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Morning Star: December 5, 2005

EVEN regular readers of the Morning Star may be surprised to learn that, well over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an elected communist government is in power and thriving on the territory of the former USSR.

Such is the nature of the quiet political revolution underway in Moldova – a small landlocked country of 4.5 million people squeezed between Romania and Ukraine – that many outside the region remain unaware of the Communist Party’s remarkable comeback here.

The party, which ruled the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic for decades until Moldovan independence in 1991, secured re-election this year to build on its initial dramatic breakthrough at the polls in 2001.

Taking 46 per cent of the vote, the communists won a second clear parliamentary majority (56 out of 101 seats) in March, giving them a popular mandate to continue their programme of national renewal launched four years before.

Speaking to the Morning Star at his parliamentary office in Moldova’s capital Chisinau, senior Communist MP Victor Stepaniuk outlined the reasons behind the party’s success.

“The victory in 2005 was even more important than the result in 2001,” says Mr Stepaniuk. He acknowledges that voters, disillusioned with capitalism, had initially backed the party partially due to nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

But during four years in power they saw it deliver concrete results, including a doubling of the state budget, increased production, higher wages, pensions and student grants and a renewal of the healthcare system.

Following the collapse of Soviet socialism, Moldova’s economy underwent catastrophic meltdown (shrinking by two-thirds) thanks to a particularly malign local brand of the capitalist “economic shock therapy” which impoverished citizens throughout the former USSR.

At independence, Moldova possessed the fourth most successful economy of the 15 former Soviet republics. By 2001 it had plummeted to second bottom and held the unenviable distinction of being Europe’s poorest country.

Like elsewhere in the disintegrating Soviet Union, some party leaders abused their positions to enrich themselves during the lucrative privatisation period. But the party quickly, and publicly, rid itself of such opportunist elements – another reason for its popularity among ordinary Moldovans, says Mr Stepaniuk.

Today, Moldova is struggling to deal with the legacy of the disastrous policies of the 1990s, when almost its entire national wealth was grabbed by just 5 per cent of the population.

“It is easier to ask which parts of our economy are not privatised,” says Mr Stepaniuk. “We are the most privatised country in Europe. Some 82 per cent of the property in our state is privatised.”

Reclaiming such national assets has not proved easy. No matter how ruinous the privatisations, they were constitutional and carried out within the law. The government is, however, doing what it can through legislation and challenges in the courts.

Early in his first term Moldova’s president, Communist Party chairman Vladimir Voronin, looked, in the main, east to Russia as the country’s key regional ally and partner.

But he appears to have lost patience with Moscow over its perceived support for the tiny separatist state of Transdniester along Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, preferring to draw his country closer to Western institutions such as the European Union and, even more alarmingly, NATO.

Transdniester, which celebrated the 15th anniversary of its “independence” in September amid much Soviet-style fanfare (nobody outside of Transdniester’s borders recognises its statehood), holds the bulk of Moldova’s industry, and its power stations, on its soil.

It is also home to thousands of Russian troops, stationed as peacekeepers following the separatist war of 1992 in which hundreds died. In addition to peacekeeping the troops are, ostensibly, needed to guard Europe’s largest arms dump, composed of ageing Soviet munitions, and oversee their eventual return.

Unsurprisingly, President Voronin wants Russia, its troops and its arms dump out sooner rather than later in return for the promise of autonomy for Transdniester and its majority Slavic (Russian/Ukrainian) population within a reunified Moldova.

Despite the unresolved “Transdniester question” and Moldova’s deepening relations with NATO (President Voronin received a warm welcome at the organisation’s Brussels headquarters in June), Mr Stepaniuk stresses that the country remains unaligned.

“Moldova wants to keep its neutral position and not to become a full member of NATO. The policy of the party is anti-militaristic,” he insists.

Evidence of the party’s popularity and activism is visible across Chisinau. Lampposts and walls are plastered with posters for the Communist candidate in the city’s mayoral election, accompanied by ubiquitous hammer and sickle graffiti.

Soon after arriving I was interested to discover my landlady – a young woman by the name of Marisha Vozian – to be an enthusiastic Communist voter, as equally proud of the government’s current achievements as she is of her country’s Soviet past.

As a spirited twenty-something, Marisha is far from the Western stereotype of Soviet octogenarians living off hopeless nostalgia. Yet she speaks passionately in defence of the USSR and is scathing about the restoration of capitalism.

One afternoon, I return to find Marisha and her neighbour Tamara in serious discussion at the kitchen table.

“I’m fighting the foreign imperialists,” Tamara tells me with a determined look. The Spanish-owned privatised company has slapped a £700 fine on her, claiming that she has tampered with her meter.

Tamara, who is proud to have worked as an auditor during the Soviet period, insists that the charge is baseless. Her fine represents a colossal amount, almost a year’s salary, in a country where the average monthly wage is just £60.

Not only was Tamara absent when the company called at her flat to conduct the inspection (against its own rules) but it has still not explained the basis on which it calculated the enormous sum contained in its fine.

Two years of fighting the company through the courts have taken their toll on Tamara, who is saddled with the debt for life.

She is frustrated with a judiciary which, Tamara believes, has failed to keep pace with Moldova’s political changes and, for the moment, appears likely to favour the privateers over ordinary citizens.

On another occasion I remark to Marisha how safe her neighbourhood feels, despite it being a seemingly endless jungle of 1970s tower blocks on the edge of town – the kind of stark surroundings where one might fear to tread in any British city.

“We still have our Soviet mentality,” she responds with pride. “But I don’t know for how long.”


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