Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 216

In Moscow on November 19-20, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin genuflected deeply before his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in the hope of isolating Transdniester’s leadership and winning the Kremlin’s favor for Chisinau.

This visit with Putin was Voronin’s fourth in the space of seven months since he took over as president of Moldova. This visit’s formal centerpiece was the signing of a Russian-Moldovan interstate treaty, the text of which has not yet been released officially by either side, but has leaked out in Chisinau in the visit’s aftermath (see below). In practice, the visit was an exercise in flattery to the point of self-debasement on the part of the Moldovan president and the state he represents. It was also an unprecedented snub to the West by the president, a small number of whose officials are licensed to profess a European orientation.

In front of a delighted Putin and Russian television cameras, Voronin declared: “Those who wanted to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English, French or German [as foreign languages in Moldovan schools] have realized by now that this can’t be done. They have understood that such a change is out of the question. We have to abide by the popular will in this respect.”

With this, Voronin undertook to interpret the “popular will” of his bedrock Communist electorate, which largely coincides with the Russophone third of Moldova’s population. As the Chisinau newspaper Moldavskie Vedomosti commented, Voronin committed a monumental gaffe by deprecating the value of Western languages in front of a Russian president who speaks German and sends his children to a German school. Other Chisinau commentators singled out the apparent presidential ignorance of the Internet and of the generous donations–primarily American–of computer equipment to Moldova. Beyond that, Voronin’s statements will haunt Moldovan representatives at conferences of the worldwide Francophone movement, to which Moldova belongs by right as a country whose native majority speaks a language of the Romance group.

“I am–Voronin went on to say–“in favor of bilingualism, so that all Moldovan-speakers would know Russian, and Russian-speakers would learn Moldovan.” With this, the president fell back on the classical Soviet formula of the “harmonious bilingualism,” which had served to cover the reality of linguistic Russification. In Moldova as elsewhere, the great majority of the titular population learned Russian while the great majority of Russians and Russophones were officially encouraged never to learn the titular language of the republic. Whether Voronin’s words are taken at face value or not, they seem to signal official acceptance of the linguistic situation bequeathed by the Soviet policies.

Although Moldova’s constitution enshrines the native language as the state language, Voronin spoke in Moscow as if this were not the case. He is to some extent a prisoner of his electoral promise to bestow that status on the Russian language as well. While such a move would be politically reckless, Voronin and the Communist-dominated parliament have thus far contented themselves with some limited steps toward linguistic re-Russification. “We do notice the change in Moldova’s [official] attitude toward the Russian language. Russia is deeply satisfied to see the status of the Russian language restored de facto in Moldova,” Putin told Voronin in the televised part of their Kremlin meeting. This change encouraged Putin to suggest that the Russian language be accorded the official status of “language of interethnic communication” in CIS member countries generally.

Voronin and his ministers also discussed the possible transfer of Moldovan farms and agricultural processing enterprises into Russian ownership as a method of debt settlement. The bulk of those debts are owed to Gazprom and Itera for past deliveries of gas, and are valued at some US$150 million. Meanwhile the Russian government makes no effort to recover Transdniester’s debts for gas, which are valued at US$600 million–some twenty-four times higher than right-bank Moldova’s debts per capita. Chisinau currently proposes to turn over to Russia in part-ownership some 200 Moldovan agricultural firms, with a view to creating joint companies. The firms thus earmarked include some top-of-the-line wineries and tobacco-processing plants that had been due for privatization in 1999. Since then, however, a combination of corruption, mismanagement and ideological opposition has blocked that privatization.

For Moldova to turn its agriculture over to Russian control would terminate the country’s hopes to modernize the mainstay of its economy. It would also permanently tie Moldova to the low-standard Russian market and to the barter trade, ending hopes of upgrading product quality and earning hard currency on Western markets. The Communists hope to rescue some of the moribund kolkhozes or reconstitute some of the dissolved ones, and to preserve the processing enterprises that used to depend on the collective farms’ output. The remnants of Moldova’s kolkhoz officialdom–which gathered at a congress in Chisinau last week–long for the guaranteed access to the Russian market and Russian investment inputs, all of which they had taken for granted during the Soviet era. Indelibly marked by that formative experience, Moldova’s aging Communists may well be the only ruling group in the contemporary world to believe that Russia can rescue a country’s agriculture.

The interstate political treaty, signed on November 19 by the presidents, and subject to parliamentary ratification, is for the most part a vaguely worded text that does not hold either side to any specific obligations. Taken as a whole, the text does not seem to warrant the concerns that had been expressed by the anti-communist opposition in Chisinau before the full document became known. The one potential trap is in the preamble, which defines Russia as “co-mediator” and “guarantor” of a political settlement in Transdniester, failing to mention other mediators and guarantors. This language can be used by Moscow to block efforts to internationalize both the negotiations and the mechanism of guaranteeing an eventual settlement, leaving Moldova quasi-isolated to face Russia (Interfax, Russian Public Television, Flux, Basapress, November 19-23; see the Monitor, July 16, August 2, 8-9, September 7, November 21).

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