Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 36

On February 19, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement on the current political crisis in Moldova. The ministry acted two days after President Vladimir Putin had discussed the situation with his Moldovan Communist counterpart Vladimir Voronin by telephone, according to Chisinau’s official announcement of that conversation. Almost certainly, it led to a decision in the Kremlin to shore up publicly the pro-Russian party in Chisinau.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement blessed Moldova’s Communist Party, attacked the opposition, obliquely fingered Romania, warned of a potential Balkan-type conflict, and asserted a droit de regard on Moldova’s internal situation. It repeatedly termed the Moldovan opposition “national-radicals”–a term of opprobrium in Russia’s Soviet-bequeathed official parlance–and described the opposition’s activities as “anti-Russian.”

The statement instructed Moldova, and presumably the countries and international organizations watching the situation there, that “such actions by the national-radicals do not promote ethnic accord in the multiethnic society of Moldova.” It warned “the organizers of these actions, and those forces outside the country that sustain them and pander to them, that they must understand that their actions risk creating yet another hotbed of conflict in southeastern Europe, a development that cannot be allowed to happen.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry repeated the standard assurances in words that it respects Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also took the opportunity to express Russia’s support “for the Moldovan leadership’s steps toward economic transformations aiming to improve the population’s well-being.” This accolade represents Moscow’s first official and explicit response to the Communist government’s actual reversal of the Western-backed market reforms introduced by previous Moldovan governments.

The actions being incriminated are peaceful mass protests in Chisinau against Communist “re-Russification”–that is, restoration of the Soviet-era privileged status of the Russian language at the expense of the native language. In recent days, the protests intensified after the Communist Party imposed a barely revamped Soviet version of the national history for mandatory study in schools. The Moldovan president recently won Putin’s warm approval on the language policy issue. Putin and his Foreign Affairs Ministry hope to persuade CIS member countries in general to give the Russian language official status. Russian television coverage of Putin-Voronin meetings–Voronin holds the CIS-wide record for the frequency of visits to the Kremlin–tends to highlight these two presidents’ consensus on the language issue. This is now leading Moscow to weigh heavily in Voronin’s favor.

The statement’s reference to Moldova’s multi-ethnic character aims to justify a privileged status for the Russian language. However, Russians represent only 13 percent of Moldova’s population, and only 5 percent of the total enrollment in schools, where the Communists last month elevated Russian from an optional to a mandatory subject from elementary school on. The country’s non-Moldovan and non-Russian minorities total 23 percent. Nevertheless, the Communists, the local Russians, and Moscow reduce all the non-native and minority ethnic groups–as had Soviet nationality and language policy–to the lowest common denominator of “Russian-speaking population,” an object of planned linguistic Russification. In the streets of Chisinau, the Moldovan opponents of Russification have repeatedly said that they favor the preservation of all ethnic identities, not just their own.

The warning against a possible conflict in southeastern Europe appears designed to create pretexts for the continuation of Russia’s military presence in Moldova, in violation of international pacts. Last month, Putin’s personal envoy on Transdniester, First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, made public Moscow’s goal to keep the Russian troops in place as “guarantors” of an eventual political settlement for the first time on January 31-February 1. Russia had for the last two years tried to involve representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe into negotiations toward authorizing a Russian “peacekeeping” contingent past the December 2002 deadline. With the deadline approaching, and with a pro-Moscow party now in power in Chisinau, Trubnikov apparently felt that it was time to signal Russia’s “peacekeeping” intentions publicly. By raising now the specter of a “conflict” on the right bank of the Dniester, Moscow apparently angles for a say in that part of Moldova as well, after having enjoyed such a say on the left bank for these past ten years. There, Russia underwrites the only ethnic minority regime in contemporary Europe.

Romania is the unnamed country that the Russian statement accuses of supporting the Chisinau demonstrations. In reality, Bucharest’s current policy is incomparably more restrained than Russia’s own often strident and prosecutorial intercessions on the purported behalf of Russians/” Russian-speakers” in the “near abroad.” Within hours of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement, the Romanian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a response which likewise stopped short of naming Russia. It did, however, reject the attempts at blaming the events in Chisinau on third parties. Summing up Romania’s official position as it crystallized under successive governments in that country, the statement spoke of Bucharest’s interest in seeing Moldova independent, stable and headed for Europe (Interfax, Flux, Basapress, February 18-19; see the Monitor, January 14, 18, 23, February 1, 7, 18; Fortnight in Review, February 1).

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