Ambassadors Archive 2

Moldova – A Painful Transition to Democracy

An Interview with Ambassador Nicolae Chirtoaca

By Alan Dessoff

Eighteen years after Moldova declared its independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and began a move toward democracy it still finds some hurdles to overcome. The violent disruptions after a recent election have demonstrated that it is having a hard time fully letting go of its past. Moving in fits and starts to become fully democratic, but still ruled by a Communist government, the country of 4.1 million people, located between Ukraine and Romania, is finding the change it seeks difficult to achieve.

But the energetic and optimistic Nicolae Chirtoaca, Moldova’s Ambassador to the United States (and also to Canada and Mexico), said he is confident it will happen. As an observer of political change in the democratic US, he places the emphasis on the electorate's “need for change.” In 1992, as a self-described “young political leader” in Moldova, he came to the US to observe “the election of a president, a lesson of democracy” — in that case, the election of Democrat Bill Clinton and the failed reelection bid of Republican President George H.W. Bush. Last year, three years into his Washington posting, he again saw a political party defeat the one in power as Democrat Barack Obama was elected president over Republican John McCain.

“I came to the conclusion that Bill Clinton had a great chance to win because America was in need of change, and it was the same with Obama,” said Chirtoaca. Now Moldova also needs a change, and while older Moldovans with lingering ties to the former USSR resist it, the younger generations are pushing for it, and it will happen, Chirtoaca firmly maintains.

Moldova’s political dilemma was demonstrated this spring when former President Vladimir Voronin, 68, was voted president again by his Communist Party colleagues while three opposition parties boycotted the election, claiming that it was rigged. A former baker and police general, Voronin initially was elected president in 2001, making Moldova the first former Soviet state to elect a communist as its leader.

The Communists won about 50 percent of the vote in April, but the results were disputed and triggered violent protests in which parliament buildings were burned, two people died, and hundreds were detained or mistreated, according to media reports from the country.

Under Moldova’s constitution, new parliamentary elections must be held if deputies twice fail to elect the president with the support of at least 61 of the 101 legislators. The liberal opposition forced Voronin to dissolve the parliament that was elected in April; he called for new parliamentary elections on July 29. Preparing for a new election, Moldova, already reeling from the economic woes of 2009, faces an uncertain future, with continuing uncertainties about a fully functioning government, parliament and president. That is not encouraging to investors.

In June, in a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Voronin said he was “grateful” that “during these difficult days when attempts were made to destabilize the political situation in our country, Russia was the first and probably the only country to voice its support for the legally elected government.”

Chirtoaca acknowledged that Moldova is experiencing a “political crisis” and “very tense situation.” But he maintained that communism is a political “brand” that is used for “electoral purposes” in Moldova, while basically the country is “social democratic, socialist.” He said that older Moldovans, “nostalgic for the past,” have been “disillusioned” by attempts at democracy, which they see as “anarchy and corruption and weak government.“We are in transition from the Soviet past toward a national Moldovan identity, from a lack of any kind of democratic institutions to a functional democracy. We are inventing ourselves as a nation. That means a huge complexity of everything we have to do,” he declared.

In a briefing last September held by the US Helsinki Commission, Chirtoaca said: “In order to advance democracy, peace and territorial reintegration of the country, Moldova has to be successful in its efforts to end the transition from the Soviet past to the sustainable and durable democracy of market economy and efficient governance. For the time being, old-style practices still exist alongside more democratic ones, as is the case in many traditional democracies.”

Elaborating in the interview, Chirtoaca said Moldova’s own history presents challenges. “We have been occupied by empires,” he asserted. Occupying what has been known as Bessarabia, Moldova’s location made it a historic passageway between Asia and southern Europe as well as the victim of frequent warfare as Greeks, Romans, Huns and Bulgars invaded the area. In the 13th century, it became part of the Mongol empire. In the 16th century, it fell under Ottoman Turkish rule. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812, the eastern half of Moldova (Bessarabia) was ceded to Russia while the western half remained with the Turks. Romania took control of Bessarabia in 1918 and was forced in 1940 to cede it to the USSR, which established the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

That’s the way it stood until 1991, and although politically independent since then, Moldova has continued down a rocky road, facing “extraordinarily big challenges, a lot of pressure. We have pressure from our neighbors, principally Romania. They consider us part of Romania,” Chirtoaca said. He cited recent “inflammatory statements” by Romanian President Traian Basescu to the effect that “Moldova doesn’t have a future and should reunite with Romania,” according to Chirtoaca.

In Romania’s eyes, Chirtoaca suggested, the two countries are “the last divided state,” as Germany was. “But we are not like Eastern Germany. We are like Austria to Germany. We speak the same language and have a lot in common, but we are different. We are recognized as an independent state by all the big powers and international organizations, and we will struggle to continue to be an independent state.

“Amazingly,” he continued, Romania is one of Moldova’s biggest trade partners, because “people are traveling in the region; there are a lot of cultural contacts.” It’s the political relationship that “creates a lot of animosity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Moldova has good relations with the US, its “biggest partner,” which provides “strong support” including economic and technical assistance, Chirtoaca said. There are no outstanding issues between the two countries and he hopes the US will “help us become again a strong international and military country,” he said. In 2006, Moldova and the US signed a $24.7 million “Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold Program” agreement aimed at reducing government corruption. Moldova was to use the funding to address persistent corruption in its judiciary, health care system, and tax, customs and police agencies.

As one of the poorest countries in Europe, slightly larger in geographic size but about 20 percent smaller in population than the state of Maryland, Moldova needs all the economic support it can get. “We have no raw material. Our resources are human resources,” said Chirtoaca. But he insisted that “we are not as poor as we look statistically.” There is cash coming from Russia and a “big boom in construction,” he said. Moldova’s gross domestic product was $7.5 billion last year, up from $4.4 billion in 2007, and its government is projecting it will grow 3-4 percent this year, Chirtoaca said.

Most of Moldova’s GDP comes from services — “supermarkets, stuff like that,” Chirtoaca said. “We have a more or less developing industry,” he added. He cited “huge military-industrial plants” that Moldova “inherited” from the USSR. “We don’t know what to do with them.” Some areas “lag behind, underdeveloped,” Chirtoaca said. With the “huge assistance” of the US government Moldova privatized some rural land at the end of the 1990s. “But,” he continued, “we were not able to create an efficient system to finance a system of commerce. It is still in stagnation.”

Moldova would like to attract international tourists but “unfortunately, it is not included in the network of big tourist companies,” although many tourists come from Russia and Ukraine, Chirtoaca declared. There are no big international hotels in the country, but a Marriott is under construction, he said. For tourism to become an industry in Moldova, “we need investors,” he said.

Moldova’s attractions include good wine and a wine festival in mid-October as well as many small restaurants that feature “very distinguished cuisine,” Chirtoaca said, adding that Moldovan farmers produce only organic foods. His American friends who visit Moldova “fall in love with it and can’t wait to get back,” Chirtoaca continued, citing the country’s “nice climate” and forests, hills, rivers and small villages as well as the capital, Chisinau, with its “strong international community, people with money, and the young generation.”

Younger Moldovans speak good English, which many learn on the Internet, and the country maintains “very high” education standards, Chirtoaca said. Moldovans and visitors also enjoy the cultural presentations of artists, musicians and performers who mostly were educated in Russia, he added.

But he acknowledged that Moldova has no free press. “The problem is political engagement,” he said. “The media will become really independent when the population needs news and the media will sell the news without being politically engaged. But that means they have to be financially independent. They have to make money,” Chirtoaca stated. Meanwhile, he said, younger Moldovans get their news online.

The country also has no independent judiciary because it is a “captured state,” the “most dangerous period in a transition,” with only limited freedoms, he said. In that type of situation, he explained “oligarchs” not interested in democracy control the judiciary, as they do the media. “This will blow up from the inside. The young generation is not very happy,” the Ambassador asserted.

Chirtoaca was involved early in the events in Moldova that led to its independence from the USSR. As Director General of the Department of State, which became the Ministry of Defense after independence, Chirtoaca played an active part in creation of Moldova’s national army — “we hid them in the forests” — before the “Moscow putsch” of 1991, he said.

Chirtoaca taught himself English and also speaks Romanian, Russian, French and Italian. He is also an architect by profession. His wife is still learning English, he said. They have a son, 28, in Moldova, and a daughter, 33, who is a lawyer in Boston.

Halfway through what he said is the usual 6-year posting for a Moldovan ambassador, he made it clear that he enjoys Washington and the “very intensive life — political, social and cultural” — of a diplomat here. He said he would like to stay longer.

During the interview, Chirtoaca frequently spoke of “karma” and he ended by citing a fragment of Oriental philosophy that “the sense of life is life itself, because life is a lesson.” Moldova’s transition to democracy is a virtual lesson he is living this very moment.