15 November 2022Moldova

The past in the present

Moldova in search of a common language for the future

by Vladimir Soloviev
Film still from "Carbon"© Youbesc

Our «Moldova» section is edited by journalist Vladimir Soloviev. We offer to our readers his opening column.

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Thirty years after the war on its home territory, Moldova is still learning to speak and think about it without hatred. In 2022, when a new war – this time in Ukraine – rolled right up to its borders, Moldova seems to have found the right tone for speaking about it. A newly released Moldovan film Carbon – a dark comedy about the Transnistrian conflict – can be considered a successful attempt to understand the country and its past.

Poor and disunited: this is an exhaustive summary of the country’s standing after 30 years of independence. Moldova is a patchwork of ethnic groups: Moldovans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, Gagauzians, Ukrainians, Jews, and others. Over a short hour spent on the streets of Chisinau, you can easily bump into people who regret the collapse of the Soviet Union and those who curse the USSR; people who wish to see Moldova in the EU and those who would like their country to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union; people who are confident that Moldova should be part of Romania and their fierce opponents who support the state’s independence.

Every single year, this state of affairs finds an accurate reflection in sociological surveys and public opinion polls. Today’s statistical “pie chart” in Moldova looks like this: about 50 per cent of the population want to join the EU, more than 30 per cent would prefer to be part of the Eurasian Economic Union headed by Moscow, and about the same number of Moldovans want their republic to merge with Romania.

In the 20th century, whose witnesses are still alive and active and whose memories are still fresh in their minds, the territory of present-day Moldova used to be part of Russia, part of Romania, and part of the USSR. Discussions on when, where and in what alliance Moldova was – or will be – better off have not ceased for the last three decades.

To the accompaniment of these discussions, people keep leaving the country, while the politicians are trying to win the votes and attention of those who are still in Moldova. With their strong preference for thinking in black-and-white terms, labels are cast around rather easily: “the fifth column,” “nationalists,” “separatists,” “fascists,” “mankurts” [Translator's Note. – The word comes from the 1980 novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by the Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov. The fictional story depicts mankurts as enslaved people with mutilated brains, turned into speechless and dehumanized creatures], “vatniks” [Translator's Note. – The pejorative term used in Russia and other post-Soviet countries to designate the brainwashed followers of official state propaganda]. It is easier to harvest votes with slogans than with a sound economic program: the voters rarely read economic programs, probably since they know that those programs are rarely carried out.

In today’s Moldova, the Transnistrian conflict – or the Transnistrian war – remains the most persistently painful political topic. Once the country gained independence, in August 1991, its territory turned out split into two parts. In July 1992, after the military conflict ended, Transnistria, a region on the left bank of the Dniester River, declared independence from Chisinau and has since used the self-designation Transnistrian Moldavian Republic.

A few years ago, Nicu Popescu, the current Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs, paid the price for the careless handling of the thirty-year-old topic, when he called the Transnistrian events a civil war and was heavily criticized on social media. As a result, he was compelled to take his words back.

There are a lot of people in Moldova who believe that the Transnistrian conflict was a war with Russia. According to this view, the unrecognized republic that emerged as a result of the war is a territory occupied by Russia and the population of Transnistria are separatists who deserve to be punished. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the followers of the late Russian General Alexander Lebed’, who call the conflict a “fight against Moldovan-Romanian fascism.” Between these two extremes, there is a quiet minority constituted by those who prefer to avoid the uncomfortable topic and pass it over in silence and those who are struggling to comprehend the war as a national tragedy.

There are exceptions among politicians, though: sometimes they do manage to unite people instead of creating a rift between them. The latest example is the country's current president, Maia Sandu, and her colleagues from the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS). On their way to power, they had deliberately shied away from discussing difficult historical topics and geopolitics, they had stopped looking for internal enemies, and they had promised to tackle poverty and corruption.

It worked twice. It worked in 2020, when the pro-Western candidate Sandu won the presidential election over the pro-Russian Igor Dodon, and in 2021, when Sandu's PAS won a majority in parliament, which allowed the party to appoint its own government. Then, the country returned to the old track. Due to its close proximity to war-torn Ukraine, Moldova was hit by energy and economic crises, which the authorities have not been able to handle properly. The old habit of searching for the enemies, external and internal alike, is back. The authorities who managed to unite society for a short period of time are now busy with hunting for “the fifth column” and “the mankurts” to be blamed for the crisis.

The premiere of the film Carbon – a dark comedy about the Transnistrian conflict – took place in Moldova at that historical moment when, in addition to the old problems of the country, new challenges emerged as a result of the war that broke out in neighboring Ukraine. The movie directed by Ion Borsh and screenwriter Mariana Starciuc received acclaim from both critics and audiences, as people in movie theaters applaud at the finale of the film.

The very first frames appear to violate a certain taboo: as indicated in the credits, some people consider this war to be civil, for others it was a confrontation with Moscow, and some call it “the drunken war.” This is a bold statement as it moves away from the idea that the tragedy of thirty years ago can only be interpreted from a single, correct point of view.

It is quite easy to trace the origins of the first two perspectives which frame the situation, respectively, as a civil war or as Russia’s occupation of part of Moldova. As for the term “drunken war,” its source is believed to be the following. The people who participated in the Transnistrian war on both sides knew each other pretty well (for instance, from the time of their service in the Soviet Army). After the battle, they would get together and, of course, drink, then break back out into their trenches to look at each other through the gunsights again.

In the film, this version is reflected in the scenes of friendly negotiations between the commanders of the military units who communicate casually, as if there were no war between them. This motif is further reinforced by the presence of a supporting character: an unscrupulous smuggler who offers wine to government soldiers in exchange for their machine guns. After that, he delivers the weapons to the Transnistrian separatists, who reward him with a Mercedes. According to director Borsh, his father participated in the Transnistrian conflict and his stories in particular inspired the son to make this film. The alcoholic background was likely to be the underlying element penetrating the atmosphere of the war memories.

The story revolves around the adventures of two protagonists in the conflict zone: the main characters are the tractor driver Dima and the former Soviet soldier Vasya who had participated in the Afghan war. Their accidental discovery in the beginning of the movie – a black-burnt corpse – is the eponymous "carbon," which they attempt to bury according to the Christian customs. But, as long as people interfere with their efforts, it turns out impossible to perform the ritual properly. The protagonists are subjected to various ordeals and it becomes clear soon that the environment presented in the film is not a fictional Moldova, but a real one: the Moldova of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The characters speak Moldovan or, if you prefer, Romanian (the exact name of the state language is a whole controversial issue here), while Russian obscenities and, occasionally, printable Russian words blend into their speech comfortably as well. Their discussions on their country as the battlefield between America and Russia are modulated by the patriotic TV speeches of a Chisinau politician, with his calls for self-sacrifice and a pocketful of “your mother will never forget” promises. The resourceful smuggler granted with a Mercedes ends up becoming the mayor of the village.

The off-screen life setting looks pretty much the same. Moldovan (Romanian?) and Russian languages have long been blended together. The alternation of pro-Western and pro-Russian leading politicians is obviously orchestrated by their Western and Eastern curators. The power institutions are packed with corrupt officials and scammers. The latter can be perfectly illustrated by the figure of Ilan Shor, the oppositional politician and organizer of anti-government actions in Chisinau from abroad. In 2015, Shor was elected mayor of the administrative center of Orhei, then a member of the Moldovan parliament, despite his involvement in a bank embezzlement scheme when $1 billion was stolen from Moldovan banks. In this sense, Carbon can also be seen as a documentary.

Of course, one of the strengths of the film is its perfect representation of the state and society, with their inability to fix their flaws over the 30 years. More importantly, however, Carbon deserves credit for its newly-found intonation to tell the story of the war – the biggest drama in the recent history of Moldova.

This intonation has nothing to do with anger, or hatred, or mockery addressed to any of the still conflicting parties. At some point, it is circulated that the “carbon” is the dead body of the separatist leader. Vasya, who previously insisted on a proper funeral, is now in opposition: “Just imagine how many of our guys he killed!” Dima, the tractor driver, replies, “People are dying on the other side too.”

For many years, both Chisinau and Tiraspol were reluctant to notice that opposite side. Representing the opponent as a monster was rather a common practice. Politicians on the both banks of the Dniester have been eager to maintain this attitude denying the enemy’s humanity. The authors of Carbon break this vicious circle – gently, but with a great deal of confidence.

Although such a view of the Transnistrian conflict is not yet mainstream, the statement made by the authors of Carbon is important in today’s Moldova. Art is able to change political reality, as demonstrated by the recent story of a small theater "Spălătorie" (which means "Laundry" or “Washhouse” in Moldovan), underground in every way, since for many years it was literally located in a basement. In 2012, the theater led by a writer and director Nicoleta Esinencu staged a play titled Pure History. The play was dedicated to the Holocaust and focused on the role of the local population in the extermination of Jews and Roma during the Second World War.

When Esinencu produced the play ten years ago, the Holocaust was far from being among the topics widely discussed in Moldova, in public schools or elsewhere. Moreover, there were people who publicly denied the Holocaust, although historical research reveals that from 300 to 350 thousand Jews were killed or died from cold and hunger in Moldova during the World War II. The small theater, therefore, started a difficult conversation about the past.

Four years later, in July 2016, the Moldovan parliament adopted a political declaration to condemn the persecution and murder of Jews, including those who lived on the territory of modern Moldova. The document also condemned any attempts to ignore or deny the Holocaust. The declaration was followed by other decisions. In 2019, the optional subject “The Holocaust: History and Lessons of Life” was brought to Moldovan school curricula and in 2021 the country introduced criminal liability for Holocaust denial.

The Holocaust has become one of the few topics that brought Chisinau and Tiraspol a little bit closer together. The Nazi concentration camps where the Jews from Moldova and Ukraine were driven to die were located on the territory of today’s Transnistria. The authorities of the unrecognized republic had taken attempts to approach the memory of the tragedy even before Chisinau. Now that Moldova and Transnistria are finally sharing the same view on that page of their common history, even if the film Carbon fails to bring them closer to each other, it may still become a communication starter to initiate an exchange of thoughts and feelings about the war on the Dniester.

Translated from Russian by Kun

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