Uniting with Kabul

BBC Monitoring/Romania libera – February 18, 2010

Feb 18, 2010 (BBC Monitoring via COMTEX) — [Commentary by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: “Uniting With Kabul”]

Will Romania unite with Moldova or not? Should we read Moscow’s press, we might think that the unification is imminent and represents the new regional tsunami that will stir Eastern Europe. On the other hand, are the Russians not entitled to fear it since our head of state woke up telling the students who visited the Cotroceni Palace in 2006 that he had proposed Vladimir Voronin to agree with uniting the two countries by Christmas so that the pair may join the EU hand in hand? As always when the Russian propaganda is mobilizing Moldova’s Russian-speaking citizens, we are not blameless. However, there is a long way to go from Basescu’s blunder to Romania’s current relations with Moldova.

Is Bessarabia a desirable territory that can stimulate the dreams of Romanian nationalists? The answer is no. Its only excedentary resource is the rural electorate that lives below the poverty threshold. However, we already have a surplus of such voters. The problem is not only the Dniester region conflict, from where we hear hilarious proposals on missile deployment, but the general lack of development of this territory that has the sad characteristic of being, alongside a part of Albania, Europe’s most retrograde region.

At the unification of 1918, thanks to Spiru Haret [reformer of Romania’s education system in 19th century], Romania’s literacy rate stood at 40 per cent (against 20 per cent in 1900), while Bessarabia’s at only 10 per cent. The latter was coming from the tsarist regime, the most underdeveloped in Europe. By comparison, Latvia had a literacy rate of 40 per cent, Poland and Hungary 60 per cent, and the Czech Republic and Estonia 95 per cent. You will argue that this was long ago, but you have to believe me that the literacy rate 100 years ago predicts this year’s GDP of a country in a development model. The troublesome inheritance is not a joke. Then came the Soviet regime, which suppressed especially Moldova’s already slim elite. Those who wonder why Moldova has doubts about its identity while Estonia is the most nationalist country in Eastern Europe, although both countries were under Soviet regime, can have their answer now. The Estonians were fully literate thanks to the Protestants at the end of the 19th century and the Soviet repression did not have the brain-washing effects characteristic to the much more rural provinces of the Black Sea.

In a letter written by Catinca Iorga [wife of reputed historian Nicolae Iorga] from my family’s archive I found a significant lament of her friend’s fate. The latter had married a Romanian officer deployed in Cahul [Moldovan town], described as a savage place with houses of straw and muddy streets. For me, however, Cahul is different. My great-grandmother’s hotel glittered like a prosperous oasis and the Romanian garrison (my grandmother, her sister, and all their cousins married the officers of the garrison in question) was an outpost of civilization like a Far West fort. Whoever visits Cahul today, 70 years after my relatives’ forced retreat, sees a place where nothing has been built during this interval, but the aforementioned hotel has been nevertheless demolished. That is Bessarabia.

If you want to help someone it is better to take distance and think about his interest instead of yours. Moldova is seeing a critical time. The current democratization is not unprecedented. Because of its chronic underdevelopment, Moldova’s transition has been unable to pass the irreversible threshold of consolidation. Moldova evolves in negative-positive cycles like a South American country. Romania has never managed to decisively help Moldova. Romania seems to be in even greater trouble precisely when Moldova really needs its help. This time, as an EU country, Romania no longer has any excuse, although it has rapidly ended up as a disgraceful country that borrows money to cover pensions. We have to help Chisinau’s new power, united almost by miracle and whose survival depends on the country’s economic recovery, or we will see it ousted by the pro-Russian camp again. After all, Moldova’s poor citizens, despite their lack of education, vote as rationally as we all do for the party from the most influential camp. It has been like that almost always. Europe seems to be in a better position right now, but Europe keeps losing in the East because it is not convinced that it wants to play an equally important role as Russia. The budget allocated to the EU’s famous Eastern Partnership is derisory, less than what Moldova alone needs. It is obvious that, unless we do something, no one else will.

From this point of view, the measures regarding Moldova that Romania has announced are as rational as they can be. The small border traffic agreement was being negotiated for years and its signature had been postponed only because Voronin would not sign it unless the basis treaty was signed, too. In consequence, both the Romanians and the Moldovans who lived at the border were suffering. I counted about 50 abandoned buses in a village near Cahul. The village had lived on the small commerce on the Galati market before 2007 and was starving to death after Romania had joined the EU.

Romania signed a similar agreement with Ukraine. As a result, the suggestion that this would forge the path to the reunification is stupid. This is a mere compensation to the neighbouring countries for the disadvantages resulting from Romania’s joining the EU. The famous barbed wire, because of which I had to jostle with the (usually Russian-speaking) customs agents in order to video-record it, was obsolete and had to be removed. The wire was deployed several kilometres inside Moldova’s territory and prevented the owners from using thousands of hectares of agricultural land. Ungheni, a courageous local council, litigated against the custom service and managed to remove the barbed wire long ago, without Romania’s help. We can only rejoice at seeing that another trace of the Soviet regime is removed. The new infrared border on the Prut River is much more effective than barbed wire, anyways!

I am more reserved about the financial issue. I am not saying that we should not grant money to Moldova. On the contrary, as I said before, I think that we should grant the aid, but I am reluctant given our past experience. We have always granted non-transparent aid, which proved inefficient or even worse. Who can guarantee that it will be different this time? We have never demonstrated our capacity to assess priorities and predict the maximum impact of the aid in question, which is complicated for old donors, not to mention amateurs like ourselves. If we grant 100 million euros to Chisinau’s authorities, I want to see professional opinions on what the money will be used for and a transparent account so that we can actually monitor the projects it is spent on. Although we assume that the aid was decided out of good faith and not nationalism or election interests, our competence remains questionable.

Basescu, the president who has showed the highest interest in Bessarabia, mistakes Cahul for Kabul because that is about everything that he knows about this region. And many Romanians know pretty much the same. We have recently appointed a new ambassador, a theologian by education and the foreign minister’s friend (what a predictable country Romania is!), with experience at Vatican alone, although we needed someone with experience in development, ethnic conflict resolution, and relations with Brussels and the OSCE. Although we declare a topic to be of national importance we are unable to treat it differently than by serving the clientele. This is what we are and this is what Bessarabia can expect from us. Source: Romania Libera website, Bucharest, in Romanian 18 Feb 10

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