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Moldova's Leaders Struggle To Find A Common Language

  • Louis O'Neill

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (center) and fellow Communists walk out of a session of parliament on August 28.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (center) and fellow Communists walk out of a session of parliament on August 28.

August 31 was Limba Noastra (Our Language Day) in Moldova, marking 20 years since the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic passed a language law establishing Romanian as the country's official tongue and returning the Latin script.

On this day, plays, poetry readings, and edifying events are organized all over the country. The holiday has become a symbol of the country's cultural independence.

Still-acting President Vladimir Voronin has done his part, using the young, official language in a novel and entertaining way, albeit one a bit surprising for a head of state. It turns out that although the Moldovan legislature may be able to require the use of this or that language, it cannot yet mandate a political culture of respect, restraint, and civil dialogue.

"Go to hell," Voronin shouted at liberal leader Vlad Filat during the first session of Moldova's new parliament last week. "You think we're afraid of you, boy? We'll clear things up with you using other methods."

Filat was at the podium urging the large Communist minority of legislators not to leave the hall and thus boycott the vote for a new speaker (which, by the way, is precisely what Filat's group of allies had done some months earlier). Unfazed, Filat calmly responded: "There you have it; see, this is the culture of the dialogue."

Later, he suggested that Voronin's "behavior knows no limits."

Civil Dialogue?

But no one seemed particularly surprised by this outburst. After all, the acting president, who is fluent in both Russian and, as he prefers to call it, "Moldovan," has used salty language many times to castigate his political rivals.

In June, he not only threatened Chisinau's young liberal mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, with prosecution for "usurpation of power" over the April riots but also with castration-by-rodent. At a press conference, Voronin gamely suggested: "They should unzip Chirtoaca's trousers and put a rat in there.... He's a bachelor anyway."

The local press had a field day, reminding readers of another regional leader's interest in hanging a rival by a sensitive anatomical appendage. Later in the same press intervention, Voronin accused the opposition of running "some kind of 'Armenian bath'.... We'll see who picks up the soap off the floor."

Such examples make it clear that any culture of civil dialogue has increasingly gone missing in the negotiations between the Alliance for European Integration (AIE) and the Communists. Not only did the Communists refuse to speak with their rivals at the first session of parliament, but, in a feat of linguistic acrobatics, they failed even to recognize the AIE's very existence.

Rather, the Communist Party's Central Committee declared that "in the current situation [we] consider impossible a dialogue with a political structure that exists only in the imaginations of certain mass media. In such a dialogue can be found neither topics for discussion, nor a goal or partner looking for a common position."

And in an act that seems like the physical equivalent of the fighting words recently uttered, the Communist-controlled Interior Ministry sent 200 Fulger troops (the word means "lightning" and is the Moldovan equivalent of OMON or SWAT) to "defend" the national broadcaster, Moldova 1, from a simple, but apparently quite dangerous request.

Prime Viewing

The AIE's Filat and Marian Lupu had both asked that the first meeting of parliament be explained during primetime for the entire country to see and that subsequent sessions of parliament be broadcast live.

Although these two requests were approved by a slim legislative majority -- the exact 53 votes that comprise the AIE -- they were refused by Moldova 1. After many evasive maneuvers, the station's director finally declared, in true Soviet style, that the request could not be satisfied "for technical reasons."

The Communists have now been employing delaying tactics as well, to disrupt the AIE's momentum -- at least since Voronin's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi on August 25. Before this private tete-a-tete, Voronin had been hinting at a readiness to negotiate to avoid another round of repeat elections. But shortly after returning from Russia, he failed to show up for a meeting with the allied parties.

Then, only 33 minutes into the first parliamentary session, the Communists declared their unreadiness to form a faction and requested a week's pause. Their well-defined fraction was revealed, however, when all 48 Communists in parliament got up and left the hall.

The AIE continued the session, as the Communists knew it would, teeing up a Communist appeal to the Voronin-friendly Constitutional Court on the legality of that first assembly. Just last week Voronin issued a decree conferring Moldova's Order of the Republic on the court's chief, Dumitru Pulbere, who was also appointed to the post by Voronin in 2007.

...And More

Both sides have shown that they are adept at political maneuvering. As fun as harassing the other side may be, these leaders should remember that their obligation is to the people of Moldova, not to the advancement of their personal agendas and power plays. And there is a freight train of economic disaster barreling down on Moldova.

The official unemployment rate has doubled year-on-year and is still being swelled, mostly with urban males, by returning gastarbeiters. The government just negotiated an emergency $200 million credit from private banks to cover its budget deficit and pay salaries and pensions.

Even with natural-gas prices declining, MoldovaGaz owes Russia's Gazprom nearly $70 million and winter is coming. Remittances are down by one-third in 2009, and Moldova's GDP is projected to contract by 12.2 percent. Exports decreased by 20.7 percent in the first half of the year, and foreign-currency reserves shrunk by about $30 million.

A projected good grape harvest could come to little due to ineffective legislation on bulk wine sales. And the International Monetary Fund -- whose departure from Moldova in June was accompanied by another of Voronin's famous off-color remarks -- is closing its fiscal year on September 15, leaving little time for political deadlock.

Unfortunately, the country's leaders have been engaged in an election campaign since December that has allowed them conveniently to talk around the fact that their fiscal house is on fire. Moldova's voters have already reshaped the political landscape and may well do it again if forced by endlessly bickering leaders.

It seems time to put aside the dogma and the profanity and get to work. Yesterday may have been Limba Noastra, but the country is still waiting for its leaders to find a common language.

Louis O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006-08. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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