Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 27

Moldova’s Communist leadership seems well along in reenacting the classical model of the “permanent purge”–albeit a gentle one, Moldovan-style. Its latest casualties are officials known for their efforts to stop the reversal of market reforms and to preserve the past achievements in terms of relations with the West.

On February 6, at President Vladimir Voronin’s instructions, Moldova’s cabinet of ministers dismissed the Deputy Prime Minister and Economics Minister Andrei Cucu and the ambassador to the United States, Ceslav Ciobanu, on corruption accusations these officials had convincingly refuted. In the same session, Finance Minister Mihai Manoli read aloud a letter of resignation that amounts also to a statement of conscience. It says, in essence, that he could no longer countenance this government’s economic policies.

Cucu and Manoli are politically unaffiliated and were holdovers from the predecessor government (2000-2001) of Dumitru Braghis. They tried to stay the course of Western-assisted reforms, despite the political unpopularity of those reforms and the Communists’ strong comeback. The Communists kept those two ministers on board as reassurance to Western governments and financial institutions. Indeed Cucu and Manoli were among the precious few credible interlocutors to the West in this Communist-controlled government.

Ciobanu, ambassador to Washington since 1998, had previously served as economic adviser to President Mircea Snegur and as Privatization Minister. He is identified with the early, seemingly successful phases of Moldova’s privatization program. The Communists and a diehard kolkhoz-minded lobby, which is influential with this government, especially resent Ciobanu for his prominent role in implementing an agricultural decollectivization program, known as “Pamint” [Land] and funded by the United States. Under this program, kolkhozes were broken up, and hundreds of thousands of peasant households received land in private ownership. Unfortunately for this agricultural country, however, the Western-designed Land program did not provide sufficient economic underpinnings to the legal aspects of agrarian reform. A great many of its beneficiaries therefore ended up poorer and voted Communist in last year’s parliamentary elections. The victorious Communists are now completing their settling of accounts with the officials of the 1990s era of reforms.

The corruption accusations against Cucu and Ciobanu center on the Ribnita Steel Works in Transdniester. This is by far the largest industrial enterprise in Moldova on either bank of the Dniester. It is a profit-making exporter to Western markets, and it provides singlehandedly approximately half of Transdniester’s official budget revenue from business taxes. Russia’ s Itera company–an offshoot of Gazprom–acquired some 75 percent of Ribnita Steel Works’ shares in 1999, without any known legal enactment of the Moldovan state as recognized sovereign authority and legal owner. Ribnita can afford to practice dumping in the West because its production costs are low and its Russian gas came–until now–gratis. Last year, the U.S. government put Ribnita on the list of foreign steel producers subjected to antidumping taxes of some 230 percent, thus in practice barring them from the U.S. market.

President Voronin, who initiated a number of economic measures against Transdniester’s authorities, has apparently chosen to believe that Cucu and Ciobanu protected Ribnita. The two officials, however, yesterday made documents showing the opposite public. They have been trying, with apparent success, to thwart Ribnita’s attempts in the United States to qualify for treatment as a producer from a country with “market economy” status. Such treatment would exempt the steel plant’s exports from the prohibitive antidumping tax. Moldova is indeed applying to the United States for treatment as a market-economy country. Ironically, Ribnita would be the sole real beneficiary because it is the only major “Moldovan”–in a purely nominal sense–exporter to the United States. The documents, released by the two purged Moldovan officials, show that they asked Washington to apply the preferential “market economy” treatment only to economic entities that are legally registered with the government in Chisinau, comply with Moldovan legislation and pay taxes to Moldova’s budget. They specifically sought to exclude Ribnita from such preferential treatment. The accusation of collusion with Ribnita seems a fabricated pretext for a Communist political vendetta.

That such vendettas hurt Moldova’s state interests can be seen from the current infighting, which Chisinau’s Communist authorities are engineering in the Gagauz Autonomous Territory. The situation there prompted the Chisinau Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to issue a highly unusual statement criticizing the government on February 5. The government seems lightheartedly prepared to forfeit the considerable international credit that Moldova previously earned by granting self-government to the Gagauz people–a unique case in post-Soviet Europe of ethnic-territorial autonomy based on representative institutions.

The Chisinau Communists’ current target there is the elected Bashkhan [chief executive official] Dumitru Croitor, a holdover from the 1990s reform era. Croitor stayed loyal to Chisinau in opposition to the Transdniester-incited Gagauz separatism, then served as Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister during Mircea Snegur’s presidency, gained exposure to the West–which is exceedingly rare in that part of Moldova–and implemented the Council of Europe-approved administrative reform there. At present, the Communists in Chisinau are canceling that reform country-wide, and de-mothballing their old cadres to fill the proliferating bureaucratic posts. In the Gagauz territory they openly encourage moves to depose Croitor, in clear violation of the autonomy’s status.

Although the deposition move has fallen just short of the required majority in the Gagauz autonomy’s legislature, Chisinau government officials keep up the pressure. They support, ironically, a Gagauz group that had backed secession from Moldova in the early 1990s in tandem with Tiraspol. The situation almost came to a head in the last few days when Chisinau’s Internal Affairs Ministry and Special Information Service attempted unsuccessfully to censor Gagauz television programs, to take over the studio’s premises and to sack locally appointed Gagauz police officials. Those attempts themselves seemed vintage Moldovan in their ineffectiveness, but also in their blithe ignorance of the law. The Communist political vendettas are unnecessarily exacerbating a tense political situation against the backdrop of economic collapse (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, February 4-7).