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By Claire Bigg and Viorica Zaharia http://gdb.rferl.org/855C7686-9FE8-4569-8CC6-21328DDB985F_w203.jpg Gold statues can't be far behind (RFE/RL) Every president wants to be popular. But one of the latest public-relations efforts launched by Moldova's Communist leader, a postage stamp bearing his image, has caused little more than embarrassment.


The stamps hint at a degree of political wishful thinking on Vladimir Voronin's part, featuring a formal portrait of the 66-year-old leader against a blue backdrop, with the words "Council of Europe" (of which Moldova is a member) and a ring of stars suggestive of the logo of the EU (of which it is not).


The stamps have been available for some time. Shortly before Christmas, however, all other stamps abruptly disappeared from post offices across the country, forcing many reluctant Moldovans to paste President Voronin's visage on their holiday greetings.


Some, like stamp collector Yury Grekov, have stopped short of condemning the new stamp. "There is nothing remarkable about this stamp," he says. "All countries have stamps with their presidents' portraits."


But others are upset at being forced to use the stamp and deem Voronin -- who will be seeking reelection in 2009 -- unworthy of the honor.


"It is foolish," a Chisinau resident tells RFE/RL. "They are forcing people to do things against their will."


"This is an aberration! What has Mr. Voronin done as leader of our country to deserve being portrayed on stamps?" questions another. "This is like the Sicilian Mafia. I would never send a postcard with such a stamp; I would disgrace myself."


'Return To Sender'


Critics argue that most countries print only deceased heads of state on their stamps, with the exception of monarchs.


In Russia, for instance, a stamp representing a politician cannot be issued within the decade following his or her death. (This rule, however, was broken in 2002 when Russia produced a postal stamp of Anatoly Sobchak, a former St. Petersburg mayor and close ally of President Vladimir Putin, only two years after his death.)


Other countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, traditionally release stamps of their newly elected presidents.


In Moldova, all decisions regarding stamps are made by a state-run body. But officials there declined to comment on the case.


This is not the first time Voronin has adorned a stamp. In May 2006, Moldova issued a stamp featuring Voronin speaking to a group of children following a conference on child protection hosted by Chisinau with the support of UNICEF and the European Union.


Still, many see poor judgment in Voronin's latest move. For Valentin Balan, a public-relations professor at the Free International University of Moldova, in Chisinau, replicating Voronin's omnipresent image on postal stamps is more than just a case of bad PR.


"In a totalitarian state, every space can be used for propaganda," Balan says. "But in the democratic state that the Republic of Moldova claims to be, this is unacceptable, particularly since stamps in our country are a government matter."


The incident came on the heels of another episode with political overtones that marred the Christmas holidays for a number of Moldovans. Residents of the capital were for the first time denied a Christmas tree until the final days of December, after police seized a tree put up in Chisinau by the city's newly elected mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca. Voronin had decided that the tree would be erected as late as December 30, according to the Soviet tradition of celebrating New Year's Eve as the main winter holiday. The move was widely seen as retribution for the recent election of young, pro-reform Chirtoaca, who took the post after decades of Communist rule.


Sign Of Desperation


Voronin's efforts to impose himself as Moldova's undisputed leader is in part a reaction to his flagging popularity. After more than a decade of independence, Moldova continues to be plagued by a separatist conflict in Transdniester and a tattered economy that has earned it the status of Europe's poorest country.


Amid these troubles, his bullying stance on issues such as stamps and Christmas trees are perceived by growing numbers of Moldovans as an embarrassment.


"Everyone is laughing about it," laments Igor Botan, a Chisinau-based political analyst. "I have Moldovan friends who live in Britain and came back just before New Year's Eve. They said they had become local celebrities; people ask them what happened with the Christmas tree in our country. It's very funny, and very absurd. That's obviously the image Moldova projects in Europe."


This could be damaging for Voronin, whose once-close links with Moscow deteriorated in 2003 over its support for the separatist leadership in Moldova's Russian-speaking region of Transdniester. He has since declared that his country's future lies in Europe and has nurtured ties with Brussels. But Voronin remains an old-school Communist at heart, and policy-watchers say further political U-turns can't be ruled out.


The Voronin stamps, many of which travel to Romania's large Moldovan community, could also affect the already strained relations between the two neighbors. These soured after Romania pledged to ease legislation allowing Moldovans to obtain Romanian citizenship, prompting Voronin to accuse Bucharest of undermining his country's national security.


Fewer Voronin stamps are likely to find their way to Transdniester. But the separatist government has itself already tapped into the political potential of philately. In November, it unveiled an exhibition of its own postal stamps -- featuring animals, local churches, and the founder of Tiraspol, Russian General Aleksandr Suvorov -- under the provocative title, "The History Of Stamps Is The History Of Statehood."

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