethnographic composition. As a result, a pronounced distinction developed between the Moldovan and Romanian cultures. As the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the late 1980s, Moldovan politics were gripped by a wave of pro-Romanian nationalism, which brought the Moldova Popular Front to power. The Front’s main objective was to dissolve Moldova as an independent nation-state and unify with the Romanian nation-state in the process. However, the rhetoric of the Front led to clashes amongst the ethnic minorities of Moldova, most notably self-identifying Russian citizens. They feared the potential loss of their language and cultural rights in a strictly Moldovan/Romanian nationalist state. In 1992, these tensions erupted into a civil war with the predominantly Slavic (primarily Russian and Ukrainian) breakaway region of Transnistria. After losing the war, the Moldova Popular Front and their pro-Romanian ideals fell out of favor and Transnistria became a de-facto independent, separatist state. In 1994, the Democratic Agrarian Party, a political organization that advocated for independent Moldovan statehood, replaced the Moldova Popular Front. The rise and fall of Romanian nationalism in Moldova, spanning from 1988–1994, embodies two key components of nationalism: it provides an example of failed unification nationalism and also demonstrates the role of elite competition in generating nationalism.
The decline of pro-Romanian nationalism in favor of independent Moldovan nationalism corresponds to the relationship between two opposing elite groups: the pro-Romanian Moldova Popular Front and the Pro-Moldovan Democratic Agrarian Party. These groups adhere to University of Washington Professor Paul Brass’s theory of nationalism. According to this theory, elite groups, the minority factions holding the highest positions of power in society, compete with one another to protect their status and attain greater influence throughout society. Brass regards this phenomenon as the driving force of nationalism and further states that elite groups achieve such ends by using national symbols. By manipulating symbols like geography, language, and ethnicity to suit their interests, elite groups are able to gather support for their respective causes, defend their interests, and challenge one another for dominance in society, Brass concludes (Brass 1991; Donahue).
This paper concentrates on the Romanian nationalist movement in Moldova from 1988 to 1994, which coincides with the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union and the early days of post-Soviet Moldovan nationhood. It begins by analyzing Paul Brass’s theory of nationalism and argues why it offers the best explanation for understanding the rise and fall of the pro-Romanian movement. Next, it provides a historical background of the movement from the pre-Soviet era to the principal events of 1988–1994. The paper then combines the focuses of these preceding sections by utilizing Brass’s theory of nationalism to explain the specific causes of and conditions for the pro-Romanian movement in Moldova.
I. Brass’s Theory of Nationalism
“The study of ethnicity and nationality,” according to Paul Brass (1991, p. 75), “is in large part the study of politically-induced cultural change. More precisely, it is the study of the process by which elites and counter-elites within ethnic groups select aspects of the group’s culture, attach new value and meaning to them, and use them as symbols to mobilize the group, to defend its interests, and to compete with other groups.”
Elite groups are small, yet influential sectors in society; in addition, they are defined as “a group in terms of sets of symbols” (Brass 1991, p. 99,100). These symbol sets attract support from the masses, as highlighted in the statement below:
Ethnicity and nationalism are not ‘givens,’ but are social and political constructions. They are creations of elites, who… distort…materials from the cultures of the groups they wish to represent in order to protect their well-being or existence or to gain political and economic advantage for their groups as well as for themselves (Donahue 2007).
This process originates from the development of an ethnic identity, in which a select group of people employs the “subjective, symbolic, or emblematic use…of any aspect of culture, in order to differentiate themselves from other groups” (Brass 1991, p. 18). Through this widely agreed-upon selection of symbols that best represent the group’s culture, communal ties are strengthened, while the group’s identity is further distinguished from others’. In turn, new generations grow up exposed to these symbols and develop deep emotional attachments to them. Eventually, they regard such symbols as natural markers of their collective identity. This phenomenon is defined by Josep Llobera as “primordialism,” the belief that “ethnic identity is deeply rooted in the historical experience of human beings to the point of being practically a given.” (1999, pg.3). Brass acknowledges that ability of primordialism to unite and mobilize a group of people based on a mutual sense of identity. Nonetheless, he refutes the belief that primordialist aspects of culture possess natural, intrinsic qualities; instead, they are vulnerable to instrumentalist intentions and therefore can be easily changed (1991).
This stance corresponds with Brass’s second main argument: “ethnicity and nationalism are modern phenomena inseparably connected with the activities of the modern centralizing state” (Donahue 2007). The malleability of exalted cultural symbols is particularly relevant for elite groups. Due to the large influence they wield over society, elitist groups can mobilize citizens for a cause and form “ new cultural groups…created for purposes of economic and political domination” (Brass, 1991, p. 74). The elites attract people by deliberately selecting the aspects of culture they believe will unite the group and further promote their interests (Brass 1991). While the mobilized group, a sector of the majority populace drawn to the manipulated symbols, regards them as sacred and primordial, the elite leaders merely view such emblems as tools to strengthen their interests and compete against rival elite groups (Brass 1991). Therefore, Brass argues that the primordial connotations of ethnic symbols do not represent the fundamental principles of a cultural group; rather, competing elite groups deliberately modify certain symbols to rally popular support in a bid for societal domination (Brass 1991).
According to Brass, “Nationalism arises in response to objective exploitation of an indigenous group by an alien group, or of one social class by another” (Brass 1991, p. 41), which in turn sparks nationalist elite movements. Initially, a dominant group stratifies society by claiming supremacy while relegating a weaker group to an inferior position. Eventually, “new elites arise to challenge a system of ethnic stratification in the cities or an existing pattern of distribution of economic resources and political power between ethnically distinct urban and rural groups or ethnically distinctive regions” (Brass 1991, p.44).
Brass does not specify how this happens, though the most presumable circumstances include major historical events, the gradual decline of dominant group power, or inferior group elites mobilizing on their national identity in order to attain higher standing in society. Once the authority of the dominant group is confronted, it becomes “increasingly difficult to sustain a system of ethnic stratification or a particular regional or urban-rural distribution of economic resources and political power” (Brass 1991, p.46). At this point, when both groups have viable claims for power, the process of elite competition and symbol manipulation commences. In short, the seeds of nationalism originate from the uneven distribution of economic and political power amongst ethnic groups and lead to the development of elitist groups and symbol manipulation in the fight for dominance.
II. The History of Moldova
The history of Moldova highlights how the competing influences of Russia and Romania created the context for the post-Soviet Romanian unification movement. Most of modern-day Moldova once formed the eastern half of the principality of Moldavia, a territory predominantly inhabited by ethnic Romanians (Dressler 2006). During the nineteenth century, Moldavia split into two sections: the Russian Empire acquired the eastern half in the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–1812, renaming the territory “Bessarabia” in order to differentiate it from the rest of Moldavia (Dressler 2006). Meanwhile, the western half of Moldavia unified with other Romanian principalities to form the nation-state of Romania (Dressler 2006; Heintz 2005). In 1918, during the Russian Revolution, Bessarabia declared independence from Russia, and reunified with Romania (Cojocaru 2006). However, the USSR reclaimed Bessarabia in 1944, based on the territorial claims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a Soviet-German treaty that carved out spheres of influence throughout Europe (Cojocaru 2006; Juska 2001). The Soviet government renamed the area “Moldova” and redefined its territorial boundaries by adding primarily Russian and Ukrainian regions, such as Transnistria, to it (Solovev 2009). Soviet authorities pursued an aggressive Russification campaign in Moldova with the intent of weakening the Romanian allegiance held by much of the populace. They utilized a variety of means to further the claim that the Moldovans were ethnically and linguistically separate from Romanians. Most notably, the Soviet Moldovan government limited contact between Romania and Moldova, developed a “Moldovan” language by replacing the Romanian Latin script with Cyrillic characters, emphasized Moldova’s historical connection to Russia at the expense of Romania, and shifted ethnographic compositions via Russian and Ukrainian immigration, the dispersion of self-proclaimed Romanians, and the promotion of intermarriages (Heintz 2005). The predominantly Slavic Transnistria was established as the major industrial center of Moldova, while the historically Romanian area of Moldova subsisted on agriculture (Juska 2001). Therefore, the Romanian-speaking Moldovans associated the Russian language and culture with better socioeconomic opportunities, which encouraged them to embrace Russification (Juska 2001). In short, the Romanian base of Moldova was constantly subjected to Russian influence.Around 1988, Pan-Romanian nationalism gained momentum throughout Moldova as Soviet authority weakened in the era of perestroika (Juska 2001, King 1993). This surge in Romanian nationalism stemmed from the ethnic majority’s desire to reconnect with their primordial roots and to retaliate against the disproportionately high power held by the Slavic minorities (Juska 2001; King 1993). The Moldova Popular Front formed in response to this growing nationalism, claiming that Moldovans and Romanians constituted one people, based on a shared cultural, ethnic, and linguistic heritage. The Front held the ultimate goal of reunification with Romania (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000; Juska 2001). The party rapidly gained influence and played a prominent role in implementing major changes in Moldovan civil life (King 1993). Because of Front activity, Romanian was declared the official state language in 1989; in addition, the written script was switched from Cyrillic characters to Latin characters. National elections, which took place the following year, replaced years of Communist governance with the rule by the Romanian-nationalist Popular Front (Dressler 2006; King 1993). This series of events upset the Slavic minorities throughout Moldova, especially those settled in Transnistria (King 1993). While the Moldova Popular Front and its pro-Romanian nationalist rhetoric appeared indestructible as the Soviet era was ending, developing ethnic minority tensions foreshadowed the enormous problems that it had yet to face.
In 1990, the Moldova Popular Front won the Moldovan national elections in a landslide victory (Dressler 2006), with Front candidates Mircea Snegur and Mircea Druc declared president and prime minister, respectively (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000). Despite their close connections in office, Snegur and Druc held contrasting opinions regarding unification. Although he spoke favorably of Romanian unification to the public, Snegur only had a loose affiliation with the Front and did not actively embrace unification; he had taken a stance of support mainly to gain political power (Kolstro 2000). Meanwhile, Druc zealously favored Romanian unification, which came at the expense of Moldova’s sizeable ethnic minority population. He held unfavorable views of non-Romanians and wanted to keep them from holding prestigious titles in society (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000; Juska 2001). Their differing stances would play a crucial role in the future events that shaped the fate of Moldova.
Following the victory of the Moldova Popular Front, Transnistria declared its intention to secede in 1990; Moldova appeared to be moving rapidly towards unification with Romania, and Transnistrians wanted to escape the perceived threat of “Romanianization” by breaking away (Dressler 2006; King 1993). Active mobilization occurred in 1991, after the official collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of a fully independent Moldova (King 1993; Kolstro 2001). The Front-headed Moldovan government, fearful of losing its economic center, pursued military intervention in order to end the secession campaign (Dressler 2006; Juska 2000). Skirmishes broke out between the Transnistrian and Moldovan armies, culminating in serious violence in 1992 (Kolstro 2000). Although the Russian government declared neutrality, the 14th Soviet Army, stationed in Transnistria, independently entered the conflict in order to protect their Russian “brethren” in Transnistria (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000). Together, the two armies drove the Moldovan military out of Transnistria, resulting in a death toll of 500–1000 (Juska 2001; Kolstro 2000) After the incident, the Russian government officially intervened; in July of 1992, Mircea Snegur and Russian president Boris Yeltsin drew up a ceasefire that kept Moldova and Transnistria unified, though the latter was given “special status” and a high degree of autonomy (Kolstro 2000). Although the ceasefire did not entirely resolve the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria, it did end the warfare (Dressler 2006). The end of the war marked a turning point, which would dramatically alter the course of Moldovan politics.
Moldova faced immense challenges following the war, such as strained territorial and interethnic relationships, a devastated economy, and civilian casualties and displacements due to the conflict (Juska 2001). Many Moldovans blamed these problems on the Front’s mismanagement of the war and their hardline unification policies (Juska 2001). In addition, Moldovans realized that merging with Romania posed serious logistical problems; Romania had a poor economy, a policy of ethnic discrimination that threatened to aggravate the conflict with Transnistria, and a heavily centralized form of government that would severely curtail Moldovan authority in governmental proceedings (Kolstro 2000).
In response to these shifts in public favor, Snegur remained in power, but now actively endorsed anti-unification policies (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000). In 1992, he assisted in bringing the Democratic Agrarian Party, an anti-unification party mainly composed of bureaucrats and former communists, to power in government (Dressler 2006; Juska 2001). The ousted Front, meanwhile, fragmented into two parties, one moderate, the other radical; both garnered very little public support (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000). Druc, who Snegur had replaced with a less radical politician, relocated to Romania and became involved in its political circuit (Kolstro 2000). The Democratic Agrarians promoted “Moldovanism,” or the idea of a unique Moldovan ethnic and linguistic identity separate from that of Romanians. The widespread support garnered for this new cause kept Moldova an independent state, which it remains to this day. This political shifting represented the decline of the pro-Romanian national unification movement and the embrace of independent Moldovan statehood.
III. How Elite Competition Defined the Romanian Unification Movement in Moldova
This section applies Paul Brass’s theory of nationalism to the specific context of the post-Soviet Moldovan nationalist movement. This analysis defines the Popular Front and the Democratic Agrarian Party as the competing elite groups and explains how they manipulated the symbols of geography, language, and ethnicity to build support for their causes; in turn, this elucidates the causes and conditions of the Moldova case.
Brass identifies the competition between elites and counter-elites as the impetus behind nationalist movements. In the case of Moldova during the final years of Soviet rule, the competing elite groups consisted of the pro-Romanian Popular Front and the pro-Moldovan Democratic Agrarian Party. The Popular Front, the elite group that catalyzed this affair, was mainly composed of intellectuals, journalists, writers, historians, college-educated urbanites, and other members of the cultural sphere. They advocated for the restoration of a Greater Romanian cultural identity and nation-state (Crowther 1998; Kolstro 2000).
The Front pursued these ideals in order to benefit their own interests; with the elevation of Romanian elites to the highest position in society, they would gain superiority over the long-held hegemony of Russified business elites (Crowther 1998, Kolstro 2000). The key counter-elitist faction the Front combated against was called the Democratic Agrarian Party. These Russified business elites and agrarian bureaucrats acknowledged similarities between Romania and Moldova, but also felt that Russian influence had created a distinctly Moldovan identity (Crowther 1998; Kolstro 2000). In addition, Romanian unification signified the “loss of control over the country and subordination to functionaries in Romania” (Juska 2001, p. 538); therefore, they wanted independent Moldovan statehood to protect their own political and business interests. However, for the elites and the counter-elites to gain backing for their causes, they needed to employ nationalist symbols to their advantage. The Popular Front and the Democratic Agrarian Party focused on three fundamental symbols—geography, language, and ethnicity—in order to align and mobilize society with their ideals.
First, in regards to geography, the territorial boundaries reflect a geographic division in terms of how Moldovans interpreted themselves, which the competing groups appealed to for rallying support. In the nineteenth century, Russia divided Romania based on the flow of the Prut River, annexing the eastern half, Bessarabia, from the western half, which later developed into the modern Romanian nation-state (Dressler 2006). As a result of this close geographic proximity to Romania, western Moldova claims a greater percentage of citizens claiming Romanian ancestry (Heintz 2005; Juska 2001); in addition, the agriculturally-based economy in the region harkened back to the pastoral livelihood of ancient Romanian settlers in Bessarabia (Dressler 2006, Juska 2001). The Popular Front appealed to these geographic conditions as a link to Romania, which explains why they gathered greater support in the Romania-oriented Western Moldova (Heintz 2005). In contrast, the Dniester River separates Transnistria from Bessarabian Moldova, and the two were only joined together following World War II. Transnistrians have a much stronger Slavic affinity and do not consider themselves Moldovans, as exemplified by their separatist status (Dressler 2006, Kolstro 2000). Nonetheless, the inclusion of this territory heavily shaped sentiments in eastern Moldova, as the region experienced a larger influx of Slavic immigration during the Soviet era, creating a heterogeneous population of Moldovans, Slavs, and intermarriages between the two groups (Crowther 1998; Heintz 2005). The Soviet Union prioritized industry in eastern Moldova, and therefore the eastern Slavs and Moldovans viewed the USSR in a sympathetic light, regarding it as a benefactor rather than an oppressor (Crowther 1998). Therefore, the Democratic Agrarian Party, which acknowledged USSR’s important role in shaping Moldova, earned a larger base of support in diversified eastern Moldova. These geographic symbols, with their economic and demographic implications, account for the east-west disparities within Moldova. The competing groups rallied to these respective bases of support to promote the identity they felt would best serve Moldova.
For the second symbol, language, the Popular Front and the Democratic Agrarian Party debated over whether to classify the most widely spoken language in the country as “Romanian” or “Moldovan.” Most linguists agree that the Moldovan and Romanian languages are indistinguishable from one another (Cash 2007), and the Popular Front made no distinction between the two, designating the official state language as “Romanian.” In turn, they believed that the “Romanian” language would catalyze citizens to embrace a Romanian identity and move towards unification (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2000; King 1993). The Democratic Agrarian Party, on the other hand, emphasized a separation between the Moldovan and Romanian languages, which would prevent a Romanian affinity based on linguistic identity and minimize the possibility of Romanian unification (Kolstro 2000). Some pro-Moldovan elites acknowledged the linguistic similarities between Moldovan and Romanian, but called the state language “Moldovan” in order to emphasize the political solidarity of the Moldovan nation-state (Kolstro 2000). Other pro-Moldovan elites, however, claimed that the Moldovan and Romanian languages significantly differed from each other, because of greater exposure Moldovans had to Russian (Heintz 2005). The pro-Moldovan elites also held greater respect for Russian as a historically important minority language and advocated for its role as a higher administrative authority in civil affairs (Dressler 2006; Kolstro 2001). Therefore, the Popular Front emphasized the dominance of the Romanian language in socio-political affairs, while the Democratic Agrarian Party created a political distinction between the Moldovan and Romanian languages and respected the status of Russian, in order to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Moldovan state.
The final symbol focuses on the issue of ethnicity. The 1989 census identified 64% of Moldova’s population as “Moldovans,” while the remaining demographics consisted of 14% Ukrainians, 13% Russians, and smatterings of various ethnic groups (Heintz 2005). The exact definition of “Moldovan” posed a complicated argument, as some considered Moldovans identical to Romanians, while others believed that Moldovans formed a unique ethic group that warranted their own nation-state ((Heintz 2005). The Popular Front referred to the ethnic majority as “Romanians,” considering them indistinguishable from their neighbors across the Prut. The Democratic Agrarian Party, however, favored the term “Moldovans.” Some Democratic Agrarians recognized the ethnic similarities between Moldovans and Romanians, but claimed “Moldovan” implied a stronger political and national distinction (King 1993). Other Democratic Agrarians rejected a connection between Moldovans and Romanians, claiming the two had completely different ethnic identities based on decades of genetic intermixing with Slavs and other groups and shifts in settlement and emigration patterns (Heintz 2005; Kolstro 2000) All pro-Moldovan elites agreed that the term “Moldovan” accounted for the multiethnic nature of the state, particularly the Russian influence embedded in Moldovan culture. In short, ethnicity was used by the pro-Romanian elites to emphasize a connection to Romania, while the pro-Moldovans viewed ethnicity as a means to encompass the ethnic diversity that created a majority group, the Moldovans.
In the end, the Democratic Agrarian Party emerged as the elite group best able to appeal to the public’s concerns and desires. Tactical errors made by the Moldova Popular Front played a role in their defeat. While the rival Popular Front initially gained popular support, their increasingly extremist pro-Romanian rhetoric fueled emerging ethnic tensions, leading to a war with Transnistria. Many citizens attributed the resulting Moldovan defeat and the country’s infrastructural problems to the ineptness of Front extremists (Juska 2001). The Democratic Agrarian Party’s platform related to their symbol manipulation and attracted widespread civil backing. After the war, the Party stressed rationality, moderation, and inclusivity, contrasting with Front’s radicalism and exclusivity (Crowther 1998). In addition, the Democratic Agrarian Party focused on improving daily life in Moldova, rather than obsessing over Romanian unification (Crowther 1998). The Party also gained support from rural communities; due to a lack of media and communications in these isolated areas, rural Moldovans used localized, “folkloric” identities to define their identities, as opposed to a nationalist basis. In turn, they realized that independent Moldovan statehood would protect their village and regional identities (Cash 2007; Heintz 2005). The ethnic minorities, particularly Russians, also supported the pro-Moldovan elites on their policy of protecting minority rights (Juska 2001). Therefore, due to their pragmatic approach to ethnic problems in Moldova, the pro-Moldovan Democratic Agrarian Party gained greater governmental authority, and eclipsed the pro-Romanian Popular Front.
In conclusion, Paul Brass’s theory of nationalism thoroughly explains the rise and fall of the Romanian unification movement in Moldova from 1988-1992. His ideas regarding the unfair balance of political power, economy, and cultural representation between two groups correspond to the dominance of Slavic minorities within the region over the ethnic majority Moldovans during the Soviet era. The fall of the Soviet Union, however, provided an opportunity for the Moldovan ethnic majority to retaliate against the power of the Slavic minorities, accounting for the meteoric rise of the Popular Front and pro-Romanian nationalism. Nevertheless, the loss against separatist Transnistria shifted Moldova away from a Romanian unification track and onto a path towards independent statehood that appeased the needs of both the ethnic majority and minorities.
Both the Moldova Popular Front and the Democratic Agrarian Party generated nationalism through the manipulation of national symbols, specifically geography, language, and ethnicity. The pro-Romanian elites emphasized a Romanian language and ethnicity to appeal for unification with Romania and had greater success in the more Romania-oriented western Moldova. The pro-Moldovan elites claimed that both Russian and Romanian influence had created a distinct Moldovan language, ethnicity, and nation-state; they had greater success in attracting the heterogeneous, more Soviet-oriented eastern Moldovans. In the end, the pro-Moldovan elites proved more capable at symbol manipulation: they attained the greatest prominence due to their rationality and intention to stabilize Moldovan society following the rocky war with Transnistria.
The failed Romanian unification movement in Moldova, as explained by Brass’s theory, offers a groundbreaking deviation from traditional views on nationalism. Primordialists, according to Brass, base nationality on the ideals of ethnicity and common descent: an individual “carries with him life ‘attachments’…that are ‘natural’ for him, ‘spiritual’ in character’, and that provide the basis for an easy ‘affinity’ with other peoples from the same background” (1991, p. 69) The case in Moldova challenges this notion, as periods of Russian rule, especially during the Soviet era, dramatically altered the ethnic connection it once shared with Romania. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a key opportunity for elites to start manipulating symbols to build their coalitions. At first, the Moldova Popular Front attempted to reclaim a Romanian identity for their country. However, their efforts failed due to ethnic minority resistance and governmental mishandling. The Democratic Agrarian Party replaced the Front, and advocated for an independent Moldovan nation state. The Agrarians emphasized a unique Moldovan identity for its citizens to embrace. This Moldovan identity featured strong components of civic, multiethnic nationalism, but also utilized primordial ties, such as a Moldovan history and culture, in order to connect the people to each other and the nation. The Moldova case redefines the notion of primordial attachments; while it failed to unify on the basis of a Romanian ethnic identity, they switched these ties to a civic Moldovan identity.
Brass’s theory, as applied to the case in Moldova, demonstrates the constructed nature of nationalism. Competing elite groups, consisting of the Moldova Popular Front and the ultimately victorious Democratic Agrarian Party, manipulated primordial attachments towards Romania and Moldova and national symbols of geography, language, and ethnicity. In turn, this attracted and mobilized society to their cause and generated nationalism in the process. The post-Soviet Moldovan state emerged from such processes, and therefore Brass’s theory offers a rich context to best understand the fascinating yet complicated history of contemporary Moldova.
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