Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 198

On October 22, the Moldovan parliament approved legislation to create a county, Taraclia, at the insistence of the area’s predominantly Bulgarian population. The decision brings a peaceful and democratic resolution to an incipient ethnic dispute fraught with potential international implications.

The voting in the 101-seat parliament strictly followed party lines: Fifty-eight centrists and communists voted in favor, while the self-styled “right” and center-right opposed the measure. President Petru Lucinschi and Parliament Chairman Dumitru Diacov–leader of the centrist Bloc for a Prosperous and Democratic Moldova–had supported it all along. The cabinet of ministers ultimately also came down in its favor. The Romanian-oriented Popular Front, which would like to align Moldova to Romania’s centralist model of government, led the resistance to the creation of Taraclia county.

Moldova is home to approximately 90,000 Bulgarians, slightly more than half of whom reside in Taraclia, the rest in adjacent areas of southern Moldova. Taraclia used to be a Soviet-type “raion” [district] until 1998, when Moldova’s administrative-territorial reform abolished all raions, recombining them into eight counties. The reform attached Taraclia to the newly formed Cahul county, in which Bulgarians would have become a minority. The local population never recognized that change. In January 1999 it staged a local referendum in which 92 percent of the voters–with an 88 percent turnout–expressed the wish to have a distinct territorial unit. The vote transcended ethnic lines, reflecting a local consensus around the solidly Bulgarian leadership of the Taraclia district and of the protest movement (see the Monitor, January 26).

The population of Taraclia went on to boycott Moldova’s local elections in May 1999. Taraclia’s elected executive leader–the ethnic Bulgarian Kirill Darmanchev–and his administrative apparatus continued exercising de facto authority after having lost their posts de jure under the reform. The protest found resonance in Bulgaria, whose government quietly interceded with Moldova’s. Ukraine, too, monitored the situation carefully, with an eye to its own ethnic Bulgarian population in the Odessa region. That population resides compactly in Ukraine’s portion of southern Bessarabia, directly abutting on Taraclia. Ukrainian officials cautiously recommended that Chisinau defuse the situation by granting the demand for a distinct Taraclia county, but that it stop short of instituting an explicitly ethnic autonomy to avoid a precedent that might then be invoked by Ukraine’s Bulgarian population.

Moldova’s First Deputy Prime Minister Nicolae Andronic, head of the government’s special commission which dealt with the problem, ultimately pushed the legislation through parliament. A man unafraid of political and other risks, Andronic is the prime motor behind former President Mircea Snegur’s Party of Rebirth and Conciliation, and sometimes overrides Snegur’s position–as he did in this case. The Andronic commission took the position–which the government endorsed–that creating a Taraclia county was the only way to avoid the escalation of the protest into a movement for ethnic autonomy, an ethnic conflict, destabilization of the nearby Gagauz region and saddling Moldova with a second Transdniester. That argument may have overdramatized the situation somewhat, so as to counter the opponents’ thesis that creation of the county would jeopardize Moldova’s territorial integrity. In actual fact it helps to consolidate it.

The new county is not endowed with a “special status.” It is, rather, placed on a par with the other counties, with a leadership to be elected locally and a prefect to be appointed by Chisinau. Yet owing to the composition of its population, the new county comes close to forming for all intents and purposes a Bulgarian unit within Moldova, in a complex multiethnic area–southern Bessarabia, or the Bujak–whose Moldovan, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Gagauz elements live side by side (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, October 22-23, 25).