Well I certainly never expected to be living in the Republic of Moldova (RM), but as the old Buddhist sage once said, wherever you go, there you are.
This country is gearing up for an election in a few weeks on November 30. I’ve seen almost no coverage of it at all in the wider media but what happens in this tiny country will have major ramifications for the rest of Europe and the entire planet.
The battle forces are rather neatly aligned. On one side is the “pro-European” faction, which wants integration in the European Union and increased ties with Romania (a fraction want political unification with Romania, which will never happen). The other side is “pro-Russian” and wants to increase ties with Russia, up to and including joining the Customs Union.
I haven’t lived here long enough to meet enough people on the ground to really know what’s going on. What follows is my general impression of who is who in this fight.
This is a bit of a misnomer, of course, as members of the Customs Union include Belarus, which is most definitely a European country, as well as Russia, which is at least half European. Nonetheless “pro-European” is how this side describes itself, much as advocates for legal abortions call themselves “pro-choice”.
Mayor of Chisinau et al – There are some powerful Moldovan politicians who are firmly in the pro-European camp, most notably Chisinau (the capital of RM) mayor Dorin Chirtoaca. He’s not just fanatically pro-European, he’s a personal friend of Romanian President Traian Basescu and the two men attend each other’s family functions.
Chirtoaca and his cronies also do their best to put their stamp on the city. I literally saw a sign at a bus shelter (paid for by the Chisinau city gov’t) that said something akin to “Live like a European! Don’t spit or throw garbage everywhere.” There are also EU flags (blue with circle of stars) hanging over many of the central streets.
Romanian/American media – One of the “dirty secrets” of RM is that the majority of the media (all forms) is in the Russian language. Most of it is garbage, low-brow “trailer trash” type programming, soap operas and gossip shows. But it is immensely popular. By rough estimate I’d say that 90% of the newspapers and magazines on sale in this country are in the Russian language.
Interestingly, even international magazines (such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue) which do have Romanian-language editions aren’t sold here. Instead, they’re always the Russian version, even though I’ve seen them (in Romanian) for sale in Romania.
The other “dirty secret” is just how much American money fuels the Romanian-language media in Moldova. ProTV, one of the most popular channels in Romania, also broadcasts locally here in Chisinau. It’s operated by Romanians but was founded by a company out of New Jersey and still has major American backers.
Right now ProTV Chisinau is running a billboard campaign called Fa-ti Europa acasa, roughly translated to meaning “Live like a European at home”, and again is heavily promoting the idea that civilization = Europe(an). Various celebrities are shown doing fancy, nice things such as spritzing flowers in their lovely homes.
Publika TV, which broadcasts mostly in Romanian, is also heavily subsidized by American corporations, most notably CNN.
The newspapers too are doing their best to promote this angle. Romanian-language newspaper Timpul published an article a few days ago that described in detail the appearance of several EU ambassadors (to Moldova) on Romanian-language TV.
I’ve translated the British Ambassador’s remarks below (any mistakes are mine):
Philip David Batson, the British Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova, believes that there is a lack of information about the European Union in the Republic of Moldova.
“The EU should be talked about more often, about what the EU means and about the EU’s priorities. People should know that the EU has many joint interests in the prosperity of the Republic of Moldova. That being said, the government should pay more attention to ethnic minorities. I believe there should be a balance when it comes to the languages spoken in the Republic of Moldova. Traveling through Moldova, I’ve observed that most people speak Russian and very few speak Romanian. I don’t see a problem with the Romanian language being studied in Gaugazia. Everything should be done with fairness.”
I haven’t traveled as much as Ambassador Batson, but he’s right – almost nobody here really speaks Romanian. I’ve even heard mothers talking to their children using Russian words intermixed with Romanian ones.
Gaugazia, by the way, is a tiny segment of the southeast of RM which is inhabited by a Christian Turkic people who speak Russian and loathe Romanian president Traian Basescu so much that they threatened to “ban him for life” from ever entering their territory. To say they are “anti-Romanian” is to put it mildly.
Romanian speakers – Despite what I just said, there is a significant population inside RM that speaks Romanian as their first language, and it is the language that they speak at home.
Because of RM’s long border with Romania, many people have regular contact and cross-border interactions with Romania. To them, Romania and the EU are a natural partner. In April of this year, the current (shaky) coalition in government successfully negotiated a deal with the EU that allows Moldovans (with one caveat*) to travel freely in the EU for the first time on a simple tourist visa.
* The caveat is that only “biometric” passports with a chip inside are valid for travel in the EU, probably because fake passports are so common in this country. The biometric passport is quite expensive and thus off-limits to many citizens.
All of these people definitely see a future with more integration in the EU and western Europe as a good thing.
Romanian politicians – The easiest thing for any Romanian politician to do is throw a sop to the gullible public about possible one-day unification between Romanian and RM, to “re-unite” the countries. Some people, like outgoing Romanian president Traian Basescu, were more serious about it than others. But just about every Romanian feels in their bones that their “little lost cousins” in RM should one day fall under their domain in some form or another.
In reality, Romania is always broke, barely able to cover their budget on a daily basis. Romania is a poor country and RM even poorer, so there’s no money for any unification at all. But if RM were to join the European Union, the thinking is that RM + Romania would form a united bloc that would vote and act in harmony together.
NATO and the United States – There are massive strategic interests in placing more American missiles, planes and soldiers a step closer to Russia’s borders.
Already, Moldova is being flooded with money from NATO and the US. In typical American fashion, money trumps personal investment (link is in Romanian but there are lots of cool photos). A tiny, peaceful border post with Ukraine, where half the daily traffic consists of farmers in horse-drawn carts, was given fancy night-vision binoculars and other gear. By my calculation, the cost of a single pair of binoculars (described in the article as costing 50k US dollars) would pay 25 Moldovan border guards’ salaries for an entire year. Well thank goodness they can see those horses moving about at night now!
The Pro-Russia camp
Although currently the pro-Russia forces are out of power in the national government and the capital is still the stronghold of pro-Romanian politicians, the pro-Russian politicians are making a strong push lately.
“Socialist” party – They still use the red Communist star (which gave Bucharest football powerhouse Steaua (The Star) its name) and were called the Communist Party as recently as 2010, but now they’re rebranded as the “Socialist” Party of Moldova. They are unabashedly pro-Russia and their main politician promise this autumn is to get Moldova to renounce accession to the EU and instead join the (Russian-led) Customs Union.
August 27 was RM’s Independence Day, said independence being from the Soviet Union. Here in Chisinau there were major festivities held to commemorate the event. The Socialist Party threw a “counter party” on August 23, which was (is) the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s military defeating the German (Nazi) forces in 1944.
The Socialist Party also held a major march in the capital a couple of weeks ago. One of my neighbors gave me this brochure, which is pictured below (the inverse side has the same information in Russian).
If you speak Romanian, you’ll have no trouble understanding what’s written there (albeit with some antiquated Moldovan spelling). But for those of you who don’t speak Romanian well, here’s my translation:
RED: THE MARCH FOR MOLDOVA TO JOIN THE CUSTOMS UNION – September 14
WHITE: All those who are in favor of annulling the accord with the EU, all those who are in favor of a powerful Moldova alongside a powerful Russia, all those who support Moldova joining the Customs Union, let us unite!
RED: WE WILL MEEET
– Near the (former grounds of the) Circus
– near the Science Academy
– near the University of Medicine
(all these locations are in Chisinau, the capital)
WHITE: In three columns we will march towards the Plaza of the Great Unification (the biggest square in downtown Chisinau)
RED: Together with us in the Plaza will be: Iosif Kobzon and Alexander Marshal
WHITE/RED: Together for a prosperous Moldova
RED/WHITE: United with a powerful Russia!
Obviously you’d never see anything like that in Romania LOL
The one question that’s been in my mind is whether the Socialist Party gets any funding from Russia. I don’t know the answer, so they might. But what’s certain is that their advertising budget is far less than the pro-European camp. For every Socialist Party billboard or ad I’ve heard on the radio, I’ve seen and heard 10 for the pro-European camp.
Transnistria – Technically the northeastern part of Moldova is part of a “frozen conflict”, as a non-recognized “illegal” government controls it. Russian soldiers and weaponry are stationed on Transnistrian territory and the pseudo-country has its own passports, money and border police.
Hearing about this, you’d think that the situation would be tense. In reality, Transnistria does exactly what it wants to with almost no interference from RM at all. Cars with Transnistrian plates regularly circulate through RM without any problems. A lot of Transnistrians are (relatively) rich and they own and operate a whole series of businesses in RM without any problems. My local grocery store (FIDESCO) is a chain operated by Transnistrians. Nobody here puts up any fuss whatsoever.
The official language in Transnistria is Russian and the majority of its residents strongly support Russia and unification with Russia, both political and economic (including joining that Customs Union). I have no idea how many Transnistrians can or will vote in the upcoming elections but it’s pretty clear that they won’t be voting for closer ties to the European Union.
Gagauz – As stated above, the majority of Gagauz have no love for Romania or the EU at all and would rather sell their firstborn child than give up their strong ties to Russia and the Russian economy. Gagauzia, and the area around its “capital” of Comrat, is one of the biggest wine producing regions of Moldova and Russia is a major market for that wine.
Working men – I’m not being sexist here. There are millions of Moldovan men who work in Russia. There is a bus company about 200 meters from my apartment that runs a regular service to various cities in Russia for construction jobs.
As almost every Moldovan speaks Russian, it’s fairly easy to work there, whereas some future job in the EU would involve foreign languages. Current CIS (the former constituent countries of the Soviet Union) laws make it fairly easy for Moldovans to get a work or travel visa in Russia. Even sending money across CIS borders is far cheaper than from (for instance) Romania to Moldova.
And there is a lot of work in Russia. Most westerners fail to appreciate that fact, but as this article shows (in English), Russia is the number two country in the world for immigration (after the USA).
Salaries in Moldova are extremely low. If a man (and the vast majority of Moldovans leaving the country are men) can find a better job with a higher salary and take care of his family by working in Russia, the last thing he is going to do is vote against that.
Senior citizens – I’ve been spending a lot of time in the post office lately and there’s always a line of senior citizens who are there to get their pension.
It’s kind of shocking for me to see it but many of them still use their old CCCP* passports as their identity document. I’ve spoken to a few of them and universally they are all monolingual Russian speakers. And why not? They grew up in the Soviet Union. As far as they are concerned, an independent Moldova is just another recent fad like iPads and digital currencies.
* the official name of the Soviet Union was the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” or USSR for short. CCCP is just the Cyrillic alphabet’s way of writing the letters SSSR. The “extra” S in there is because the Russian word for “Union” is “Soyuz”, a word many Americans are familiar with. The European Union, by the way, is called the “EuroSoyuz” in Russian.
Furthermore, the Socialist Party has been putting up tents on street corners to get people to sign their petitions to renounce the EU accession accords and to join the Customs Union. Just by eyeball alone, a great number of people stopping by to lend their signatures are the elderly people. Speaking Russian and maintaining ties to Russia have to seem (to them) a continuation of the safe and the familiar, something that also played a major part in Scotland’s recent independence referendum.
Russia itself – My language skills aren’t sufficient enough to read enough Russian-language media to really know what Moscow’s stance on this is here but it’s pretty obvious that they’ll be pretty happy if RM spurns the EU and joins their Customs Union.
Russia’s relations with Transnistria are, to say the least, nuanced. There really isn’t much love for either the Transnistrians or RM in general but on a geopolitical front it’s always good to have more allies. As far as I can tell though, no major Russian politician has weighed in on the upcoming RM parliamentary elections.
Overall, from what I can see, a smaller, perhaps more educated and more “elite” segment of the population in RM that speaks Romanian is all in favor of joining the EU and stronger ties to Romania. The pro-European camp certainly has more lavish advertising budgets and is currently engaged in a much slicker propaganda effort.
That being said, between the dead inertia of Russian (and Soviet) nostalgia and the pure practicality of large segments of the population being dependent on their livelihood and cultural identity based on strong(er) ties with Russia, it’s pretty clear that the majority voice in RM is going to be in favor of annulling the EU accession agreements and voting in the Socialist Party in the upcoming elections.
Of course I’m seeing all this for the first time and still finding my footing here so I’d be hesitant to say that I’m very confident about this analysis. Whatever happens, it’s definitely going to be interesting in November!