Antonia Colibasanu: As Moldova Marches

by Antonia Colibasanu

The better-known “Radetzky March” is a musical march, Op. 228, composed by Jonah Strauss Sr. and played commonly at New Year’s concerts. Less famous, perhaps, is the book written by Joseph Roth that goes by the same name. Roth’s “The Radetzky March” is a score written to the rhythm of the glorious Austrian Empire’s decline.

The narration of three generations of the Trotta family – professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin – spotlights not only the constancy of the notion of the “love of one’s own” at a time when the nation-state was still young, but also shows how even despite the best intentions, actions in personal and political life may lead to failure.
The political novel, written in 1932, teaches life lessons of universal value. Read today, while widely applicable to the challenges of governance in general, the book brings to mind the challenges to European cohesion and governance.

It is obvious that global governance as we knew it until 2008 has been restructured. We never quite had a definition for it before then, but we were hopeful that globalization would equal harmony and shared prosperity. However, the Orange revolution in 2004 – the moment the so-called Russian Bear awoke – and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, alongside the beginning of the global financial and economic crisis, have dramatically changed the way we perceive the world today.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War had formally ended. However, it continued informally along the Russian buffer zone. The struggle was most visible in places like Ukraine that the mainstream Western media has focused on ever since the early 2000s. Moldova’s struggle was far less visible. The politics of Chisinau are of interest for Russia, which wants to keep the country in its buffer zone, but also for NATO member states as Romania, which favors a pro-Western Moldova, and Turkey, which needs to keep an eye on all Russian interests near the Black Sea.

Moldova has managed to balance between the West and the East – but while doing so, the country’s political elite has become entangled with its business elite, developing a clan-like ruling class. In time, as the country’s economics have worsened, the management style has given way to a zero-sum game pulling in business interests and the pursuit of power. The well-intended actions of the elite, looking to maintain Moldova’s neutrality while balancing between the West and the East – and also pulling the levers of power to build their own fortunes – have apparently led to the systemic failure of the country. At least it has if we are to consider the last year’s political instability, coupled with the near-bankruptcy of the state. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest. While it is true that the pro-Russian factions want to climb through the window of opportunity and regain control of government, the black-and-white image painted by the media, of the pro-Europeans fighting against the pro-Russians, is only part of the story.

This East-West balance has been weighted on the interests of business – political philosophy has not been a priority. Socialism and liberalism, left-wing and right-wing, tend to have very broad definitions in Moldova, adjusted only by profit rates. While the pursuit of neutrality may be well-intended toward keeping the balance, corrupt practices stemming from business interests that operate as clans are breaking it up. That other balance – based on “who gives more money” in the short term – breaks the balance of neutrality and has brought the country’s politics to general loss. Russia has had the winning hand during times of economic stability at home, and while as there were different levels of corrupt practices involved in each process, it was easier to get and spend Russian funds than European funds. But as Russia’s economy weakened, corruption gained visibility. In the end, the balancing tactics, and the fraud by corruption, used by the governing elite have weakened the state.

Within the blacks and whites of a broader geopolitical struggle, the grays of nuance are provided by the population that is in fact protesting against the corrupt political elite and the poor state of the country’s administration. The example of nearby Romania, where the ongoing fight against corruption has shaken off the political elite, has reached the Moldovan public. The influence of the stories of those working abroad – and who report better conditions in the European Union and even in Russia – has also grown. All of them want to see order and responsibility from the governing elite.

The protests, and the clash of popular influence against the interests of the elite, seem to create an unstable if not chaotic environment. High political risk no longer characterizes Moldova – uncertainty has replaced it. No calculation is able to issue probabilities and results for short- and medium-term governance. A guess seems just as good. And that is worrying.

All indications are that Moldova is at a turning point – not only a geopolitical one, but a fundamental one, based on civic choices. The state’s institutions seem paralyzed. The protesters, no matter who brought them to the streets of Chisinau, are all calling for the death of old, corrupt Moldovan practices of competing for personal short-term gain while pretending to fight for the country’s neutrality. Russia has been most supportive of the formation of a system where politics are transformed into a system that supports a clan-type elite. The West has not been perfect, but has also supported the institutional administrative system where the rule of law matters most. The former system entertains corruption, while the latter fights it. Considering the protesters’ constant call against corruption in Chisinau, it seems the civic voice has made its choice between the East and the West.

The march of Chisinau is not an easy one. Governance has to represent the people’s choices, and Moldovans want reform. Geography has made of Moldova a strategic country, which means that the veins of external influence are and will always be present. This means reforms are not easy to achieve – but when politics are turning to the street, for the civic calls of a new shared dream, a new and hopefully better fate becomes possible. It is only possible, however, if the courageous ones take the window of opportunity for transforming the long, enduring march of Moldova into an optimistic – if not joyful – march.

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