A defiant movement that aims to unify Romania and Moldova is instead opening up old fissures.by Zakhar Koretsky 16 August 2012
CHISINAU | “True patriots of Moldova don't speak Russian,” declared a banner carried aloft by some of the several hundred marchers who descended on Balti in northern Moldova earlier this month to call for unification with Romania.
It was the fourth demonstration organized by unionists this year in Moldova. The first two took place in the spring in Balti and the capital, Chisinau; the third, in late July, was held in Cahul, a southern city with a significant Russian-speaking population.
Activists came to Balti and Cahul from various Romanian cities to support the cause. In Balti many sported the image of Romania’s blue, yellow, and red flag on their cheeks.
“I've returned to the ancestral homeland to demand [its] unity with Romania,” one of the protesters said in an amateur video of the Balti rally.
“If we managed to organize a march here, in Balti, the most Russified city [in Moldova], then nothing can stand in our way! Each one of us must go till the end, until the eventual unification” with Romania, one organizer told fellow activists afterward.
Balti is Moldova’s third largest city (counting Tiraspol in the breakaway territory of Transdniester), and its population is 20 percent Russian, compared with 6 percent nationwide, according to the most recent census, taken in 2004. Unionists in Moldova tend to see the influence of Russia as the largest impediment to their goal.
Members of the Action 2012 movement, which organized the rallies, want Moldova to merge with Romania this year, or next year at the latest. 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the separation of Romania and Bessarabia – modern Moldova – which was annexed by the Russian Empire in a peace treaty with Ottoman Turkey, which controlled most of Romania.
The countries were reunited during the interwar period. Moldova changed hands a couple of times during World War II, and became part of the Soviet Union when the war ended.
Though in Moldova and Romania the idea of unification is generally marginalized, those in the unification movement argue that two identical peoples should not be divided by a border.
“Unification with Romania is a question of evolution for Moldova – a country without any traditions of statehood or the energy to build [a state],” said Vitalya Pavlichenko, leader of the unionist National Liberal Party and a strong supporter of Action 2012.
While she noted the significance of 2012 as the 200th anniversary of the “Russian occupation,” Pavlichenko acknowledged unification would likely take “a few years.”
“We want unification to happen as soon as possible,” she said. “And it needs to be done based on the German federalization model.”
In addition to demanding unification, the activists in Balti praised the recent decision by Moldova's parliament to ban the use of communist symbols for political purposes.
Throughout much of the 2000s, Moldova was ruled by the Communist Party, which turned a more or less friendly face to Russia while distancing itself from Bucharest. The Communists were replaced in 2009 by a ruling coalition called the Alliance for European Integration.
Unionist demonstrators in Balti planned to burn some communist symbols on the city’s main square but were thwarted by counter-protesters who lobbed eggs, tomatoes, empty plastic bottles, and rocks at them.
For their part, the counter-protesters got into the game of reliving 20th-century battles as well. If the unionists were bent on diluting communism’s (and, by implication, Russia’s) influence in Moldova, the independents styled themselves as fighting fascism, like their wartime ancestors. “Fascists will not pass!” they declared. “Long live Greater Moldova!”
Covered faces and Nazi salutes seen during the gatherings in Balti and Cahul have led to speculation that members of Noua Dreapta (New Right), a group associated with violence, anti-Semitism, and anti-homosexual views, were among the unionist marchers.
Local police managed to separate the two groups, but marchers on both sides continued insulting each other. Unionists, although outnumbered nearly three to one, shouted “Union!”, “Bessarabia – land of Romania!”, “We are home!”, and “Long live Greater Romania!”
With the situation threatening to get out of control, local authorities withdrew the unionists’ meeting permit. The protesters were forced to abandon their plans and started moving toward their buses. In the process, several flags were torn and two people reported injuries. One of them – a TV reporter – was hit in the head with a rock.
Two people were arrested. The police said they are investigating allegations of hooliganism, incitement of ethnic hatred, and violations of the law on assembly.
The demonstrations in Balti, Cahul, and Chisinau had the support of Pavlichenko’s National Liberal Party. After the clashes in Balti, the Moldovan Justice Ministry said it is preparing legislation to prohibit the activity of political parties that regularly organize protests leading to violence.
AGAINST THE WIND
Action 2012, the driving force for unionism in Moldova, is a coalition of civic groups that was founded last year in Romania. Many of its members belong to Moldovan student groups in Romania or organizations that cater to the Romanian diaspora worldwide.
In 1994, Moldovans upheld independence in a referendum whose wording remains contested. Though support for unification remains low, to some it’s not out of the question. In a July survey by the Center for Sociological Investigations and Marketing Research, 10.5 percent of respondents nationwide said they think Moldova will become part of Romania in the next 20 years. That is nearly double the percentage from last year. Two years ago, only 3 percent made such a prediction.
In the same survey, 80.9 percent of respondents said they believed Moldova and Romania should continue to exist as independent states.
Pavlichenko said she does not trust such polls, and most unionists remain undeterred. This year Action 2012 invited 70 young “ethnic Romanians” to attend a summer school on Romanian culture in the Romanian city of Bacau. The motto of the school: “If you're Moldovan, then you're Romanian.”
The coalition has announced that its next march will take place in Chisinau on 16 September. Activists vow on the Action 2012 Facebook page to “show Chisinau real power.”
If the unionist movement has not yet managed to unite Moldova and Romania, it has consolidated its opponents. Counter-protests in Balti and Cahul were organized by leftist political forces never before seen together, including the parties of communists, socialists, and “Patriots”; a movement representing the Gagauz, a Turkic people who live in southern Moldova; and the League of Russian Youth.
“We managed to unite and show that we can defend our country,” Igor Tulyantsev, chairman of the Russian youth group, told the crowd at the Balti gathering.
Mihail Formuzal, leader of the United Gagauzia movement, said, “If someone doesn't appreciate the sovereignty of Moldova, let them buy a train ticket and go wherever they want to.”
IN NEED OF AN HONEST FORESTER
In Moldova, opinions are divided on whether the unionists are really looking to bring the countries together or if they have something else in mind. Prime Minister Vlad Filat said shortly after the protests that the events in Balti were intended to provoke violence, though he did not elaborate.
Nicolae Chirtoaca, a former ambassador to the United States and director of the Moldovan Independent Institute of Strategic Studies, said in an interview that the unionists' main goal is to fan anti-Russian sentiment in order to divide Moldovans ethnically.
Chirtoaca said “dwarf parties” had latched on to the unification movement in order to raise their profile. Tulyantsev, speaking to counter-protesters in Balti, said forces from the West are behind the demonstrations, seeking via their “pocket satellite, Romania” to deny Moldova its “historical bond with Russia.”
“The Moldovan people will not tolerate fascist ideas and ethnic intolerance on our land,” he said.
Even Iurie Rosca, former leader of the pro-Romanian Christian-Democratic People's Party, questioned the motives of the unionists.
“Those who call themselves unionists act in places whose population is skeptical of unionism. They do this to provoke clashes and to then present themselves as victims,” Rosca said in an interview on national television. “This has nothing to do with Moldovan statehood. I would advise all political actors not to fawn before either Romania or Russia for political points.”
Political analyst and former lawmaker Oazu Nantoi said the country’s leaders have been reluctant to talk straight about Action 2012, which he called an extremist group. He suggested Moldova is being pulled apart by the escalating battles between aggressive unionists and their opponents.
Nantoi likened the country to a patch of contested ground in a wartime anecdote.
“The Germans entered a forest and drove the partisans away. The partisans came back and drove the Germans away. Then the forester showed up and kicked everybody out,” he said. “Moldova needs someone like that forester.”