Daily Archives: 29 November 2004

Moldova’s "Negotiable Nationalism"

The Romanians in Bessarabia awoke in the late 1980s, quipped the writer Ion Druta, but they forgot to get out of bed. The disappointment that many intellectuals felt with the outcome of the national movement was part of a long history of disillusionment experienced by generations of nation-builders. At every turn, Moldova has turned out to be something other than what most observers had either hoped or expected. It was one of the most sovietized of the Soviet republics, with high rates of linguistic assimilation to Russian and marriage across ethnic lines. But it also witnessed a divisive and violent conflict between forces supporting independence and those intent on maintaining the unity of the Soviet state. It was a republic that had no clear historical antecedent within the same borders. But it nevertheless produced a strong movement of national renaissance and eventually independence. It was a republic that Western writers frequently criticized as artificial, the result of Stalin’s redrawing of east European borders during the Second World War, and a territory that if given the chance would surely seek to reunite with its former motherland, Romania. But since 1991 public sentiment has been cool on the idea of unification between the two states.

Most unusual of all was the fact that the Soviet project of building a distinct Moldovan nation yielded a rather ambiguous result. Local political leaders in other national republics came to power in the late 1980s by defending an independent historical and cultural identity, but those in Moldova succeeded by denying theirs. An independent Moldovan state emerged with the breakup of the Soviet federation, but the idea of an independent Moldovan nation seemed to fade with Soviet-style communism. Since then, the legacy of Soviet-era nation-building and the contentious question of the “true” national identity of the Moldovans have remained topics at the center of political life.

Making a Moldovan nation should have been a relatively easy enterprise. The eastern Moldovan lands, both before and after the annexation of Bessarabia, were populated largely by illiterate peasants with few ties to the cosmopolitan cities. They had been politically separate from the closest co-ethnic group–the Romanians–for the past two centuries or more, and had been absent from all the historical turning points in the formation of Romanian national consciousness. They had been the subjects of a variety of contradictory cultural policies: russification in the Russian empire, romanization in interwar Romania, fitful moldovanization in the Moldovan autonomous and union republics, and sovietization in the entire Soviet period. Nation-building also accompanied broader processes of urbanization and industrialization, so that the rhetoric of national identity was linked with other powerful themes of enlightenment and modernity. All this took place among a population that, even before the Soviet Union, still called itself “Moldovan” and within an authoritarian political system that put a premium on ethnonational affiliation and often spared no expense in the effort to engineer it. One can think of plenty of modern nations that have been built under far less propitious conditions.

For all this, though, by the 1990s the Moldovans were still a nation divided over their common identity. For some, they were simply Romanians who, because of the treachery of the Soviets, had not been allowed to say so. For others, they were an independent historical nation, related to but distinct from the Romanians to the west. For still others, they were something in between, part of a general Romanian cultural space but existing as a discrete and sovereign people with its own traditions, aspirations, and communal identity. How one imagines the Moldovans has never been a straightforward issue. In most periods, in fact, the various projects for cultivating a sense of nationhood among them have turned out rather differently from how their designers had planned.

SOURCE: The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, by Charles King (Hoover Press, 2000), pp. 224-225

See also Randy McDonald’s meaty blogpost on Reunifications Deferred: Romania and Moldova. A sample:

If Moldova joined Romania, whether with or without Transdnestr, it would join the Baltic States on the short list of former Soviet territories managing to escape directly to the European Union. Moldovans would be free to migrate (or, at least, as free as their fellow citizens in old Romania) across the European Union; Moldova would qualify for European Union transfer payments.

This isn’t likely, though, simply because the Moldovan state has acquired despite itself an innate inertia of its own, with mass emigration sapping its work force and its energies, the ethnic conflict dominating its conservative post-Communist political elites’ focus, and little incentive for innovation on any front. Moldova, once a prosperous component of the Soviet Union, is now the poorest country in Europe. Moldova’s now of note as a source of sex slaves and organ sellers, which makes the prospect of Romanian and/or European Union expansion all the more difficult.

Romanian reunification might still be possible, if only in the sense that Romanian-identifying Moldovans might mostly emigrate to Romania, leaving their more Moldova-identified friends and relatives at home. At this point, any true reunification–the establishment of a single state, or of a confederation, or of a union-state–seems massively unlikely.

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