March 16, 2001
Red Dawn in Moldova?
In late winter, the countryside of tiny and largely forgotten ex-Soviet Moldova looks a bit like the aftermath of Stalin’s scorched earth policy during the retreat from the Germans in World War II. The low rolling hills are covered with barren orchards and untended vineyards, the higher peaks dusted with dirty snow. In endless rows, short shrubs reach up out of the ground like the ghastly twisted claws of once-angry, now-dead subterranean trolls, and the abandoned fields range in color from brown to gray to almost black.
Dotted around the wasteland are small villages that look mostly empty as you drive through them. Occasionally, a local inhabitant can be seen trudging along the side of the road carrying heavy sacks, wearing a facial expression of half-anger, half-confusion. Children in grubby clothes, mangy dogs, and other stray animals run around in the softening mud. Amid the gloomy squalor and desolation, a billboard for Western cigarettes may rise suddenly out of nowhere, depicting young and ostensibly fashionable glamour pusses sitting at a disco bar laughing their heads off.
A decade after achieving independence from the USSR, Moldova – once the Moldavian SSR – is the poorest country in Europe according to many reports. The number of young Moldovan women found working as prostitutes in places like Bosnia and Kosovo (servicing the foreign troops) is out of proportion to Moldova’s population compared with the number from Ukraine or Russia. Recent nearby wars have provided Moldovans with a ready market for their out-of-work young female population – renowned for physical attractiveness. The Moldovan wine once sold in West European supermarkets no longer lines the shelves, making the country’s most viable export just another casualty of corruption and obstructive EU regulations. Estimates of the number having fled the republic range from 25% to 40% of the population, but could be higher for all anyone knows.
Among the economic reforms of recent years: electricity privatization. By the end of 2000, the Moldovan government under Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis had made plans to privatize five of the largest electricity generating or producing enterprises. Yet, when a Spanish company – Union Fenosa of Spain – bought three regional electricity distributors (REDs) in Moldova, it deprived the workers in those plants of the right to hold, use or manage any part of the property. The Moldovan government described the Union Fenosa sales as among "the most successful privatizations in Moldova." The National Union of Energy Sector Workers in Moldova took a different view, however. It appealed to the Chamber of Appeal for Justice, insisting on the right of workers to retain 20% of the shares in newly privatized enterprises to prevent a recurrence of the Union Fenosa scenario.
The Moldovan government under Braghis had also warned Moldovans in late 2000 of the possibility that both thermo-electric power plants (CETs) in the capital, Chisinau, would be closed if consumers continued to "neglect to pay their bills." Maybe the prospect of freezing to death during winter was intended to give Moldovans an extra incentive to become "entrepreneurial" by coming up with the money from somewhere. The government said that private households owed a total of 192 million lei (over $15 million) to heat provider Termocom. Not much, it might seem, until you take into account that the average salary is less than $50 a month ($10 for a nurse, for example).
Western "consultants" are helping along the process of raising prices for essential goods and services, grinding Moldovans’ faces into the dirt. A contractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – "International Business & Technical Consultants, Inc." – is providing "technical assistance" for a tender to privatize 51% of Moldtelecom, the only provider of fixed line telecommunications services in Moldova. Soon, Moldovans may not only be cold and eating by candlelight, but they won’t be able to afford a phone call to tell anyone about it either.
The only place within the internationally-recognized borders of Moldova that still functions more or less in one piece is the separatist region of Transnistria, a sliver of territory running north-south to the east of the River Dniestr ("Nistru" in Romanian). Transnistria’s leaders have pledged loyalty to Moscow since fighting a war in 1992 that – with help from the Russian 14th Army – left the territory under their de facto control. The secessionist Transnistrian regime – a pariah of the West – has since retained the breakaway republic’s Soviet-era infrastructure, meaning the lights are still on not only in Tiraspol (the capital) but in outlying towns as well. Meanwhile, most of Moldova west of the Dniestr has been eking it out in darkness and (in winter) bitter cold, in pursuit of "reform" with no visible rewards.
Moldova west of the Dniestr corresponds to the area historically known as Bessarabia, named for Basarab I, who made a small principality out of territory in present-day Romania in the first half of the 14th century. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12, the Ottoman Empire ceded Bessarabia to Russia. In 1919 the area became part of the Kingdom of Romania, but only until 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed that it should go to the USSR under the Nazi-Soviet Pact. During World War II, pro-Nazi Romanian forces of Gen. Antonescu’s fascist regime briefly overran the area, to be driven by Soviet troops in 1944.
The national identity of Moldovans today is obscure. Civic consciousness in Moldovan society today is based less on a collective sense of "Moldovanness" than on the mostly socialist norms built up over half a century of Soviet rule. "Nationalist" Moldovans claim that the republic’s future lies with glorious Romania, even though their Orthodox Christian Church falls under the jurisdiction of the Russian – not the Romanian – Patriarch. Russophile Moldovans accept that Moldova probably reached its historical zenith as part of Russian civilization. So Moldova remains a national no-man’s land of Russian Orthodox, heavily Sovietized Romanian-speakers mixed in with Russians, Ukrainians and other national groups. The fleeting nationalist craze of post-independence days seems a distant memory, as more immediate concerns of survival long ago occupied the forefront of Moldovans’ lives.
On February 25, 2001, Moldova held elections to its 101-seat parliament. Up to then, the largest faction in the Moldovan parliament was the 40-seat bloc controlled by the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM). Its leader, Vladimir Voronin, had described the post-Soviet Moldovan flag as a "fascist flag," and heaped scorn on pro-Western "reformers" controlling the government and parliament for ruining the country.
It was hard to imagine ten years ago that the great Soviet Union would be destroyed and the people of that state would begin bloody wars, that millions of people would go jobless and would abandon their parents’ homes to spread all over the world, and that the remainder would become poor and deprived of their rights… This genocide… [and] idiocy cannot continue any longer. Either the people sweep them away, or Moldova – which just appeared on the world’s political map – disappears.
Demonstrations had become routine in previous months. Farmers, students, war veterans and others staged regular protests, ignored by Western media, against the regime. Braghis warned that the protest actions might jeopardize financial assistance to Moldova from the IMF and World Bank, and called on the demonstrators to cease and desist. The amounts in question – $15 million, $35 million, $50 million – were paltry compared with sums thrown around in other countries of similar size. Not much would be left for Moldovans as a whole after the reformers had tucked away their cuts in foreign bank accounts.
Little wonder, then, that over 50% of the electorate voted for the Communists on election day. In the small southern city of Comrat, an old woman on crutches told me her pension was well below subsistence level and was seldom paid on time. Her neighbor agreed, complaining loudly: "We don’t want a perfect life, only something a little better than now." It was difficult to imagine that conditions could get any worse. A polling station worker in the small village of Mihailovka told me: "People couldn’t care less about the geopolitical orientation of Moldova. All they want is to live decently, have enough to eat, and drink the occasional glass of wine." So much for Moldovans as rabid NATO-philes – a vision conveyed by the right-wing Moldovan politicians with whom I spoke.
The next day I learned that the Communist Party had won an absolute majority and might take as many as 70 or 71 seats. I pondered this historic moment as I watched the Russian news report. As far as I knew, this was the first time in history that a Communist Party had swept to power exclusively via "bourgeois parliamentarism." Had pro-Western President Petru Lucinschi – former First Secretary of Moldavian SSR and USSR Politburo member – and his proxy party, the "Braghis Alliance," let something as trivial as an election deprive them of office? Or was the power of the downtrodden masses so overwhelming that even experienced old nomenklatura political managers like Lucinschi couldn’t stand it the way?
The press conference that afternoon by representatives of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would surely shed light on all this, I thought. In the town of Cimislia I’d run into a couple of Romanian OSCE observers, one of whom said he had seen no serious problems, but that he was "worried" by the fact that the Communists "had their representatives in every polling station." When I asked him why that should be a problem, since the Communists were a party enjoying the same status as the other parties, he became unfriendly and asked me "which organization" I represented before walking off. The encounter – as well as my past experience with the OSCE – left room for doubt that the West would give a stellar review to the election. The West had never shown much tolerance for "hard left" parties in ex-East Bloc elections, particularly those openly professing nostalgia for the USSR. So the attitude of the high priests of global political correctness would have to give me a clearer picture of what was going on. Lucinschi was our man. Could he have let us down?
First to speak was Kimmo Kiljunen, MP from Finland and Special Coordinator of Election Observation for the OSCE Chairman-in-Office. "These elections in Moldova consolidated a democratic trend that should continue," said Kiljunen, thrusting his chiseled jaw forward as he gazed out over the heads of the audience, apparently believing every word out of his mouth was a piece of oratory genius. "The elections in the Republic of Moldova were carried out in a proper and democratic manner." He even had time for a little ribbing of his American colleague, "Ambassador" Charles Magee, head of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, or "Oh, dear"). "These elections were easier to observe than the presidential elections in the United States" [minor sniggering in the audience]. Considering that the US has consistently refused to accept foreign observers to its elections despite being a signatory to the OSCE agreement committing it to accept them, this was at best only half joke.
There were a few token complaints from Kiljunen. For instance, only 18% of election commission workers were women. "This is a significant problem," said Kiljunen, "and a challenge for all of us." Although nauseatingly PC, the complaints never rose above the innocuous. Then, just as I was about to go and look for rotten tomatoes to hurl at the unbearably smug Finn and his colleagues, there came the rub.
"Unfortunately, the people in Transnistria couldn’t exercise their right to vote," said Kiljunen with stern sanctimony and a momentary grimace. The only "major problem" with the election had been that "the parliamentary election did not take place in Transnistria because of the authorities there."
There it was, then. The evil regime in Tiraspol had denied its inhabitants the right to vote, spoiling an otherwise perfect day’s outing. Special polling booths had been set up on the west bank of the Dniestr River for Transnistrian voters to use, but few had apparently bothered to make the trek. The OSCE chalked this up to the Transnistrian authorities "discouraging" people from voting. Never mind the fact that in December 2000 Transnistria had held its own parliamentary elections, and they looked cleaner and more orderly than their counterpart in Moldova proper.
Magee chimed in after Kiljunen. He said he subscribed to "just about all" of Kiljunen’s comments, "except for the passing reference to the US elections." Magee had a fixed grin and inverted-crescent-shaped slits for eyes, giving him a perpetual look of semi-amused sadism. "This comment was not cleared in advance with the head of the ODIHR Mission, who happens to be from that country" [very minor sniggering in the audience].
So, Western passivity over the Moldovan Communists’ victory lay in Voronin and Party’s non-recognition of Transnistria. The Communists claimed to stand for reformation of the USSR, but insisted on the integrity of the Republic of Moldova within the borders of the former Moldavian SSR (i.e., including Transnistria). The chances of reconstituting the Soviet Union in its old form were so slim – the West evidently reasoned – that this so-called Communist Party wouldn’t seriously obstruct NATO’s goal of sweeping Transnistria into the history’s dustbin. In fact, it might even be useful for the time being. With a president, government and parliament in Chisinau all professing fealty to Moscow, Russia could fulfill its obligations under the OSCE Istanbul agreement to clear out of Transnistria once and for all (confident of more IMF credits), and with a minimum of squirming. And, as an added bonus, endorsing a Communist victory (albeit in a tiny, half-forgotten backwater few in the West had even heard of) would prove how objective and neutral the Western bodies were!
After the election, I met with a Communist MP in the parliament building. I found Arkady Pasecinic sitting in his office at close of business, quietly typing on an old Toshiba laptop. He looked in his early sixties’, and wore a burgundy, v-neck sweater-vest and a burgundy tie with little gold emblems on it. The whole time we chatted, he looked at me over the rims of his gold-framed spectacles, reminding me of the face from the old poster that supposedly used to hang on the walls of Soviet workplaces and read: "How are you working?"
"Modern Communist doctrine recognizes current reality, and our party program protects different forms of property," he said calmly. This was New Communism, I thought – kind of like New Labour or the New Democrats. "After 1991," said Pasecinic, "the state in Moldova abandoned all social functions, and we think the role of the state should be strengthened." What did he mean by "strengthened"? "You will remember that FDR nationalized many sectors." A New Deal Communist, no less.
The futility of arguing to Americans – never mind to Moldovans – that FDR was a sinister political figure was already too familiar to me. So I just sat and took notes as he went on about the crime and corruption the Communists would clean up, about how the leaders of the Party had assured Western officials they had nothing to fear from Communist power in Moldova, about how the Communists would fulfill all their obligations to the IMF and World Bank, and so on. China, he said, had attracted the most foreign investment because – not in spite of – Communist rule, and Moldova would be no different. The leaders of the Russia-Belarus Union hadn’t invited Moldova to join yet, so the fact that Moldova’s Communists had expressed a desire to become part of the new entity meant very little. Sure, the Communists were against NATO membership, but that was only because Moldova’s constitution committed the country to neutrality. So it was only for the moment, it seemed. The Communists were just following existing law in the form of the Glorious Constitution.
"We aren’t against the Tiraspol regime," declared Pasecinic. "We are simply for Moldova as a unitary state." Explaining that Moldova’s rightist politicians were the ones responsible for the war and the current stand-off, he said: "We don’t recognize the sovereignty of Transnistria, but we are realists. We think Chisinau should admit that Transnistria has been building its de facto statehood for ten years, but we want Tiraspol to recognize that only Moldova is a subject of international law." He was mainly worried, he claimed, about Russian weapons arsenals in Transnistria. "There are currently about 2,200 Russian soldiers remaining in Transnistria, and the only function they serve is protecting arms depots. We believe that the weapons must leave first and then the troops. As long as the weapons are there, the troops should stay." Why would a political leadership that saw Russia as a "strategic partner" want Russian military power to leave Moldova altogether?
As I walked back to my hotel in the snow, I felt that – after all – the great display of Moldovan "people power" on election day had been rather anticlimactic. This Communist Party, unlike the Transnistrians, was soft at the core. On top of that, Moscow would sell the Transnistrians and their loyal satellite statelet down the Dniestr River in a heartbeat.
On TV, Vladimir Voronin – looking quite the aging Soviet groover in his black turtleneck and blazer – explained that the vote for the Communists had not been a vote for the left, but rather against the current elite. He seemed to gaze vacantly at the camera, speaking in a low and muffled tone as if he wasn’t quite "all there." My immediate impression of the victorious Communist leader was that the last thing he wanted to do was rock the political boat. Maybe he was the kind of person who could be counted on to never fully appreciate where he was (many Moldovans described him as slightly crazy). Maybe he was the sort who could be relied upon not to try to get in the way of NATO’s Drang nach Osten when push came to shove. Then again, maybe he was just another corrupt old scumbag.
Given the extent of their suffering over the past decade, it can be little surprise that so many Moldovans chose to vote for a return to the past. They probably felt it was their last hope. The Communists were the only organized political "opposition" in the country, and Moldovan voters had nothing to lose by stamping the box on the ballot sheet next to the little hammer and sickle symbol. Maybe Voronin’s Communists will prove to be fighters. But after the hubbub over the results had died down, it still felt as though there were something ethereal about the Communist victory, as if widespread disappointment were inevitably just around the corner.
A couple of weeks later, Voronin said he wanted a "non-Communist" as prime minister, and the Braghis Alliance (one of three parties to make it into parliament) would be given control of some committees. As president, Voronin may finally acquiesce to the formal relegation of the Moldovan presidency to a ceremonial post, as appears likely, to make his job easier. Then the election result will be even less significant than it already appears to be.
Perhaps Voronin and company will stave off the IMF/World Bank privatization schemes for a brief time, but indications are the Communists want to encourage foreign "investment" and can be bought for a song. If the last scraps of national wealth pass into the hands of foreigners, this should destroy the last vestiges of Moldova’s economic self-sufficiency. With privatization of the electricity companies, the average Moldovan will become too concerned with chopping up furniture and trees for firewood to pay attention to whether their government – in which they long ago lost faith – is doing anything for them. In addition to privatizing the winemaking sector, the West will want to make sure none of Moldova’s tobacco makes it to Western markets without serious adjustments. The cost of cigarettes should go up for ordinary Moldovans as they are forced to adjust to the taste the chemical additives in the new, otherwise flavorless Victory smokes.
The West may have bought and paid for the Moldovan Communists long before the election, and Moldova may soon be crushed under the Iron Heel like a beetle that has rolled over onto its back and is unable to turn itself upright. Perhaps the spirits of average Moldovans have not been sufficiently broken yet, so that the people still place some hope in politicians like Voronin to bring real change for the better. Perhaps there are not enough old people picking discarded scraps of food out of rubbish tips yet. The West will sooner or later want to rectify this situation with a comprehensive program of reform, to help Moldova build a new, super-mean-spirited generation enterprising citizens that can put a younger, "fresher" face on the all-pervasive corruption and lead the republic into full slavery. Then, as Moldovans dab their grain alcohol-scented tears with the flimsy hanky of bogus, Western-style parliamentary democracy, they will at least be able to console themselves that – although their lives have lost all semblance of dignity – at least the West has declared them to have "civil society" and "human rights."
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