Thursday, March 31, 2005
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Let me draw the latest score to your attention
Moldova, as a former Soviet republic, continues to suffer from the exercise of Russian influence in domestic politics. After two centuries of first imperial Russian and then Soviet rule, the Russian habit of assuming the nation to be (as part of the traditionally subjugated “Near Abroad”) a legitimate sphere of influence has continued. This has become demonstrably evident in two contrasting domestic concerns in the nation and former Soviet republic of Moldova: the continued declaration of sovereignty by the Russian-backed breakaway region of Trans-Dniestria, and the political dynamics of Moldova’s 2005 parliamentary elections. What purpose does it serve for Russia to so fiercely defend a rump state, and what seems probable to be the eventual goal of doing so? What will be the eventual result of Moldova’s decisions in this year’s elections, and how were they influenced by recent events in other former Soviet republics? These and other factors are addressed in recent Russian behaviour towards one of its smaller neighbours. Moldova seems a likely model for how Russia does, in fact, seek to re-establish control over the “Near Abroad.” The Trans-Dniestrian region of Moldova (also translated as Transnistria), on the east, Russian-facing bank of that river’s course through the borders of the country, is home to the breakaway Trans-Dniestr Republic. Declared in 1990, as a constituent part of the USSR, the ‘Trans-Dniestrian Moldovan Socialist Soviet Republic’ largely came into being as a backlash against Moldovan language laws, which in 1989 made Moldovan the sole state language; Russian-speaking Moldovans perceived this as a threat, fearing marginalization, the loss of access to government, and diminishing job opportunities. (1) This reliance on identity politics and ethnicity to differentiate Moldova from the traditional Soviet socio-political outlook (and to demonstrate similarities, cultural and linguistic, with neighbouring Romania) was to become, though not uncommon in any of the post-Soviet states, a defining aspect of Moldovan life, occupying a significant role in the public consciousness. (2) It has even been suggested that Moldovans share a latent xenophobic linguistic nationalism with closely-related ethnic Romanians, (3) while others argue that linguistic minorities remained adequately protected even under the final form of the language law. (4) In either case, the reasons for this Moldovan policy are largely historical in nature, as Pal Kolsto explains: Russians have moved outwards to the periphery for several hundred years…with the exception of cities where a special residence permit was required, the entire Soviet Union functioned as one single labour market. Borders between the republics did not constitute a strong psychological or practical barrier against migration. […] The central ministries in Moscow often preferred to employ skilled Russian labour to build up new industries in the outskirts of the Union, rather than make the effort to train new, local cadres. (5) If not actually oppressed, the ethnic majorities of the former Soviet republics were at least marginalized in their own home regions, subjected to a form of ethnic chauvinism that reserved the best jobs for Russians. Part of this policy can likely be explained as efficiency, where it may in fact make more sense to relocate skilled workers to less-developed areas than to establish the infrastructure for local training. However, this explanation only serves to heighten the supposition that Russians, even throughout the Soviet period, continued to see the non-ethnically Russian subjects of the USSR as unskilled labour, fundamentally rural, to be ignored or exploited. The Soviet Union, under this calculus, was (even more than would otherwise necessarily be obvious) clearly a continuation of the Russian Empire, extracting natural resources from a subject region at the not entirely metaphorical gunpoint. Indeed, ethnic Russians served an explicit function of both propagandists and administrators in the Soviet form of the Russian state: During the Brezhnev era the Russian diaspora was generally seen as part of the 'glue' that kept the multinational Soviet state together…[justifying itself] as an ethnically alien element in the non-Russian republics by adopting an 'internationalist' self-understanding, claiming that in a 'mature socialist society' ethnic differences no longer mattered. (6) This permanently privileged minority thus had much to lose, and little to gain, from any attempts to reform the Soviet socio-political system. The threat to this group in the Moldovan context came during the period of perestroika, beginning in 1988, when informal groups of Moldavan academics and cultural elites began to agitate against the republic’s long-established Communist Party-ordered imposition of Cyrillic script and denial of linguistic ties between the Moldavan and Romanian languages. This proved to be a crucial turning point, prompting the Moldavan legislature (small and unrepresentative though it was) to seize initiative and formally begin the process of moving away from Moscow, via language laws. (7) Given this, and the sizable numbers of ethnic Russians involved (some 17% of all ethnic Russians lived outside the borders of Russia, and yet largely within the former borders of the USSR and its satellite states during the early 1990s (8)), it is thus not entirely surprising that Russian policies would favour subsidizing and protecting what remaining power could be reserved for such minorities, stranded in the suddenly hostile abroad as the empire collapsed for a second time. Such efforts – at least rational, in the context of national pride and credibility in areas considered anciently Russian, such as Ukraine or Belarus – do not seem to have been the case in Moldova, however. Yet there was a sound strategic reason for doing so in this case, in the form of heavy industry; history and ideology were notably absent from this calculation. Those skilled workers and their families imported from Russia throughout the Soviet period remained, by perestroika, a majority ethnic bloc in the heavily industrialized Trans-Dniestr region. (9) More than 560,000 ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, respectively composing 23% and 26% of the total population, were recorded by a 1989 census as resident in the area. (10) When Moldova (in the aftermath of the August 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev) moved to separate itself further from Soviet authority, establishing the instruments of a national government, Soviet hard-liners in Trans-Dniestria began what has been called a “creeping putsch” of militia violence that eventually escalated into ethnic war by the spring of 1992. (11) Their stated opposition to Moldovan authority was officially in regards to the threat of Moldovan unification with Romania, an unusual justification, given that at the time only 7-10% of Moldovans were seen to actually favour such a radical policy. (12) Rather, it remains far more likely that the lesser (if valid) grievance against language laws was played up into an allegedly more immediate and threatening issue as a ruse and casus belli, in order to maintain control over valuable Moldovan heavy industry, both for its own sake as well as for the bonus of denying that complex infrastructure to Moldova. Also significant was the ideological component for many extremely conservative Russians wistful for the glory days of communism, who portrayed the Trans-Dniestrian breakaway republic as the “last bastion of healthy communist order…as a heroic community of besieged ethnic brethren, or both.” (13) Indeed, in a newspaper interview published in May 1992, one General Makashov called on Moscow to defend ethnic Russians in the region, saying "If we are defeated here, we'll be defeated everywhere in the borderlands adjacent to great Russia." (14) This reflected the internal political order in Moldova, where the front lines, once war began, aptly demonstrated the immovable positions of both sides: An armored personnel carrier painted with the slogan “Death to the Fascists” in the Latin alphabet of the Romanian language and bearing the Moldovan tricolor marks the beginning of Moldovan-controlled territory. It is the twin of an APC on the separatist side, which reads, in Cyrillic Russian script, “Death to Romanians” and is draped with the old red-and-green flag of Soviet Moldavia… (15) The Russian-backed Trans-Dniestrian rebels (and their imperially-minded defenders in Russia proper) couched their arguments in the language of extreme ethnic nationalism, against the ‘Romanian’ Moldovans, while the Moldovans argued against the continued maintenance of communist dictatorship. With such irreconcilable skewed perceptions of reality (in fairness, far more grounded in facts on the Moldovan side), armed conflict seems to have been an inevitability. On March 29, 1992, shortly before full-scale war broke out (but significantly, during a month in which more than fifty had already been killed in minor skirmishes), Moldovan President Mircea Snegur remarked, "As God is my witness, I never wanted bloodshed, [but] the hour has come when we can no longer delay putting our own house in order in the way that we consider proper." (16) His words were to prove ironic, for in no way would events shortly thereafter settle the Trans-Dniestrian dispute. The Moldovan assault on Trans-Dniestrian forces was finally ordered under the mistaken assumptions that both the Russian 14th Army – headquartered in Moldovan territory as the Soviet 14th Army since 1956 – would be reluctant to “engage openly” on the Trans-Dniestrian side, as well as that Russian President Boris Yeltsin would attempt to restrain those ethnic Russians in Trans-Dniestria. (17) Russian forces claimed neutrality, (18) yet within a month of those May 1992 claims, 14th Army spokesmen were making specific threats against Moldovan forces, particularly Moldovan MiG fighter planes on reconnaissance missions, warning that any further flights would be shot down. (19) In what was surely a horrific realization for Moldovan leadership, the 14th Army became involved as both an extension of Russian foreign policy, as well as of its own motivations. Indeed, the 14th Army had become by late 1991, for the most part, the National Guard of Trans-Dniestria, though still seeking to maintain the fiction that the two forces were separate entities. Russian spokesmen, attempting to officially distance Moscow from the conflict, pointed out that many 14th Army conscripts were local to the region. (20) Lieut. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, the army’s commander throughout the Moldavan conflict, spoke for his men regarding any possible withdrawal: “They were born here…they will stay and call themselves the ‘National Liberation Army.’” (21) The 14th Army, in the guise of Trans-Dniestrian forces, even intervened in Moldova’s 1991 elections, intimidating entire villages and dropping anti- Chişinău pamphlets by helicopter. (22) However, largely local or not, the 14th Army did and still does remain officially Russian, with the attendant issues of poor Russian credibility their continued presence in what is internationally recognized to remain Moldovan sovereign territory implies. Though peace was finally made between all three parties – Russia, Moldova, and Trans-Dniestria – in 1997, Russian forces still number some 1,200 in the region as of 2005. (23) This remains the case despite an agreement signed in 1994 to withdraw all Russian troops in a phased three-year period, (24) as well as 1999 and 2003 reiterations of that promise. “This year,” wrote one reporter in 2004, “with the troops still there, Russian officials are stating they will remain indefinitely – and they are blocking any mention of their earlier promises from being included in any [OSCE organizational] agenda or conference declarations.” (25) As Lieut. Gen. Lebed ominously warned in 1994, “This army has been here for 50 years…it’s very important not to be in a hurry to leave.” (26) Yet, more and more every year does this army – still present, despite its characteristic wartime commander’s reassignment and 2002 death – appear to be nothing more than an occupying force maintaining a Russian toehold in a strategically important area. Moldova today remains a divided nation, Russian troops and organizational infrastructure still present. However, the issue of Trans-Dniestria would eventually prove to be one of the later factors tipping the Russian hand concerning new imperial designs for the former Soviet republics and Moldova in particular, something most evident during the period of 2001-2005, between two election cycles. In 2001, Moldova would elect a communist parliament and president, campaigning on the basis of repairing relations with Moscow. President Vladimir Voronin and his party nonetheless fell out of favour with their Russian counterparts over precisely the issue of Trans-Dniestria. In 2003, Moldova rejected a Russian-negotiated plan of constitutional change that would have given Trans-Dniestria considerable local autonomy in an asymmetrically federal Moldova, as well as permitting the Russian 14th Army (repurposed as “peacekeepers”) to remain until 2020. (27) This plan may have had some merit; the uncertain status of the Trans-Dniestr Republic’s sovereignty in practical effect gave it transparent borders, making the region’s towns ideal and highly dangerous loci for smugglers in black-market Soviet-made arms. (28) In theory, unitary Moldovan control (albeit with the limitations of federal sharing of authority) over borders could be re-established, ending this trade, a new priority given the danger of such rogue states arming terrorists of all sorts, to say nothing of the closure possibly granted a still-tenuous peace with a still-largely-unrecognized national entity. In practice, however, the past Russian failure to adhere to agreements concerning Russian forces and influence in Moldova seems to have made Moldovan leadership conclude that a benevolent and beneficial relationship with a yet-Russian-backed (but officially Moldovan) Trans-Dniestria was an unlikely proposition. The effect of this falling-out for 2005’s election was an even wider split between Moldovan communists and the government of Vladimir Putin. State-controlled Russian media have accused Voronin of corruption, (29) ironic given the widespread corruption and personal despotic rule of the Russian-backed Trans-Dniestrian government. (30) The Russian Duma has also threatened to impose economic sanctions, from (before the election) withdrawing visa access for Moldovans seeking work in Russia, (31) to (after an outcome unfavourable to Russia) outlawing imports of Moldavan wine. (32) The attitudes of pro-Trans-Dniestrian Russians are perhaps best expressed in a statement of Konstantin Zatulin, member of the Duma and its CIS Affairs and “Compatriots Abroad” committee: “It is like the inscription ‘The King’s Last Argument’ made on cannons in the 18th-19th centuries. If the [Moldovan] government does not love us, then we must make it respect us.” (33) Electoral results have, as Zalutin’s rhetoric implies, proved displeasing for Russia. Russian (if nominally CIS-affiliated) election observers have claimed electoral fraud, (34) though European OSCE observers have declared (if not without some reservations) that the Moldovan election met Western standards. (35) What stands out is precisely the claims made on behalf of each side. Western observers remain wary – Finnish OSCE mission chief Kimmo Kiljunen has stated there was considerable effort from the Moldovan government “to prevent the election from unfolding in a fully free and competitive manner” – but neither was any opposition party seemingly any more democratic in intent or methods, by some accounts. (36) However, the claims of CIS representatives, made by member of the Duma and deputy chairman of the “Compatriots Abroad” committee Akhmed Bilalov, seem less credible, while at the same time demonstrating the dogged persistence of Russian prejudices against the country: “The level at which the elections were prepared was non-professional, with massive crude breaches,” […] Among the irregularities Bilalov mentioned in particular the fact that citizens of Moldova residing in Transdniestria could not vote locally and had to travel to Moldova for casting their ballots. “This may have had a substantive effect on the election results, since to go to vote for a distance of 60 kilometres is very problematical…” He also considers it was an infringement on civil rights that there were no voting papers in Russian at Moldova’s polling stations, [but] “…only in Romanian…” (37) In this report, Bilalov goes on to intimate further irregularities in that internal passports were stamped upon voting, ominously noting “An official version is to evade repeat voting.” (38) Bilalov’s complaints are less than convincing; they seem merely to confirm the continued presence of certain Russian attitudes towards the Trans-Dniestr Republic, such as that it is a sovereign nation with a legitimate government. Given the control of Trans-Dniestrian forces (and Russian influence) upon the region, it seems unlikely that ballots could be fairly cast and counted there. (Trans-Dniestrians themselves voted largely for the Democratic Moldova party, which took 28.4% of the national vote in official results. (39) It also seems unlikely in any event, even in the case of vote fraud, that this party could have formed the Moldovan government.) The language issue which caused the initial break between Moldova and Trans-Dniestria is also shown to remain firmly lodged in the Russian consciousness; that Moldova uses the Moldovan (not Romanian, though the languages are similar) tongue, in Roman script, for all official documents, given the overwhelmingly-ethnically-Moldovan population, seems to have eluded Bilavov. Nor does he acknowledge the Moldovan ethnicity in its own right; to Russia, non-Russian Moldovans are Romanian. Finally, the statement seems genuinely offended at any attempt to prevent electoral fraud. After the experience of Ukraine, where Russian-backed candidate Yanukovich was shown to have initially won due solely to massive fraud and intimidation tactics, (40) Russian accusations of such corruption are unconvincing. However, they must be mentioned, in consideration of corroborated Russian claims of CIS (Russian) election observers being detained at the border and expelled during the Moldovan election. (41, 42) Yet while it is true that Russian observers were expelled, considering the lessons of Ukraine and other recent elections in the successor states, Moldovan authorities cannot be faulted for taking such precautions. Indeed, though the results of the election were not necessarily conducive to Russian interests, it remains to be seen whether or not Moldova is genuinely moving towards the west as much as comparisons to Ukraine and Georgia (or its own quarrels with Russia) might imply. Though the Moldovan press has become relentlessly anti-Russian, it seems to have done so at behest of government. (43) Moldova’s Communist Party has “taken up the coattails of the Orange Revolution” [of Ukraine], but may have done so largely out of political expediency; many conservative Moldovans who might otherwise have supported the reforming opposition party of Democratic Moldova instead chose the seemingly trending-towards-change incumbent, causing a decidedly “mixed paradigm” of electorate intentions. (44) It is undoubtedly a factor that the Moldovan opposition parties, after Communist changes of heart vis-à-vis relations with Russia, offered few differences in either foreign or domestic policy. (45) Russian influence seems to have swayed the larger Moldovan polity in this respect, albeit not in the manner intended; where in past years the internal split on Russian-Moldovan relations was reflected in different parties, the Communists have successfully triangulated their position, capitalizing on heavy-handed Russian negotiations over the issue of Trans-Dniestria. It would indeed be an ironic postscript to the Soviet era in the successor states of the USSR to see Moldovan Communists successfully establish themselves as the necessary counterweight to both domestic Soviet recidivism, as well as resurgent Russian imperialism. Since the period of Soviet collapse and into the 1990s, so turbulent for all of the Soviet successor states, the prime mover of Moldovan politics has been the issue of Trans-Dniestria. Russian interference in that region, recognized as a legitimate sovereign state, in fact, only by Russia, is self-evidently self-serving. Moldovans attempted some form of compromise with the election of a pro-Moscow government, yet even that government was unable to reconcile Russian demands for Trans-Dniestrian sovereignty with the best interests of Moldova. This historic tendency to maintain influence in areas no longer formally under the control of Russia has, in this case, proven harmful to Russian interests, in causing such a foreign policy backlash. In truth, it is difficult to determine which factor is more responsible for this: intransigence on the matter of the continued Russian military presence in Trans-Dniestria, or arrogance on the matter of determining the extent of Trans-Dniestrian self-rule. In either case, while Russia will likely continue to use any and all available means of subterfuge to control the “Near Abroad,” the experience of Moldova between 1991-2005 seems to demonstrate that even in a state still remote from the western ideals of liberal democracy and representative government, these methods will no longer be tolerated.
1 Claus Neukirch, “Transdniestria and Moldova: Cold Peace at the Dniestr.” Helsinki Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2001): 123-124. 2 Charles King, “Moldovan Identity and the Politics of Pan-Romanianism.” Slavic Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 345-346. 3 Victor Neumann, “Conceptual Confusions Concerning the Romanian Identity: Neam and Popor as Expressions of Ethno-Nationalism (Part 3).” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty East European Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2 (9 March 2005). 9 March 2005,