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Moldova: Still Troubled, 10 Years After Independence

Next week Moldova will celebrate 10 years since it declared independence from the Soviet Union after the failed 1991 Moscow coup. But a decade after independence, Moldova has become Europe's poorest country, struggling with abysmal economic problems, territorial separatism, and political turmoil. Moreover, the communists who were toppled in August 1991 are now back in power -- this time as democratically elected rulers. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports on what 10 years of independence means for Moldova.

Prague, 22 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The avenues of Moldova's capital, Chisinau, will once again be flooded by light on Monday (27 August) evening, when the former Soviet republic celebrates 10 years of independence.

But even public lighting has become a luxury for cash-strapped Moldova. The streets of downtown Chisinau have not been lit since Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit last month. Even for these two special occasions, the electricity has been donated by the Spanish utilities company that owns the local electricity system, Union Fenosa, and which turned off power earlier this year because of unpaid bills.

After 10 years of independence, Moldova has become Eastern Europe's poorest state and the only ex-Soviet state to vote back into power an unreformed communist party. The country also has struggled with an almost decade-long dispute with its breakaway Transdniester region.

Moldova's situation looks particularly grim when compared to the enthusiasm that swept over it a decade ago, when it was one of the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union after the failed Moscow putsch in August 1991.

Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, and 65 percent of its population of 4.5 million speak Romanian. In the late 1980s, during the reforms launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a strong pro-Romanian movement arose in Moldova, inspired by the nationalist revivals sweeping many Soviet republics.

In August 1989, Moldova proclaimed Moldovan -- virtually the same as Romanian -- as its state language, and less than a year later the Romanian tricolor -- red, yellow, and blue -- was adopted as the republic's official flag. Closer ties were forged between Romania and Moldova after the Romanian communist regime collapsed during a bloody popular uprising in December 1989.

Moldova's pro-democracy movement, which owed its existence to Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms, felt particularly threatened when news of the hard-line coup in Moscow broke. It publicly endorsed Boris Yeltsin in his defiance of the plotters.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Mircea Snegur -- Moldova's president 10 years ago -- said he and his team had already been thinking of independence and had decided to support Yeltsin despite the risks:

"Of course, we were taking a risk. We were risking a lot. We did not know what turn events would take, what the directives and decisions from Moscow would be. But we resisted together, both during the putsch and after, and we began to think about Moldova's independence."

In the wake of the failed Moscow coup, Moldova, like many other Soviet republics, moved fast. Less than a week later, on 27 August, the parliament unanimously declared the country's independence, adopting the Romanian national anthem. The Moldovan parliament was among the first to declare the local Communist Party illegal.

But once the euphoria subsided, Moldova's political and economic troubles resurfaced. Like most ex-Soviet republics, Moldova's agriculture-based economy was in shambles and poverty was already widespread. In addition, the pro-Russian population of the Transdniester region on the left bank of the River Dniester -- which had already seceded from Moldova in 1990 -- was showing increasing signs of uneasiness over the fear that newly independent Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania.

A short but bloody war between Moldovan forces and pro-Russian separatists followed in the summer of 1992, leaving several hundred people dead. The fighting was eventually contained by Russian troops already present in the Transdniester region.

Ironically, despite the fear of the Transdniester separatists, reunification with Romania was never a serious political goal for Moldova. Moldovan historian Gheorghe Cojocaru, the author of several books on contemporary Moldovan history, tells RFE/RL why he thinks reunification was impossible from the start: "The political conditions and the political elite's lack of cohesion, as well as the nonexistence of this political goal, made the reunification with Romania impossible."

On the other side of the border, Romanian politicians feared that reunification efforts would lead to regional instability and international isolation for Bucharest. After the end of the Transdniester conflict and amid deepening economic troubles, Moldova gradually drifted apart from Romania and in 1994 scrapped the common anthem.

That same year, the center-left Agrarian Party took over from Snegur's Christian Popular Democratic Front. But reforms remained at a standstill while poverty grew. Elections in 1998 brought to power an alliance of reformist parties but also marked the return to parliament of the communists, who had been re-legalized in 1995.

The economic crisis continued to deepen amid lackluster reforms, while political bickering between then-President Petru Lucinschi and parliament finally resulted in early elections this year and the communists' victory.

Upon coming to power in April, Communist President Vladimir Voronin pledged to strengthen the country's economic and political ties with Moscow and to bring Moldova into the Russia-Belarus Union. He also named as his top priorities resolving the Transdniester dispute and boosting the status of the Russian language.

But the Transdniester dispute remains unresolved despite half-hearted mediation attempts by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Russia, and Ukraine. Under the new communist leadership, Moldova now says it is ready to grant Transdniester a large degree of autonomy. Pro-Russian separatists, however, insist that they want a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states.

Russia still has some 2,500 troops in the Transdniester and large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. The withdrawal of the troops and the destruction of the arsenal -- estimated at 50,000 armaments, as well as 40,000 tons of ammunition -- has long been a bone of contention between the two sides.

Last month Russia began the weapons' destruction in line with a 1999 OSCE agreement. But the Russian troops' withdrawal -- which has been fiercely opposed by the separatists -- has yet to begin.

Historian Cojocaru believes Moldova will only consolidate its independence and statehood once the Transdniester dispute has been resolved.

"Moldova remains a state with an independence which often is illusory, and I am speaking here about the case of Transdniester. As long as this problem remains unresolved, as long as Moldova cannot control its borders and cannot protect its citizens, this state is not an independent state, is not a sovereign state, and is not a democratic state."

Economically, Moldova remains overwhelmingly dependent on Russian energy, despite its "privileged" relationship with Romania. Both Romania and Moldova -- with average monthly incomes of $100 and $30, respectively -- rank among the poorest countries in Europe, and Romanian influence on the Moldovan economy is nearly non-existent.

Moldova owes Russia some $600 million in unpaid gas and electricity bills. It owes an additional $800 million to international lending organizations.

Communists were brought back to power by voters dreaming of a return to the relative economic stability of Soviet times. But the government has done little so far to alleviate the growing poverty that turned Moldova into a hub of international crime, prostitution, and human organ trafficking.

Some positive signs, however, have recently appeared. Moldova in June was admitted into the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. In July, it gained entry into the World Trade Organization, ahead of larger and richer post-Soviet countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the new government's reform program was praised earlier this month by an International Monetary Fund delegation. The IMF mission said it will support Moldova's attempt to have some $170 million of debt canceled.

Cojocaru says Moldova has to seek closer relations with the West if it wants to bolster its independence:

"I am convinced the path Moldova has to follow is towards Europe. Moldova must pursue closer integration in the Euro-Atlantic structures, because only within this European frame can Moldova find the liberty and independence it declared a decade ago."

Moldova, however, now appears closer to Moscow than it did 10 years ago when it declared independence from the Soviet Union. And its communist government has yet to give clear signals that it is ready to change its populist rhetoric and engage in the radical reforms it will need to attract Western support.