Ethnic polarization in the Republic of Moldova: how to counteract the discourse and actions instigating to division? Op-Ed by Mihai Mogîldea
The ethnic polarization of society and the instigation of division was one of the most widely used tools in recent times. The detention of the general prosecutor Alexandru Stoianoglo at the beginning of October triggered criticism without factual support, which referred to discrimination based on his ethnic criteria of Stoianoglo. These comments, coming from both Stoianoglo and some political decision-makers, aimed to inflame the spirits in the Gagauz autonomous region and redirect the debates in the public space on this subject to a false lead. Both efforts were doomed to failure, with several sporadic protests and political statements by representatives of the region’s leadership.
The Stoianglo case once again demonstrated the incompatibility of the actions instigating to division with current issues of major interest for the Moldovan society, including the Gagauz region. The petty intentions of some political actors, especially from the “left” parties, to polarize the electorate and create barricades within it, have been suppressed in recent years by an inclusive and well-articulated discource by their opponents. The calibration of political debates on internal issues, as well as the development of a collective “immunity” to past electoral scares, have managed to minimize the impact of polarization within ethnic groups. However, in the short and medium term, comprehensive policy efforts are needed to prevent and combat hate speech and division, fueled from within and outside the country.
The old discourse no longer works, but could it be revived?
The results of the last parliamentary elections in July 2021 represent the most conclusive proof of the setback recorded by the theses of the geopolitical vote, focused on the polarization of the electorate. For example, in the Gagauz region, where 95% of the population belongs to ethnic minority groups (Gagauz, Bulgarians, Russians), turnout in the parliamentary elections was about 13% lower than in the first round of the November 2020 presidential elections, and the score obtained by the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS) was about 15% lower. Also, in Chisinau, where 17% of the population belongs to ethnic minority groups and where there was traditionally a wide group of the Russian-speaking electorate, turnout was about 30% lower than in the first round of the 2020 presidential election, and the score obtained by the BECS by more than 15% less than the same ballot. This dynamic has certainly impacted the percentage obtained by the BESC at national level. Even though this electoral contestant actively promoted geopolitical messages, including statements meant to incite hatred and polarization, they did not resonate with their own electorate, which decided to offer them a vote of no-confidence by not going to the polls.
The examples of Chisinau and the Gagauz region essentially demonstrate the opacity and irrelevance of the geopolitical discourse, focused on ethnic division, for the nowadays electoral competition. The causes behind this de facto situation are related to the contested image of the political leaders involved in spreading of these theses, as well as the promotion of distinct agendas of priorities by the main parties of the political establishment. Even in these conditions, the theses of the geopolitical discourse could be relaunched in the near future and carefully inoculated in the public space by exploring strategic issues, such as the gas crisis, but also the vulnerabilities of the current government in terms of domestic policy and interaction with the Russian Federation.
Ethnic polarization is also fueled from the outside
According to a survey published last week by the Institute for Public Policy (IPP), more than 90% of the inhabitants of the Gagauz region and Taraclia district, where predominantly ethnic Bulgarians live, are informed by Russian-language media sources. Moreover, 62% of the inhabitants of these areas have high and very high confidence in the Russian media, and only 38% have the same level of trust in the local media. The most watched TV channels in the region broadcast news programs, talk shows and entertainment shows from the Russian Federation: RTR Moldova, Pervii Kanal Moldova and NTV Moldova.
Taking into account the decisive role of media sources in shaping voting preferences, but also the understanding of social, economic and security phenomena, we can identify among the Russian media one of the catalysts of ethnic polarization in the Republic of Moldova. The Russian media affiliated to the Kremlin regime serves as a screen for the construction of identity, cultural and geopolitical narratives in the Republic of Moldova, which are skillfully exploited internally by political parties supported by the Russian Federation. Through these channels, the scale of the disinformation phenomenon is becoming higher and tends to endanger the national security of the Republic of Moldova.
Solutions to combat discourse and instigating actions to divide
Combating polarization on ethnic grounds requires joint efforts by the Parliament, the Government, the institutions for supervising and monitoring the activity of the media, but also the electoral bodies. Given that the governing act is in the hands of a single political force, there are premises for the development of a broad and realistic approach towards combating ethnic division, starting from the current realities of the Republic of Moldova.
Setting parameters for defining the instigating discourse of division during election campaigns, as well as establishing a tool for monitoring and sanctioning these actions, is imperative. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC), together with Parliament and civil society, should organize a consultation process leading to the establishment of clear rules of the game for all electoral contestants on this dimension.
At the same time, the Audiovisual Council must ensure the effective monitoring and sanctioning of violations committed by radio and TV broadcasters. The legislative framework needs to be adjusted by tightening the current modest sanctions, applied especially during election campaigns. On the dimension of combating disinformation, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova must bring back on the table the introduction of regulations on the rebroadcast of information products from the Russian Federation, taking into account the relevant experience of other states in the region in this field.
Mihai Mogildea is the Team Leader of Europeanization program at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE). He holds a Master of Arts in European Political and Administrative Studies from the College of Europe (Bruges).
This publication was prepared under the project “Cooperation in the Eastern Partnership for a Stronger Democracy: Georgia, Moldova and Armenia”. The project is implemented by the Georgian Institute of Policy (GIP, Georgia, in partnership with the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE, Moldova) and the Analytical Center for Globalization and Regional Cooperation (ACGRC, Armenia).). Down for Regional Partnerships – MATRA for regional cooperation in the Eastern Partnership (EAP).