The anticommunist mass protests in downtown Chisinau, staged daily since January 9, appear to be running out of steam. Following the peak on February 24, when crowd size estimates ranged from 40,000 to 100,000 (see the Monitor, February 25), the daily attendance has plummeted to some 2,000 on average, and an all-time low of 1,500 yesterday. This represents a drastic decline from the 15,000 to 20,000-strong crowds that were gathering daily during most of February. University and secondary school students continue supplying, as heretofore, a majority in the thinning ranks.
The reasons behind the numerical ebb include: sheer fatigue, school and parental pressure on teenage students to return to classes, and limited political concessions by the Communist authorities in their disarray. The main factor behind the ebb, however, is the failure of the populace in the country and even in the capital to join the protests. These had from the outset drawn on a narrow social and generational base. The overemphasis on Romanian rhetoric and symbols could only keep that base narrow, in a capital city 50 percent Russophone, and in a country in which no more than 10 percent of the population possesses a Romanian national consciousness.
The Christian-Democrat People’s Party (CDPP, formerly the Popular Front), leading the protests, has persisted in using those counterproductive tactics, reflecting its leaders’ fixation on their own 1989-90 experience as well as their lack of experts who could formulate a convincing socioeconomic platform. While these are traditional weaknesses of the CDPP, its leadership often tends to turn them into virtues by focusing deliberately on “its” narrow electoral segment, outbidding its rivals for the Romanian-minded voters and writing off the other 90 percent. Conversely, it is a measure of the Moldovan center-right parties’ political bankruptcy that tens of thousands joined the CDPP-led protests in spite of reservations that many of them harbored about the CDPP itself.
This situation highlights the vacuum of leadership on the noncommunist side of the body politic, and the debility of the democratic opposition in Europe’s sole Communist-governed country. The CDPP, essentially a nationalist party, continues much as it did before 1991 to provide a poor substitute for a democratic opposition. The difference between then and now is two-fold. First, the CDPP’s popular base narrowed to a fraction of its former size. Second, and most important for Moldova’s future, a new generation has come of age that looks to Europe, rather than to Russia for cultural models, and to Romania rather than to Slavdom, Greater Russia and Soviet Moldova for its historical roots. This generation overwhelmingly prefers the study of English and other Western languages over that of Russian as a mandatory subject in their schools, and it hopes one day to join an enlarged Europe, not as a province of Romania but alongside that country. It is this generation that seeks a viable political leadership.
On the eve of the February 24 rally, the Communist authorities signaled a partial and possibly temporary retreat from their own ill-considered decisions that had triggered the protests. These signals have since been repeated, partly defusing the tensions and helping to dissipate the protesting crowds. The government has modified its decision on the compulsory study of Russian from the second grade of elementary school on. The change “suspends” the original decision and makes that school subject optional. The government has also suspended the decision to replace Romanian history with Moldovan history as a mandatory subject. Apparently, the government and the Communist leadership itself intend to commission a new textbook, rather than using the one penned by veterans of Soviet Moldovan historiography.
These changes remain promises that can be revoked later, and the suspension can itself be reversed. The Moldovan Communist leadership and the government are unpredictable improvisers who muddle along under multiple pressures, lurching from concession to countervailing concession whenever necessary, without a guiding concept. The Communist parliamentary majority has initiated legislation to confer official status on the Russian language, and it has more than enough votes to amend the constitution for that. Should it come to pass, one result would be to reinstate the government’s decision on the compulsory study of Russian in elementary and secondary schools, along with a whole set of re-Russification measures.
The government has dismissed Education Minister Ilie Vancea, a Communist who had actually opposed his party leadership’s measures on language and historiography. He did so publicly in barely veiled language during the year he served in that post. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and the office of President Vladimir Voronin accused Vancea of having initiated those measures and pushed them through. If the dismissal was meant to find a scapegoat and appease the protesters, it only succeeded in casting further doubt on the government’s credibility.
Commemorating ten years since the outbreak (March 3, 1992) of the armed conflict on the Dniester, Voronin renewed the Communist party’s electoral promise to give the Russian language official status. He did so in a televised address to the population of Transdniester. For the first time officially, the president portrayed that issue as part of a set of concessions to induce Transdniester to rejoin the rest of Moldova. Should he take that road, Voronin will discover that Moldovans who oppose the “Trasnsdniestrization” of Moldova are more numerous than those who would pay the price for reunification on those terms. If experience is any guide, Voronin may well lurch back to defuse the likely protests as he muddles along from one improvisation to the next (Flux, Basapress, February 26-28, March 1-5; see the Monitor, January 14, 18, 23, February 1, 7, 18, 20, 22, 25, 27).
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