20 November 2023Moldova

Between Affection and Revenge

About the underestimated danger of division into “us” and “them”

by Sergey Ehrlich
The language issue in Moldova has often caused conflicts, including the armed conflict in Transnistria.© NewsMaker.md

Despite its proximity to the Ukraine in the war, Moldova remains one of the tranquil countries in the area that is commonly referred to as ”the post-Soviet space”. At the same time, its stability is fragile, and the existing balance may be easily broken, as argues Sergey Ehrlich, Doctor of Historical Sciences, editor-in-chief of the journal “Historical Expertise”.

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Not long ago, a scandal broke out in Moldova around 5th-grade music class textbooks. It was made public that the national anthem, based on the poem Our Language by the poet Alexei Mateevich, was published in these textbooks in Russian translation. Some considered it to be “desecration” of the anthem, while others dismissed it as mere “nonsense.” The Ministry of Education pledged to investigate and pointed out that, according to the law “On the national anthem,” it must be performed in Romanian.

The public reaction to this news is quite indicative, as it stems from a division into “them” and “us”: “insiders” and “outsiders.” It is extremely easy to instigate a split – and this easiness is too dangerous to be neglected.

People vs. people

The growth of human populations brought forth intraspecific competition for resources and for the territories where these resources were located. Initially, the Cro-Magnons, using their tools as weapons, eliminated their species brethren, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Afterwards, they began to fight among themselves for lands suitable for hunting, fishing, and gathering. Striving to survive amidst endless wars, primitive people designed the mental wonder-weapon “ethnos” (“people,” “nation”), which was supposed to moderate intra- and inter-tribal contacts in the image and likeness of biological species. Our ancestors, preoccupied with ethnic identities, exclusively considered members of their own tribe to be people.

At the fundamental core of any, even the most “refined,” ethnic community labeled as “we” lies the cannibalistic dehumanization of the community labeled as “they.” As the classic figure in cultural anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, indicated, before the invention of animal husbandry and agriculture, the exploitation of captives was not possible for the reason of low labor productivity. The primary goal of war, therefore, was to secure food for “us” and at the same time to avoid becoming food for “them”. To mitigate the horror of envisioning the latter prospect, sophisticated torture was arranged as a sort of psychotherapy of a sort, that preceded the ritual of devouring the enemy. This primary trauma of humanity is still not worked through, since, for modern people, even a vague hint of cannibalism is liable to provoke a gag reflex. However, if the existence of trauma is not acknowledged, it does not mean that it has been overcome. Furthermore, precisely because the trauma has been repressed into the recesses of the subconscious, it continues to exert influence and control over our behavior.

With the establishment of mutually beneficial relations between representatives of different ethnic groups, morals eventually softened. The captives are no longer subjected to frying. The words of Apostle Paul, “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” are widely known, although we have not yet fully internalized them. But, unfortunately, even today, the ethnic perspective of the world is summoned again in times of crisis, giving rise to wars and genocides.

The roots of enmity

All three military conflicts that are in the focus of public attention today have an ethnic background. Putin, convinced that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are “one people,” is tightening his “big-brotherly” embrace around Ukraine. Meanwhile, Azerbaijanis and Armenians, as well as Arabs and Jews, interpret their confrontations in terms of the “indigenous people.”

In my opinion, the concept itself is toxic – it does not just poison life metaphorically, but literally leads to death. Jews, for instance, perceive themselves as “indigenous,” since Joshua the Son of Nun conquered Canaan in the second millennium BC. Arabs claim the same title on the grounds that they were present there long before the Ashkenazim “invaders.” This dispute is irresolvable.

It is impossible to explain to someone whose ancestors lived in a certain country for decades, centuries, or even millennia that they are not “indigenous” based on the argument of another people whose representatives believe that their ancestors had lived there even before. Arguments like this can only ignite hostility, fraught with bloodshed, as was again demonstrated by the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.

Unfortunately, the United Nations has granted legitimacy to this term, which oozes with cadaveric poison. On September 13, 2007, after twenty years of debate, the organization's General Assembly ended up adopting the “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, but its authors were unable to define the concept of “indigenous peoples.” This is a clear sign that the UN experts failed in the most difficult mission they were assigned. It becomes evident from the context of the declaration that it is addressing small peoples like the Chukchi, or, as it is appropriate to say now, Native Americans, whose lands were seized by the colonialists.

The good intention of the Declaration was to help ethnic minorities preserve their unique cultural identity. However, by choosing an inappropriate title, the UN, contrary to its own intentions, legitimized the ethnocratic aspirations of politicians from the young “titular nations.” These politicians claim the right of the previously oppressed “indigenous people” to suppress ethnic minorities, labeling them as “strangers” or “occupants.” Instead of protecting ethnic minorities, this document unintentionally created rhetorical preconditions for their discrimination.

What does Moldova have to do with it?

Moldova is one of the numerous countries in Eastern Europe where the theme of confrontation between the “indigenous” majority and the “invaders” turns out tirelessly inflated in the media and scrutinized in detail on social networks. Politicians contribute significantly to these discussions. In 2015, Mihai Ghimpu, the chairman of the Liberal Party, who also served as the chairman of parliament and acting president in 2009–2010, criticized the Gagauz “aliens” for their disloyalty to the “indigenous people” of Moldova. He stated, “They live on our land, but their thoughts are with the Kremlin. They are happy that the Russian Tsar brought them here and gave them shelter, food, and land. Yes, he is the one who brought them over, but he brought them to our house.”

Such reasoning indicates that politicians who incessantly try to prove themselves right by references to history, in fact, don’t care to know “what actually happened” (Leopold von Ranke)

Results of population censuses (late 19th – early 21st centuries) [∗]

Even today, after the brutal ethnic cleansing of World War II and mass emigration during the collapse of the USSR, Moldova is home to five large ethnic groups, each constituting more than one percent of the population. These groups include: Moldovans (some of whom identify themselves as Bessarabian Romanians), Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz, and Bulgarians. In Romania, there are three such groups: Romanians, Hungarians, and a people with the self-name Roma. There are only two large groups like this in Ukraine: Ukrainians and Russians.

Ethnographic diversity entered the picture in Moldova well ahead of its inclusion in the Soviet Union. Before World War II, the diversity was even greater. Alongside the five above listed ethnic groups, large populations of Jews and Germans also lived here. The latter were compelled to leave their homes in 1940 by an agreement between Hitler and Stalin.

After June 22, 1941, the majority of Bessarabian Jews were exterminated through the efforts of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, Romanian authorities, and, unfortunately, the local population. The theme of robbing and killing Jewish neighbors still lingers on the periphery of collective memory.

The remnants of Bessarabian Jewry left the country during the years of Perestroika. A significant reason that prompted their departure was the manifestations of national revival supporters, often rallying under the slogan: “Russians – for the Dniester! Jews – in the Dniester! Today, the ideologists of the “titular nation” assert that those who opposed the Soviet occupation (many of whom, by the way, were members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), didn’t go further than merely shouting: “Suitcase, railway station, Russia!” According to their claim, the frightening story mentioning Jews was fabricated by the KGB.

Bessarabian Jews, keeping in mind the experience of the Kishinev pogrom, the Romanian Holocaust, the Stalin campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” and the Brezhnev “fight against Zionism,” did not delve into research on the true authors of the xenophobic statement. Tens of thousands of Jews left the republic during that period, accompanied by, at least, the same number of Russians and urban Ukrainians, including many highly qualified professionals. According to the 2014 census, there are 1,600 Jews living in the country.

The ethnic minority communities were formed not only by migrants from the Soviet era (such communities, to a large extent, do not consist of easy-going urban ‘tumbleweeds’) but also by talpă țării (in Romanian, “peasants”, “indigenous residents” – literally, “support of the country”) who live in Ukrainian, Gagauz, Bulgarian and other ethnic villages, including a dozen villages of Russian Old Believers. The total number of these villages is close to five hundred. Moldova is the native land of these people, which they will leave only under the threat of extermination or starvation.

Centuries-long cohabitation

The above-quoted statement of Ghimpu proceeds from the assumption that multi-ethnic newcomers deprived the Moldovans of their arable lands and pastures, as a result of the Russian annexation in 1812. Those who share this belief with Ghimpu are as mistaken as he is. It’s true that the Gagauz, Bulgarians, and Germans came to the south of Bessarabia at the invitation of the tsarist authorities. However, they settled not on the lands that belonged to the Moldovans, but on those territories that had previously been under the direct government of the Ottoman Empire (the so-called raiyah) or that had been controlled by the Budjak Horde with its capital in Căușeni.

This branch of the Crimean Khanate emerged as early as in the 17th century. On the left bank of the Dniester, in the 18th century, another Tatar state was situated on the territory of present-day Moldova – the Yedisan Horde. After 1812, the tsarist government, seemingly anticipating Stalin's deportations, expelled the Budjak Tatars from Bessarabia, and allocated their lands to those who were then officially referred to as “foreign colonists”.

Multi-ethnicity was characteristic not only of the south of Bessarabia, but also of all territories under the control of the Principality of Moldavia until 1812 and throughout its history starting in 1359, which is considered the date of its foundation. Dimitrie Cantemir, the Moldavian ruler (hospodar) and the first Russian scholar, a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences since 1714, testifies in his monograph Description of Moldova: “We believe that hardly in any other state, enclosed within such tight borders as Moldova, there live so many different nationalities. Besides Moldovans, most of whom came from Maramureș, it is inhabited by Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Poles, Cossacks, Russians, Hungarians, Germans, Armenians, Jews, and fertile gypsies.”

Those identified as Russians and Cossacks by Cantemir and the Moldavian chroniclers of the 17th century are, in fact, the ancestors of today's Ukrainians. Following the wording coined by the Poles, Moldovans called the ancestors of today's Russians Muscovites. In modern Moldova, there are three hundred Ukrainian villages, some with a centuries-old history among them.

If it is appropriate to label the Slavs, whose ancestors have lived in Moldova for centuries, as “aliens,” then Moldovans cannot assert themselves as the “indigenous people” either. The quoted statement by Cantemir indicates that Moldovans originated from Maramureș (northern Transylvania).

Cantemir drew this information out of the earlier chronicles. In particular, Simion Dascălul, the 17th century chronicler, points out that the Hungarian king Laszlo (Louis I) vanquished the Tatars and expelled them from the territory between the Carpathians and the Dniester. The resultant political vacuum was filled by the Moldovans, under the leadership of Dragoș, who established a state on the newfound lands in 1359.

While the Moldovans migrated to this region from beyond the Carpathians, simultaneously, as the chronicler notes, the “Russians” (the ancestors of future Ukrainians) arrived here from the “Pole land” (referring to the territory of present-day Western Ukraine, then under Polish control), and since that time, “half the country is inhabited by Russians, and half by Romanians” (one of the earliest uses of this term).

Ethnic “dualism” gave birth to the name Ruso-Vlahia, which denotes the coexistence of Russians and Volokhs (Moldavians). This term can be found in historical sources as one of the synonyms of the Carpathian-Dniester lands. However, Moldovans and “Russians” were not the exclusive first inhabitants of the new state. Simion Dascălul reports simultaneous migrations of Germans and Hungarians to this region. In other words, the Principality of Moldova embraced a multi-ethnic character right from its inception.

Indigenous vs. invaders

As follows from the evidence presented, interethnic interaction in Moldova cannot be adequately described through the binary opposition of “indigenous” and “newcomers”. This opposition pertains to the category of ideological, and not scholarly, tools. Politicians often resort to it to divert public attention from their corruption schemes and their failure to improve the lives of the “electorate.” In the words (paraphrased) of the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: “When in Moldova they start talking about “indigenous” and “invaders,” keep in mind: somewhere something was stolen.”

Moldovan politics functions according to the principle: “We ride together, we drive by turns.” Political adversaries who vehemently criticize each other in public, once entering governmental offices, take off their masks and reveal themselves as close allies. In this political theater, all the roles are scripted.

In 2001, Vladimir Voronin, the leader of the Moldovan communists, came to power. His election agenda included a promise to grant Russian the status of a “state” language. Ethnic minorities were unanimously “for” the communists, while the majority of ethnic Moldovans were not “against” either, since in those years, large numbers of them started traveling to Russia for contract jobs. After securing a majority in parliament, Voronin forgot about his election promises, as “indigenous” opponents loudly protested against the rights of the “invaders,” and their clamor would hinder the execution of the schemes (because, as is commonly known, money loves silence).

In 2009, Voronin lost power, and the political advantage shifted to the notorious oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who was once part of Voronin’s entourage. Without holding any official governmental positions, Plahotniuc acted as a shadow ruler of the country, manipulating everything. In particular, he concocted a brilliant, albeit unorthodox, scheme. Serving as the leader of the pro-European Democratic Party, he introduced changes to the constitution and then orchestrated presidential elections in a manner that ensured the victory of the pro-Russian socialist Igor Dodon. While this move further deepened the polarization within Moldovan society, at the same time, it facilitated Plahotniuc’s government of the country.

In 2019, Plahotniuc’s regime fell, and he was compelled to flee the country. For a brief period, state power passed into the hands of Dodon, who staked everything on Moscow. Through the efforts of this politician, Moldova received the status of an observer in the Eurasian Economic Union, under the supervision of Russia. This exclusively pro-Russian orientation sparked anger in the opposing faction of Moldovan society – the one that believes Moldova should be part of the European Union or part of Romania, which is already a member of the European Union.

In 2020, Maia Sandu won the presidential elections, defeating Igor Dodon. Despite being a pro-European politician, she still gained support from Russian-speaking compatriots as well. In contrast with the typical Moldovan pre-election political style, Sandu avoided taking a confrontational stance between the West and Russia. Instead, she concentrated on addressing urgent problems like poverty and corruption – issues that mattered much more to the majority of citizens than geopolitical considerations.

Once she took office, one of the initial actions by Sandu and her team was the removal, in 2021, of Alexandru Stoianoglo from the position of prosecutor general. As an ethnic Gagauz, he stood since 1991 as the sole representative of ethnic minorities to hold one of the highest positions in the Moldovan government. In 2023, the European Court of Human Rights already acknowledged a violation of Stoianoglo’s rights by the authorities in the process of his dismissal.

These are just a few examples of how Moldovan politicians alternately press the buttons of “indigenous majority” vs. “ethnic minorities.” As history teaches us, ethnicity is like a prop gun on the theatrical stage ... it will inevitably fire, and unfortunately, not with blanks. It is not, therefore, advisable to keep it prominently displayed on the political stage.

Translated from Russian by Kun

[∗] Sources:

1897 Bessarabia Governorate: First General Census of the Russian Empire in 1897 / ed. [and with pre.] N.A. Troynitsky. – [St. Petersburg]: publication of the Central Statistical Committee of the Ministry of the Interior, 1899–1905.
1931 Bessarabia: Evoluția structurii etnice a populației Basarabiei / Republicii Moldova: studiu comparativ 1930–2014. [The Evolution of the Ethnic Structure of the Population in Bessarabia / the Republic of Moldova: A Comparative Study 1930–2014].
1941 Bessarabia (a combined total for all the counties/județe)
1959 Moldavian SSR
1970 Moldavian SSR
1979 Moldavian SSR
1989 Moldavian SSR
2014 Republic of Moldova without Transnistria

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