Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 56

With characteristic outward grace, Petru Lucinschi has bowed out of Moldova’s presidential office, though not necessarily out of the political stage. Like his one-time protector Mikhail Gorbachev, Lucinschi will henceforth head a private foundation, in which he plans to assemble “prominent representatives of the intelligentsia” and offer advice to society, including his successors in power. But unlike Gorbachev, who made room–however unwillingly–for a noncommunist regime, Lucinschi is being succeeded by a communist president and an overwhelmingly communist parliament–the first Red return to power in any of the post-Soviet countries. Lucinschi’s career richly illustrates the relations between the Moscow center and the peripheries of the former empire during almost three decades of late Soviet and post-Soviet politics.

In the final analysis, and not just because of the Red revanche, Lucinschi’s demise is a loss to Moldova. Although himself a product of the Soviet system, who rose to the top hierarchy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Lucinschi was able to transform himself into the closest Moldovan approximation of a Western-style politician. A telegenic figure and a born communicator, adept at the daily political compromise, tolerant of diversity, skilled at consensus- and coalition-building on the lowest common denominator, convinced of the virtues of the separation of powers, a conciliator by temperament and vocation, Lucinschi would have been at home in a more mature democratic system than that of Moldova. But given the Moldovan political environment in which he operated, he did not always put his political skills to constructive use.

Yet he failed to fully transcend the Soviet and Russocentric mindset in one crucial respect. Unlike such counterparts as Algirdas Brazauskas in Lithuania, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia or Haidar Aliev in Azerbaijan, Lucinschi was never able to complete his transformation from Moscow’s proconsul in a Soviet republic to national leader of an independent country. During most of his career, Lucinschi alternated between two roles: representing Moscow’s interests and policies in the ex-Soviet space and representing his own republic’ interests vis-a-vis Moscow. Ultimately he fell between the two.

Lucinschi, who is now 61, suffered three major defeats in his career at the hands of Moldova’s communists, one of the most resilient and obscurantist parties of the Soviet and post-Soviet lot. During the 1970s, Lucinschi’s rise in the Moldovan Komsomol, his attractive personality and his leadership talents made him a potential threat to Moldova’s Communist Party leader Ivan Bodiul, whose satrap rule spanned the decades from Stalin to Brezhnev. Bodiul managed to shunt Lucinschi off to Moscow, out of sight and range of Chisinau.

In Moscow, however, Lucinschi rose rapidly in the CPSU Central Committee’s Ideology and Propaganda Department, then became second secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan. In the CPSU system, the second secretary’s post in the union republic parties usually entailed close connections with the KGB. That remains unproven in the case of Lucinschi, whose Tajikistan tour of duty is unresearched in Moldova. His early support to glasnost and perestroika attracted the attention of Gorbachev, who in November 1989 recalled Lucinschi from Dushanbe and imposed him from above upon Moldova’s Communist Party as its first secretary.

It was Lucinschi’s mandate to introduce at that late stage the Gorbachevian reforms in Moldova’s antireform party. And it took that party barely more than one year to defeat Lucinschi in that mission. Hardline party organizations defied his authority. Some large organizations in russified cities–notably in Transdniester–quit the official party in order to stay loyal to the old Soviet system. The party’s native Moldovan intelligentsia initially hailed Lucinschi’s return and intentions, but soon demanded faster reforms and abandoned him eventually. Characteristically, Lucinschi attempted to conciliate the two wings, but only managed to antagonize both. He found himself presiding over a party with shrinking membership and an unreformable apparat. In February 1991 he conceded defeat, handed over the reins in Chisinau to a lackluster successor and had himself recalled to Moscow by Gorbachev.

During the final year of Soviet communism, Lucinschi was a member of the CPSU’s politburo and, concurrently, secretary of the CPSU Central Committee responsible for the mass media, in which capacity he carried forward the glasnost policy. He took no sides during the 1991 putsch and returned to Moldova following the demise of the CPSU. In 1992, on the strength of his remaining connections in Moscow, Lucinschi took up the post of Moldova’s ambassador there.

That move had the blessing of then President Mircea Snegur who–like Bodiul almost twenty years earlier–wanted his rival Lucinschi out of and far away from Chisinau. But less than two years later, ably exploiting factional rifts in the Moldovan parliament, Lucinschi engineered his return from Moscow as “savior” to take up the post of parliamentary chairman in Chisinau. That post he used as a springboard for defeating Snegur in the 1996 presidential election. At that juncture, the Communist Party of Vladimir Voronin was beginning to regain strength and supported Lucinschi’s election as a “lesser evil,” only to bring him down in 2000-2001.

With this downfall, Lucinschi has compiled a record of three defeats by Moldova’s communist hardliners: Bodiul in the 1970s, the antireform apparat in 1989-91, and now by Voronin’s resurgent party. Lucinschi was, however, rescued by Moscow after the first two defeats. He hoped for a third rescue by the Kremlin right down to the wire and even beyond the wire of the recent, abortive presidential election and the ensuing parliamentary elections.

Lucinschi’s presidency–from January 1997 to April 2001–has to be judged a failure in the three respects which matter. First, Lucinschi proved unable to relaunch the economic reforms his predecessor Snegur had opportunististically halted. By 1998 during Lucinschi’s second year as president, the Communists won a plurality of seats in parliament. Aiming for reelection in 2000 with the Communist Party’s support, Lucinschi coalesced with the Communists and with the smaller, professedly right-wing Popular Front (renamed Christian-Democrat People’s Party) to topple Ion Sturza’s center-right government. That was the only firmly reformist and pro-Western government that Moldova had, and it lasted barely half a year in office. Sturza’s successor Dumitru Braghis, a Lucinschi confidant, won limited approval from international financial institutions for his performance; but essential, overdue reforms made no significant progress, and Braghis ultimately focused on electoral efforts on Lucinschi’s behalf with the support of leftist, antireform groups.

Second, Lucinschi proved unable to use presidential authority in order to halt the spread of official corruption. Instead, the presidential camp behaved as did rival groups by using the corruption issue, selectively and arbitrarily, as a political weapon against opponents. The State Department to Combat Organized Crime and Corruption and the State Security Service, controlled by the president’s supporters, functioned primarily as a political instrument of the president.

And, third, the president made potentially fateful concessions to Moscow on the issue of Transdniester and of the Russian troops there. He–like other members of the Moldovan top leadership–accepted the “common state” formula, an unprecedented one in international practice, which would make Russia a permanent arbiter of Moldova’s internal constitutional arrangements and a military “guarantor” with troops in place. Shevardnadze and Aliev rejected that formula out of hand for those reasons. But Lucinschi was hoping to win reelection with Moscow’s support, and, ultimately, he seemed unable to emancipate himself from the Russia-centered mindset of his formative and peak years as a politician (see the Monitor, January 2, February 26, March 5, 7, 9, 13).