Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A rather traditional crisis - Riots in Chişinău

Days of tension after elections were held in Moldavia on Sunday led to violence and riots in the capital of the tiny country. Mass protesters against an allaged electoral fraud lost their patience and stormed the building of the Parliament and the Presidency. They planted Romanian and EU flags* and greated their victory as the fall of Moldavia's communist president, Valdimir Voronin. After hours of negotiation between the opposition parties and the government the problems were not earnestly resolved (and the government even withdraw the small concession provided for the oppoistion today), but the masses dissolved and during the hours of the night the authorities began the arrests. Repressions continued today as well, for example university and high school students were interned in he respective buildings and not allowed to leave. At the moment the government seems to win, and even have the opportunity to strike on their opponents portraying them as means of foreign powers in undermining he countries independence, putschists and so on.

Although the picture of tens of thousands of youngsters protesting against a communist president, demanding repetiton of an election won by communists and hailing freedom and Europe is quite easy to be interpreted as if the lines between good and bad would be clear, Moldavia's crisis has many more underlying factors. Moreover, it is not so clear whom to treat as supporting a just case or an unjust one.

The tiny country, a strip of land de facto between the rivers Prut and Dniester is the scene of an unreslved conflict on the boundary between the spheres of influence of the West and Russia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the former soviet republic of Moldavia became independent (parctically for the first time in its history) but the eastern part of the country soon declared its secession, and set up the so-called Republic along the Dnestier. An armed conflct followed, and as the breakaway province was supported by the 14th soviet army, led by the able commander, Alexander Lebed, they prevailed. Alathough nobody recognizes this state its existence is a fact for more than 15 years. For a while the situation was more or less clear, Moldavia was led by political forces aiming to recapture the lost territories, while the latter was considered as a not-so-covered bridgehead of Russia. As the communist party won the elections in 2001 for a while everyone expected a rapproachment between Moscow and Moldavia, but it turned out that even Vladimir Voronin is not ready to pay the requested price for he reintegration of the country. With the extension of the EU Moldavia and its internal conflict gaind more significance for the West as well and the problem of Transnistria is to be resolved today - at least theoretically - through a multilateral iniciative. But in practice it meant no real adance and Moldavia is today still the place of a frozen conlict, while Russia's leaders, after the bitter experiences of the coloured revoultions are less willing to cooperate and would rather choose the preservation of the status quo.

But, unluckily for observers and the participants itself, the conflict between East and West (or for neo-conservatives between democracy and authoritarianism) is not the only dividng line and conflict of interests regarding Moldavia. The country had a rather vexed modern history, as it was annexed to Russia in 1812 from the principality of Moldova. (A part of it, a thin strip of land on the left bank of the Prut belonged to the merging new country of Romania between 1858 and 1878.) The Russian rule lasted for more than a century, but meanwhile the newly forming and strengthening Romanian nationalism announced its claim for "Basarabia", as a Romanian territory. The collpase of the empire of the Tzars and the following republican attempt led to the annexation of Bessarabia to Romania in 1918. But the Soviet Union forced Romania to abandon its sovereignty over present day Moldavia in 1940 and even though Romanian troops, as allies of Nazi Germany reannexed the territory to a extreme rightist Romania, the imbalance of forces between a great power and a loser of WWII naturally led to a renewed soviet rule. Romania's aspirations reborn after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and for a while the merger of the two country's seemd a realistic option.

Anyway, the majority of Moldavia's population have Romanian as mother tounge and in Romnaia they are mainly considered as Romanians "dincolo the Prut" (over the Prut). The canon of the Romanian national history treats these territories and its inahbitants - even well before the emergence of the modern idea of the Romanian nation - as part of the nation. Romania was and still is very active in identity politics, provides students with scholarships, theoretically makes it esier for Moldavians to acquire Romanian citizenship and there are even political forces (today on the fringes of the political spectrum, but only a decade ago with more substantial popular support) demanding the annexation of Moldavia to Romania. (As I was in Bucharest last weekend I saw stickers depicting Moldavia as part of Romania.) And Moldavia is clearly a very special area for Romania's foreign policy, they are interested in the success of pro-Western (usually it also means pro-Romanian) political forces.

But Moldavia is a society divided nationally, along "class" lines, linguistically or according to the differene between rural and urban spheres. Only a minority of the population claims to be "Romanian" the majority opts for another term "Moldavian", even if their mother tounge is Romanian. Besides we can find significant minorities - the Gagauz has their autonomy as well, and Ukrainians -, and the Russian is a real second language of the country. (For example Russian TV and radio stations, magazines, newspapers has a broad audince in Moldavia, sometimes larger than Romanian ones.) To make the problem more complex, Romania has no good relationship either with Russia (the present head of state was propelled to power by a popular movement preemptively making impossible any electoral fraud at the presidential elections in 2004 and many Russian leadres saw it as part of the coloured revolutions, while Basescu, the Romanian president is among the most active supporters of Georgia and its anti-Russian president), or with Ukraine. (The International Court in Hauge recently settled a territorial dispute of the two countries regarding the rights of exploitation in the Black Sea area; Ukraine constructed a channel for shipping in the Danube's estuary, border zone between these countries, that Romania took as violation of its territorial integrity; the Ukrainian governemtn pursues recently nationalistic policies regarding minority schools and it hit the Romanina minority in Northern Bukovina, once belonged to Romania as well.) The resulting divergence of interest just aggravates the conflict, as Romania is not able to ally itself with Ukraine against Moscow's influence because of the differences, Romania is always suspected to pursue its own particular interests even if it poses as member of the EU etc.

The most important internal division inside Moldavia is certainly the difference between the countryside and the urban areas. The communists scored their third electoral victory ina row, this time polling at almost 50% of the votes. Although many claim that it was the result of a fraud, international organizations initially declared the process as fair and democratic and strong evidence suggests that communist perheps only needed some minor "engineering" of the elctoral will in order to achieve the vital 61 seats in the parliament.** (61 votes from 101 is needed to elect the new president.) The party is very popular in rural Moldavia, and although the mood of Moldavian's is characterized by a very strong disappointment, disillusionment and the lack of confidence in the system and in their future in terms of standard of living, paradoxically their majority place their trust in the communists. On the other hand the majority of the urban population and the younger generations want profound change, first of all a credible perspective of European integration. It is not really surprising in the light of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Moldavians are working in the EU and sending their earnings home. The relationship with Romania grew in importance after 2007, when the country joined the EU and it led to the severing of connections with Moldavia, especially due to a new visa regime, obliging Moldavians, earlier unproblematically entering the territory of the neighboring state, to apply for visa. many legal or illegal workers, students attending universities in Romania were caught by the new system. As Romania is the EU and a kin-state for many Moldavians (especially for the younger generations, target of two decades of Romanian identity politics, maybe this is the first generation in half a century that was raised as Romanian in Moldavia) it makes it even more desirable. Meanwhile rural Moldavia remained indifferent towards the Romanian idea of nation and supports the communist party either as the most socially embedded organization, or as the party providing them with a minimal security in their everyday life or as representant their Moldaviansim, even if it is not so refined a concept as the Romanian nationalism, especailly as it is defined by not being the Romanian national idea.

It is important to stress, that Moldavia was not part of Romania during the decades of the realization of the project of the nation. After 1918 it remained a very problematic province, with peasants suspectedly very receptive of bolshevism, social unrest, revolts, an ethnically mixed population and without a web of strong civic and national institutions. The Romanian rule lasted only for two decades. Accordingly it is not astonishing - and certainly not a result of Soviet "de-romanization" policies, as many Romanians claim - that many Moldavians are not keen on embracing Romania. And the communists can use this feeling very cunningly.

Yesterday's conflict was one of generations, different social spaces and even national feelings or ideas. It is certainly not a coincidence, that the protesters planted EU and Romanian flags (probably almost identical for many of them), while the communists denounced the actions as a coup d'etat initited by Romania. (The president today described it as the absolute humiliation of Moldavia's beloved independence.) But at the same time they use a well known rethoric inherited from the period before 1989, patronizing the society, denouncing hooligans and vanadalism, depicting themselves as generous rulers, because they didn't act violently even though it would have been justified and lawful etc. Today Moldavia's communist are still stronger (especially as they can pose as defendrs of almost every social or ethnic group threatened by Romanian nationalism) and they seemingly begin a wave of retribution (the Office of the State Attorney in Chişinău announced the beginning of a trial because of an alleged coup d'etat tomorrow) in order to intimidate the opposition. The new generations were influenced by the new national feeling. It is far from being non-exclusivist (its foremost premise is that Moldavia is a Romanian country, not only linguistically, but historically as well), leaves not much space for non-Romanians in Moldavia and denounces the supporters of communists as Russophiles and lacking the necessary moral basis. It is not quite ready to accept that Moldavians can identify themselves as such instead of Romanians and Europeans and therefore they - democrats, Romanians, westernizers - can be in fact a minority. But as the communists applied a refined but authoritarian method of governing the country, it was one of those not so rare moments when nationalism showed its democratic face as well.

* Meanwhile another explanation for this act emerged: deliberate provocation of the communists. Even some photos surfaced showing two youngsteres planting an EU flag while viewed by a policman from very close. I can't decide the issue sitting here, but as the mass for example sang the Romanian national anthem (a song about the awakening of nationally opressed Romanians) it is clear that one of the driving forces if the demonstations was Romanian nationalism juxtaposed with the communists rule.
**Yesterday, at Thursday it seemed that the final result would only bring 60 seats for the communist party.

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