The U.S. Embassy in Moldova has embarrassed itself and an unsuspecting President George W. Bush by miscasting a champion of the Greater-Russia agenda in Moldova as a “Freedom Champion,” and having him included in the President’s specially arranged meeting with 20 East European Freedom Champions in Bratislava on February 24. The chosen, Andrei Safonov, confirmed in private conversations in Bratislava on the eve of that event that U.S. Embassy staffers in Chisinau had selected him for the meeting with the U.S. President.
Safonov, the antithesis of a Freedom Champion, was a founding leader of the Interfront in 1989, when Moscow created that type of organizations (Internationalist Fronts) to oppose the liberation movements in the Baltic States and Moldova. In Moldova’s case, most Interfront leaders and activists abandoned the organization in 1991 and afterward, some of them joining Moldovan leftist parties that pro-forma accepted the Moldovan state and acted within its political system. The hardliners, however, including Safonov, rejected Moldovan statehood altogether and moved their base of operation from Chisinau to Tiraspol.
For the better part of a decade, Safonov was the most visible and (by the standards of this post-Soviet periphery) most sophisticated propagandist of the Tiraspol authorities. Safonov’s spin during the 1990s postulated that legitimate Russian interests and illegitimate Western interests clashed in Moldova, and that therefore Russia should maintain a tight hold on Transnistria as a means of containing the West — or stopping Moldova from going West. This was an updated version of the logic behind the Interfront, which had sought to stop Moldova (and the Baltic states) from leaving the Soviet Union by mobilizing the local Russian/”Russian-speaking” population against the independence movements.
Safonov champions the view of Transnistria as a “Russian-speaking” periphery of Greater Russia, despite the geographic distance, and despite the fact that Russians form only the third-largest demographic element (behind Moldovans and Ukrainians) in the area. This view he shares with the Tiraspol leaders and with the Moscow sponsors of Russian political groups in Transnistria. Like them, Safonov supports Russia’s continuing military presence there. And also like them, he demonstratively refuses to learn the language of the Moldovan majority in the Moldovan state; with the aggravating circumstance for Safonov that he is a native of Chisinau, graduate of Chisinau University, and former deputy (until 1994) to the Moldovan parliament, while Tiraspol leaders mostly hail from places like Siberia, the Urals, and Moscow region.
While learning or not learning to speak the language is Safonov’s (and the Tiraspol leaders’) personal right, their refusal reflects the haughty disdain of the Soviet/Russian political and military-security apparatus toward Moldovans in general — a socio-cultural phenomenon to which almost any Moldovan can testify (though much less protest). More broadly, the refusal reflects the Russian ruling minority’s policy of linguistic denationalization of Transnistria’s native Moldovan and Ukrainian populations, geared toward turning Transnistria into a “Russian-speaking” province and orienting it definitively toward Russia, even as Moldova moves toward Europe.
In 2001, Safonov ran for “president” of Transnistria, and was disqualified on a technicality. Since then, he adopted a discourse that emphasized the need for a somewhat wider range of political views to be expressed in Transnistria, though still remaining within the Greater-Russia, historical-imperial, identity-engineering paradigm. He also criticized Tiraspol leaders’ involvement in the shadow economy, in the course of which argument he reduced the Transnistria conflict to one between organized-crime groups in Tiraspol and in Chisinau, thereby exonerating Russia’s policy and deflecting attention from the role of Russian armed forces and security services in Transnistria.
Unlike Tiraspol leaders, Safonov in 2002-2004 accepted without quibbling the official Russian-OSCE-U.S. State Department “federalization” project that would have placed all of Moldova under mainly Russian political and military “guarantees.” This ready acceptance earned him appreciation at the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau and the OSCE’s American-led mission during that period. Tiraspol leaders, meanwhile, were bargaining for even greater advantages under the “federalization” scheme, to the frustration of U.S., West European, and OSCE diplomats who were seeking a quick-fix, deadline-driven “settlement” during 2002-2004.
Safonov is co-publisher of a small weekly newspaper (Novaya gazeta, nominal circulation 1,000 copies) that has recurrently experienced harassment by Transnistria’s authorities through fines and interference with the paper’s distribution. When the print run of one issue was confiscated, the paper initiated a court case and won. Based on this case, Safonov tells Western interlocutors that it is possible after all to obtain impartial justice in Transnistria. He travels freely and constantly from Tiraspol to Chisinau on the embassies’ cocktail-party circuit, as well as to the West for conferences. All this has earned Safonov the reputation of Transnistria’s “licensed dissident,” a category familiar from Soviet times.
In the meeting with Bush in Bratislava, “freedom champion” Safonov predictably failed to mention Russia’s unlawful military presence on Moldova’s territory. It was Giorgi Bokeria, one of the leaders of Georgia’s Rose Revolution and a close associate of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who raised that issue on behalf of both Georgia and Moldova in the meeting with Bush.
The U.S. Embassy in Chisinau could certainly have designated the elected mayor of a Moldovan village in Transnistria, or the headmaster of a persecuted Latin-script Moldovan school, for the honor of meeting with the U.S. President. It could also have consulted with Moldova’s Helsinki Committee, which is familiar with the situation and ongoing developments in Transnistria and maintains contacts there. Instead, the embassy made — and poorly informed superiors in Washington apparently approved — a selection that will, even in Moldova’s docile society, go down as a disgrace.