What Happened in Moldova?
Angry youths pelting riot police with stones in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau last week
The former Soviet republic of Moldova is not the kind of place that typically grabs headlines. As many media reports have reminded us in the last two weeks, Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. While plenty of Moldovans have cellular phones, among post-Soviet republics, Moldova is not exactly as wired as say, Estonia.
Given these facts, one would think that the Moldovan capital of Chisinau would be an unlikely place for a revolution fueled by social networking technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook. Yet according to early reports from The New York Times and other Western media outlets, that is supposedly what happened this month, after Moldova's Communist Party won an election that the opposition insists was rigged.
The former Soviet republic of Moldova is located between Romania and Ukraine. The Republic of Transdniestr is a narrow 4,163 square kilometer strip with about 500,000 inhabitants along Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine. Russia Blog contributor Mike Averko has frequently written for The Tiraspol Times, an English-language newspaper and website in Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr.
Another Colored Revolution in the Former USSR? Color Russians Skeptical
After the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2005, where large street protests following disputed elections led to the installation of the "pro-Western" Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yuschenko as presidents, respectively, many Russians are quite skeptical of Moldova's own recent "revolution". Behind the photogenic Twittering youths sending emails and text messages to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's small bureau in Chisinau, many Russians see the hand of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who publically admitted to partially funding the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Other Russians (and the Austin, Texas-based American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who is a regular guest on Russia Today TV) go one further and accuse the U.S. State Department or CIA of cooking up the whole ruckus. In reality, much of the State Department's budget in Moldova goes to combating the trafficking of Moldovan women into other countries, rather than to the programs that some of the Twittering activists have participated in.
Conspiracy theories aside, however, the tech saavy Twittering youth are a very visible minority within a minority in Moldova. Their efforts may have been great PR, but were hardly the main factor in putting thousands of Moldovans in the streets. San Francisco-based Russian blogger Anatoly Karlin wrote:
There are many ongoing discussions on the blogosphere about the role Twitter player and about how "spontaneous" the protests really were. Daniel Bennet in The Myth of the Twitter Revolution wrote that Moldova's Twittering class was only 200 strong and analyzing its feed at the time did not indicate that it played any organizational role.
Russia's position in this crisis defies easy characterization, as do the competing Moldovan political parties which cannot be simply described as being "pro-Western" or "pro-Russian". On April 8, 2009, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that it supported an electoral recount to determine the actual winner of elections the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared to be "generally free and fair". Critics of the OSCE report point out that the Russian election observers had some influence over its contents. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also called for Western governments to denounce the violence of the opposition protesters, who set fires in front of the Moldovan parliament building and pelted riot police with stones. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Moldovan government has arrested at least 200 people and charged them with trying to violently overthrow the state, an offense punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Blame Romania for An Attempted Coup d'etat?
The incumbent Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, has accused Moldova's neighbor Romania of being behind the violent protests, rather than dissatisfaction with his rule. While the Communists failed to win a plurality, they did win a majority of the votes cast for parliament in an election that most foreign observers claimed was reasonably fair, although the state media strongly supported the Communists. The Communists have accused their domestic opponents of being "fascists", who allegedly want an anschluss with a Greater Romania that would dissolve Moldovan sovereignty. Romania is currently a member of NATO and the European Union and a U.S. ally. The Romanian government denies all the charges. The opposition accuses the Communists of massive vote rigging and corruption.
Moldova's History Between Romania and Russia
The interconnected history of Moldova, Romania and Russia is complex, to say the least. In the 19th century, Moldova was called Bessarabia and was ruled by the Russian Empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Moldova briefly declared independence from Moscow, before joining Romania. As part of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop (aka Hitler-Stalin) Pact that carved up Eastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence in 1940, Moldova became part of the USSR, with the eastern part allotted to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The fascist Romanian government later sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR, as an ally of Hitler's Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians were killed or taken prisoner on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1944. Romania was also a key supplier of oil to Nazi Germany and was heavily bombed by the Allies.
After the Soviet and Allied victory in WWII, Moldova's eastern part was predominantly populated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, who today form a majority in the eastern border area of Transdniestr. Like the enclave of South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia following Georgian independence from the Soviet Union, the inhabitants Transdniestr fought a successful war to secede from the newly independent Moldovan Republic in 1991-92. Transdniestr's flag still features the Soviet hammer and sickle.
Today several hundred Russian army peacekeepers remain in Transdniestr, which enjoys de facto independence from Moldova. Critics of Russian foreign policy claim the purpose of this ongoing Russian deployment is to keep the conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol (the Transdniestr capital) frozen, so Moldova will be ineligible to join NATO, and to help Moscow exert control over Moldovan territory. However, the frozen conflict that turned hot in August 2008 between Georgia and South Ossetia with Russia forcibly intervening on behalf of its South Ossetian client state, did not prevent many Western advocates, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ), from pushing for Georgian membership both before and after the 08/08/08 war.
While some would argue that Russia is trying to draw Transdniestr into its orbit by giving out passports, two can play that game. According to Anatoly Karlin, at least 10% of Moldovan citizens also hold Romanian passports.
There are growing social forces in Moldova seeking reunification with Romania for nationalist reasons and as an easy path to EU membership. Already between 10% and 20% of Moldovans have Romanian, and by extension EU, passports. The fear of Romanian expansionism frightens Transnistria away from reconciliation, while the "Kosovo precedent" gives its arguments for independence more weight.
Moldova, Transdniestr and the Kosovo Precedent
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's web site published an article by Russia Today commentator Peter Lavelle on the Kosovo precedent and how it is effecting Moldova:
For over a decade, South Ossetia and Abkhazia had strong cases for independence, even stronger, they argue, than Kosovo's. Today they have independence, even if it is not widely recognized. And now some Moldovans who would actually prefer to call themselves Romanians are demanding border changes that would make this desire a reality. After Kosovo, how can they be denied this?
The Kosovo precedent was a terrible mistake for the international system and it will continue to play itself out as others seek to apply it to their own country. Today it is Moldova and Georgia's former breakaway republics that are full of hope -- others will surely follow tomorrow. And none of this bodes well for the principles of self-determination and respect for national borders.
Overhyping Geopolitics Over Ordinary Aspirations in Moldova
The desire for a Romanian passport in Moldova, or for a Russian passport in South Ossetia, are not necessarily expressions of political allegiance, but the desire to emigrate for work and a better life abroad. The pull of European Union Schengen visas, which would enable Moldovans to work in places like Germany or Sweden, is strong, as is the opportunity for work in Moscow or St, Petersburg for a South Ossetian. As Peter Lavelle writes:
many of Moldova's youth feel like orphans because their parents have lived and worked abroad (many of them in Russia) for so long. An estimated 600,000 Moldovans (of a total population of 4.1 million) live outside the country and send home remittances each year equal to the entire state budget. How many of these workers have returned home without money or a job?
Moldova is very similar to Mexico or the Philippines, in this respect. A considerable number of citizens who would normally have stayed and perhaps fought to reform a corrupt political system decades ago have instead fled abroad by the millions. It is a largely forgotten fact (although The New York Times bestselling author Thomas P.M. Barnett has frequently pointed out) that Russia trails only the U.S. in terms of the number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, it has absorbed in the past twenty years. This is one of the reasons why attempts among some in Washington to draw ideologically driven distinctions between the alleged "pro-Western" Georgian and Ukrainian governments and to draw these countries out of Russia's "sphere of influence" are as misguided as they are futile. Over a million Georgians are living and working in Russia, as are millions of Ukrainians, both in terms of ethnicity and nationality. One might as well try to draw Mexico and El Salvador out of the U.S. economic and political orbit, since American economic and immigration policies have a huge impact on these nations, and have just as much success.
Ukraine in particular, under Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, has shown remarkable flexibility of late in terms of maintaining good relations with both Russia and the West, and resolving the perennial "gas wars" with Russia's Gazprom. Meanwhile, in Tblisi, the government of Mikheil Saakashvili is facing very large opposition protests over his policies. As Stratfor speculated last week, some of the protesters may enjoy Russian financial support -- they are certainly receiving favorable media coverage from Moscow, similar to the positive coverage in the Western media that welcomed Saakashvili's own election in 2003.
Clearly though, Georgia is going to resolve its own problems without anyone in Moscow or Washington determining the outcome. The same will hold true for Moldova. The Moldovan people deserve a better government than they have received. The best thing the West and Russia could offer Moldova right now is more investment to put many of the unemployed youths currently taking to the streets to work, and allow more Moldovans to stay home and reform their nation rather than have to go abroad.