Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 184

Virtually every skeleton emerged from the closet of Romanian-Moldovan relations last week. Considering the barely hidden reserves of mutual acrimony, unreasonably stoked by both sides, an eruption was waiting to happen. It did so at the worst possible time for either Moldova or Romania, and in full view of Europe.

On October 2 in Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held the first hearing in the case brought by the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia against the government of Moldova. The case is ecclesiastical in appearance only. In fact, it is heavily political, goes to the heart of Romanian-Moldovan interstate relations and the vexed issue of the Moldovan national identity, holds implications for Ukraine and affects both Romania’s and Moldova’s European standing. The court case has triggered an explosion of public polemics between Bucharest and Chisinau.

The Moldovan government–defendant in the case–refuses to authorize the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia to operate legally in Moldova. The government only recognizes the Metropolitanate of Chisinau and Moldova as legitimate. It is standard practice in Orthodox countries–Moldova being more than 90 percent Orthodox–for the state to recognize a single Orthodox church structure. Moldova’s remains subordinate to the Moscow patriarchy.

The Metropolitanate of Bessarabia, by far the smaller of the two churches in Moldova, was created by decision of the Romanian Patriarchy in Bucharest in 1992, as part of efforts to promote the Romanian national idea in Moldova. The clergy–though not necessarily most parishioners–of this church regard it as “church of the Romanian nation.” The Romanian Patriarchy appoints the hierarchy of this church and supports it through generous donations. The word Bessarabia in its title reflects the traditional Romanian view of Moldova as a province of Romania, rather than a state in its own right, and of Moldovans as Romanians.

The problem also affects Ukraine. The former province of Bessarabia is today divided between Moldova and Ukraine. The Romanian Patriarchy claims ecclesiastical jurisdiction not only over the Republic of Moldova, but also over those parts of Bessarabia that belong to Ukraine today. Accordingly, the church of Romania has bestowed on the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia the additional title of “jurisdiction over the open lands” [exarhat al plaiurilor] by which southern and northern Bessarabia as well as northern Bukovina are meant. This piece of historical-ecclesiastical romanticism does not deserve being taken seriously, but it is so taken in Bucharest, in Chisinau, as well as in Kyiv, Odessa or Chernovtsy.

For their part, the Metropolitanate of Chisinau and Moldova as well as the Moldovan government regard the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia as a splinter group, formed on an ethnic basis by those who feel Romanian rather than Moldovan, and whose leaders–though not necessarily most flock–want the Moldovan state to unite with Romania. As regards dogma or rite, there is not the slightest difference between these two Orthodox churches. They do differ somewhat with respect to ethnic makeup. One is entirely Moldovan/Romanian, while the other and much larger one reflects the overall ethnic makeup of Moldova, which is some 65 percent Moldovan, 14 percent Ukrainian, 13 percent Russian, 3.5 percent Gagauz and 2 percent Bulgarian, according to the last census (1989). But they differ fundamentally with respect to allegiance and the sense of national identity, though many of those involved on either side would correctly point out that the options of various parish priests are often guided by considerations less exalted than national identity.

Since 1992 Moldova’s successive governments have refused legal registration to the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia. The governments have cited, first, Orthodox canon law, which precludes the existence of two churches in one state; second, reasons of state, which militate against recognizing a church that does not recognize the that same state; and, third, political expediency, which requires that the state avoid an ecclesiastical split, after having already been torn apart by territorial, ideological and ethnic splits. For most of the time, the state has sought to pass the buck to the church itself, hoping to relegate the problem to the sphere of canon law.

The court case in Strasbourg has now forced the Moldovan government to reach for political arguments. That places it at a disadvantage while the other side portrays the case as one of religious freedom and human rights. The Metropolitanate of Bessarabia initiated the proceedings at the ECHR in 1998, demanding that the court order the Moldovan government to grant the legal registration. It was not until October 2 of this year that the court heard the case. No further hearings are scheduled. The verdict, expected within a month, will be executory and unappealable.

Speaking for the Moldovan government before the court, Justice Minister Ion Morei described the plaintiff church as an instrument of the Romanian state and of “Romanian expansionism.” He used similar terms to describe the Popular Front, which is the main pro-Romanian party in Moldova and is closely associated with the Metropolitanate of Bessarabia. Morei warned against “destabilization” and “direct interference into the affairs of the sovereign state of Moldova” by Romania and “pro-Romanian forces.” Morei also pointed to the Ukrainian implications of the issue.

In Chisinau, several leaders of the governing Communist Party supported that line of argument, but used more moderate language. Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev declared that the government would not comply with the ECHR’s verdict “with closed eyes,” but only on the condition that it is “balanced” and “patriotic” in the Moldovan sense of the term.

On October 3-4, the Romanian government issued a vitriolic declaration, terming the Moldovan position on the ethnic issue “Soviet Bolshevik.” Prime Minister Adrian Nastase reinforced this declaration and went on to cancel a planned visit to Moldova. Foreign Affairs Minister Mircea Geoana and several other ministers also cancelled prescheduled visits. The Romanian government has demanded official explanations from the Moldovan government. Chisinau can least afford this quarrel, but Bucharest also risks an international embarrassment if its position is seen as irredentist or as harking back to the period between the two world wars (Flux, Basapress, Rompres, October 1-4).