Moldova: Demonstrations Could Lead to Economic Changes

Parliamentary elections in Moldova on Saturday April 5, 2009 gave the ruling Party of Communists some 50 percent of the popular vote and thus a majority in the Parliament. The opposition was divided primarily into two: the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, each receiving about 13 percent of the popular vote, and a host of smaller political parties dividing the remaining 24 percent. It is the Parliament which chooses the President, not direct popular elections. The current President, Vladimir Voronin, first elected in 2001 and again in 2005, has reached his two-term constitutional limit and thus will be replaced, most likely by someone else from the Party of Communists. There is speculation that, inspired by the Russian example of Vladimir Putin, Voronin will be elected to be chairman of the Parliament, and there will be a shift in decision-making from the Presidency to Parliament.

Although the election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the elections were generally "free and fair", on Tuesday April 7, a large group, protesting that the elections were rigged and that ballot-box stuffing had produced the majority, gathered in the streets of the Moldovan capital Chisinau. The protesters demanded new elections or a recount. Some demanded the departure of Voronin; others that Moldova be reunited with Romania. Moldova, then known as Bessarabia, had been part of Romania until 1940 when Bessarabia was incorporated by Soviet troops into the USSR, becoming the Moldova SSR. There have always been some in both Romania and Moldova who would like to see Moldova and its 4 million people integrated into Romania. Thus some of the protesters carried the flag of Romania and others the European flag.

Part of the protesters, many of them young, went around the police lines and entered the Parliament building and the near-by offices of the President. In both buildings, tables and chairs were destroyed and pushed through the windows and then set on fire. The same fate was met by documents and papers. As with all such violence, it is impossible to know if it was spontaneous, organized in advance, or carried out by police-government agents as a justification for later arrests of opposition leaders. The violence and the fires called international attention to Moldova – rarely a headline country. It is too early to know if the demonstrations are the start of a process which will lead to a change of government or will serve as a warning sign to the government that a process of reform and socio-economic development is needed. My hypothesis is that the demonstrations will be the start both of a necessary governmental reform process and regional socio-economic development in which Romania, Ukraine and Russia can play a positive role.

The demonstrations may help focus the minds of political and civic leaders on the basic issue of the population: a better standard of living. Even before the general world economic recession, Moldova was poor and divided. In the post World War II Soviet economic planning, Moldova was to be a ‘fruit garden’ for the USSR. In return, the Moscow central government provided funds for education, health, pensions and other social welfare measures. The part of Moldova that is now the separatist entity Transnistria was prior to 1940 part of Ukraine and thus already part of the Soviet planning system: the location of some heavy industry, cement-making plants, some textile factories and power plants. When in 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia and renamed it Moldova, Stalin detached the Transnistria region from the Ukraine and added it to Moldova to increase the number of Russian speakers in Moldova. No one was consulted about the transfer.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, some of the political leaders in the Transnistria region, a long strip of territory on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine – some 500,000 people- fearing that Moldova would be reintegrated with Romania, declared Transnistria as a separate state. The demand for independence led to a civil war in 1992, which ended with the entry of Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops which are still there. The separation of Transnistria has further weakened the over-all Moldovan economy, though Transnistria has become home for a prosperous underworld economy of the sale of weapons, drugs and trafficking in persons. It would be in the socio-economic interest of most people to have Transnistria re-integrated into Moldova. There have been proposals for such integration made by the OSCE, Ukraine and Russia, but to date, there has not been the political will for the political and economic compromises necessary.

The most prosperous aspect of the Moldovan economy is the export of people. Some 25 percent of the active population work outside the country, about half in the European Union, mostly Western Europe and half in Russia and Ukraine. Remittances from citizens working abroad is the most active part of the economy. The best known of the Moldovan human exports is Avigdor Lieberman, the new Foreign Minister of Israel whose finances are currently under investigation in Israel, so we may learn how much he sends home. Most Moldovans have more modest positions. Those in Russia and Ukraine are often in the construction trades. With the economic recession, many are returning from Russia and Ukraine, adding to the number of underemployed. For the moment, most Moldovans in West Europe have continued living there as it is easier to find work in the informal economy of Western Europe than for a foreigner in Russia. However, the loss of regular employment in Western Europe limits the remittances which can be sent to Moldova.

Only a planned, cooperative effort can help to develop the economy of Moldova. In 1997, Moldova helped to create an Economic Cooperative Organization of 5 former Soviet Republics to seek cooperation outside direct Russian influence: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. However, there is no escape from near neighbors. The Moldovan economy depends on cooperation with Ukraine and Russia on one side, with Romania and the European Union on the other. The political demonstrations may be the spark needed for serious economic planning.

For more on the international context of the Moldova/Transnistria issue see Coming in From the Cold: UN Membership Needed for the Phantom Republics.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.

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