First Europeanization project or how Bessarabia became Romania. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



At the next presidential and parliamentary elections, the Moldovan voters will have the opportunity to choose the path of European integration of the Republic of Moldova, including the temporal dimension of this path...


Anatol Țăranu

When on March 27, 1918 the Country Council voted for the Union of Bessarabia with Romania, few were aware of how complicated the road home would be for the Romanian province annexed a century ago by the grabbing Eastern empire. Bessarabia at that time was a territory and a community of people who did not participate in the great moments of national history – Tudor Vladimirescu’s revolution of 1821, standardization of the language and Latinization of the Romanian alphabet in the 19th century, creation of the unitary state in 1859, obtaining of independence from the High Porte in 1878. In 1918, the Bessarabians, for the most part, felt like the sons and grandsons of the Moldovans of 1812. Only as far did their idea of their own origins reach. And this self-awareness of the Bessarabians was based on a century of tsarist policies of denationalization and Russification, first of all, of the national elite.

Unexpected miracle

And yet, in 1918 a miracle occurred on the land of Bessarabia. It seemed as if out of nowhere a Pan Halippa, an Ion Inculeț, a Daniel Ciugureanu, an Ion Pelivan, a Constantin Stere and dozens of other forerunners of the nation appeared on the Bessarabian political arena and these were able to lead their fellow citizens on the unique saving path of reunification of the Motherland and the nation. Given that countless Russian soldiers deserted from the Romanian Front and were devastating Bessarabia, and across the Nistru the relentless fire of the Russian civil war was igniting, a handful of visionary politicians in Chisinau provided the solution to save a nation afflicted by history. The union of Bessarabia with Romania not only saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bessarabians, who would have been condemned to death by the ravages of civil war, the Holodomor and other forms of terror of the Stalinist regime in the interwar period, but also protected the Romanian-Moldovans from definitive Soviet denationalization through anti-Romanian Moldovenization policies.

Bessarabia appeared at its encounter with modern history in different aspects. Incorporated by force of arms into the Tsarist empire, Bessarabia experienced a kind of colonial-type modernization in which a certain economic revival was ensured at the price of spiritual stagnation and degradation of national consciousness. The authentic and most significant form of modernization of Bessarabia took place when it was included in Greater Romania. This period of Bessarabia’s interwar history was cardinally distorted by the Soviet historiographical discourse that was borrowed almost fully by the current propaganda of post-Soviet Moscow. In reality, the situation between the Prut and the Nistru after the Union was similar to a “war”. Speaking about normality or evaluating that situation according to the criteria of democratic normality of the 21st century is absurd and irrelevant.

Contradictory and fraught with difficulties, but modernization

The modernization of Bessarabia was carried out then in the context of the modernization of Greater Romania, although it is noteworthy that the Old Kingdom, but also Transylvania, had begun the process at least 50 years earlier. It should also be noted that the context of the modernization process was not the most favorable one at the time of the inclusion of Bessarabia. Romania was then a country that only exited the war, with democratic and institutional traditions still solidifying, whose development took place in the atmosphere of a generalized crisis after a war that profoundly upset all European societies. The process of European-type modernization, with its peculiarities characteristic of the interwar period, entailed in Bessarabia all the features of a contradictory and difficult development.

The very beginning of the process of incorporation of Bessarabia into Greater Romania was deeply marked by what received the name of “export of Bolshevik revolution”, which after 1918 became the first Soviet geopolitical project. In Bessarabia, the beginning of Soviet geopolitics was manifested by the exasperating experience of the Bolshevik rebellions in Tighina, Khotyn, culminating with Tatar-Bunar, in 1924. The Soviet practice of fomenting rebellions inside the county was supplemented by a new geopolitical project, namely the creation of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR). In 1925, Moscow still hoped to conquer Bessarabia through direct military intervention, but in time this policy was provisionally abandoned.

“If someone would like to make an impression about Bessarabia...”

This was the political context of the declaring in Bessarabia of the state of siege and of the “institution of gendarmerie”, with all the excesses that really took place and which were abundantly and ostentatiously publicized by the Soviets and their propaganda. At the same time, the local police were reorganized in the county, with the mention that the police corps was made up of 20% of people coming from the Old Kingdom, the rest were Bessarabians. Through a series of royal decrees and laws on the county, the Romanian legislation and the legal system of the Kingdom of Romania were extended. At the same time, institutional compatibility between Bessarabia and the rest of the country was a difficult process. The officials from the Kingdom hardly accepted to cross the Prut River, and those from Bessarabia, the followers of the old regime, massively boycotted Bucharest’s initiatives and refused to speak any language other than Russian. Under these circumstances, the Romanian administration had to take coercive measures to combat actions to compromise state policies, not infrequently these measures being excessively harsh and with little agility.

In general, Bessarabia was incorporated into Romania in conditions when the county had a predominantly rural population: only 13% lived in urban areas, 87% – in rural areas.

The Romanians lived mainly in villages: out of the 56.2% of the Romanians in Bessarabia, only 31.5% lived in urban areas. The allogeneic preponderance of towns was a reality: even in 1930, 45% of the residents of Chisinau were Jews and 27% were Russians. There was no middle class, and if there was, it was allogeneic. A French diplomat noted, after a visit to Bessarabia in June 1922, that “the population of the towns was purely Russian and Israelite and violently anti-Romanian”. While historian and academician Ștefan Ciobanu warned in 1925: “If anyone wanted to make an impression about Bessarabia by its towns, they would make the most terrible error... The vast majority of towns, which were artificially created by the Russian regime, are at odds with life in the surrounding villages.”

Political and economic aspects of modernization

Despite these peculiarities, the political life of the former Tsarist province changed structurally after the Union. In terms of political modernization, the first elections held on the basis of universal suffrage were held in 1919. The democratic organization of the population – albeit not impeccable – was quite different from under the previous Tsarist regime. Preconditions of political modernization in Bessarabia can be recorded throughout the interwar period. The Constitution of 1923, a fundamental act of European breathing, created favorable preconditions for carrying out the project of modernization of the territory between the Prut and the Nistru according to the norms and criteria of Western liberal democracy, with all the functional limitations characteristic of that era.

In terms of economic development, Bessarabia made obvious progress in the interwar period. If the industrial development of the region during the Tsarist period was mainly related to the colonial way in which this branch was organized – the Bessarabian enterprises were, in fact, annexes of those from over the Nistru, as they were to become after the communist occupation. Their purpose was to process raw materials, which were to be used in industrial metropolises. None of them were practically in the hand of the Romanians. Increased industrial development was seen after 1918. The industrial production at the end of the tsarist period amounted to 250,000,000 lei, while in 1932 already there were 213 factories in Bessarabia, which produced in the amount of 800,000,000 lei.

Agriculture was the predominant element in Bessarabia as 85% of the population lived in rural areas. The agrarian reform of 1921, one of the most radical in Europe, gave the Bessarabian peasants legal property titles, whereas in Soviet Russia, peasants, shortly after taking possession of land, were brutally expropriated and rounded up in kolkhozes. Despite all the crises in the interwar Bessarabian agriculture, the Bessarabian peasants did not experience the tragedy of the Holodomor on the left side of the Nistru, and the supply of the population with food struck the Soviet occupiers who invaded Bessarabia in 1940.

... and a major cultural rise

During 1918-1940, along with a strong political and economic development, Bessarabia experienced a major cultural ascent. A number of general and higher education institutions were opened. Before the Union, in Bessarabia there was no network of educational institutions teaching in Romanian and there was an acute shortage of teachers with the necessary training. After 1918, the number of primary schools in Bessarabia increased suddenly and many teachers came to these schools from all over the country, and the educational project became one of the most successful ones, imprinting on the phrase “school with Romanians” a special significance for a long period, valid even in the 1950-1960s in what the MSSR was to become. In the interwar period, Chisinau hosted the first higher education institutions, when in 1927 the Faculty of Theology of “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi is opened in Chisinau and in 1932 there appeared the Department of Agronomy of the University of Iasi, which turned into the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Iasi in Chisinau. The National Theatre of Chisinau, the Central University Library, the National Museum of History, the Society of Fine Arts in Chisinau and a number of other cultural institutions should be added here.

Soviet propaganda excelled in blaming the so-called forced Romanianization of the Bessarabian population in the interwar period. In reality, Romania was during this period a European democracy according to its time. The case of the Bessarabian press of the period eloquently proved this. A statistical analysis of 1917-1927 shows that there were 58 newspapers in Bessarabia, of which 24 were Romanian and 34 Russian. Of the Romanian ones, 10 were daily newspapers, while of the Russian ones – 32. The Romanian press was “a minority press, when there was only one Romanian daily newspaper for 7 newspapers and three major daily newspapers written in Russian. The explanation is simple. The intervention of the Romanian state cannot be compared in any way with that of the Soviet regime, which suppressed the democratic rights by force.

The only European modernization project of Bessarabia

Only a brief analysis of the development of Bessarabia within Romania proves that the only project of European modernization of Bessarabia in the 20th century was the Romanian one, carried out in the interwar period. It was brutally interrupted by Moscow which, after the Soviet occupation, imposed a distored form of neocolonial modernization, with economic planning and centralized allocation of resources, in its essence aberrant and economically inefficient. In the case of the Republic of Moldova, the Soviet modernization project was supplemented by policies of identity deconstruction, which fragmented Moldovan society, chronically depriving it of the capacity to mobilize internally in the name of sustainable development.

The post-Soviet form of modernization began in the Republic of Moldova in 1991 and continues until today. Its name is Europeanization, but the road proves to be difficult, syncopated and continuously chaotic. The project of European modernization of Moldovan society today involves two ways of its implementation. One way provides for the Europeanization of the Republic of Moldova as a sovereign state, and the second way is deduced as the resumption of the project abandoned in 1940 and means Europeanization within Romania. At the next presidential and parliamentary elections, the Moldovan voters will have the opportunity to choose the path of European integration of the Republic of Moldova, including the temporal dimension of this path.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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