Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The World's Most Unhappy People

By LOUIS O'NEILL

The recent government crackdown in Moldova on violent protests against allegations of electoral fraud during the April 5 parliamentary vote brings to mind Eric Weiner's "The Geography of Bliss." The author's year-long search for the world's happiest place led him to the conclusion that Moldovans must be the most unhappy people. Without an "abiding faith or culture on which to rely," Mr. Weiner wrote, Moldovans harbor a superstitious world-view that is "free-floating, anchored to nothing but the cloud of pessimism that hovers over this sad land."

While a bit over the top, Mr. Weiner's research revealed important truths which have been consistently observed by scholar and visitor alike: Landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, Moldovans lack a solid sense of identity, pride of nation and hope for the future. That, along with grinding poverty, help explain why as many as one-quarter of all Moldovans live and work abroad, sending back the remittances that keep this country afloat.

It may also explain why Moldovans might be open to the current passport contest for their loyalties among Russia, Romania and to a lesser extent Ukraine. Romanian President Traian Basescu said last week that his country would give Moldovans an individualized fast-track to Romanian -- and thus European Union -- citizenship. Mr. Basescu's announcement would extend passport eligibility to the great-grandchildren (up from the grandchildren) of those who were Romanian citizens when Moldova was, until 1940, part of Romania. This extended cohort comprises much of the population of today's Republic of Moldova. But already in 2007, following Romania's EU accession, Romanian embassies were inundated with hundreds of thousands of applications for Romanian citizenship from Moldovans. Bucharest has only been able to process a small fraction of these, and it is unclear whether the new rules -- which have yet to be implemented -- will increase the pace.

At the same time, Russia has promoted its own "passportization" policy in Moldova and Transdniestria -- the latter has always been a more Russified region of Moldova. Russian forces have remained in the breakaway region east of the Dniester river supporting the Russian-speaking population who have proclaimed a "Transdniestria" republic. The territory wants to become independent and eventually join Russia, although it contains a roughly equal mix of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians.

Even those roughly 33% of the Transdniestrian population who are formally classified as "Moldovan" are overwhelmingly oriented toward Russia, its institutions and language. It is unclear how many Russian passports have been issued, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is in the many thousands. More quietly, Kiev is also looking out for what it considers ethnic Ukrainians in both right-bank Moldova and the Transdniestrian region.

An examination of the territory's tortured history helps explain the origins of this Moldovan identity confusion. The glory days of Stefan the Great's successful resistance against the Ottomans in the 15th century comprise the nation's lore and symbolism. The last five hundred years, however, have been tough on Moldovan pride.

From roughly 1503, the area was a tribute-paying Ottoman vassal until it came under Russian overlordship in 1812. A few months of independence after the chaos of the Russian Revolution led in 1918 to a "voluntary" union with Romania, which treated its cousins less than chivalrously. This union lasted until the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact sliced back the area to the USSR in 1940. After changing hands during World War II, the territory of today's Republic of Moldova -- with Stalin grafting on the traditionally Russian area of Transdniestria on the left bank of the Dniester river and stripping off to Ukraine the valuable but Romanian-speaking North Bukovina and Budjak in the south -- was swallowed as a Soviet Republic until independence in 1991.

Moldovan identity issues reach deeper than just into geography and citizenship but into their language and thus consciousness. During Soviet times, Romanian -- the native language of some two-thirds of Moldovans -- was declared to be "Moldovan." Top Soviet propagandists in all seriousness created a Romanian-Moldovan dictionary. The written word was recast in Cyrillic instead of the Latin letters used in neighboring Romania since 1859.

But literature in either Romanian or "Moldovan" was repressed anyway, and the language of government and public discourse was Russian. To this day, the older generation in Moldova speaks beautiful, accent-free Russian, while young people use Romanian and have turned to English as their second language, although the smart ones do recognize the practical importance of keeping up their Russian.

In his eight years as president, Moldovan Communist leader Vladimir Voronin has tacked carefully between Moscow and Brussels, or between the inevitably fond memories of their youth that motivate his aging electoral base and the European aspirations of the new generation. But Mr. Voronin's moves have often been more treading water than navigation, and these competing generational -- and identity -- interests found expression in the postelection protests on April 7 and 8.

With many Moldovans potentially "acceding" to the EU as individuals, and lots of Transdniestrians likewise "entering" Russia, what does this mean for Moldova? President Voronin's government has already passed a law requiring that civil servants can have only Moldovan citizenship, and the Central Election Commission outed 21 parliamentarians elected on April 5 who have dual or even triple citizenship. Under the law, they must renounce these other loyalties before taking their legislative seats.

With all these forces still tugging at a relatively new, unconsolidated and poor nation, it seems a proper time and in everyone's interest to give Moldovan sovereignty a boost. After all, every nation recognizes Moldova's territorial integrity and sovereignty, but also the right for Transdniestria to have a special status within a unified country. A serious restart of the "5+2" talks on Transdniestria comprising Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the U.S. as well as Moldova and Transdniestria, could lead to a real settlement. Such a deal could open important new areas of trust in a reinvigorated U.S.-EU-Russian relationship and improve the lives of people on both sides of the Dniester.

And as for the "Geography of Bliss": I've never seen the Moldovans and Transdniestrians more happy and united as when the Moldovan national football team plays its European rivals at the high-tech "Sherif" stadium, deep within Transdniestrian territory.

Mr. O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006-2008.

Source: The Wall Street Journal


Moscow, Leave Moldova Alone

Morally speaking, Russian actions are in a class of their own.

This time it's Moldova. Whenever Moscow's former vassal states sputter and crackle with instability, the wheezy old Cold War "moral equivalency" argument gets a new airing. Russia invaded Georgia? Well, didn't the U.S. invade Iraq? Russia sent warships to Cuba? That's because the U.S. is pushing its NATO borders up into Poland and Georgia.

Moscow's near-abroad satellites such as Abkhazia and even Belarus are "black holes" of corruption and racketeering? So look at Mexico and its drug gangs. And democracy? Don't go there--remember the first election of George W. Bush.

And now Moldova, a wobbly post-Soviet entity landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, has once again become a pawn in Russia's game. The Russkies have been kicking the territory around since the czars conquered it in 1812. For a while the czars called it Bessarabia. It became the Moldovian SSR under the Soviets.

Chunks of the territory got traded back and forth to Romania and Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed, Russia lost control and direct geographical contact because the intervening territory of Ukraine became annoyingly independent too. So the Russians destabilized Moldova by inciting separatists to carve out the breakaway region of Transnistria--a precise mirror of Moscow's strategy in Georgia's Abkhaz and South Ossetian regions, and in many other ex-satellites. Moscow's message? You break away from us, we break you apart.

On April 5, the Moldovans went to the polls. It appeared that they chose to re-elect the Communist party with a nearly 50% of the votes. The opposition parties cried foul and the ensuing demonstrations turned to riots and arson. The parliament and presidential palace were ransacked.

Widespread claims of election fraud floated about, including charges that 400,000 bogus ballots of voters who were either dead or living abroad had been counted. A recount was announced, but the opposition parties boycotted the process because they argued that recounting fake ballots would produce the same results.

Meanwhile, police had savagely attacked protesters, killing some and hospitalizing others. Moldova's Communist president accused Romania of meddling in Moldavan affairs and trying to reverse the democratic process by inciting the opposition. The opposition, for its part, accused the government of planting agents provocateurs in their midst whose violent actions allowed the police to intervene without restraint in order to, in the words of the Interior Ministry, "prevent civil war."

It's possible to argue that the original election result was legitimate, and that Moldovans simply can't get enough of Communism and that old-time Russkie bondage. They did, after all, elect the Communist Party into power in 2005--the first post-Soviet entity to do so voluntarily.

Or did they? Nobody quite knows what went on during the prior elections; nobody was watching that closely. But that the outcome should even be close in favor of Communist sentiment tells you that in Moldova, as in Ukraine and even in Georgia, indeed throughout large parts of the post-Soviet sphere, there endures plenty of nostalgia for the old Soviet system, its dubious stability and certainties.

This is where, to an unforgivable degree, we in the West have given equivalency-mongers too much to work with. In the Clinton era, the West watched impassively as command economy systems unraveled into chaos, having promised them for decades that happiness lay through democracy and transparency and open markets.

In the Bush era, the "Color Revolutions" re-infused some vigor into pro-Western ideals, but this time the Iraq project so boosted oil prices worldwide that Russia could play the West's game just as effectively by flooding money into pro-Moscow movements and backing sympathetic think tanks, oligarchs and media moguls who bought up swaths of near-abroad industries just as the West had intended to do.

Now the equivalency principle is back with a vengeance. Georgia has just undergone mass protests to unseat its pro-U.S. president, Mikheil Saakashvili. When the Georgians quite rightly point to Moscow's hand in Georgian unrest, Moldova's Communist president points to Romania's hand in the recent post-election furor.

Romania, you might ask? How on earth did Romania gather the leverage to destabilize a foreign state? Since it joined the European Union in January 2007, it has became an agent of the anti-Moscow Manichean universe, or so one pro-Communist argument goes. Pro-E.U. sentiment exists in Moldova, and even motivates activists to organize. So why shouldn't pro-Moscow activists do the same?

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the Moscow-centric worldview gets an all-too-sympathetic hearing among Western apologists who believe in Russia's right to revive its sphere of hegemony for no reason other than that they believe the U.S. has such a sphere. What other reason could they have for consigning a swath of the world to Moscow's mercies?

And equally in the post-Soviet sphere, why would so many people turn away from the West and vote for Communist and Socialist parties led by old apparatchiks? Their arguments are never systematically pro-anything. Everybody knows where that radical route leads and has led in the past. But in an unstable world, stability equals Stalinist law and order, and the familiar, navigable world of crony socialism.

Command economies deliver immediate relief from hunger and happenstance. Above all, they steer away from the scary contingency-ridden world of endless work, market oscillations and shiny American artifacts and promises.

So why not regress to the protective womb of a Moscow-orchestrated past-with-no-future? If the sins are equal on both sides, what distinguishes one side from the other? In recent days, for example, Azerbaijan has held talks with Russia to revive their relationship because Turkey is making moves to befriend Armenia. Azerbaijan threatens to reroute its oil and gas supplies to Europe through Russia rather than Turkey.

In this Faustian pact between Baku and Moscow, one wants to ask, what does the glowing future look like for Baku, or for any other Russia-dependent former satellite? In Baku's case, the Russians will simply use Azerbaijani fuels to pressure Europe into submission--then turn around and put the screws back on a Baku now deprived of European moral support. What's the payoff here for the Azeris, or for pro-Moscow Moldovans, Abkhazians, South Ossetians or Armenians?

One shouldn't dismiss the equivalency arguments out of hand, however flawed, because so many believe in them and because Moscow deploys them so consistently. Remember Medvedev's post-Georgia invasion "major foreign-policy speech," in which he suggested that Moscow was saving everyone from a unipolar world, that it was delivering bipolarity selflessly to world as a gift?

For bipolarity read equivalency. Let us, for the sake of argument, hold our noses and simply grant that equation up front--that Moscow's actions abroad are no better or worse than America's. Why not fall back into Moscow's embrace? Georgia has almost a million expatriates working in the Russian zone, and there are almost as many Moldovans doing so. They all speak Russian. So where's the problem?

This may sound like an absurdly empty rhetorical question, but bear with it. In the post-Soviet era, we have too arrogantly and mistakenly believed that we won the argument for good and all, that there's no need to persuade anyone anymore. We have made this assumption most self-defeatingly in the Islamic world, allowing all manner of bearded droners, secular Arab nationalists and croaky old anti-imperialists to outmaneuver us ideologically.

In Iraq, it took almost two years before we had an effective pro-U.S. broadcast entity, Al Hurrah, and it took another year before anyone listened to it. In the post-Soviet sphere, we have stopped actively countering pro-Moscow ideologies, meeting the arguments point for point as we never failed to do throughout the Cold War.

So why choose our side? Here let us think concretely of Moldova's benighted populace and others like them, struggling to think clearly after all the centuries of Russkie intrigue. Say it aloud and clearly over and over, so it becomes an easily communicable mantra: What has Moscow ever delivered in terms of happiness to any dependent peoples in its sphere?

Dear old Russkies, you who have given the world so much in the way of consolation for the human condition, Chekhov and Bulgakov and Pushkin and Rachmaninov and so much else, it's time to let go of Empire. Forget the U.S. threat, forget NATO and the E.U. and equivalency--all those excuses for plying the path of barbarism. Nobody is out to destroy you. As a political and strategic force you have wrought nothing but misery. Let the Moldovans go.

Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for Forbes.com. His story "Georgia In The Time of Misha" is featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2008.

Source: Forbes