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Who are the Moldovan Eurasians?

August 27, 2013 - Octavian Milewski - Bez kategorii

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Less than two years ago, Vladimir Putin issued his message on the Eurasian Union. Even if the Republic of Moldova is not the key addressee of this flow of political and economic initiatives, Ukraine being at the epicentre of Russian interests, Moldova cannot be missing from the strategic landscape for the simple reason that it constitutes an obligatory element in the imagining of the “Russian Eurasian space”. Given that Putin’s “Eurasia” overlaps the space of the former USSR and the Russian Empire or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the “little and sunny Moldova” from the Kremlin’s strategic psyche has not been spared the attention of a new project for managing the “Russian peripheries”.

The identity polychromy of Moldovans is well known. Their composite (civic) identity is the result of repeated and radical demographic, social and political-administrative changes over the last 200 years. This is reflected, among others, in the nostalgic discourse of some parts of the population who display affinities for the recent project for a Eurasian Union. Generally, any project coming from Moscow has recipients from different social categories in Moldova. Nevertheless, a number of common elements can be traced. For the Eurasian Moldovans, any vector associated with the USSR or Russia is a key electoral argument.

Therefore, an important factor in the preference for the Eurasian Union is the ethnic-linguistic or “civilisational” affiliation, wherein culture and identity arguments prevail over economic and normative-value based ones of which the European discourse makes use of. Thus, whatever the project name coming from Moscow – CIS, Customs Union or Eurasian Union – they will benefit from the support of the “Eurasians”.

With all that, the population with “Eurasian” preferences is not a homogeneous mass. Aside from the Russian and Ukrainian minorities (largely Russified), concentrated mainly in urban areas, the Gagauz and Bulgarian minorities represent a target group, but they are not enough to make it the main game in town. In order to make the balance tilt in favour of Eurasian Union, the Russian speaking minorities are not enough as they only aggregate into a quarter of the electorate.

A segment of the Romanian speaking electorate is made up of the so-called “statalists”, which show a reactive and often residual orientation toward the Eurasian message. It is reactive towards the unionist discourse (with Romania) – embodied by the two nominally liberal parties in Moldova, and residual for social and demographic reasons. The latter category includes the so-called homo moldovanus, i.e. those Moldovans who, as a result of socialisation in Soviet institutions, have come to internalise the social construct of the “Soviet of Moldovan origin” as a primordial truth. The demographic residual of this group is still quite substantial, although it is in a process of ageing as shown by the last census (2004).

Eurasian Union vehicles in Moldova

From Moscow’s vantage point, the main party vehicle that can promote Eurasian integration is the Party of Communists led by Vladimir Voronin and its former members, presently to be concentrated in the tiny Party of Socialists led by Igor Dodon, and which is unlikely to get into the next parliament. According to the last Public Opinion Barometer (Institute for Public Policies, Chișinău, April 2013), Voronin and Dodon are the most representative leaders who are associated with Eurasian integration, the former receiving 61 per cent of the pro-Eurasian preferences, while the latter 17 per cent.

The next leader in the Eurasian preferences is the ethnic Gagauz Mihail Formuzal (5 per cent), but who can hardly be described as a leader with national reach, his rhetoric resonating only among Gagauz ethnic voters. Meanwhile, among the top five national leaders in the preferences of the population, only Voronin is to be ranked second (18.5 per cent), while the other four are of strong pro-European orientation.

Nevertheless, Voronin’s Party of Communists cannot risk relying exclusively on the Eurasian message as it could lose an important fragment of its voters with pro-European visions. A telling indicator of the existence of the European pro-communist electorate is the constant numerical erosion of the faction in parliament (partly in favour of the pro-European and centrist-left Democratic Party) amid a harshening anti-European message in recent years from the party leadership. Even though this communist electorate does not seem to be large and is represented mainly by young people, it may be enough to further reduce the weight of the communists.

An additional vehicle to promote the idea of Eurasian Union is combined in a number of organisations with a pro-Russian Moldovenist message, usually affiliated to local offices of Russian parties, such as United Russia and “Rodina” Party. One of the leading organisations (funded among others by the Russian Embassy in Chișinău and the “Sodruzhestvo” Fund) is the Russian Youth League, which is popular among Russian speakers in urban areas.

One more rally-around-the-flag argument of these organisations is phobia toward Romania, which often stimulates them to make alliances with Moldovenist youth organisations (Party of Moldovan Patriots or “Voevod” Movement), and sympathetic or tributaries of ideologies that originate with the Party of Communists or Party of Socialists.

Last, but definitely not the least, the Moldovan Metropolitan Church, which is canonically under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, makes an important contribution to the pro-Eurasian message. In parallel with the Party of Communists, this institution over the last few years has represented the main conveyor of the conservative, so-called “orthodox” (pravoslavnyj) message unifying the Eurasian traditions, and which has vehemently opposed the implementation of the European norms on the freedom of conscience and expression. In the context of when the mother-church, that is the Moscow Patriarchate, is one of the key institutions in the struggle against the “decadent” values of the West, its Moldovan fief makes no exception.

Circumstantial chances of success

Increasing the electoral share of the pro-Eurasian Union organisations in Moldova is possible only if absenteeism and political apathy takes hold of the electorate as a result of political crises over the last few years, whereby the main actors have been the pro-European political parties. It is yet premature to make any predictions over the possible relative success of the Moldovan Eurasians as long as the 2013-2014 political season will witness the initialing of the Association Agreement with the European Union in Vilnius, but also the construction of the Iaşi-Ungheni gas interconnector, or even the start of new infrastructure projects financed from EU funds.

The external EU message also factors in through the presence and visits of EU dignitaries and politicians in Chișinău. It considerably contributes to the legitimation of the European message for the population of Moldova. Equally, the proactive and pro-European rhetoric, corroborated with the reforms of the Iurie Leancă cabinet are capable of maintaining the present balance of forces, which is sufficient in order to continue on the European path.Over the next few months, Moldova will most likely pass through testy events some of which are not planned or expected with ardor.

An eloquent example is Ukraine and the trade war with Russia, which can spur a satellite scenario with Moldova including on the issue of energy. Another is the relations with the breakaway region of Transnistria, which has already provoked headaches to the Moldovan executive over the security of the administrative boundary with the region by maintaining an inflamed rhetoric in relation to Chișinău. Most likely, the Moldovan Eurasians will try to capitalise on the dynamic around these two themes by trying to question Moldova’s bid for the EU.

What can Romania do?

Romania has always been the bearer of a special message for the pro-European Moldovans. This portion of the electorate is dominated by two liberal parties that traditionally cannot aggregate more than 10-15 per cent of the voters and which is in charge of the unionists (with Romania). These are Moldovans who do not need additional arguments for the pro-European messages coming from Bucharest. The 15 per cent of unionists and pro-Romanians would gravitate towards Romania in any political environment.

Yet, a poorly tackled resource by Bucharest is made up by the ranks of pro-European non-unionist voters. They dominate the political landscape and generally endorse the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Iurie Leancă and former prime minster Vlad Filat. This electorate, partly possessing Romanian citizenship and capable of recognising the Romanian character of their identity (especially in terms of the mother-tongue), is characterised by pragmatism and economic efficiency. It is dynamic demographically and professionally, and is focused on a reformist discourse according to Western European standards.

In this context, the unionist message so much cherished in Bucharest, won't be able to claim the loyalty of non-unionist voters who represent the most powerful constituency on the electoral market of Moldova (approximately 60 per cent of the pro-Europeans) as long as the Romanian politicians insist on a bilateral and European agenda dominated by identity, cultural-historic or linguistic issues. A recovery point for this weakness might occur by changing the focus from educational and cultural policies (albeit with a strong long-term potential impact) to economic and social policies, with the involvement of competent development and aid agencies.

As an EU member state, Romania has immense possibilities to develop projects in Moldova funded by the EU in partnership with more advanced and interested states with expertise and proven record in development and aid policies such as Sweden and Poland. Moreover, these are the EU states that have championed the Eastern Partnership and showed political and material commitment to Moldova’s integration.

The vast majority of Romanian speakers who consider themselves Moldovans (which means that they aspire to a political and civic Moldovan identity) won't change their perceptions based on their possession of a Romanian passport. This self-identification is easily visible through the vote for the parties with a European agenda, but not a unionist one. After two decades, Romania has to resign itself to this reality and make use of a more pragmatic rhetoric toward Moldova.

The measure of success will not be the number of Moldovans declaring themselves Romanians, but the number of successfully realised institutions, economic and infrastructure projects. And maybe in this way, Romania will boost its chances of claiming strategic primacy, not only rhetorically in Moldova, but also practically.

Octavian Milewski is a political scientist specialised in post-Soviet area studies. He is currently a project coordinator affiliated to the International Fund for Cooperation and Partnership of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

This article has been kindly translated by the author. The original article can be found here.

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