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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 127-141

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Pluralism by Default in Moldova

Lucan A. Way

In the 1990s, Moldova, a small country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and bereft of a strong civil society, an established rule of law, and any previous democratic experience, nevertheless boasted remarkably competitive and democratic politics. In order to understand the persistence and intensity of pluralism in Moldova, as well as in other post-Soviet countries such as Russia and Ukraine through the mid-1990s, we need to move beyond the usual focus on democratic institution-building. Moldova should be seen less as a struggling democracy, where leaders strive to build more pluralistic institutions, and much more as a case of failed authoritarianism or what I call pluralism by default, a form of political competition specific to weak states.

Pluralism by default describes countries in which institutionalized political competition survives not because leaders are especially democratic or because societal actors are particularly strong, but because the government is too fragmented and the state too weak to impose authoritarian rule in a democratic international context. In such cases, leaders lack the authority and coordination to prevent today's allies from becoming tomorrow's challengers, control the legislature, impose censorship, manipulate elections successfully, or use force against political opponents. Such countries are caught in a paradox: The same state weakness and governmental fragmentation that promotes pluralism also undermines effective governance and may ultimately threaten long-term democratic consolidation.

Moldova lacks most of the qualities that social scientists consider critical for democratic development. First, the country is extremely poor, [End Page 127] with a per capita gross national income that in 1999 was 65 percent of that found in Albania, 32 percent of that found in Belarus, and 7 percent of that found in the United States. 1 Moldova is also highly rural with an urban population of just 46 percent—in the former Soviet Union, only the Central Asia republics have lower shares of urban residents. Moldova has also suffered one of the worst economic downturns in the post-Soviet region. In the decade following 1989, GDP plummeted by almost 70 percent. (During this time, only war-torn Georgia endured worse.) Further, Moldova also has no tradition of democracy or even independent statehood that reaches back before the 1990s: Most of the country's current territory formed the eastern Romanian province of Bessarabia until Stalin, given a free hand by Hitler in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, demanded and got the province's cession by Bucharest in 1940.

A Bifurcated Country

Prospects for pluralism in Moldova would also seem to be threatened by divisions over national identity. As a result of Stalin's annexation of eastern Romania, the newly formed Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic became perilously divided between a Romanian-speaking western zone and the highly industrialized, Slavic-speaking Transdniestr region in the east. This split created the basis for significant tensions that surfaced during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. In the late 1980s, the Popular Front of Moldova, founded by Moldovan academics and writers, focused on strengthening the linguistic and ethnic rights of Romanian-speakers whom nationalists felt had suffered disproportionately under communism.

In 1990, the Popular Front won roughly a third of the seats in the Supreme Soviet and chose the premier. Bolstered by its early victories, the Front began to press for immediate unification with Romania, restrictions on Russian in-migration, and increased employment opportunities for Romanian-speaking citizens. Such policies helped to generate a highly polarized atmosphere. 2 Opposition quickly appeared among local Russians and Ukrainians (who together accounted for about a quarter of the population in the late 1980s) in the Transdniestr, and also sprang up among the Gagauz (a group of Turkic-speaking Slavs in the south who account for about 4 percent of Moldova's people).

In the summer of 1990, deputies from the Transdniestr and Gagauzia started boycotting the national legislature and declared their respective regions autonomous. Gun battles soon broke out between Moldovan government troops and separatist armed forces in and around Transdniestria. Mircea Snegur, Moldova's...


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