A shouting match yesterday between the Communist parliamentary majority leader and a student protest leader encapsulates Moldova’s recent history, current situation and, unfortunately for the country, its near-term political outlook: “You won’t change us any more than we can change you,” the student leader concluded after several hours of emotionally charged discussion on the issue of Moldovan versus Romanian identity.
In the seventh week of daily protest demonstrations in downtown Chisinau, the Communist authorities have at last entered into discussions with the opposition Christian-Democrat People’s Party (CDPP, the renamed Popular Front) and student representatives. Both sides stake almost everything on the “national question” as it relates to interpretations of history, language legislation and the ethnic legitimacy of the state.
Meanwhile, the country continues its downward spiral. Its immense agricultural potential has degenerated to subsistence farming, its populace has become Europe’s poorest, its antiquated infrastructure has degraded almost beyond repair, its privatization projects are a story of almost unrelieved failure, its finances are on the threshold of defaulting on the large–and largely misused–foreign credits, its relations with the West are being mismanaged, and its territory is dismembered and partly Russian-occupied. None of that is a topic in the political confrontation in Chisinau, however. The rulers and the opposition alike seem overwhelmingly focused on the nationality issues that have for nearly a century defined Moldova’s politics.
Neither camp seems to have a clue about tackling the country’s real, economic and institutional problems. Both camps sorely lack experts with modern training, and indeed a comprehension of the modern world. One camp is mired in Soviet nostalgia and reflexive subservience to Russia. The other finds its inspiration in a historic-romantic nationalism for which contemporary Europe no longer has any use, and which can embarrass Romania. The Romanian government is having a difficult time discouraging irredentist temptations, awakened by the Chisinau events. The government knows that any such temptations could be fatal to Romania’s quest for admission to NATO and the European Union. Thus far, Bucharest is handling the situation skillfully. Meanwhile, the Russian government acts as claimant to hegemony over Moldova, by supporting the pro-Moscow Communists on the right bank of the Dniester and the Russian minority regime on the left bank, and by proposing to keep Russian troops there in violation of international pacts.
The CDPP’s choice of tactics and rhetoric can only limit the size and appeal of the protest movement. Its leaders and the student activists focus heavily on Romanian issues, to the neglect of the socioeconomic issues that bedevil the population at large. In a country where barely one-tenth of the population exhibits a Romanian national awareness, the emphasis on Romanian national issues will rally an activist core, but is bound to dissuade the majority of Moldovans from joining in the protests. It is also bound to solidify the Communist Party’s hold on the Russian/Russian-speaking electorate and its part of the ethnic Moldovan electorate, the combination of which propelled the Communist Party to power last year.
From January 9 to date, the daily protest rallies have been relentless, but confined to Chisinau’s better-educated groups and students. In the second week of February, secondary school pupils joined in massively. Crowd size grew from a few thousand during January to some 20,000 on average days (the 30,000-plus figures, suggested by sympathetic local journalists, are exaggerated, but may yet be attained and even surpassed at peak events, such as the climactic rally, scheduled for Sunday, February 24 and awaited with trepidation on both sides). By all accounts, well over half of the crowd on any given day are university and secondary school students. Most of the participants are the same ones day after day. Their mood, while determined and often indignant, remains entirely peaceful, even goodnatured on the whole. These young people have a good time socializing among peer groups and mocking the uneducated behavior and language of the Communist leaders. Meanwhile, Chisinau’s working population remains largely passive after seven weeks of relentless protests in the central square. The country–which is to say, the heavily ethnic Moldovan rural populace–does not seem to budge.
Local pundits suggest that the Communists and the CDPP were each guided by purely partisan considerations when they engaged in this showdown. With pre-term local elections scheduled to be held countrywide on April 7, and the Communist Party with no accomplishment to show after a full year in power, the Communist leadership needed a quick move to hold its electorate together on the cheap. It therefore gave the Russian language a privileged status in schools and replaced Romanian history with Moldovan history as a mandatory subject. It almost certainly also calculated that inevitable CDPP protests would scare many uncommitted voters into voting Communist and “Moldovan,” equating the two. For its part, the CDPP moved quickly to pursue its ten-year-old goal of monopolizing the Romanian-conscious electorate and annihilating the CDPP’s many–and fractious–competitors on the center-right and right-wing segments of the political spectrum. Reduced in all the post-1991 elections to a share of less than 10 percent of the vote–approximately coinciding with that of the Romanian-conscious population–the CDPP has survived by outbidding all its competitors for that part of the electorate.
Meanwhile, on February 19, the Constitutional Court pronounced the pre-term local elections unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the political motivations for either side to polarize political life remain as compelling from the standpoint of partisan interests. Traditionally, such political polarization has benefited both sides, while not precluding occasional tactical cooperation between them. The issue of Moldovan-ness versus Romanian-ness is the perennial polarizing issue of this country’s politics, as well as the perennial distraction from the profound socioeconomic problems. One hope-inducing factor is that the younger and better educated age cohorts, now out in Chisinau’s central square, are beginning to display a European spirit that transcends the narrow ethnic issues, with which some veteran CDPP leaders are identified. Ethnicizing the anti-Commmunist cause can only weaken it (Roundup based on recent Moldovan news reporting; see the Monitor, January 14, 18, 23, February 1, 7, 18, 20).
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