Monday, January 18, 2010

Moldova addresses its past

When the communists were returned to power (democratically!) in 2001, I remember asking a close friend how it was that the people of Moldova, who had suffered so greatly at the hands of Soviet communists, could even think about allowing the restablishment of a communist regime.

He replied that the communists were nicer now, that they were really just social democrats under another name and that the change of government in 2001 was just a normal alternation of power between the centre-right and centre-left, just as you would find in a mature democracy.  Others have suggested that the 2001 election was won on pocket-book issues, i.e. the inability of the ADR government to pay pensions following the 1998 Russian default.

I believe, however, that the base cause of the 2001 communist victory was a lack of understanding by the citizenry of the horrors that the country had lived through during the Soviet period.

For starters, a good part of the electorate consisted of those who had formed the ruling class under soviet communism (e.g. rusofones, communists).  This group had no interest in the real history of 1941 - 1991 seeing the light of day.

A second group were rural folks who were either deprived of good sources of information or who chose to deprive themselves of good information (for example because they were too busy earning a crust).  While this group would have understood that democratic Moldova gave them more freedom than the totalitarian Soviet Union, they would also have observed that in economic terms they were worse off.

And that leaves the small, liberal, largely ethnic Moldovan chattering class of Chisinau as the only people who would have really understood just how awful Soviet communism really was.

Now however, interim President Mihai Ghimpu (with the tacit support of his AIE colleagues) has established a commisssion to investigate the Soviet Communist period and produce a report, in what is likely to be a prelude to an official denunciation of communism.

This is a necessary step.  Countries need to be honest about their past (and about their sins) in order to learn from them and build a common future.  South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, for example, brought the black and white communities together in a spirit of forgiveness after the awful hatred of apartheid.

In Moldova's case, we need to understand who executed and who was deported to Siberia, by whom and why.  We need to understand what property was confiscated, how elections were rigged, how the policy of russification was promoted.  We need former agents of the regime to confess to their crimes and seek forgiveness.  The commission will give us that opportunity, and allow those who have been abused to achieve closure.

It will also produce some other results:

  1. An official denunciation of the acts of the state by the state itself may open up a legal right of redress by those who had their rights abused under communism (i.e. pretty much everyone).  The government needs to think ahead and determine how these claims will be handled.
  2. The communist party will continue its downward slide, and, as scandalous information comes to the surface, will be increasingly shunned by mainstream society.  The ostracisation process may be pushed along by bans on the party's symbols or even closure of its organisation.
  3. The inquiry and report will be a lesson in human rights to many of the citizens of the country, who will become aware, perhaps for the first time of rights such as 'economic liberty' and 'freedom of association'.  This can only be for the good.
Obviously some will claim that the inquiry is just a politically-motivated witch-hunt.  I'm sure that part of the motivation (but not all) is political, however that does not reduce the investigation's value.  As for being a with-hunt, the best way to avoid that is by sticking to the facts, taking a broad view and by operating in transparency.

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