Moldovan President Sees Solution To Conflict With SeparatistsNovember 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has announced that mediators have drafted a plan to be proposed to Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region that would grant separatists large autonomy and achieve reunification. During a wide-ranging interview in Chisinau with RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc, the Moldovan president expressed optimism that negotiations based on the plan will soon resume. He also had high praise for the OSCE's mediating role, said Kosovo should not been seen as a model for other frozen conflicts, and accused EU member Romania of trying to undermine Moldova's efforts to develop its national identity.
RFE/RL: The negotiations to resolve Moldova's 15-year conflict with Transdniester have been lagging for some time. Has Moldova altered its position toward the withdrawal of Russian troops and armaments from the region? Are there any moves toward pushing the process forward?
Vladimir Voronin: I wouldn't confirm that the negotiations have stagnated. On the contrary, consultations are taking place -- we have the notion of negotiations, and we have the notion of consultations -- the basis for negotiations always consists of projects that resulted from prior consultations among the sides involved in the process. I highly appreciate the bilateral consultations which have already taken place between Moldova and the Russian Federation, the United States, the European Union, Ukraine, the OSCE, but I also have high regard for the ongoing consultations on the Transdniester dispute between the United States and the Russian Federation, and between Ukraine and the European Union. As a result of these consultations, a draft of the future status of Transdniester's autonomy has already been agreed upon. A mechanism of guarantees for implementing this status and work toward reunification has also been convened."
RFE/RL: When you say "agreed upon" should we understand that the two sides -- Moldova and Transdniester -- have come to an understanding on these issues?
Voronin: All the sides [involved in the negotiations process] -- with the exception o f Transdniester. All sides have agreed upon the draft as a viable plan to be brought up in talks with Transdniester."
RFE/RL: You have mentioned the OSCE as one of the sides involved in the process. The OSCE has actually been moderating the negotiations process for many years. However, the OSCE itself has recently come under criticism for lacking both the tools and the political will to intervene decisively in resolving the "frozen conflicts" of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. How does Moldova regard the OSCE's role in resolving its dispute with separatist Transdniester?
Voronin: OSCE may have indeed its shortcomings, but the OSCE is the body that has continuously been organizing the consultations with Transdniester. The OSCE is actually the organization that has been permanently involved in monitoring the situation of the frozen conflicts [in the former Soviet Union] and Kosovo, and that is a very important fact, because individual states have other problems too, and they have various interests, both domestic and foreign. And then I am asking myself, what other organization could unite us all and make us focus on these issues? There is no other such organization. [The OSCE] may come under criticism for its shortcomings, but its shortcomings are not caused by its staff's incompetence, but by its statute, which was voted on by all member states. All in all, the OSCE is undertaking a huge job, if I were to mention only the Transdniester dispute.
RFE/RL: You also mentioned Kosovo, where a deadline for an agreement between the two sides is drawing near. Are you apprehensive that an independent Kosovo would prompt Russia and separatist leaders in Transdniester to call for the breakaway region's independence?
Voronin: I don't think that a resolution of any frozen conflict should be set as an example for others, because each conflict -- the Transdniester one, if you like, or Kosovo -- has its own roots, its own history, and its own evolution, as well as its own solution, which can apply only to that conflict. There can't be a just one solution for all conflicts.
RFE/RL: Some commentators have criticized Moldova's communist leadership for what they call political opportunism -- courting either the West or the East, depending on its momentary interests. I will start with the East: after an obvious cooling in its relations with Moscow, Moldova's government seems to be getting closer to Russia again. How good are your ties with Russia during the hectic preelection period there?
Voronin: For commentators it is easy to criticize and draw conclusions. For us politicians, the situation is much more complicated. Geographically and politically, Moldova has the role of a span between East and West, if we are to consider only the fact that since January 1 it has become a neighbor of the European Union while remaining a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). We have certain advantages from CIS membership -- why should we give them up? On the other hand, we have some advantages resulting from our new role as EU neighbors. Western investors seem more interested in Moldova now that we are on the EU border. It is in our own interests to make the most of these new opportunities, especially since they are a gift for which we did not have to work. It was high time we had some luck, too. We have no natural resources, we have no economic power, how else could we develop? That is why I am satisfied that we have good relations with the CIS states, and at the same time we have managed to successfully implement the EU-Moldova action plan. This doesn't mean that we are shifting from one side to the other, we are pursuing our national interests. I am glad that Russia lifted the ban on Moldovan wine imports, that we have a solid five-year agreement for gas deliveries, and that we have resolved other bilateral issues. This good relationship with Russia does not contradict our strategic goal of European integration.
RFE/RL: You've mentioned the fact that Moldova lacks natural resources. You have mentioned a new contract with Gazprom. With winter approaching, can Moldova afford to pay for gas at market prices? Is there any connection between the lifting of the wine ban and gas issue?
Voronin: We have no choice but to negotiate the gas price with Russia. Of course we would like the price to be much lower, but there are no other options. We need gas, so we will have to tighten our belts a little more and pay for it. As for the wine, the Russian ban has actually prompted us to penetrate more aggressively into other markets as well. Now that the ban has been lifted, we shouldn't leave those new markets, but consolidate them even more. This was a very important lesson that paid off. In just the first nine months of this year, our exports to the EU grew a handsome 36 percent."
RFE/RL: You have just spoken about the advantages that Moldova is supposedly enjoying from its membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States. I'd like to ask you to elaborate on your opinion about regional groupings of former soviet republics such as the CIS and GUAM. Do they have a future?
Voronin: I will reiterate what I said at my first news conference after becoming president in 2001. Moldova has to be where its interests are, and where it can have advantages. Now, regarding our CIS membership, at the last CIS summit in Dushanbe I had the impression that the newly adopted strategy to develop the organization is more viable than previous ones. In fact, the changes in the CIS strategy are meant, I believe, to make it function more like the European Union. If this line is maintained, I believe that the CIS will become a viable organization that will benefit the member states. As for GUAM, the situation seems darker, because this group's future direction for development has not yet been clarified. There are wide-ranging discussions, but there has been no definitive decision on the principles and the fields of action for this organization.
RFE/RL: Let's turn now to the West. Are you satisfied with your current relations with the European Union? Since you now have a common border with the EU, do you and your government still have a clear political objective of becoming an EU member?
Voronin: It is clear that the strategy adopted by Moldova's parliament in July 2005 has the final objective of joining the EU. But we know it's a long road and not an easy one. That's why the first step -- the three-year Moldova-EU action plan, which is about to come to an end in December -- was tough for us. We had no experience, no trained staff, no previous experience. We made extraordinary efforts to honor the obligations we assumed under the plan. I am glad to tell you that during the recent meetings we had in Brussels with the European Commission our diligent efforts were praised by the EU, and we can say the three-year plan was implemented successfully. But this is just the first step. We have to implement European standards and criteria here, in our society, before knocking on Europe's door and asking to join the great European family.
RFE/RL: Then you still have a lot of work to do.
Voronin: Absolutely. The more we advance, the more difficult the challenges we face."
RFE/RL: How about relations with your new -- and only -- EU neighbor, Romania? There was a lot of tension after Bucharest earlier this year announced efforts to establish a fast-track procedure to grant Romanian citizenship to Moldovans who can prove they or their ancestors were Romanian citizens before World War II -- thus giving them access to the EU labor market. How would you rate your relationship with Romania now?
Voronin: Our relations are not particularly good right now, and we are worried about this evolution. These differences emerged now, but they have been brewing for many years. If Romanian authorities continue to base the relations with us on questioning the Moldovan state's national identity, I am not convinced that they will improve. This is our discontent right now. Our position should be understood by Romania and supported by the European Union. We should have normal relations with our neighbors -- whoever they are -- not relations that are to one side's disadvantage.
RFE/RL: Do you believe Romania's initiative to grant citizenship to some Moldovans has caused problems for Moldova?
Voronin: Yes, and very serious ones. Furthermore, the problems continue, and the changes in Romania's citizenship law are clear proof of that. We are very worried, and will complain to all European and international bodies, because this concerns Moldova's statehood. No matter how quiet we Moldovans are by nature, we can't remain oblivious to our state's future.
RFE/RL: Moldova's ruling Communist Party, as well as the president, are already in the last half of their second term. What has happened to the reform of the Communist Party, which you announced in 2005? Is it still under way, and what do you envision it will be like? A 21st-century perestroika?
Voronin: We are not into perestroika anymore, we don't even use the word anymore, because we've had enough of perestroika during the Soviet era. The party is a living organism, and the reform we talked about two years ago has been in the making. In two weeks' time, on November 17, we will publish the draft of the new party program, which then will be debated until March 15, when it is due to be voted on during an extraordinary congress of the Communist Party. It is a European program, a new program that I am sure will stir not only an internal debate in our society, but also be of international interest."
RFE/RL: Could you give us a hint about the future direction of Moldova's Communist Party? Might it turn into a Western European-style social-democratic party, for instance?
Voronin: I am absolutely against classifying political parties according to such [doctrinal] connotations -- communists, social-democrats, etc. Our goal is to build a welfare state, which would ensure the welfare of our citizens. We want to build a state where citizen's rights and security are guaranteed."
Lukashenka Comments Draw Accusations Of Anti-Semitism
But perhaps until now, he hasn't been known internationally as an anti-Semite.
Talking to a group of Russian journalists on October 12 about the past living conditions of the southeastern town of Babruysk, Lukashenka said, "It was scary to enter, it was a pigsty. That was mainly a Jewish town -- and you know how Jews treat the place where they are living."
"Look at Israel, I've been [there]. I really don't want to offend anyone -- but they don't care much about, say, grass being cut, like in Moscow," Lukashenka said, in comments broadcast live on national radio.
Lukashenka also called on Jews "with money" to return to Babruysk, once a thriving Jewish center. Last year, the town, as the host of a harvest festival, received a large injection of state cash.
Despite his professed intentions, Lukashenka did cause offense. Israeli officials and Jewish organizations within Belarus have condemned his comments, which have raised questions about the rise of anti-Semitism in Belarus.
Israeli Ambassador to Belarus Zeev Ben-Ari told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Lukashenka was drawing on an old, derogatory anti-Semitic stereotype. Lukashenka's speech "alluded to the myth that I thought had died, at least among the progressive part of humanity," Ben-Ari said. "This myth sees the Jews as untidy and dirty people who smell bad -- and is undoubtedly anti-Semitic."
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a statement that "the role of leadership is to fight anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head, all over the world, not to encourage it."
As a sign of protest, the Israeli Foreign Ministry considered recalling the country's ambassador to Belarus. The ministry decided against the recall, but summoned Belarusian Ambassador to Israel Ihar Lyashchenya to register "strong condemnation."
Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, has also criticized the comments, calling on Lukashenka to apologize.
With up to 28,000 people, Belarus's Jewish community is small. According to government statistics, the two predominant religions are Belarusian Orthodoxy (80 percent) and Catholicism (14 percent).
A Growing Trend?
The point -- if there was one -- of Lukashenka's comments remains unclear. Was this just a crude lapse or was it representative of a new anti-Semitic trend in Belarusian society?
Ambassador Lyashchenya refused to recognize the anti-Semitic character of Lukashenka's statement, saying that the president had "respect and a good feeling for the Jewish people." "Belarus and anti-Semitism are mutually exclusive things," he said.
But Valeri Karbalevitch, a political commentator at RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, said Lukashenka has made anti-Semitic statements in the past, for instance comparing dishonest oligarchs with Jews, or likening his critics to people with "hooked noses."
Lukashenka has "openly made such remarks to attract support, for both in Belarusian and Russian societies anti-Semitism is evident every day. Lukashenka wanted to demonstrate that he was one of them, a representative of this segment of the population," Karbalevitch said.
But this time, Karbalevitch said he believes that Lukashenka's comments were "simply a slip of the tongue." RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that the president's comments have not since been rebroadcast or reprinted in state-controlled media.
It is unlikely that Lukashenka's comments represent a sizable increase in anti-Semitism in Belarus.
According to a 2007 U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom, in Belarus, "the number of individual anti-Semitic incidents increased during the reporting period. Anti-Semitism is tolerated by the state. Anti-Semitic acts were only sporadically investigated."
The report noted that, during the reporting period, several Jewish religious sites had been vandalized. Last week, vandals reportedly desecrated graves in a Jewish cemetery in Babruysk and daubed the gates with a swastika.
But Franklin J. Swartz, an American historian who has lived in Belarus for 10 years collecting oral histories of Belarusian Jews and working to restore Jewish cemeteries, said the level of anti-Semitism is remarkably low in Belarus.
"Compared to other countries in the immediate vicinity of Belarus -- such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia, [and] Poland, especially -- there is very, very little, and I would say virtually no societal anti-Semitism in daily life in Belarus," said Swartz, who directs the East European Jewish Heritage Project. "During the Soviet period there was a certain amount of institutionalized anti-Semitism. But now I find no examples of that."
Little Reflection On The Past
Belarus's recent history is pockmarked with the tragedies of anti-Semitism.
Before World War II, Jews made up about 1 million out of Belarus's entire population of 10 million.
During the Nazi occupation, some 800,000 Jews were killed. Cities and towns -- including Babruysk -- turned into ghettos, labor camps, or mass graves.
Historian Swartz says that in postcommunist Belarus, the authorities have attempted to commemorate the Holocaust. "Every single town where there were Jews who were killed has an execution site that was put up by the government," Swartz said. "The wording during the Soviet period was that a peaceful Soviet citizen was killed by a fascist. Now, as they put up new ones, it is much more straightforward, and just says that Jews were killed by Germans and their collaborators."
Perhaps a deeper problem for Belarus, aside from the sporadic attacks on Jewish religious sites, is coming to terms with the past.
According to Karbalevitch, Belarusian society has not reflected deeply enough on the Holocaust.
"In Soviet times, talk of the Holocaust was hushed up," he said. "The Holocaust did not liquidate the anti-Semitic tendencies that have been present since even before the [October] Revolution."