Between Bucharest and Moscow
As the confrontation between the Eastern and Western Blocs faded and the Soviet empire disintegrated, a series of territorial and ethnic conflicts flared up along the latter’s borders in the late 1980s, after having been quiet for decades. Such conflicts were also evident again when the independent Republic of Moldova (Moldova) was created.
Over the course of the twentieth century the historical region of Bessarabia1 changed its state affiliation several times. Such changes were accompanied by various conceptions of ethnicity. The majority of the population spoke Romanian and until the end of World War Two saw itself as part of the Romanian national community. During the Soviet period, however, the population developed a strong sense of belonging to Moldavia. In Romania, in turn, the head of government, Nicolae Ceauşescu, began from the mid-1960s onward to emphasize the Romanian ethnicity of Moldavians as part of his nonaligned foreign policy. Later, he even advocated repealing the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia. In reaction, the party leadership of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR)2 underlined all the more the uniqueness of the "Moldavian people" and took action to prohibit any indications of "Romanianness."
In the atmosphere of glasnost and perestroika there were political initiatives in the MSSR to support Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform process and to support equality for Romanian interests. Communist reform forces joined with pro-Romanian nationalists to form the People’s Front of Moldova, and it emerged from the first elections in February 1990 as the strongest force within the Supreme Soviet of the MSSR (and later the parliament). Already by 1989 the People’s Front had managed to introduce "Moldovan" as the official language, while Russian was granted the status of an "interethnic communication." On August 27, 1991, the new government declared the independence of the Republic of Moldova, which was then recognized by the international community. Finally, Mircea Snegur, the former secretary of the Moldavian Communist Party, was elected the country’s first president on December 8, 1991, in direct elections in which he ran unopposed.
The option of a union of states, which during this period of upheaval was being pursued on both the Moldovan and the Romanian sides, polarized the multiethnic population of the Republic of Moldova. Already in the 1980s the Union Gagauz3 , a Turkic people who represent roughly 3.5 percent of the population, formed their own People’s Front. In reaction to the revision of the language laws and discussions on a possible union with Romania, in 1990 they declared an autonomous Soviet republic in the region where they were concentrated, but it was short-lived. After protracted negotiations with the government in Chişinău, a compromise was reached. In December 1994 the Moldovan Parliament passed a law granting the Gagauz territorial autonomy and recognized them as no longer an ethnic minority but a "people": the "true holder of the legal rights of the Gagauz." They were also granted a right of secession, if their settlement area were to be joined with neighboring Romania.
The Dniester region, where Russians and Ukrainians make up the majority of the population, also had an autonomy movement that turned against the "policies of de-Sovietization and Romanianization" supported by the pro-Romanian People’s Front. On September 2, 1990, the Moldavian Republic of Transdniestria was proclaimed. When the Republic of Moldova declared its independence, the Moldovan Republic of Transnistria also declared itself a sovereign state. Transnistria has yet to be recognized under international law, though Russia condones it.
In spring 1992 the conflict with the government in Chişinău escalated into a civil war (600 to 1,000 dead), from which the separatists, with the support of the former Fourteenth Soviet Army, were able to emerge victorious. Since June 21, 1992, there has been an armistice, which is controlled by a mixed peacekeeping force formed from Moldovan, Transnistrian, and Russian units. Russia justifies the continued presence of troops in Transnistria by referring to the need to monitor the world’s largest depot of conventional weapons, which had been placed there to secure the southwest flank of the Soviet empire. Although Russia agreed at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul in 1999 to remove its soldiers within three years, it has yet to comply fully.
Transnistria’s secession can be attributed primarily to historical and geographical reasons. As early as the 1930s, Joseph Stalin developed the narrow strip to the left of the Dniester (Nistru in Romanian) as a site for industry and armaments. The Kremlin leadership continued this development strategy after World War Two. Bessarabia, by contrast, which only came under Soviet control in 1944, was cast by the planned economy in the role of supplier of fruit, vegetables, tobacco, and wine to the USSR. Moldavians were clearly overrepresented in agriculture, Russians and Ukrainians dominated in both the industrial sphere and in administrative functions.
The outbreak of conflict in the early 1990s was due both to differences in the relative lengths of their connection to the Soviet Union and to conflicts of interest among the regional elites. Behind the Soviet-nostalgic nationalism of the separatists stood a powerful group that sought to secure their assets in the industrial centers of the Dniester region. This was also a war of surrogates that enabled Russia to remain present in an area that it still viewed as strategically important.
Under the Russian Igor Smirnov, who was first elected president in 1991 and was reelected in 1995 and 2000, the Moldovan Republic of Transnistria developed into an authoritarian regime with dictatorial features. Transnistria is considered not only a kind of miniature edition of the former Soviet but also a stronghold for the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and automobiles. Nevertheless, there seem to be many advocates of "autonomy" even among the people (the population is somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000). Even ethnic Moldavians in Transnistria were already marked by a Soviet identity under the USSR. Officially, this is often buttressed by a reinterpretation of history. It is based on the thesis of an autonomous, multiethnic Transnistrian people whose national identity is ultimately rooted in the Slavic-Soviet cultural world.
The Communists return to power
Confronted with secession efforts and the subsequent civil war, the government in Chişinău began making greater efforts to increase the participation of minorities. This policy was upheld by the elections held in February 1994. The pro-Romanian forces received only 16.7 percent of the votes. The parliament agreed to economic links with the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States and adopted a new constitution in which the "Moldovan people" was declared an autonomous nation.
In the years that followed the country was usually governed by an unstable center-right coalition, which was then replaced by the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), which had been banned between 1991 and 1994. In early elections in February 2001 the PCRM received 50 percent of the votes and assumed power. In April of that year the majority of the parliament elected the communist Vladimir Voronin the nation’s president, and he was confirmed in that office by the PCRM’s renewed electoral victory in March 2005.
The communists won the elections of 2001 above all because the liberalization of the economy had not brought the hoped-for economic growth, and poverty continued to grow. In the face of economic depression, the social basis for a continuation of market reforms disappeared. The PCRM, by contrast, called for a strong interventionist state and spoke out against the privatization policy of the previous government. This brought it into conflict with "western" financial institutions, which then spoke out against extending existing loan agreements. At the same time, the PCRM held out the possibility of Moldova’s rapprochement with Russia. As a first step in this direction, Russian was introduced as a second official language and made compulsory in the schools. However, these measures led to violent protests and mass demonstrations. The president and his government partially withdrew their "Russification plans" in response to this pressure from the streets. Moreover, relationships with Russia worsened after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a plan to solve the Transnistrian conflict. This Moscow draft provided for an "asymmetrical federation," gave Transnistria veto rights in all important state decisions, and sanctioned a Russian military presence until 2020. Following vehement protest to this initiative from the Moldovan opposition party, President Voronin withdrew his initial support, to Russia’s great annoyance.
In early 2005, with the change in power in Ukraine, an end to secession seemed to be coming closer again. Whereas the previous regime, which had been loyal to Moscow, tolerated the smuggling at its borders and had even profited from it, the new regime announced that it would create joint Ukrainian-Moldovan customs posts and only permit goods to be delivered if they were accompanied by valid Moldovan customs documents. Thus far, however, these actions have remained symbolic, as apparently the mafialike network structures were able to assert their political influence. There are numerous indications that the status quo between Moldova and Transnistria will continue in the foreseeable future.
Since the confrontation with Russia, President Voronin has been counting on an accelerated rapprochement with the European Union. In 1995 Moldova had joined the NATO program Partnership for Peace, and a year later it was the first member of the CIS to be accepted into the Council of Europe. The Moldovan government still places a great deal of emphasis on not being classified geopolitically by the EU as within the Russian sphere of influence, preferring to be categorized as part of the southeastern European region. The goal of this strategy is to become part of the European Union’s Stabilization and Association Process4 to avoid falling even further behind Romania. This has met with little response from the European Commission, however, as the EU initiatives are not aimed at Moldova’s joining the EU in the future. The present focus of the EU programs is rather in the areas of "developmental assistance" and securing borders against unwanted migration.
The poorest Country in Europe
The collapse of the Soviet economic system had particularly serious consequences for the Republic of Moldova, which had once been one of the wealthier regions of the USSR. The loss of its traditional markets to the east and the decline of indigenous industry quickly showed how dependent the Moldovan economy was on the member states of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.5 Between 1991 and 1999 its gross national product declined by 65 percent. One political factor that contributed fundamentally to Moldova’s deindustrialization was Transnistria’s secession, as a majority of Moldova’s industry and power plants are located on its territory.
In the early phase Moldova was, from the "western" perspective, a leader among the CIS countries in terms of a market economy. Already in the early 1990s the Moldovan government was pursuing the liberalization of trade and the privatization of industry and agriculture. It was thanks to such measures that the republic became the first post-Soviet state to be accepted into the World Trade Organization in July 2001.
At first glance, the economic development in recent years seems to have been positive. In 2003 the republic could point to stable economic growth for the third year in a row. But this picture is deceptive. In light of a debt burden that amounts to two-thirds of its annual economic productivity and its extremely low incomes, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe according to the United Nations Human Development Index. Depending on the estimate, between 40 and 80 percent of the population is living below the poverty level of around 50 euros a month. At 64.2, life expectancy is Moldova is decidedly low; the infant mortality rate is three and a half times the European average. Between 1996 and 2001 the percentage of state payments for medical welfare services fell from 6.7 to 3 percent of gross domestic product; education spending fell from 10 to 5 percent.
A large part of the economic growth results from transfers from abroad, where, depending on the estimate, between 600,000 and 1,000,000 Moldovans are working. The emigration of such highly qualified groups as engineers and qualified medical personnel has been detrimental to the Moldovan economy. The mass migration explains in part the relatively low unemployment rate, which according to data from the International Labor Organization was 8.7 percent in 2003.
Moldova reveals a whole serious of socioeconomic structural problems. Agriculture is still the most important sector of the economy, but equipment and methods are in serious need of revitalization. Even the industrial base, which shows an unbalanced concentration on the agriculture section, urgently requires modernization. In contrast to most other European countries, service jobs are poorly represented in the private sector. The service sector is dominated by state administrations and institutions. Another weakness is the population concentration in the capital, Chişinău, where 85 percent of the production and all of the financial capital reside. Another of the most important structural problems is the degree of dependence on foreign sources of energy. Moldova has no energy resources of its own. Electricity, gas, and oil must all be exported, primarily from the Russian Federation. This dependency on raw materials is also an essential factor in the enormous national debt.
Moldova’s foreign trade has traditionally been dominated by agricultural products, but they frequently do not meet western European standards, especially in terms of food safety. Moldova’s main trade partners are the members states of the CIS, especially the Russian Federation and Ukraine. In recent years trade with the member states of the European Union has also increased. In 2002 exports from the Republic of Moldova to EU states represented nearly 32 percent of the total; imports from the EU represented 33.5 percent of the total. Germany is one of its most important European trade partners, alongside Romania and Italy. The largest share of direct foreign investment comes from Russian companies (36 percent), which underlines the economic dominance of the Russian Federation.
The Hegemony of the Russian-Language Media
The republic has about 300 newspapers. Along with state and private newspapers, party organs or newspapers aligned with a party represent an important element of the Moldovan press. The Audio-Visual Coordinating Council is also largely under the control of the state executive. For example, all of the media editorial staffs are dependent on state authorities, parties, or sponsors. Another form of preventative censorship is a law making the offense of "libel" punishable by up to five years in prison.
Almost 90 percent of the print media are in Russian, including the Friday edition of Komsomol’skaya pravda, which with a print run of 50,000 copies is considered the largest newspaper in Moldova. The predominance of foreign suppliers is also evident in electronic media. The Moldovan state television broadcaster TV Moldova-1 is joined by the Romanian station TVR-1, ORT of Russia, and the Ukrainian channel UT-1. Since 1998 the Moldovan commercial station NIT and since 1999 the PRO TV channel have been
1 When Russia took possession of the area between the Prut and Dniester Rivers in 1812, it created an administrative unit called "Bessarabia." In response to the Russian Revolution, nationalist forces declared an independent "Moldavian Republic" in Bessarabia on February 6, 1918, which, on April 9, 1918, sought of its own accord a union with Romania. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20 then included the Republic of Moldavia with Romania under international law, but the Soviet Union did not recognize this. Under the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), the Romanian government had to cede the territory to the USSR on June 26, 1940. As an ally of the German Reich, Romania regained sovereignty over Bessarabia from July 1941, and that lasted until the invasion of the Red Army in spring 1944. In the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 the Soviet borders of 1940 were affirmed. [zurück]
2 In 1924 the Kremlin leadership installed the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the left bank of the Dniester River, as a territorial unit within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. To support the Soviet claim on Bessarabia, Moscow promoted the establishment of the "independence of the Moldavian people" and declared the Romanianspeaking minority a titular nation. Once Bessarabia was under Soviet control, Stalin reorganized the region: the southern part of the territory was included in Ukraine, while the larger part was joined with the Moldavian Autonomous Republic, and on August 2, 1940, it was declared an independent republic of the Soviet Union: the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic (MSSR). [zurück]
3 The Gagauz are a population group that speaks a Turkic language and observes a Christian Orthodox religion. Over the course of the Russian conquest of the southern part of Bessarabia, which belonged to the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the entire Muslim population fled this region. In order to compensate for this population loss, the tsarist regime resettled Gagauz who were then living in Bulgaria, as well as German, Serbian, and Bulgarian migrants. In the USSR of the 1950s they were given their own alphabet, based on Cyrillic script. Today some 150,000 Gagauz live in the Republic of Moldova, 32,000 in Ukraine, and several thousand in northeastern Bulgaria and Greece. [zurück]
4 The Stabilization and Association Process of the European Union is intended to help affected states secure "European values, principles, and standards." The procedure follows two complementary goals: regional stabilization (short- and medium-term) and European association (medium- and long-term). Among the tasks of stabilization are measures to overcome the immediate consequences of war—mine clearance and care for refugees, for example. The association process focuses primarily on building institutions, reforming administration, and harmonizing laws. [zurück]
5 The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was founded in 1949 in order to coordinate the economic plans of the countries that belonged to the Eastern Bloc. [zurück]