Ever heard of the Republic of Gagauzia? I hadn’t, as I’m guessing is the case for most of us in the United States. Then again, before 2014 I was not aware that there existed enough sectionalist sentiment in eastern Ukraine for something like a ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’ or its neighbor, the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic,’ to spring into existence in the Donbass; or that, according to some old maps conveniently re-promoted at the time in Moscow, all of the region (and much beyond) had long fallen under the cultural-political complex of ‘Novorossiya,’ at least up until the unfortunate Ukrainian interlude that had begun after the fall of the Soviet Union.
All of which is to say, don’t count the Gagauz out! A region in the southern part of Moldova, Gagauzia is the kind of place where, when you visit (as Robert Kaplan discovered while researching his latest book, In Europe’s Shadow) you encounter men who present you with business cards describing them as “chief of the general department of economic development, trade and services of Gagauzia,”—a minister with a broad portfolio, if, as yet, without a country. “We are deeply engaged in the Turkic and Russian worlds, but we have no emotional links whatsoever to Romania and Moldova,” this man told Kaplan over lunch at a dingy hotel, later noting that “forty-thousand Gagauz are stranded” right over the border in Ukraine.
Stranded. This disconcerting exchange occurs in the finest chapter of Kaplan’s book, ‘The Pontic Breach.’ As a stand-alone work of reporting and analysis it ought to be required reading for Westerners looking to opine about “the ultimate marchland” and key terrain of southeastern Europe, Romania—to which Moldova once belonged, before being chopped off by Stalin. (This is a book best read with a terrain map of Eastern Europe open in front of you.) The Pontic Breach, a term of Kaplan’s invention, refers to the wide coastal plain between the Carpathians and the Black Sea, connecting the Ukrainian steppe with the Danube valley—a southern counterpart to the natural invasion route between Russia and central Europe over the Polish plains.
Geography may not be destiny, but it sure can give you a hint—as can history, which in Romania has very often been grim. Because the existence of the Internet provides both marvels and horrors on demand, anyone who likes can call up the video of the claustrophobic show trial and swift execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in 1989—the angry, frail, somewhat doddering old man accusing the court of a lack of patriotism; his birdlike, also elderly, but obviously sharper wife refusing to be taken out separately to be shot, getting her way, then shouting ineffectually as the two are tied up and executed together moments later.
It’s almost enough to cause sympathy, until one dwells on the immense human suffering for which those two were responsible, including many an execution (no one really knows how many—thousands, and many more dead from starvation) far crueler than their own. Before the Ceaușescus, who after a trip to North Korea borrowed their leadership style from the Kim family, there was Gheorghiu-Dej, who borrowed his from Stalin. To get to anything like a breather, you still have to pass through the horrors of the Second World War, when Antonescu sided with the Nazi’s, helping them to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Jews and other innocents only to meet his own demise in front of a firing squad after Romania flipped to Stalin late in the war.
Before that was the so-called interbellum period, about which Kaplan hears much during his journeys. Indeed, when Romania figures in the post-war English canon—as in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel memoirs or Olivia Manning’s novels—these years often feature, and the device of choice tends to be dramatic irony. An open question for Kaplan, and for the pro-Western politicians he interviews in Bucharest or Chișinău, is whether the current years of relative peace and prosperity (in Romania at least, if only to a lesser extent in Moldova) will one day be written of in the same tragic tone.
Romania, for its part, has aligned itself firmly with the West, supporting the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as joining NATO, the EU, and looking to join the Eurozone within the next decade—assuming there is still such a thing to join. It faces the Russian threat not only to its east, with destabilization in Moldova and Ukraine, but also, potentially, to its west, in the historically more bourgeois direction of Hungary. There, the government of Viktor Orbán has taken a noticeably Putinesque turn, and (by the way) there are many thousands of ethnic Hungarians in Romania’s west. Hungary is, of course, also a member of NATO and the EU. Wouldn’t it just make Putin’s day if sometime soon Orbán started to speak of this population as “stranded”?
Conservative—and, uncomfortably, fascist—Romanian nationalists have tended to look west for their identity and to see their country’s special destiny in serving as a sort of Latin shield in the face of Slavs, Turks, and other threats to a European cultural project. Kaplan muses at length on the shortcomings of such a historical vision, not to mention the potentially toxic employment that it can be put toward, but effectively endorses a housetrained version—a benign nationalism.
As is Kaplan’s way such musings are often personal, and this book is as much memoir as reportage—but it can’t go unnoticed that here his elegiac tone is often directed by Kaplan at himself. He spends much of the book reflecting on his youth, on the craft of journalism, and on his regrets: his support for the Iraq war and the fact that his book Balkan Ghosts kept the Clinton administration out of the former Yugoslavia when Kaplan believed that American intervention there was desperately needed. Relitigating that case with an eye towards Eastern Europe’s present situation, he writes here:
But, I repeat, it is only the darkest human and political landscapes where intervention is ever required in the first place. Therefore, you should never have to romanticize a landscape—or shade your analysis in any way—in order to take action on its behalf. And you should know the worst about a place before you craft even the boldest and most humanistic policy toward it.
Who knows what the United States will do in the face of the threat to liberal democracy posed by Putin? However it falls out, our luck continues in having Kaplan as our correspondent.