Maia Sandu is doing what she can to redirect Moldova’s political orientation. Renewing the country’s forgotten ties to Poland is key to making it last.
In late October of this year, Poland came to Moldova’s aid as Russia was once again using energy supplies as a weapon. Poland has now become Moldova’s first non-Russian natural gas supplier. While Europe tries to avert a looming shortage of this vital resource with winter approaching, Moscow is using it to reassert control over a Moldovan government seeking closer ties with Europe.
The situation in the lands of East-Central Europe is exceptionally tense as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is pugnaciously thrusting itself across the region. Skillfully using proxies like Belarus as well as the puppet states of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in the Donbas, Moscow has greatly honed its abilities to engage in hybrid warfare since it occupied Crimea in 2014. Russian forces are once again massing themselves along Ukraine’s border this year, with credible intelligence sources reporting a planned invasion by Moscow in the spring of 2022. As news broke the day following the American Thanksgiving holiday that a coup plot against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was discovered, many voiced skepticism as the Kremlin denied any role in the matter.
Warsaw and Chișinău came together during Moldova’s gas crisis thanks to their shared interest in restricting Russian meddling in their part of Europe. In light of Russia’s current aggressive stance, maintaining this alliance is of vital importance to not just Poland and Moldova, but also the entire panoply of nations we popularly refer to as “The West.” As important as keeping Russia at bay may be to each of them, this partnership will not last unless the many ties that for centuries have joined Moldova and Poland are brought back into the popular perception of both nations. Their absence is all the more striking given that the Moldovan state in its entirety is made up of lands that once were either a fief (Bessarabia) or a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Transnistria).
A SIGNIFICANT YET NEGLECTED LEGACY
Poles and Moldovans have a long history as pawns in Moscow’s drive to bring these territories into its sphere of influence. What’s been forgotten however, are the robust links between the two peoples. Many of these connections persist into the present day, though largely forgotten in the popular perception of both countries.
Contrast this with Poland’s strongly rooted partnership with Hungary. Knowledge of this centuries-long alliance is common in both countries, mostly famously distilled in this bilingual jingle:
Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki,
i do szabli, i do szklanki,
oba zuchy, oba żwawi,
niech im Pan Bóg błogosławi.
Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát,
Együtt harcol s issza borát,
Vitéz s bátor mindkettője,
Áldás szálljon mindkettőre.
The ditty glorifies the two nations as brothers, masters of the saber and the shot glass.
Characterizing the Hungarians and Poles as courageous and lively, it ends with a supplication for divine providence to bless both peoples.
Poland’s equally robust connections to the Romanian-speaking peoples, however, have been largely consigned to obscurity. Like the Poles and Hungarians, the Wallachians or Wołosi, as they were once commonly referred to in Polish, have been pinned between Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Muscovite ambitions to subjugate them. It was in the Principality of Moldavia, the medieval forerunner of Moldova, that these Polish-Romanian ties were strongest.
The sizable influence of Romanian-speaking peoples on the history of Poland is as profound as it is underappreciated and poorly understood. These Polish-Wallachian bonds have been growing from the founding of the Principality of Moldavia, which Polish King Władysław Jagiełło spoke of as “a rich and fructiferous land.” A former fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, this territory is now split between Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
A buffer state between the Commonwealth and the Ottomans, Polish influence was felt in the Moldavian principality beginning with the Angevin Dynasty in the 14th century on. In 1373, the son of Bogdan I, Latcu, (known in Polish also as Laczko), converted to Catholicism in a move to solidify ties between the two polities. While this effort to change the religious orientation of the Moldavian realm did not take hold, the two states grew to be inextricably linked over the subsequent centuries. The Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Moldavian Boyars intermarried. Noble lineages such as the Mohyła/ Movilă and Barnowski/ Barnovschi families established themselves in both states. The border between Poland and Moldavia along the lower Dniester River was porous, fomenting cultural exchange and coupling between them. The Prut River and the Carpathian Mountains became avenues for mercantile connection that also facilitated the settlement of Wallachians of Romanian origin throughout Southern Poland. It was a sizable effect, extending as far west as Podhale, the Duchy of Cieszyn and beyond. The culture of Poland’s beloved Górals is replete with their influence, thanks to which Romanian words and culinary specialties such as bryndza became staples in the land of the White Eagle. In Lviv, the Romanian-speaking community was so strong at one time that they came to even have their own “Wallachian” Church which is now one of the city’s landmarks. Polish King Jan III Sobieski tried not once but twice to place his son James Louis on the Moldavian throne as Hospodar from Suceava’s “Zamca,” a name for the structure which is derived from the Polish word for castle.
Counterintuitively, these bonds were only strengthened after the Partitions of Poland. Sizable portions of the Principality of Moldavia which bordered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were also incorporated into the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Northern Moldavia became the Austro-Hungarian Crownland of Bukowina, and for decades was ruled from Lviv. The Moldavian region of Bessarabia between the Dniester and Prut Rivers came under the rule of the Russian Tsar, just like the former Polish capital of Warsaw. Both Moscow and Vienna looked to further develop these lands seized from Moldavia, a strategy which included encouraging ethnic Poles to settle there. To cite just one Moldovan city, Soroca (Soroki), notable Poles such as architect Jan Bagieński, Hieronim Przepiliński the founder of the Silesian Legion under General Józef Haller’s command, and Major Stefan Walter were all born here. The nearby villages of Nimereuca (Niemirówka) and Cerlina (Cierlina) were the site of a Jewish agricultural colony named Lublin, a testament to the scope of this migration present throughout Bessarabia.
In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and Bessarabia’s annexation to Romania, many Poles left for the newly independent Polish state. One of those who emigrated to Poland was Felix Dudchievicz (Feliks Dutkiewicz), a Moldovan MP who gave one of the most touching remarks in their parliament during the debate over the territory’s future status in 1918:
“On this important day for the Moldovan nation, it is with the utmost regret that I am forced to speak in the Russian language, the symbol of oppression for both the Moldovan and Polish nations…
On behalf of the Polish people, I fully support the union of Bessarabia with Romania, as the Moldovans, the indigenous inhabitants of this land, want.”
Others, such as Józef Gaydamowicz-Poraj, stayed. This Bessarabian community was important enough that a Polish Consulate was created in Chișinău (Kiszyniów) during the interwar period to minister to their needs. Famed Romanian General Henri Cihoski, the son of a Polish exile of the January Uprising was tasked with integrating Bessarabia into the Romanian state. The reincorporation of Bessarabia and Bukovina after WWI impacted the geopolitics of the Romanian state, which became a steadfast ally of Poland during the interwar period.
Today Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. The easternmost part of the state is under the control of the breakaway Transnistrian Republic. Russia’s consistent interference in Moldovan affairs to prevent it from potentially joining the west through the EU and NATO is one of the key reasons for this tragic state of affairs.
Russia has been able to command such an outsize role in Moldova because aside from Romania, most other EU states have largely ignored the Moldovan people. Utilizing the local Russian-speaking population in both Bessarabia and separatist Transnistria where that population is most concentrated has given Moscow incredible leverage, and at very little economic cost. For the nearly half a million people living in Transnistria, a Russian passport has been the only ticket out of the enclave.
And it is precisely in this space where Poland can have an extraordinary impact in curbing Russian influence. What this requires is not only ramping up aid to the local Polish-community, but a full-scale effort by the Polish Government to revive Polish culture throughout Moldova. While, in general, Poles are largely oblivious of their connection to these lands, locals remember. The Russian-speaking community which Moscow has so expertly manipulated for its own ends has diverse ethnic origins. Polish ancestors can be easily found in the family tree of a considerable number of locals, owing to the many waves of Russification these lands were subjected to.
Scratch the surface however, and the numbers show that the conditions necessary for a revival of Polish influence abound. Nina Shtanski, the former First Lady of Transnistria is of Polish descent, while onetime spokesman for the Transnistrian President Jevgeny Zubov spent his childhood in Poland. The surname of Moldova’s second President, Petru Lucinschi is the Romanian transliteration of the Polish last name Łuczyński.
This is especially true of Transnistria, a good portion of which for centuries was under direct Polish rule. Ruins of Polish manors, palaces, and churches dot the landscape. The valley of Valea Adîncă (Waładynka) was the setting of Horpyna’s cave from Sienkiewicz’s epic “With Fire and Sword.” In many ways, the local Polish community of this vicinity mirrors the modern fate of the otherworldly Saiga antelope that open this novel: a once common sight now teetering on the brink of extinction.
What’s needed to reverse the current state of affairs is a full-court press. Poland needs to focus on reconnecting with Moldova in the same way it reengaged with other states that were once part of Poland under the Jagiellonian dynasty which became newly independent after the breakup of the USSR. This should include aspiring to have the leaders of Moldova and Poland meet with the same frequency that Warsaw links up with their Lithuanian counterparts.
The best way to begin this effort would be to make it part of a new tripartite group including Romania in addition to Poland and Moldova. Akin to the Weimar Triangle, this partnership would in effect be the modern successor to the close relationship between Greater Romania and Poland between the two World Wars. Such an opening by Poland to these 2 Romanian-speaking countries presents a whole host of additional opportunities for synergy, including cultural exchanges that would facilitate rekindling the ancient connections between these peoples along the Baltic and Black Seas.
WHAT TO DO AND WHAT DO WE GAIN
It’s no surprise that Soviet rule was catastrophic for the Polish communities in all of the lands that make up Moldova today. Russification and persecution resulted in a community which only now is beginning to reorganize itself. The support of Poland has been vital to this effort, but up to now what’s been done has been insufficient to satisfy the scope of the problem.
In return for aid, the Polish government needs to make it a priority to lobby Moldova and Transnistria into granting Poles official recognition as a national minority in both polities, with guaranteed political representation as part of that equation. This would have an immediate impact with Poles having a voice in the government bodies meeting in Tiraspol and Chișinău. Poles are entitled to similar rights in neighboring Romania, with one MP in the Chamber of Deputies representing them in Bucharest. Having a seat at the table as national issues are being discussed will immediately improve their position. This would provide a strong incentive for locals to give weight to their Polish ancestry.
Providing Russian language speakers in this region with the ability to reconnect to their Polish roots will not only deprive Russia of the cultural stranglehold it has on this portion of the population, it will grant new opportunities in one of Europe’s poorest areas. While still influential, Moscow’s monopoly with Russian speakers would come to an end.
This is why the United States and Poland’s NATO partners ought to support these goals not just as a courtesy to their ally, but in their own self-interest. Undoing the mass sovietization of a significant part of Moldova’s population, and in particularly Transnistria, will fundamentally weaken the Russian influence which has destabilized this region since the Transnistria War in 1990.
Given the relative ease with which those who speak Russian can understand and even master the closely related Polish language, the magnitude of what’s possible can shift the balance of power seismically. The Operational Group of Russian Forces stationed in Transnistria is a national security threat to Ukraine, one which must be given special consideration since the Russian invasion of Crimea and the continuing conflict in the Donbas. All 1,500 Russian soldiers are based at the former decommissioned Soviet ammunition depot in Cobasna, guarding around 22,000 tons of military equipment and ammunition.
DRAWN TOGETHER BY WINE, WARMTH, AND A SHARED HISTORY
Restoring the bonds between the peoples of Poland and Moldova will not take root without increasing direct contact between the citizens of both states. That means coordinating a national strategy to encourage travel to Moldova by Poles, which would also greatly increase Poland’s soft power throughout the region.
The Kresy, or the Outlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, continue to command the Polish imagination. Up to now, Moldova’s place as part of that space has been a blind spot as Poles indulge in nostalgia tourism. State-owned media such as Telewizja Polska could easily help bridge that gap by producing content to highlight tourist sites connected to the two countries’ shared heritage. By stimulating demand, the increased contact between Poles and Moldovans will foster grassroots attachments which in turn will serve to further cement personal ties. Given Moldova’s proximity to Poland, it’s warmer weather, as well as the country’s modest prices compared to Western Europe, such a move by Warsaw would assure it considerable influence in Chișinău.
There has been some movement in this direction already, albeit on a level insufficient to what is necessary. Several days before Moldova’s Independence Day on 27 August 2005, three European bison from Poland Białowieża Forest were brought to Moldova, restoring an animal which had been extinct locally since the 18th century. Polish media outlets such as Wirtualna Polska have published pieces on must-see sights in Moldova. It’s a trend that has accelerated recently thanks to popular Polish YouTubers such as Stefan Thompson releasing videos of their travels through the country. Buttressing this movement, Roman z Polszy, a Polish speaker from Moldova has helped to increase awareness of this community which is now emerging from decades of oppression. Rebuilding the magnificent French Neorenaissance Juriewicz Palace in Raşcov (Raszków) for use as a local Polish cultural center and museum could not only serve as a magnet to draw in Poles from Poland; it would serve as a visual testament to the rich Polish heritage in this part of the world.
At present, Poles don’t even figure within the top ten countries of origin for tourists visiting Moldova. While there is no surprise that neighboring Romania and Ukraine top the list, the table in the graphic clearly illustrates how Poles have been a non-factor in the Moldovan tourism sector. A significant number of these tourists hail from states which are further away from Chișinău than Warsaw, highlighting how geographic distance is not a factor preventing these folks from visiting Moldova.
Tourists in Moldova by country of origin (2018)
A significant pull to Moldova is its robust tradition of winemaking, long a driver of this land’s economy. Given the mild weather, it’s no surprise that Moldovan grape-growing enjoys such a distinguished pedigree and that wine was one of the chief exports of Moldova throughout the medieval period to Poland and Ukraine. This also presents an additional opportunity for Poland, as though Moldovan wines are still highly prized throughout the former USSR, Russia has banned the import of Moldovan wines a number of times, and will likely do so again in the future. Given that Moldova is the 20th largest wine-producing country in the world, has a vineyard area of 148,500 hectares (367,000 acres), and as of 2018 produced around 2 million hectolitres of wine, this power play by Moscow is meted out to punish the country where it hurts most. Poland, with its growing appetite for vino can easily step in to soften the blow to its neighbor for Moldova’s largest export, especially if it can rally its citizens to imbibe on the drink as a sign of solidarity. The increased popularity of wine tourism presents additional opportunities for Poles to make their presence felt in Moldova.
The potential of the Three Seas Initiative to change the geopolitics of East-Central Europe will remain unfulfilled so long as this part of the former Jagiellonian realm remains forgotten to the average Pole. By failing to act now, the window of opportunity to change direction will unfortunately pass, and Russia’s unchecked influence in the region will surely continue. Like with the bison from Białowieża that reestablished this animal which was for centuries extinct in Moldova, it is up to Poland to resurrect this special relationship for the benefit of East-Central Europe as it scrambles against Russian domination.
By Daniel Pogorzelski – an author, political analyst and contributor to the Warsaw Institute Review