Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

On January 24, the predominantly Bulgarian population of the Taraclia district in southern Moldova challenged the central government by voting in a referendum to preserve that district. The result was 92 percent in favor and 6 percent opposed, with an 88 percent turnout which cut across ethnic lines. The district council (an elective body) called the referendum, the district’s electoral commission administered it, and local cooperative farms and businesses covered the costs. About half of Moldova’s 90,000 Bulgarians reside there; the rest live in adjacent areas.

Moldova’s recently adopted law on administrative-territorial organization has abolished all the districts (the Soviet-era “raions”) and recombined them into eight counties. The law attaches Taraclia to the new Cahul county, in which Bulgarians would become a minority. The Bulgarians, however, want to retain Taraclia, where they are the majority. Local Moldovans and other ethnic elements also oppose the change simply because they stand to lose convenient access to certain social services, which would be transferred out of Taraclia under the reorganization.

The problem is usually presented in Moldovan and international media as a case of ethnic friction pitting a “minority” against the “majority.” The voting, however, showed a local consensus irrespective of ethnicity in favor of preserving the district. Moreover, the district’s elected leadership–mostly Bulgarian–does not propose to create an ethnic or national-cultural autonomy, and does not raise any of the linguistic and other usual “ethnic” demands.

President Petru Lucinschi had favored retaining Taraclia as a unit in its own right in the administrative-territorial reorganization, but failed to persuade the parliament. In a last-minute attempt at defusing tension, Lucinschi agreed to hold the January 25 vote as a nonbinding “consultation,” rather than as a referendum. The local leaders, however, insist that it is binding and have announced their intention to internationalize the discussion of the case. Some political circles in Chisinau call for ignoring the vote and rejecting the grievance. An uncompromising response might, however, turn the moderate demands into more radical ones, potentially including territorial autonomy. That could saddle Moldova with a third enclave, in addition to Transdniester and the Gagauz region (Flux, Basapress, January 25).