luni, 4 noiembrie 2013

Competing nation-building projects in Bessarabia, Transnistria, and the Republic Moldova: Deconstructing a Plural Identity

Paper presented at Leipzig University on the invitation of Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde, Leipzig, October 28, 2013 


In my presentation I discuss the nation-building projects that have been implemented in Bessarabia and Transnistria (current territory of the Republic of Moldova) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Discussing these competing projects, generally elaborated outside these regions, will help us to better understand the so-called “identity crisis” that the population of Moldova, both the political and intellectual elite and ordinary people, is facing during the last 20 years.

In the title of my presentation, I used the expression “plural identity” to define the Moldovan population’s identity (or better: identities). In Moldova, a part of the local intellectual elites see this “plural” identity feature as a “problem”, defining it as an “identity crisis”, borrowing a cliché from the human sciences. In my presentation, I will try to unfold the meaning of this so-called “identity crisis”, by integrating it in a certain nationalizing discourse. Then, in order to understand the identity situation in Moldova today, I will make some steps back by looking at different nationalizing projects that were undertaken on the territory of this country during the last two centuries. 

The national identity is perceived and presented in the Republic of Moldova as problematic, because there is no general consensus about a precise ethnic identity among the local Romanian speaking citizens. Some of them call themselves Moldovans, fewer ones identify as Romanians (cf. infra). The term of “identity crisis” is used by a certain group of intellectuals to define this lack of consensus, but especially to describe the self-perception of a part of the given population (those who perceive them as Moldovans). The “identity crisis” means therefore, in that particular discourse, that Moldovans (namely Romanian speaking Moldovans) do not identify themselves correctly, i.e. as Romanians.

The Romanianist national discourse (“We are Romanians!”) is prominent in Moldova among the local intellectual elites, but it is slightly represented in the “masses” of Moldovans. Another weakness of this nationalizing discourse is that it excludes the ethnic / linguistic minorities.

According to the 2004 census, the (declared) Moldovans represent 75,8% in the mainland Moldova (and 69,6% with Transnistria), (declared) Ukrainians – 8,4% (11,2% with Tr.), (declared) Russians – 5,9% (9,4%), (declared) Gagauzes – 4,4% (3,8%), (declared) Romanians – 2,2% (1,9%), (declared) Bulgarians – 1,9% (2,0%), (declared) Jews – 0,1%, (declared) Poles – 0,1%, other nationalities – 1,0%.

The 2004 census was suspected by some pro-Romanian intellectuals of methodological bias (suggested response to questions regarding the ethnic identity – and it was so, indeed, in my own experience as respondent to that census).

A survey realized by an independent research institute (“Etnobarometru”, by the Institute of Public Policies, in 2005) shows us a more nuanced identification structure of the Romanian speaking population in Moldova. Among the Moldovans / Romanians – 95% presented themselves as Moldovans and 5% as Romanians, but, from this group, 81% recognized themselves as Moldovans, 14% as Romanians, 57% as citizens of RM, and 32% as settlers of their locality, in a question with multiple responses.

This ethnic situation is presented by local pro-Romanian elites either as the result of frauds (made by research institutes and the public Office of statistics), or as an evidence of the “identity crisis” and thus as a situation to be changed by an intense, pro-active nation-building process, through education, culture, and mass media institutions – in order to persuade the adult and to educate the young about their true identity, and so to correct the lasting effects of the Soviet propaganda.

Another salient nationalizing discourse, the “Moldovanism” (i.e. “We are Moldovans, not Romanians!”), is promoted in general by certain political groups derived from the former Communist nomenklatura, and a few intellectuals, mainly historians. This nationalizing agenda benefits from a much larger support among the majority population. The weakness of this nationalizing discourse is however its very low elite representation. The few intellectuals who are the followers of this “Moldovanist” discourse (V. Stepaniuc, V. Stati, S. Nazaria) enjoy a low intellectual or academic (sometimes even moral) recognition by the mainstream intellectuals and academic institutions in Chişinău, because the academic or intellectual elites who should recognize the later do not simply agree with their “Moldovanist” nationalizing agenda.

From 1991 to now the Republic of Moldova continues to be the battlefield of different “Romanizing” and “Moldovanist” agendas. These national discourses are represented in politics by the main political parties: the “Christian-democratic” and “liberal” parties (at power from 1991-94; 1998-2001, and 2009 to now) use to claim the Romanianist discourse, whereas the Agrarians (1994-98), then the Communists (2001-2009) are well known for their strong “Moldovanist” discourse.

The years
The main party or alliance at power in Parliament
National discourse
Mainly “democratic” deputies (the Popular Front)
The Agrarian Democratic Party (former Communist nomenklatura)
Pro-Democratic Alliance (ADR)
Romanianist (moderated)
The Party of Communists of Moldova (former Communist nomenklatura)
2009 – now
Pro-Democratic alliance (AIE)
Romanianist (moderated)

Neither the Moldovanist camp, nor the Romanianist one did succeed to impose a consistent national agenda, either because of weak popular support (as about the Romanianism), or due to its low intellectual representation (in the case of Moldovanism). Therefore, in Moldova there is still no a strong and unifying “national idea”, but a conglomerate of different competing nationalizing agendas, acting at different separate levels. For instance, in 1994 the Agrarian Party decreed in the Constitution the official name of the state language as “Moldovan language” (the controversial 13th article of the Constitution); this article is still valid. But no political party, neither Agrarians nor Communists, did succeed to change the name of “Romanian language” and “History of Romanians” disciplines and textbooks in schools and universities. Several attempts in that sense were struck by a harsh opposition on behalf of the teaching staff and students (in high schools and universities).

Both nationalizing discourses and agendas present or imply a rather ethnic definition of the nation (“We are Romanians!” or “We are Moldovans!”, i.e. “We are (ethnic) Romanians [not Moldovans]!” or “We are (ethnic) Moldovans [not Romanians]!”). Both discourses do not really include in their definition of the Moldovan nation the ethnic / linguistic minority groups, which however represent ¼ of the population in the mainland Moldova and 1/3 with Transnistria. Moreover, the “minority” ethnic groups are overrepresented in cities: 33% in Chişinău municipality (i.e. including the villages around the city) or 48% in Bălţi municipality.

Despite its known openness to the Russian speaking population (its potential electorate), the Communist Party did not express so far a coherent civic oriented national agenda in order to integrate different ethnic and linguistic groups. On the other hand, the so-called Liberal and Democratic parties and intellectual elites continue to claim an ethno-nationalistic agenda, excluding and alienating large spans of the Moldovan population.

As Rogers Brubaker showed in a seminal study based on a research made in Cluj city, Romania (Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town, 2006), the firm and sometimes aggressive nationalist discourse(s), presented in the public space by local officials, did not necessarily push the “population” to involve in real ethnic conflicts, nor even tensions. More often, these discourses slightly reach the ordinary people (“the people”), which remains rather an object of the elites’ discourses, than a real, full-fledged actor of their nationalizing agendas. Similarly, the civilian population of different groups and identities in Moldova – Moldovans, Romanians, Russians, or Ukrainians – does not seem affected in their daily lives by the periodic ethnic and linguistic debates. Only a small, though active minority of “ethnic entrepreneurs” remain engaged in identity and ideological controversies.

At the same time, political elites exploit periodically the sensibility of these “flammable” issues, while real and vital problems, related to economic development, grand corruption, pauperization, and mass migration, seem unsolvable.

Be it “invented”, claimed and debated by a small part of the Moldovan society, the “identity crisis” gets periodically the visibility of a real problem. Thus, through a self-fulfilling process, “ethnic engineers” of different kinds and political colors transform latent or “banal” nationalism (M. Billig, 1995) into an identity debate, likely to impede people’s peaceful coexistence and cohesion.

Putting it into a wider political context, the above mentioned nationalizing agendas conceal a geo-political issue. Therefore, the “Romanianist” discourse involves a quite obvious unionist component and, accordingly, an anti-Russian feeling. On the other hand, the “Moldovanist” counterpart implies an anti-Romanian attitude and, at the contrary, a pro-Russian mood, expressed sometimes in geo-political options, favorable to the adherence of Moldova to Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union or other hypothetical Eurasian unions.

These geopolitical sympathies and affinities, mixed to identity feelings, have a deep and complex historical background. In the following part of my paper, I will try to briefly discuss a series of most relevant in my view historical facts and contextual information, in order to shed more light on this identity debate.

The symbolic, ideological, and (geo-) political debate around the so-called “identity crisis” is closely related to successive nationalizing projects that have been implemented in the territory of the today Republic of Moldova, i.e. in Bessarabia and Transnistria regions. But these projects were in general conceived and articulated outside the above mentioned regions, in the imperial and national polities to which Bessarabia and Transnistria were part of in different periods of the last two centuries. The competing nation-building projects, developed and implemented in Bessarabia and Transnistria, are thereby determined by the disputed status of these regions in relation to the geopolitical interests of the respective imperial and national states, that is roughly speaking Romania (after 1862) and the Russian Empire (then USSR).

Bessarabia and Transnistria in the Russian Empire

In 1812, before its annexation as a result of the Russian-Ottoman and Napoleonic wars, Bessarabia (named so by the Russian administration) was rather a borderland than a full-fledged province in the Moldavian principality (cf. A. Cuşco & V. Taki, 2012). Therefore, it was a rather under-developed area, culturally and economically. Its few cities were settled around fortresses (Chilia, Soroca, Tighina, Cetatea Albă) aiming at protecting the mainland Moldavian principality (between Prut and Siret), with its cities Iaşi, Brăila, Suceava etc., where were concentrated all the administrative, religious and cultural foci. Hence, the economic exchanges were circumscribed to particular small areas and circuits, whereas the elites of all kinds were almost missing. Paradoxically, some local elite groups (nobility) were created by the Tsarist administration by ascribing a number of statuses and privileges to a number of landlords coming from the right-bank Moldavia.

After 1812, Bessarabia became the ground for various integrative and modernizing processes, developed by the Tsarist rule through successive stages. The main Bessarabian cities – Chişinău, Bălţi, Tighina – were thus created and developed by the Tsarist administrators, by attracting various colonists from the South-Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Western Russian Empire, in order to populate the Southern part of Bessarabia (left by the Tatars after 1806-1812 wars) and the towns and so to encourage the economic exchanges. Thus, the demographic structure of the province changed rapidly over the 19th century (see figures).

Demographic dynamics in Bessarabia during the 19th century

Demographic dynamics in Bessarabia during the 19th century (ethnic / linguistic groups)

* “Bulgarians” included also “Gagauzes” in 1917, 1844, and 1861 censuses.

The economic development and the overall modernizing processes focused more the colonists’ settlings and the cities, and less the villages dwelled by local peasants. Furthermore, before the late 19th century the Tsarist administration lacked any firm and consistent assimilation policies in that border province. Therefore, the mass schooling, which was the main acculturation tool in all the European nationalizing states (cf. E. Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen), was not seen as a priority by the Tsarist regime before the late 19th century. As a result, the 1897 census shows a huge proportion of illiterate people, especially among the local ethnic groups: 90% among Moldovans (Romanian speaking, esp. peasants and women), but much less among Germans – 37%, 50% among Jews, and 60% among Russians living in the Bessarabian province. At that time, the Tsarist administration tried already to overcome this situation. So, by 1912, more than 1000 elementary schools were opened in Bessarabia, most of them teaching in Russian (Moraru, 1995, p. 85).

Unlike the Polish and Finish provinces, Bessarabia lacked any prominent nationalist movement, at least before the 20th century, because of the insufficiency of the local educated elites. The few local intellectuals were russified, others migrated in Romania (like C. Stere, D. Moruzi, B. P. Hasdeu), elaborating there the “Bessarabian issue” and integrating Bessarabia in the Romanian „symbolic geography” (cf. A. Cuşco, 2006; Cuşco & V. Taki, 2012). A nationalizing pro-Romanian discourse appeared at the beginning of the 20th century among a small group of intellectuals and students in Russian universities (Dorpat / Tartu, St. Petersburg, or Kharkov). Those intellectuals shared both nationalistic and socialist visions on their native province. In their view, the local peasants were to be liberated both as dominated natives and oppressed social group. The context of the World War I, then the Russian revolutions from 1917, leading to the separation of the Bessarabia from the Russian Empire, then to its integration into the Greater Romania in March 1918, fully realized all the aims and aspirations of the Bessarabian nationalists and social revolutionaries. It is also true that the international configuration in the context of the World War I was much more determinant over the rapid political changes occurring in Bessarabia than the claims of the local revolutionaries and nationalists.

Romanian Bessarabia and Soviet Transnistria (1918-1940)

In 1918, Bessarabia became part of the Greater Romania, while Transnistria was tacitly “inherited” by the Bolshevik Russia, then, in 1924, for obvious irredentist purposes oriented to Bessarabia, was transformed into a separate unit, the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the frame of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (C. King 2000, P. Negură 2009). In these regions, the Romanian and the Soviet administrations started ambitious modernizing and at the same time nationalizing projects, proclaiming a radical separation from the Tsarist heritage. Both in Bessarabia and Transnistria, new national elites were to be trained through a growing network of high schools, professional colleges and higher educational institutions. In both settings, the local population – even and especially the peasants – were actively involved in this project through schooling, literacy campaigns, and industrialization. However, to the great disappointment of the respective national elites and administrations, the local population, especially peasants, did not involve actively and willingly in these enlightening and nationalizing processes coming from the respective capitals. Despite the high administrative pressure (e.g. fines) and persuasion, the local peasants remained reluctant to schooling, many of them preferring to use their children as labor force in their farms instead of sending them to school (P. Negură, 2009b). In the Soviet Moldavia, the schooling process got a greater impetus in the late 1920s and early 30s, during the so-called “Cultural Revolution”, together with other pro-active campaigns such as Collectivization, De-kulakization, industrialization (P. Negură, 2009c). Yet, in the Soviet Moldavia, as in the Romanian Bessarabia, the “people” remained a rather passive object than a real subject of these grand, high modernist endeavors, to which it developed a series of survival strategies of passive resistance (cf. J. Scott, L. Viola, K. Brown).

The first results of these cultural revolutions appeared in the 1930s both in Bessarabia and Transnistria, when the first generations of elite representatives graduated the local schools and universities. The emergence of a new generation of young intellectuals, writers, journalists, trained in the Romanian or Soviet educational systems, brought the premises for a generational gap, reinforced in the context of the radical political changes. In both regions, the new generation of intellectuals benefited from a growing support on behalf of the authorities, while the old generation was losing its legitimacy. In the Romanian Bessarabia, the generational gap raised on the basis of the differences in terms of “cultural capital”. However, the relation between educational capital and the national discourses seems somehow striking. The representatives of the older generation, trained in the Russian Empire, remained nationalist and unionist (i.e. followers of the unification of Bessarabia with the older Romanian provinces), whereas the young writers and journalists manifest starting from the 1930s a firm and bold regionalist platform; “More autonomy for Bessarabia!” and “Integration, not assimilation!” were their slogans. The regionalist platform of the young Bessarabian intellectuals aimed at moderating the very energetic, top-down nationalizing agenda promoted by the Romanian state in Bessarabia, and at the same time to encourage the participation of local population in the integrative and modernizing projects driven by the “nationalizing” state. (P. Negură 2009)

In the Soviet Transnistria, in the late 1930s, the generational gap was exacerbated by a harsh administrative war against the “inner enemies”, namely the first generation of “cadres” and intellectuals of Bessarabian and Romanian origins, invited in the 1920s to participate to the “national and cultural building” of the Soviet Moldavian Republic. All of them were eliminated during the Great Purges of 1937-38. Taking an active part in the purges with individual and collective denunciations, the young generation of cadres and intellectuals, trained in the Soviet colleges and Pedagogical institutes, became the beneficiaries of this rough, top-down “authority transfer” (P. Negură, 2009, C. King, 1999).

One of the main tasks attributed to Soviet Moldovan writers and “creative intellectuals”, from the creation in 1928 of the first literary organization in the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was to create a system of cultural values (around an allegedly distinct literary language and the invention of a local cultural heritage) which would legitimate the existence of a Moldavian “socialist nation”. In contrast with the 19th century European nation-building process, the Soviet Moldavian national project was designed and implemented in a very short time so as to “catch up” with more advanced nations (Soviet ones included). Moldovan writers, scholars, and artists were thus appointed leaders of a large-scale will-driven enterprise, made possible with the direct intervention and under the strict gaze of republican authorities.

Both in MASSR (1924-1940) and, later on, in MSSR (Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, 1940-1991), just like in other Soviet republics, the local administration and intellectuals were divided in two antagonistic groups according to the geographic origin and “political capital” of their members. Throughout the 30s, the MASSR administrative and intellectual elite becomes the battleground of an increasingly fierce fight, both symbolically and administratively, between two camps – the so-called Moldovanists and the Romanianists –, who got their names from their respective positions on the issue of the national language of the Republic. Moldovanists advocated for a stand-alone “Moldovan” language, in clear-cut rupture with literary Romanian language norms. On the other hand, Romanianists were in favor of a literary “Moldovan” language every bit identical with the language written and spoken in Romania. As with other Soviet republics, the central power instrumentalized the social and political divide at the level of the local administration and intellectual elite and regularly interfered to determine the power relations and the spheres of influence between the two groups. Sometimes, however, the two factions took advantage of the changes at the top, in Kiev or Moscow, taking over local power and imposing a certain conception of linguistic and/ or cultural policies. Neither of the groups was able to stay in power more than a few years in a row. Thus, the authority transfer from one group to the other automatically brought about a reversal in terms of linguistic policies, on the ruins of the previous version of “Moldovan” grammar and spelling.

The Moldovanist – Romanianist divide survived after the creation of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic in June 1940 and the integration of a new group of Bessarabian writers and journalists. After the World War II, a fierce quarrel arouse between the Transnistrian writers and scholars and the Bessarabian “new comers” about the sharing of the administrative power and symbolic issues (like the literary language and literary heritage). Helped by a favorable context and their own resources, the Bessarabian group won the dispute with the Transnistrians. As a result they imposed, riding the wave of the post-Stalinist thaw, a Romanian-like version of the “Moldovan” literary language and cultural heritage. The only concession made to the Moldovanist camp was the maintaining of the Cyrillic alphabet which remained a symbolic marker of specificity of the “Moldovan” language.

The relatively low success of the Soviet national project in Moldova stems from its inconsistency. Between 1924 and 1956, Soviet Moldavia (MASSR and MSSR) was subject to seven linguistic “reforms” (accompanied by revisions of cultural policies), going back and forth between Moldovanism and Romanianism. For over thirty years, both the Moldovan administration and intellectuals oscillated between two opposed cultural and linguistic conceptions which led to a split in the ethnic and national identity of the Moldovan population. The inconsistency of the national, linguistic and cultural policies promoted in Soviet Moldova, which lasted for three decades, can be accounted also on the lack of decision making on the part of Soviet central and local authorities. The lack of decision making is partly explained by the fact that Moldova was integrated in the “big family of Soviet republics” according to a peculiar sovietization formula. Most of the times, the Moldovan “case” was perceived as falling under the Western Soviet republics category, those annexed after 1940 (the Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, the Baltics, and Karelia). Some other times, however, Moldova was grouped together with the Middle Eastern Soviet republics, given the disputed nature of its territory and its predominantly rural population (P. Negură, 2009, I. Caşu, 2000).

Starting with the mid 50s, behind the official façade of a Moldovan language and literature, a tacit “Romanianization” of high culture occurred in the Republic of Moldova under the pressure of Bessarabian intellectuals and with the support of some cultural figures in Moscow (P. Negură 2009, C. King, 2002). At the same time, the policies implemented by the Moldovanist camp for several decades left their profound mark on the language and identity of both Moldovan cultural intellectuals and their target audience, after 1956. At present, the majority of the Romanian-speaking population in the Republic of Moldova define themselves as Moldovans and calls the language they speak as “Moldovan language.”

The wave of the Khrushchev thaw, which gave Moldovan intellectuals a first taste of the freedom of expression, withdrew soon. Hopes kindled by the official recognition of the language and cultural heritage (the “Romanianized” version) were shattered in 1959 by the increasingly frequent calls to order of the party leadership against the putative “nationalist” writers. While the power fiercely attacked the “Romanianization” of the Moldovan culture, a generalized process of Russification took over all the spheres of the republic. From that moment on, Romanian culture and particular manifestations deemed nationalistic were banished from the public space and they withdrew in the private space of informal meetings organized by some intellectuals as a means of escaping the official propaganda discourse that they were forced to use in their works.

Although remaining persuaded by the community of the language and cultural heritage between Moldovans and Romanians, the Moldovan writers and teachers continued to work on the education and consolidation of a Moldovan identity with “Soviet” contents. The dissonance between the “façade discourse” and the “intimate discourse” of the Moldovan intellectuals on the supposed components of the Moldovan identity led eventually to a break which widened in time between the Romanian feeling of identity cultivated in private by the Moldovan cultural elite, which exploded under the perestroika and the “velvet revolution”, and the self-perception of the masses of Soviets Moldovans, educated to perceive themselves as such by the same cultural elite.

Instead of conclusion

Today, historical battles and various historical policies compete to impose in the public sphere of Moldova a “symbolic monopoly” on the “historical truth”: thus, different manifestations and celebrations have divided the Moldovan society since 1991, like the Victory Day (9th of May), organized by the Russian speaking community (with the support of the Russian embassy), or on 27th of March (the Union’s march celebrating the decision of the unification of Bessarabia with Romania). Likewise, at various historical dates, the victims of the Stalin regime are commemorated, but very rarely, and much less visibly, the victims of the Holocaust.

If the ethnic concept of nationalism defines shared regional interests based on the representation of a shared past, the “civic” concept of nation represents the idea of a common life in a shared future (Melvin 1995; Van Meurs 2013).
The only solution I could see to the present “identity crisis” is to invent and to implement an open scheme of civic nation, in order to integrate the various groups and identities into a broader, inclusive Moldovan society. In order to succeed and to sustain, this civic nation formula should emerge from within the Moldovan society, not from without it. Certain tendencies and attitudes manifested recently in the Moldovan civil society and political elites make me hope that such a civic nation project is already ongoing. I also hope that it will benefit from a large social support, stemming from a shared will to build a happier future within a plural society.