Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 12

Moldova may be heading toward instability

by Vladimir Socor

Moldova does not have an abundance of assets to sustain its independenceand modernization. Now it risks losing one of the few major resourcesit has recently enjoyed: domestic political stability and civicconsensus. President Mircea Snegur earlier this month resignedhis membership in the governing Agrarian Democratic Party, andis now depriving it of a parliamentary majority by taking hissupporters out of the party, and seems to be on the verge of makingan alliance with a pro-Romanian party which had been his nemesis.In the process, Snegur appears to be embracing some of the Romanian-orientedgroups´ postulates. By coming out strongly in favor of renamingthe native language Romanian (as it in fact is) in place of Moldovan(as the recently adopted constitution and most of the native populationcalls it) the president is dividing the Agrarian party and ispreparing a political rapprochement with the Romanian-minded segmentof Moldovan opinion. On July 16 a presidential party, to be namedthe Party of Rebirth and Conciliation, held its founding conference,and was addressed by Snegur. The presidential camp is believedto be considering various scenarios for a dismissal or reshuffleof the cabinet of ministers or, alternatively, the dissolutionof parliament and new elections.

Behind Snegur´s actions lies a basic electoral projection.He intends to seek a second presidential term in the electionscheduled for December 1996. Parliament chairman Petru Lucinschiand Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli are preparing to challengehim. Both are ethnic Moldovan members of the same Agrarian DemocraticParty and each–particularly Sangheli–commands some factionalsupport within it. Sangheli controls important sections of theparty´s economic and political machine in the densely populatedMoldovan countryside, while Lucinschi has influential supportersin the central mass media and some banking and foreign trade groupslinked to parent business organizations in Russia. Moreover, itis generally expected–rightly or wrongly–that in a presidentialelection Sangheli or Lucinschi would garner overwhelming supportfrom the "Russian-speaking population," which comprisessome 35 percent of Moldova´s population, as compared to65 percent ethnic Moldovans, and tends to register a higher votingturnout than that of the ethnic majority. The minorities´bloc, should it materialize, may help defeat Snegur even in thefirst round. Because he is certain to lose in these areas by overwhelmingmargins, the president would need to garner three quarters ofthe ethnic Moldovan vote in order to win by a very narrow marginoverall. But Sangheli and Lucinschi probably have enough politicalstrength to prevent such a strong Moldovan bloc from forming.And either of them could carry only one third of the ethnic Moldovanvote and still win the presidency, if also narrowly, in the firstround.

Chisinau politicians and observers rightly or wrongly believethat the ethnic minorities will overwhelmingly prefer Snegur´srivals because of Snegur´s identification with, and ultimatelyleadership of, the Moldovan national movement in 1989-91, histemporary alliance with the Popular Front, his attempts to resistmilitarily the Transdniester and Russian forces´ offensivein 1992, and his championing of economic reforms and a Westernorientation which Moldova´s "Russian-speaking"Communist and Socialist parties resent. These perceptions of Snegurby approximately one third of the electorate are mostly inaccurateor unfair. Snegur has–as has the Moldovan political class ingeneral–compiled a widely recognized record of ethnic tolerance,had to bow to open military aggression in 1992, has for the pastfour years been in conflict with the Popular Front, and has presidedover Western-assisted economic reforms now starting to bear theirfirst fruit.

Moreover, Snegur received strong support from the ethnic minoritieswhen first elected president, running unopposed, in December 1991.At that time Snegur was rightly seen as guaranteeing that Moldovawould not unify with Romania (a prospect the ethnic minorities,in common with most Moldovans, feared), there was no party whichwould have mobilized the ethnic minority vote for another candidate,and there did not exist another candidate. This time, however,there are potential alternative candidates, and a Socialist anda Communist party likely to help deliver the ethnic minority voteto those candidates by feeding the misperceptions about Snegur.Those misperceptions constitute a political reality which Snegurhas to take into account.

The president´s hopes for reelection rested mainly on theAgrarian party leadership´s willingness and ability to restrainSangheli and Lucinschi from running, or at least to deny eitherof them party support if he did challenge the president. The party´schairman Dumitru Motpan–who is also a vice chairman of Parliamentand, unofficially, the Agrarian kingmaker–and most of the party´sExecutive Committee and parliamentary group, appeared willingall along to endorse Snegur as the party´s sole presidentialcandidate, and to work actively for his reelection. More recently,however, Snegur´s entourage lost confidence in the Agrarianleadership´s willingness, or at least ability, to do so.The party leadership´s and parliamentary group´s vetoof Snegur´s choices for a number of chiefs of district administrationsreinforced the suspicions in the presidential camp. The president´srivals have clearly signaled their intent to challenge him withthe support of such party elements as they may muster. Meanwhilethe Socialist and Communist parties have demonstrated a growingassertiveness and skilled organizational work in the Russophonecommunities, prompting Snegur´s team to practically writeoff the ethnic minority vote. The president´s advisers seemto have concluded sometime this spring that Snegur´s bestchance lies in maximizing his share of the ethnic Moldovan vote,and winning on its strength. The Agrarian leadership has opposedsuch a course because it involves polarization along ethnic andlinguistic lines.

The presidential camp has responded with a high-risk strategyon two tracks. The first track involves splitting the Agrarianparty, establishing a presidential party with solidly pro-Snegurex-Agrarians and other ad hoc allies, using patronage and otherincumbency advantages to attract more Agrarians and to intimidatenoncooperative ones, appointing supportive district chiefs andtown mayors, disabling the party structures likely to supportthe rivals in the presidential election, and seeking if possibleto install a new parliament and government before the presidentialelection. Pursuing this first track, the president has resignedfrom the Agrarian party, followed last week by 11 parliamentarydeputies–headed by the parliament´s other vice-chairmanand close Snegur ally, Nicolae Andronic–out of the party´s56 in the 104-seat parliament.

At its July 16 conference, at which it formed the Party of Rebirthand Conciliation, the group scheduled the party´s first congressfor late August. Snegur´s public letter of resignation andsubsequent statements, and those of his supporters, amount toa severe indictment of the Agrarian party. The presidential campaccuses the governing party, or groups within it, of opposingpolitical and economic reforms in general, blocking agriculturalprivatization, favoring integration with the CIS, making undueconcessions to the ethnic minorities over the language law, and–apoint guaranteed to inflame the exchanges–of backing the "nonscientific"designation Moldovan for the native language instead of Romanian.The Agrarian leadership responds that the Agrarian parliamentarymajority enacted the political and economic reforms which earnedMoldova strong backing from Western financial institutions andadmission as the first CIS country to the Council of Europe, thatthe party and Snegur have also been in consensus on agriculturalprivatization, CIS policy, language legislation, and policy towardethnic minorities. The presidential offensive against the Agrariansincludes some elements of intimidation. The majority party issometimes being accused of treason, of taking "anti-people"or "anti-national" positions, of having "reactionary"views, of "deviations," and lese majeste of thepresident.

The switch or tactical adjustment on the issue of national identityforms the crux of the second track of the president´s strategywhich is aimed at maximizing his share of the ethnic Moldovanvote. To achieve that goal he needs active support from the UnitedDemocratic Congress, the more moderate of the two pro-Romanianparties, and at least tacit acceptance by the more radical PopularFront. These two parties hold 11 and 9 seats, respectively, inthe 104-seat parliament, having obtained only 9 percent and 7percent, respectively, of the votes at the 1994 parliamentaryelections. Despite that low level of popularity, the support particularlyof the United Democratic Congress would be crucial to Snegur becausethe party is centered in the literary and journalistic communityand also includes many school teachers, well placed to canvassthe Moldovan vote for Snegur in the villages.

Because of his rejection of political unification with Romaniaand his insistence on a distinct Moldovan national identity, Snegurhas been under intense attack from these parties since 1991 (atwhich time the two parties were in fact one, before separatingin 1993). Recently the president has embarked on an all-out effortat reconciliation, beginning with his response to their demandson the language issue. From February to April this year, thousandsof students staged daily rallies and demonstrations in centralChisinau demanding that constitutional articles codifying thelanguage name, and the indigenous people´s identity, as Moldovanbe amended or eliminated. After initial hesitations, Snegur endorsedmost of the demands without consulting with the parliamentarymajority. His rift with the Agrarians has now deepened, and theyare calling for a referendum on the issue, confident that theMoldovan option would prevail; whereas Snegur and the pro-Romaniangroups jointly oppose the referendum initiative. The presidenthas made other symbolic concessions as well to these groups. Soundingsfor forming an electoral alliance are underway with the UnitedDemocratic Congress. The latter´s demands have not yet crystallized,but are being advanced by individual leaders of that party. Inaddition to renunciation of Moldovan identity, they call interalia for Romanian language testing of non-Romanian-speaking stateemployees, limitations on the scope of Russian-language educationfor Russian speakers, restrictions on "anti-national"parties, rescinding Gagauz territorial autonomy, withdrawing theoffer of Transdniester autonomy, and a political rapprochementwith Romania.

The short-term outlook seems to be for continuing agitation andlatent instability. An unnecessarily acrimonious and debilitatingelection campaign has suddenly started at full steam 18 monthsbefore the presidential election. The parliament no longer hasa reliable majority. The Agrarians, now down to 43 seats from56, are negotiating the formation of a legislative coalition withthe Socialists who hold 28 seats in the 104-seat parliament. TheSocialists´ price is not yet known. The two parties are closein their views on ethnic problems and on most constitutional issues,but differ on economic reforms which the Agrarians support, butwhich most Socialist resist. The net result might be that veryslowdown in economic reforms which worried the presidential camp.Potential foreign investors may prefer to wait and see.

Snegur can be forced into some concessions to Bucharest againsthis own judgment, and would then be under pressure to balancethose through different concessions made to Moscow. He may tosome extent become a captive of his allies, just as the weakenedAgrarians may come to depend on the Socialists for support. Themost pressing issues such as the withdrawal of Russian troopsmay be forced onto the back burner. Negotiations with Tiraspolalso seem likely to stagnate in these circumstances. The reopeningof the Romanian issue in Moldova´s domestic politics givesTiraspol pretexts to insist on its original demand for statehood.It also sharply reduces the chance of Transdniester´s participationin the presidential election, unless Tiraspol decides to allowits population to participate in order to tip the scale againstSnegur.

In either case, the president´s strategy will have backfiredagainst him. The Agrarian party now seems virtually certain toenter a candidate, or even two, against Snegur. If Snegur´steam seeks victory on an ethnic basis as it now plans, the president´srivals will emerge as ethnic conciliators enjoying multiethnicsupport. The president´s democratic image can only sufferin that case. It seems that his advisers have done the presidenta disservice by recommending the strategy currently being followed.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation