They walk along the Stephen the Great Boulevard in Chișinău like victors. Then, proud and firm, they stop in front of the Moldovan government’s seat. They carry national flags. However, this is not an ordinary patriotic or nationalist demonstration: they, Romanians, coming from the neighboring country, will demand the liquidation of the country they are in. And no one in this country will tell them that this is illegal or inappropriate.
Their only postulate is the incorporation of Moldova into Romania. They want the events from a hundred years ago, when the State Council governing the autonomous Bessarabia, convened in autumn 1917 as a result of the February Revolution, voted in favor of incorporation into the Kingdom of Romania.
To be precise, one hundred years without two days — the demonstration takes place not on the exact anniversary, but two days before it, on Sunday, March 25, so that the demonstrators have time to arrive to Chișinău and return home. Symbolism had to give way, as most participant had a long way to travel. The master of ceremony could greet “Romanian brothers from the other side of Pruth”, but the names of towns on the flags tell me that the majority of the demonstrators are Romanian.
In the last Moldovan census in 2014, 75% respondents declared Moldovan nationality, whereas 7% declared Romanian nationality. There are also opinion polls asking whether the respondent would like Moldova and Romania to unite. No more than 20-30% provide positive answers. However, the trend is going upwards.
They are Romanians after all
Razvan, who came to the demonstration from Hunedoara in Transylvania (almost 700 km from Chișinău. This is his second time in Moldova) is not put off by the lack of support of the locals. He expected it to be higher. In the bus he came in, an activist of the Greater Romania Party assured they would be greeted with joy.
— They are Romanians after all. They speak the same language, as there is no such a thing as the Moldovan language. It is clear we should live in one country — he says. — Here, in Chișinău, we even have an Eminescu Theatre and a monument of Stephen the Great. This means that we have common heroes too.
Shouldn’t the Moldovan people themselves decide whether they want a common state?
— When we have one Romanian state, everyone will profit from this. Moldovans know it; this is why so many people are seeking Romanian citizenship. I do not believe that so many people are against it in the opinion polls. And even if it is true… When it finally happens, those who hesitate will be convinced.
In the meantime, another speaker says that the unification must happen, as this is the correct historical course of events. “I say yes to the union, and you?” The crowd agrees enthusiastically.
I will hear it a dozen more times during the demonstration, but when one of the speakers tries to seek more substantive arguments, the situation becomes even more surreal. The reasoning about the infinite advantages of Romania, from independent courts to great universities is met with grins and disbelieving murmurs of the demonstrators.
It is not about identity
The most important speaker, Traian Basescu, former president of Romania, focuses on history and symbolism. He thanks the participants for their sense of unity with the Romanian nation despite the Soviet Union’s malicious attempts to cut them off from their roots.
In the meantime, I look for Moldovan people in the crowd. I find Florin from Ungheni, a recent English philology graduate in the cathedral park behind the main gathering. A humanist, so did he come to the demonstration because of history and identity?
— Maybe to some extent. Considering this land Romanian makes some sense. When I studied in Iași, I did not feel as though I lived abroad — he smiles. — However, there are differences. We have ethnic minorities, different problems.
So no, it is not about identity, but about the last chance to save Moldova from complete decay. — Until recently, I believed that corruption and theft of public property would end some day and the independent Moldova has not existed long enough to internalize good practices. Now he realized that incorporation into an EU member state was the only chance for a change.
And the fact that Romania is not a model of lawfulness and dynamic development? — Regardless, it is better than Moldova and if we join it, the people who feed on our country will no longer go unpunished — Florin says.
He agrees with political scientists who state that Moldova became a private farmyard of one particular oligarch, internal policy is a big game of appearances, a puppet theatre in which the main protagonists recite pre-established lines. Moldovans even prefer calling Vlad Plahotniuc, a billionaire and the most powerful man in the country, the Master of Puppets, avoiding saying his name.
The Master of Puppets watches silently
What does Plahotniuc think about the calls to liquidate the state in which he installed his associates in all the institutions and offices, parliament, government, courts, army?
Her personally never made a comment, because he did not have to, as he is only the President of the Democratic Party of Moldova. One of his associates, Andrian Candu, the President of the Moldovan Parliament, did it on his behalf. Precisely, on March 27, he went to Bucharest to participate in a formal sitting on the anniversary of the unification and delivered a speech on the importance of the anniversary. He was at home, as apart from his Moldovan passport, he also has a Romanian one. Just like over half of the Moldovan parliament members, some Constitutional Court judges, and the former head of Moldovan Special Forces.
The European Union has not commented on the increasingly open calls to liquidate a generally recognized state.
Brussels follows the line: We should forgive Plahotniuc and his soldiers more, even theft of funds for the development of Moldova, because if we do not forgive them, people will stop believing in Europe and reach for the pro-Russian alternative. Plahotniuc is doing everything to ensure that European leaders keep following this path. In the last elections, he helped Igor Dodon, the leader of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova in favor of maintaining good relations with Russia, win. Later, he put him in his place several times; when Dodon challenged the government’s candidate for minister of defense (Eugen Sturza, 34 years old, unprepared for the position), the Constitutional Court “considered him unable to perform his duties”. The president of the parliament received Sturza’s oath. After that, Dodon returned as though nothing happened.
If Dodon were not a puppet agreeing to play his grotesque role, he would probably call on the people to go outside and demonstrate or at least he would clearly and firmly state that the state needs profound changes. But he hasn’t. He also did not make any significant gesture on the occasion of the unionists’ march. It is hard to consider billboards in Chișinău saying, “Unionists come and go, the homeland remains. Moldova has a future!” as such a gesture.
— President Dodon did not do a thing to oppose the unionists? One cannot say that! He came to us, to Bălți, placed flowers on the soldiers’ grave, and said that history and memory should be respected — Natalia, a woman in her forties, explains to me next to a tank monument in the second biggest city of Moldova. She also places flowers. When I ask her for whom, she is surprised. It is obvious that everyone comes here on 26 March, on the anniversary of the liberation of the city.
To get to Bălți from Chișinău, I travel in a marshrutka through the monotony of snow-covered fields, sometimes interrupted by depressed villages with sculpted wells. I get off on at a station that is also a bazaar: before the marshrutka reaches its stop, it has to maneuver between kiosks, clothes and food stands. Then, I just have to walk through a building with an old bilingual inscription “AutoGara/AvtoVokzal”, weakened by the economic transformation, and through a housing estate to go to the center, passing by an Andy’s Pizza network restaurant. Another business belonging to Plahotniuc.
Half of the residents are Moldovan, the other half is Russian-speaking (Russians, Ukrainians, other minorities). There are no Greater Romania supporters. However, the city is full of nostalgia and looking hopefully to the west. A statue of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, patron of Russia, was placed several years ago near the Saint Constantine and Elena Cathedral built by Romanians during the inter-war period. There is a short avenue with busts of Romanian writers and poets in the center, however old the communist party premises with reliefs of Lenin, Mar, and Engels is nearby. In Chișinău, the statue of Lenin was removed from the center in 1991. Here, no one felt the need to remove the old prophets.
The classics of Marxism face the anti-unionist billboard of Dodon. The reasons for placing it there are unclear, as there are no unionists in this city. If one of the Romanian buses from yesterday’s demonstration had strayed here, the unionists could only watch young people, some of them in historical uniforms, bringing red carnations to one of the two monuments of liberation, in anger. I feel foolish asking whether they think about the condition of their country or consider unification with Romania.
— Romanians ran away from here in 1940 and in 1944 — says one of the participants. — They incorporated Bessarabia by force and then they realized that people do not want them here. So they did not defend this land. If they had loved it and considered it theirs, they would have done otherwise, right?
Even if history — locally and internationally — was more complex, in Bălți it cannot be explained. In the last elections in Bălți, 26 mandates went to the leftist and pro-Russian Our Party. Communists and socialists got three mandates each. Plahotniuc’s Democrats got two. The claims that European integration will solve the problems of Moldova, end corruption, renovate crumbling buildings and roads full of holes, and heal healthcare may be convincing in Chișinău. But never here. Plahotniuc’s surname will not be said out loud, but I hear “We have been integrating for so many years, and where are the effects? Have the Europeans together with the Romanians done anything good?
Okay, let us assume that this is integration in name only and the real one would be more beneficial. So why does Europe not assure authorities that would able to fulfil its real program? If “this cannot be done”, it means that they do not care about Moldova.
We already are a semi-colony
When Adrian Candu presents the incorporation of Moldova to Romania as a great thing, I walk through the mud and melting snow along Columna Street (former Frunze Street) to the premises of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova. Everyone there is busy. The unionists finished their march and can be forgotten until the next year, but the elections of the mayor of Moldova are close, so the party is focusing on promoting its candidate, Ion Ceban.
They assure that they will fight against oligarchy, and they are not afraid to pronounce the surname of the Master of Puppets. Parliament members Bogdan Ţîrdea and Vlad Batrîncea say: Moldova is always at the top of the list in the rankings of the poorest European countries, sometimes preceded by Ukraine or Kosovo, depending on the methodology. It was in first place in two World Economic Forum rankings. In 2014, in the ranking of countries with the most corrupted judiciary system, and in 2017, on the list of countries where the largest amounts of public funds are embezzled. There is a lot to do and to repair.
Regarding the Romanian unionists who suffered a defeat, as they announced there would be 100,000 demonstrators, but only one tenth actually came, one should not be excessively optimistic. Ţîrdea explains that the manifestation and accompanying exhibitions were meant for the public opinion. They were supposed to convince the 70% of people opposing the unification that they were a minority and did not understand the path that the country should follow. The actual maneuvers take place behind the scenes. Just like when Romanian Banca Transilvania bought a package of shares of Victoriabank, the biggest bank in Moldova, or when Romanian Transgaz became the owner of the company transporting and supplying gas in Moldova. Energy companies are supposed to be next. As well as the media, including some television channels and newspapers such as “Timpul”, “Jurnal de Chișinău”, or “Ziarul de Garda”. Ţîrdea does not hesitate to say, “We already are a semi-colony”.
A terrifying diagnosis. How do the socialists want to react? I listen to him and I cannot believe what I am hearing: Ţîrdea, a declared neo-Marxist, claims that building commitment to the state of Moldova is of key importance. The very same state, the failure of which he just discussed…
Identity is very important, Ţîrdea says. This is why President Dodon requested the production and promotion of the film “The History of Moldova”, the party is working on a series of initiatives raising the awareness that Moldovans are not Romanians, the name “Moldova” is older, and the sense of separateness is not an artificial creation.
For example, Nichita Turcan, a Chișinău councilor, asks the public transport authority why the announcement in trolleybuses approaching Anton Crihan street includes information that this deputy to the State Council voted in favor of incorporation of Moldova into Romania in 1918. Should such thing be highlighted in Moldova? The reactions in social media remain enthusiastic even after another socialist activist points out that trolleybuses do not secretly promote unionism, as when they reach Sergey Lazo Street, they also inform who he was.
From the middle of April, socialists start organizing events related to Victory Day and President Dodon visits multiple war memorials. The quiet assumption is that if the celebration of Victory Day endorsed by the president were more popular than the manifestation from the end of March, it would mean that the unionists are on the retreat. But the other party is not sleeping. A pro-unionist journal “Timpul” intensely promotes Constantin Codreanu, majoral candidate from the National Unity Party. It writes: “The development of the Republic of Moldova is only possible together with Romania. Other ways are only an illusion”…
Before I leave Moldova, I have another look at the two sides of the identity coin — I watch “The History of Moldova” recommended by Dodon and a street exhibition on unification sponsored by one of the Bucharest museums.
Romanians willingly talk about the unionist fraction of the Moldovan State Council asking their country for help in 1918. But they do not say that revolutionary parties, mostly Socialist Revolutionary Party were the most popular in Bessarabia, and the election of March 27, 1918 is questionable. According to American historian Charles King, one of the best contemporary scholars interested in 20th century Moldova, when the State Council was taking its most important decisions, its premises were surrounded by King Ferdinand’s soldiers. The deputies, voting under such pressure to support the unification, managed to formulate a list of conditions, they wanted vast autonomy for Bessarabia and a guarantee that the agrarian reform already in effect would not be waived. At first, the conditions were accepted. Half a year later, during the second voting, in the middle of the night and without a quorum, pan-Romanians “declined” them. During the entire inter-war period, Bessarabia was the poorest part of the kingdom, suffering from revolts of desperate peasants, a provincial area in a state of emergency and an increased number of gendarmes. I will learn about the revolts from a Moldovan film. It presents the peasants as patriots fighting for independence.
Neither version mentions the class conflict of 1918 in Bessarabia, the extent of peasant revolts, during which the peasants, in the atmosphere of the fall of the empire, conducted their own “agrarian reform” and looted the property of landowners, the popularity of Socialist Revolutionary Party among workers and soldiers coming back from the Romanian front. They do not mention the fact that when Romanian army intervened in Chișinău in 1918, they did not drive out Moldovan patriots, but armed revolutionaries who, based on the support of soldiers and workers, took control over the city from the State Council in the middle of January.
Today, they are forgotten in Moldova, because all political forces agree that they should not let people remember their past revolts and dreams of social liberation. People can think that the country is falling because of oligarchy and European integration or because of oligarchy and Russian influences. People can debate as much as they want about their identity, believe that Moldova has a future or that it needs to be incorporated into Romania, or be in favor of some intermediate option, declaring their opposition to the unification and then looking for work abroad, because they would not find it in Moldova.
But they cannot think about practical, social, living, everyday aspects. They should keep watching the play of appearances instead of getting on the scene and taking matters into their own hands.