Our man in Moldova

In courting the country’s most loathed oligarch, the EU and US will only lose the sympathy of ordinary Moldovans. This piece is co-authored with Mihai Popșoi and was originally posted on Open Democracy.

In the midst of the UK referendum to leave the EU, Moldova’s most hated oligarch, Vlad Plahotniuc, put pen to paper. In a recent, stirringly pro-European piece for Politico, Plahotniuc stressed that: “Moldova belongs in the European Union, now more than ever”.

Plahotniuc and his allies have recently become more visible in the west, with several visits to the US and an op-ed by Moldova’s prime minister Pavel Filip in The Hill.

Instability in Moldova is typically explained away by geopolitics, with the country positioned on a rift between the west and Russia. It’s a fear many of the country’s nominally “pro-Western” politicians have readily exploited.

Whatever the the fear of “losing Moldova” to Russia, it cannot justify supporting Plahotniuc, an opportunistic oligarch who is pursuing a policy of unchecked state capture. This policy of appeasement may be a short term victory for the EU and US, but in the longer term will only further erode the already-waning pro-western, and pro-European, sentiment in Moldova.

In July, a sizeable $600,000 contract was signed between Moldova’s Democratic Party, of which Plahotniuc is vice president, and Podesta, a US lobbying firm. Time will tell if it’s paid off.

Whether ordinary Moldovans can afford it is another matter. Financially, Moldova is yet to recover from one of the largest banking heists in history. This event saw $1 billion dollars (15% of the country’s GDP) disappear from the country’s three banks in late 2014.

Whatever the the fear of “losing Moldova” to Russia, it cannot justify supporting the opportunitistic oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc

The heist wasn’t so much the cause of today’s political impasse. Rather, it was a symptom of a much longer crisis, of a system which made such theft possible in the first place.

This banking crisis led to the collapse of two pro-European coalition governments. In February 2016, Vlad Plahotniuc formed a ruling coalition led by Moldova’s prime minister Pavel Filip. This government is highly disliked by a majority of the public, who loath the influence of Plahotniuc — Moldova’s wealthiest and most hated oligarch.

Moldova’s Grey Cardinal

Perhaps readers of Politico should get to know the article’s author a bit better.

Vlad Plahotniuc is widely considered to be Moldova’s wealthiest person. However, the full extent of Plahotniuc’s assets and wealth remains unknown. He owes his financial standing to a privileged position in the inner circle of former Communist President, Vladimir Voronin. However Plahotniuc remained in the shadows of Moldovan politics while building an economic empire through commercial raiding. Moldovan media did not even have a photo of Moldova’s richest man until 2010.

All rights reserved.Once the Communist Party lost power in 2009 and a pro-European coalition emerged from Moldova’s so-called “Twitter Revolution”, Plahotniuc began to appear in Moldovan politics. He was quick to change his allegiances by sponsoring the then-opposition Democratic Party, of which he is now deputy chairman. The oligarch was also instrumental in promoting his protégées in key state offices, including the judiciary and law enforcement.

Coupled with his media empire (he owns Moldova’s main TV channels), Plahotniuc’s influence is now unchallenged. His fortunes rose with the October 2015 arrest of Vlad Filat, Moldova’s ex-prime minister and former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. Filat also happened to be Plathotniuc’s main political and oligarchic rival. After eight months in custody, Filat was convicted in July 2016 to nine years in prison for his connection to the one billion dollar theft.

Coupled with his media empire, Plahotniuc’s influence is now unchallenged 

In July 2016, a Moldovan banker, Veaceslav Platon, was arrested in Ukraine in connection with the banking theft and, despite possession of Ukrainian citizenship, was nonetheless hastily extradited to Moldova. Platon is now in pre-trial detention. This turn of events contrasts to the fate of Ilan Shor, another wealthy Moldovan-Israeli businessman considered the central figure in the banking heist, who was arrested back in 2015, but was then allowed to run for mayor of Orhei, a town not far from Moldova’s capital. He ended up winning with a landslide.

Still, days before Filat’s conviction in July 2016, Shor (who is the main prosecutorial witness in both Filat and Platon’s cases) was re-arrested, only to be released in early August to house arrest, suggesting that Moldova’s authorities are willing to punish some more than others.

Plahotniuc’s friends in the west

Despite being opposed by large popular protests since May 2015, Plahotniuc has gained the support of Moldova’s key partners in Washington and Bucharest, Moldova’s main ally within the EU.

In May 2016, the oligarch visited the US, where his meeting with assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland left many Moldovans flabbergasted. The US ambassador to Moldova had to justify the meeting saying that it was the Moldovans who voted for this government and that the US has to work with it. Even so, Plahotniuc does not currently hold public office. To top it off, the trip wasn’t official — Plahotniuc travelled on a tourist visa.

Diplomatic euphemisms aside, many in the pro-western camp felt disheartened by this display of realpolitik, which seemed an appeasement at best. Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces were quick to seize the opportunity of presenting it as a full-blown endorsement. Russian media even portrayed Plahotniuc’s trip as western interference in Moldovan presidential elections.

Corruption versus realpolitik

This month, Moldova will hold its first direct presidential elections since 1996. However these elections are unlikely to end the political, and economic, crisis that is gripping this post-Soviet state.

According to recent polls, at least three candidates have a real shot at the presidency, Plahotniuc’s protégé, Democratic Party chairman Marian Lupu just behind. The strongest candidate is Igor Dodon, leader of the pro-Russian Socialist Party, who is likely to face a centre-right candidate in the run-offs, unless the right fails to agree on a single candidate and paves the way for a Plahotniuc-backed candidate.

The two main forces on the right are Maia Sandu and Andrei Năstase who are currently dueling to be the single unifying candidate. Sandu, a Harvard-educated and former World Bank employee, is a former education minister and heads the newly created Action and Solidarity Party. Năstase is a protest leader and prominent lawyer who heads the rival Dignity and Truth Platform Party. Sandu has been polling somewhat better than Năstase, but the latter appears unwilling to concede.

If the two fail to agree on a single candidate, the pro-European right would lose more than the presidency. They would also lose the initiative for the next parliamentary elections, where they’ll need to build a competitive pro-European movement to oppose the incumbent government and the surging pro-Russian Socialists.

Moldova’s partners should not turn their back on the country and its people just because a vilified oligarch has outfoxed his opposition and captured power. Instead, Moldova needs stronger incentives to reform via political conditionality.

Unless there is a concerted effort to play good cop, bad cop in Moldova, the US and EU should compare notes more effectively if they want to remain credible as an alternative to Russia in the region.

Enough, Plahotniuc. Enough, Real Politik.

Vladimir Plahotniuc is the executive coordinator of the Moldovan Government Coalition Council and deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Moldova.

Moldova seems in the midst of one of its biggest economic crises, facing a minimum of a $1 billion hole (1/7 GDP) since the largest banking theft in history in 2014. Moldova is also to be in the midst of a political crisis.

And yet we (the EU, EU member-states and the US) are doing nothing but legitimizing those responsible for the crisis. Because of what? A lack of knowledge about Moldova? A commitment to real politik to save Moldova from Russia? Because they talk the language of reform and Europeanization, and dress in expensive, smart suits?

This is paradoxical and counter-productive. Legitimizing thieves, and state captors (i.e. Vlad Plahotniuc), will do nothing but continue to discredit the project of Europeanization further in Moldova. ‘Saving’ Moldova from Russia by entrenching and legitimizing Plahotniuc will not save Moldova from Russia.

It’s time to wise up. It’s time to realise that Plahotniuc is a racketeer, a state captor, a guy who’s held numerous passports in different names and a guy who stayed in the shadows until 2009. Plahotniuc is the most hated oligarch in Moldova and does not hold public office.

As Natalia Morari reported in the New York Times, “Nobody considers Plahotniuc pro-European. He is pro-Plahotniuc and pro-corruption”.

So why are we legitimizing him? 

Presumably because the “Europeanizers”–Moldova’s Democrat Party (pro-Business former Communists)–can afford a $600k contract with Podesta. So, where did this cash come from?

 

Upcoming Research on Moldova: Strategic Citizenship (Princeton) and Europeanization (Bucharest)

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting two new papers on my ongoing research in Moldova:

1. 4 March, New Europe College, Bucharest – Beyond Identity Politics and Geopolitics: Dirty Politics as an Explanation for the Waning of Support for Europeanization in Moldova (with Dan Brett)

This paper seeks to explain why support for Europeanization has waned since the pro-European parties took office in 2009. We dismiss typical explanations in analyses of Moldovan politics — identity politics and geopolitics — in favour of considering domestic party politics. We argue that party conduct has not reformed since 2009 and, rather, has become more kleptocratic. This has toxified the project of Europeanization in Moldova by its association with rent-seeking elites.

25 Years of Moldova’s Independence: A Transition to a Deadlock? Hosted by New Europe College, Bucharest, 4 March 2016
2. 8 March, Princeton: Strategic, Symbolic or Legitimate? Analyzing Engagement with Dual Citizenship from the Bottom-Up

This paper, using the case of Romanian citizenship reacquisition in Moldova, asks why individuals in Moldova acquire Romanian dual citizenship. Using a bottom-up approach, the paper argues for understanding motivations for engagement with kin-state citizenship beyond a strategic-symbolic continuum to consider also a third normative dimension, where kin-state citizenship is constructed as natural and normal and, thus, legitimate. This normative dimension helps to understand engagement with kin-state citizenship, and provides a richer understanding of this engagement than a ‘strategic’ dimension suggest, by demonstrating how ties of legitimacy can bind those to the kin-state irrespective of kin-state identification.

Working Paper: Strategic, Symbolic or Legitimate? Analyzing Engagement with Dual Citizenship from the Bottom-Up

Strategic Citizenship: Negotiating Membership in the Age of Dual Nationality, Princeton University, Whig Hall, March 7-8, 2016

As a Moldovan, it’s not so easy to get Romanian citizenship (and a Romanian/EU passport)

Every so often, a scare article appears in western European media, mostly in the right wing press, claiming that Romania’s citizenship policy in Moldova is allowing thousands to exploit a passport loophole that allows them easy access to live and work in the EU (see Le Monde, Daily Express, Der Spiegel, even BBC News). Just yesterday, with news that Moldova’s access to budget travel was increasing with a tri-weekly WizzAir flight to London, The Sun reported this as evidence that Moldovans, via Romanian passports, were “flooding” to the EU. While this fits into a growing narrative of right wing obsession with EU migration rights, it is also a misrepresentation of the experiences of acquiring Romanian citizenship in Moldova.

Firstly, before Moldovans received EU visa free access in 2014, their access to the EU, and most notably Romania, was highly restricted. Visas were costly and required sums of money in the bank (€500) that were out of reach for most. Romanian citizenship therefore became a pragmatic tool to circumvent restrictions imposed since Romania acceded to the EU in 2007, and travel between Romania and Moldova became much more difficult and costly.

Secondly, Romania does not “give” out Romanian citizenship. It is an application process that can take up to two years, with individuals waiting patiently to receive their invitation to the embassy to be able to file their documents. It is also expensive. Before you can even apply, you have to have documents, that must be in Romanian. This means Soviet era documents have to be translated and transcribed into Romanian; this all costs money. Because Romanian citizenship is “reacquired” from grandparents, and great grandparents, who lost their Romanian citizenship during the Second World War when the Soviet Union annexed the present-day territory of Moldova, these documents also often have to be retrieved from archives. With Soviet policies of deportation, this can make documents, such as grandparents’ birth certificates, particularly hard to locate.

All of this leads to a time-consuming and expensive process, even before the application has been made. With this, consider that Romanian bureaucracy has been over-run by applications. Leading to, among those I interviewed, an average waiting period of 1-2 years. At least until 2012, there’s also a huge back log of applications, held over from when Romanian citizenship reacquisition was suspended (2001-2007), while Romania tried to accede to the EU.

In the eyes of many Moldovans, and the Romanian state, Romanian citizenship is a fair trade for the abuses of the Soviet state to their grandparents, and great grandparents, in Romania failing to act towards a state withdrawing Romanian citizenship from them at the end of the Second World War, and the brutalities of fifties years of Soviet rule.

Romanian citizenship is certainly an attractive thing to have in a world where Moldovans have been pushed to the periphery; it allows the freedom of movement, residence and status as an EU citizen, for individuals, that is seeming further away at a state-level. This is why describing it as a “loophole” is dehumanising by overlooking the experiences of document retrieval, application and the reasons for application which demonstrate that Romania is not simply giving out Romanian passports to Moldovans.

 

This post is based on my thesis research on the experiences and practices of Romanian citizenship in Moldova.

Now *Open Access*: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority?

My recent article for Social Science Quarterly, What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below, is now open access. You can read and download the article freely on SSQ’s website.

Abstract:

This article investigates what kin identification means from a bottom-up perspective in two kin majority cases: Moldova and Crimea. The article is based on ∼50 fieldwork interviews conducted in both Moldova and Crimea with everyday social actors (2012–2013). Ethnic homogeneity for kin majorities is more fractured than previously considered. Respondents identified more in terms of assemblages of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial identities than in mutually exclusive census categories. To understand fully the relations between kin majorities, their kin-state and home-state and the impact of growing kin engagement policies, like dual citizenship, it is necessary to analyze the complexities of the lived experience of kin identification for members of kin majorities and how this relates to kin-state identification and affiliation. Understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

View on Wiley Online Library

Citation: Knott, E. (2015). What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below. Social Science Quarterly, 96(3), 830-859.

The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite

This post was co-authored with Daniel Brett and Mihai Popșoi and posted on LSE’s EUROPP blog.


Thousands of people have taken part in a series of protests in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, with protesters demanding the government’s resignation and early elections over a $1 billion bank fraud case. Daniel Brett, Ellie Knott and Mihai Popșoi outline why the protests are taking place, who the protesters are, and the likely impact on Moldovan politics. They write that while early elections may be the only option to reset the country’s politics, there are no certainties over what the long-term consequences will be for Moldova moving forward.

Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

On 6 September Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, saw the largest civic protests since independence. These protests, where up to 100,000 people took to the streets, were larger than the 2009 protests that brought about the ‘Twitter Revolution’ and the fall of the Voronin government.

The protests in the symbolically important Piața Marii Adunări Naționale (referred to using the Twitter hashtag #pman), the historical site of protest in Moldova, are the result of growing dissatisfaction among the electorate since the revelation in November 2014 of the “heist of the century” with the disappearance of $1 billion (around a seventh of Moldova’s GDP) through the country’s three main banks.

Since the theft came to light, the tripartite pro-European coalition that governs Moldova, holding on marginally through parliamentary elections in 2014, has collapsed and reformed, while also failing to adequately hold those responsible for the banking heist to account. This is likely because they themselves are implicated, if not complicit, in allowing a theft of this size to occur under their watch and have no interest in formally admitting responsibility.

For a country of three million residents, this is a large and significant protest movement which, building on previous Sunday protests since May (numbering 10,000-50,000 protesters), may signify a turning point in Moldova’s political history. However this depends on how far the organisers can capitalise on the momentum of protest, whether protesters can exert enough pressure to instigate dramatic changes such as early elections, and whether they decide to shift from a civic movement to a movement seeking political representation.

Why are people protesting?

Since the November’s 2014 elections, Moldova’s politics has been rocked by the inability to form governments and the selection of weak candidates, first Chiril Gaburici who then in June 2015 resigned, and now Valeriu Streleț, a well-known millionaire. Moldova’s pro-European coalition vetoed stronger, more pro-reform candidates, in particular Maia Sandu, who wanted a fuller investigation of the banking fraud, including the removal of the head of Moldova’s National Bank. She wanted to be able to sanction public institutions, arguing that the scale of public spending cuts had to be supplemented by evidence of greater political sacrifice and accountability.

“Jos Oligarhia” - Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)
“Jos Oligarhia” – Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)

This has taken place against a backdrop of price rises for electricity (37 per cent), gas (15 per cent), and bread (15 per cent) where the average wage remains only around 4,500 lei per month (€216/£153/$240). However, pro-European leaders such as Mihai Ghimpu, head of the minority Liberal Party (PL) within the coalition, rejected Sandu because ‘she would have to come to him, he would not go to her’, reflecting the self-serving arrogance of many of Moldova’s political elite who put their own interests first.

Even before the banking crisis, popular trust in the three parties within the governing coalition – the Liberals (PL), Liberal Democrats (PLDM) andDemocrats (PDM) – was faltering, in particular after the May 2013 crisis between two of Moldova’s political “godfathers” (and oligarchs) Vlad Filat (PLDM and then Prime Minister) and Vlad Plahotniuc (PDM). The pro-European coalition took power in 2009, after the fall of the authoritarian and weakly democratic Voronin government. With the fall of Voronin and his Party of Communists (PCRM), there was hope that Moldova might change direction, both geopolitically towards Europe and the EU and politically, by instituting political and economic reforms of transparency, accountability and political responsibility.

Hence, this protest movement is the culmination of six years of dissatisfaction at elite corruption and arrogance, and now mounting economic shocks, with the banking crisis the final symbol of the current regime’s unwillingness to instigate reforms and clean up politics. However it is important to also emphasise what the protests are not about: namely ethnic politics and geopolitics, typically framed as the dividing cleavages of Moldova’s state and society.

The claims of the protesters are solidly political (elite turnover, early elections, investigation of the banking scandal) and the numbers protesting far outnumber other protest movements, such as pro-Romanian/unification protests that are miniscule (a few thousand) by comparison. Rather, protesters, echoing the appeals of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan “revolution of dignity”, want Moldova to be run differently, hence there has been a marginalisation of pro-unification factions, while their slogans for the movement are ‘city of dignity’ and ‘Moldova without thieves’ (Moldova fără hoți).

While the pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM) supports the protests, their banners are not welcomed on #pman. The PSRM’s leader, Igor Dodon, seems to be sitting on the sidelines, waiting to put some extra pressure should the time come to trigger early elections, if it comes to that. By contrast the Communists, with their waning electoral support, are less forthcoming in their support of the protests and early elections, even if they agree in principle in their dissatisfaction with Moldova’s current direction.

Who is organising the protests?

Aside from the issues motivating the protesters, which come from below, there is a clear organisational force mobilising the protests: the Civic Platform for Dignity and Truth (PCDA). This was established in February 2015 by a group of civil society representatives, mainly associated with the JurnalTV television station, a station established after the 2009 protests. One of the founding members of the Platformdescribed how the protest movement came about from discussing Moldova’s troubles in the country on air at JurnalTV and especially during advertising breaks.

Lawyer Andrei Nastase is viewed as the unofficial leader of the Platform, while Igor Botan, political analyst and director of ADEPT, is its brain trust. Nastase is also the lawyer of businessmen Victor and Viorel Topa, alleged owners of JurnalTV, who themselves have been implicated in conflicts with Plahotniuc, have been convicted for embezzlement, and in 2010 escaped to Germany.

Unsurprisingly, despite generous international media attention, and internet attention within Moldova, the protests enjoy minimal coverage on Moldovan TV, as the main source of news for ordinary Moldovans. Plahotniuc owns the largest media holding in the country and has considerable sway over the public television network. This minimal coverage by Plahotniuc-owned TV has focused on discrediting the PCDA, focusing on its untransparent business relations and the presence of pro-unification activists within the movement.

Who are the protesters?

Thanks to JurnalTV, social media and word of mouth, the 6 September protest rivalled some of the largest political rallies of the past few years, which themselves have required tremendous administrative resources to boost their turnout. By comparison, the PCDA have relied mostly on genuine civic activism. In fact, protesters are so determined that about 100 tents remain overnight throughout the week in #pman.

The protesters are drawn from a wide range of citizens and, unlike in 2009, the protesters are older and from across the country, although most come from Chisinau and the surrounding area. The protesters represent a large cross-section of society, demonstrating it to be a mass movement rather than just disaffected intellectuals. Those in the ‘city of dignity’ are mostly middle aged men and, significantly, Nastase was criticised for sexism after calling for ‘strong men’ to stay at the site.

Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

Thus, while the movement has been orchestrated by the PCDA, there is a story too of a genuine grassroots movement, sustained by those camping, donations of food, money and even refrigerators. The success of the movement is that, in light of the stolen billion, worsening economic conditions and a lack of willingness among the political class to change, many people are enraged and have found a voice in the platform, being drawn to the streets and coming to believe that change is possible, if not imminent.

Despite large numbers and the best efforts by organisers to curb open displays of pro-Romanian nationalism and welcome ethnic minorities into the protest, Russian speakers remain overwhelmingly underrepresented. This could be explained by the existence of a powerful opposition, represented mainly by Igor Dodon’s Socialists and Renato Usatii’s ‘Our Party’, both of which happen to be pro-Russian.

Thus, the protest movement remains largely centre-right, pro-European and pro-western. This limits its mobilisation capacity, appealing largely to the existing electorate of the pro-European parties. It alsocreates fertile ground for conflict rather than cooperation with the left. Indeed, both Dodon and Usatii announced plans for anti-government rallies of their own, hoping to trigger early elections, which they are best positioned to benefit most from.

Civic or political?

Initially, the PCDA appeared to want to remain a civic and “informal organisation”, as argued by Boţan, to maintain its anti-corruption policies. It seemed also to achieve relatively little in terms of the willingness of Moldova’s governing regime to relent to its demands. In fact, Moldova’s Prime Minister, Valeriu Strelet, argued that the political instability caused by the protests could weaken the economy further and jeopardise talks with the IMF, scheduled for 22 September, which might provide a much-needed financial lifeline. Indeed the government also made awkward moves to undermine the protests by temporarily suspending price hikes of gas, electricity and bread.

However, inspired by the daily return of people to #pman, notably on Sunday 13 September, the PCDA have signalled their willingness to transform into a political movement and form a shadow government. Yet the faces of key actors that might help such a transformation remain hidden, most notably the highly popular Maia Sandu, whose opportunity to become Moldova’s Prime Minister was vetoed by the minority coalition partners back in July 2015. She has voiced support for the PCDA, joining its Council. Should she become more visible within the movement, then the PCDA could become much more politically significant.

The outlook for Moldovan politics

Early elections may be the only option to reset how Moldova is governed. However there are neither guarantees that the discredited current elite would return nor that the pro-Russian Socialist opposition could reap the benefits of a protest movement that appeals only to pro-European voters. The PCDA are choosing to ignore these risks and, by signalling they may be willing to establish a political arm, they have demonstrated that they may be serious in their aim to hold the current pro-European elite to account by taking the protests from the street into the political arena.

The concern therefore is how far the movement can crystallise its political arm. Assuming it is established,how it emerges will prove critical, and whether it is joined by reformers like Sandu. This will reveal also whether it is a genuine outpost of public discontent, that wants to change the way Moldovan politics is run, or whether it is a carefully orchestrated proxy war among Moldova’s two godfathers – Filat and Plahotniuc. If it is the latter, this is a path, potentially, towards mutually assured destruction and continued political instability.

The protests also challenge the idea that Moldovan politics is dominated by the ‘east vs. west’ debate, demonstrating yet again that issues of domestic politics, in particular corruption reform, should be Moldova’s most fundamental policy objectives. This is important not only to win international funding from agencies that are hesitant to invest “through the front door while there is a risk of even larger sums of public money being lost out of the back door”, but also to eek back the faith, and lost hope, of Moldovan society in politics and the (lack of) investment of Moldova’s elite in the future of the country.

New Publication: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below

I’ve just published an article in the September 2015 issue of Social Science Quarterly analysing kin identification from the bottom-up in Crimea and Moldova, based on fieldwork interviews that I conducted in 2012 and 2013. The article is part of a special issue in Social Science Quarterly which investigates the New Frontiers in the Comparative Study of Ethnic Politics and Nationalism.

In the article, I analyse the phenomenon of kin majorities, which I define as kin communities that comprise a local majority in the state or sub-state in which they reside and are claimed by an external state. I argue these kin majorities to be more fractured than expected, where respondents do not identify with neat mutually exclusive census categories, but instead in terms of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial forms of identification. For example in the Moldovan case, I find multiple ways of combining being Moldovan and/or Romanian, while in Crimea, I find multiple ways of being Ukraine, Russian and/or Crimean.

Overall, I argue both for a bottom-up approach to analyse kin-state relations where it is necessary to unpack how individuals identify with their home-state and kin-state, and how these identifications can be reinforcing or in competition. Moreover, understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

An ungated pdf of the article is available here.


Knott, Eleanor (2015) “What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below”, Social Science Quarterly, 96(3): 830–859. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12193

Researching Moldova: the Everyday Politics of Identity / Cercetând Moldova: Politicile de Identitate Cotidiene

Articolul e in limba romana de mai jos.


I first came to Moldova in 2008 to conduct research for my undergraduate dissertation. I was, and remain, fascinated by Moldova and its politics and culture, its mix of Soviet and Romanian history and its welcoming atmosphere. I was fascinated too by the lack of knowledge and understanding in the West about the state.

Shortly before my first visit I remember reading Stiglitz’s book, Globalization and Its Discontents, where Stiglitz discusses the lack of streetlights in Moldova as a sign of poverty. It came as some surprise, arriving in Chisinau late at night, that there was in fact street lighting. In this sense, my motivation for researching Moldova comes from trying to improve understanding about a state and society that is too often described in overly simplistic terms: either as the “poorest country in Europe” or as torn between east vs. west.

I was able to return in 2010, 2012 and 2013, again to conduct research, each time witnessing a very different political climate from previous visits. I witnessed the transition from PCRM and Voronin’s government to the Alliance for European Integration, and the increasing apathy, if not antipathy, towards the “hungry wolves”, aka the pro-European political elites.

Everyday Identity Debates in Moldova

But politics, for me, and my interest in conducting political science research (now for my PhD research at the London School of Economics), have always been much more than about studying political elites and institutions. I’m more interested in everyday politics and, in particular, everyday dimensions of identity and ethnicity debates. I think this too is reflected by Moldovan society, in the visibility of these debates in everyday life, not least in the street art on the streets of Chisinau: “who are we?”, “we’re Moldovan”, “we’re Romanian” and “Bessarabia is Romanian land”.

Starting from an awareness of the complexity of identity debates, my interest was to collect data to gather insights on how people define themselves and why they identify in these ways. In particular, I argue that censuses and sociological surveys in Moldova have (deliberately) overlooked these complex debates, requiring individuals to align with mutually exclusive categories (e.g. Moldova, Romanian or Russian) without considering, I think deliberately, the way in which these categories fail to capture what’s really going on: that there are individuals:

  1. who feel Romanian,
  2. who feel both Romanian and Moldovan,
  3. who feel only Moldovan,
  4. who don’t know how to feel…

Fascinating too has been discovering how identity can work, and be disputed, within families and across generations, where the younger, more Romanian-identifying, post-Soviet generation, want to re-educate their more Moldovan-identifying parents who grew up during the Soviet Union. Yet, regardless of how people identified ethnically, what remains fascinating for me is the extent to which this reinforced by strong ties to Moldova, as a state and as home.

Looking Beyond Identity Debates in Moldova

Identity, culture and language have clearly been a topic of intense debate in post-Soviet Moldova but, paradoxically, I also think identity has dominated Moldova’s post-Soviet politics too much. It’s an important part of the story that many people in Moldova don’t want to talk about identity and don’t need to talk about identity. It might matter for a few what the official language of the state is but for others, it’s just politics: on the everyday level, they can speak whatever language they want.

Identity debates also structure Moldova’s political schema, defining party politics. This masks how far political parties are actually clientelistic networks, built on personal relations, that make parties into wealth and power machines, while disconnecting them from having to appeal to electorates beyond the politics of popularism and symbolism: pro-EU vs. anti-EU. This dominance of identity debates has allowed the political elite to focus on symbolic and geopolitical questions at the expense of political and economic reform.


Am venit pentru prima dată în Moldova în 2008 pentru a efectua o cercetare pentru teza mea de licență. Am fost și rămân fascinată de Moldova și politica și cultura sa, de amestecătura de istorie sovietică și de atmosfera sa primitoare. Am fost fascinată, de asemenea, de lipsa de cunoștințe și înțelegere despre acest stat în vest.

Îmi amintesc că la scurt timp după vizita mea am citit cartea lui Stiglitz, Globalizarea și neajunsurile ei, în care Stiglitz disccută despre lipsa de iluminare stradală în Moldova ca semn al sărăciei. Am rămas surprinsă, atunci când am ajuns noaptea târziu în Chișinău, că există de fapt iluminare stradală. Din acest punct de vedere, motivația mea pentru cercetarea Moldovei vine din încercarea de a îmbunătăți înțelegerea despre un stat și o societate care este adesea descrisă în termeni simpliști: fie ca “cea mai săracă țară din Europa” sau ruptă între est și vest.

Am avut posibilitatea să revin în 2010, 2012 și 2013, din nou să efectuez cercetări, de fiecare dată fiind martoră la un climat politic foarte diferit. Am fost martoră la tranziția de la PCRM și guvernul lui Voronin la Alianța pentru Integrare Europeană și la apatia crescută, dacă nu chiar antipatia, față de “lupii flămânzi”, adică elitele politice pro-europene.

Dezbaterile Identitare Cotidiene în Moldova

Însă politica, pentru mine, și interesul meu în efectuarea cercetărilor în științe politice (acum pentru doctorat la London School of Economics), au fost întotdeauna mai mult decât studiul elitelor și instituțiilor politice. Sunt mai interesată de politica cotidiană și, în particular, dimensiunile cotidiene ale dezbaterilor de identitate și etnie. Cred că asta e reflectat în societatea moldovenească, în vizibilitatea acestor dezbateri în viața de zi cu zi, și nu mai puțin în arta stradală din Chișinău: “cine suntem?”, “suntem moldoveni”, “suntem români” și “Basarabia Pământ Românesc”.

Începând cu o conștientizare a dezbaterilor identitare, interesul meu a fost să colectez date despre modul în care oamenii se definesc pe ei înșiși și de ce se identifică așa. În particular, argumentez că recensământele și sondajele sociologice din Moldova au omis (intenționat) aceste probleme complexe, obligând indivizii să se alinieze în categorii mutual exclusive (de exemplu moldoveni, români sau ruși) fără a lua în considerare, cred eu intenționat, modul în care aceste categorii eșuează să reprezinte ceea ce se întâmplă cu adevărat: că există indivizi:

  1. care se simt români,
  2. care se simt atât români cât și moldoveni,
  3. care se simt doar moldoveni,
  4. care nu știu cum să se simtă.

A fost fascinantă, de asemenea, descoperirea modului în care poate funcționa identitatea, și cum poate disputată în familii și între generații în care generația tânără, post-sovietică, care se identifică mai des ca română, vrea să reeduce părinții lor care se identifică ca moldoveni și care au crescut în perioada Uniunii Sovietice. Totuși, indiferent de modul în care oamenii se identifică etnic, ceea ce rămâne fascinant pentru mine este măsura în care asta e consolidat de legături puternice în Moldova, ca stat și acasă.

Privind Dincolo de Dezbaterile Identitare în Moldova

Identitatea, cultura și limba au fost în mod clar un subiect de discuții intense în Moldova post-sovietică, însă, paradoxal, cred că identitatea a dominat politica Moldovei post-sovietice prea mult. Este o parte importantă a poveștii că mulți oameni din Moldova nu vor să vorbească despre identitate și nu au nevoie să vorbească despre identitate. Poate conta pentru unii care este limba de stat, însă pentru alții asta e doar politică: la nivel cotidianm pot vorbi orice limbă vor.

Dezbaterile identitare de asemenea structurează schema politica a Moldovei, definind politicile partidelor. Asta maschează cât de tare partidele politice sunt de fapt rețele clientelare, construite pe relații personale, care transformă partidele în mașinării de bogăție și putere, deconectându-le de la necesitatea apelului la electorat dincolo de politica populismului și simbolismului: pro-UE și anti-UE. Această dominare a dezbaterilor identitare a permis elitei politice să se concentreze pe întrebări simbolice și geopolitice în detrimentul reformei politice și economice.


Eng: This article follows from a recent article published by Eleanor Knott in East European Politics and Societies: Eleanor Knott (2015) Generating data: studying identity politics from a bottom-up perspective in Crimea and Moldova, East European Politics and Societies, 29:467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047 [ungated pdf].

RO: Eleanor Knott este un candidat la doctorat (așteptat în 2015) în științe politice la Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science. Teza sa explorează politicile românești și rusești în Moldova și Crimea printr-o perspectivă de jos în sus, folosind abordarea naționalismului cotidian. Interesele sale mai largi de cercetare includ studiul întrebărilor științei politice în zona post-sovietică de jos în sus, folosind tehnici ale etnografie politică, inclusiv identificarea, cetățenia și politicile de educație, pentru a studia relațiile stat-societate dintr-o perspectivă internațională.

Acest articol urmează un articol recent publicat de Eleanor Knott în East European Politics and Societies: Eleanor Knott (2015) Generating data: studying identity politics from a bottom-up perspective in Crimea and Moldova, East European Politics and Societies, 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047 [ungated pdf].

Identity politics and kin-state relations from the bottom-up in Crimea and Moldova

In 1991, Moldova declared itself an independent state as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the recognised Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed by Russia. Here, Eleanor Knott discusses identity politics and kin-state relations in Moldova and Crimea, and writes that in order to understand what ethnicity and citizenship mean in the context of people’s everyday lives, bottom–up, people-centered research is crucial, yet underutilized.

I recently contributed to a special issue, “Whither Eastern Europe? Changing Approaches and Perspectives on the Region in Political Science” which explores the disciplinary relationship between political science and Eastern Europe as an area studies region, 25 years after the collapse of Communism. In my article, I argue that political science needs to engage more with an everyday, people-centred bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down state-centred and institutional approach. In particular, I argue kin-state relations research, which analyses relations between states and external co-ethnic communities, has predominantly analysed these relations and tensions from the perspective of the states involved. This has overlooked the bottom-up perspective of kin-state relations, in terms of what it means to identify as a member of a kin community, i.e. a community claimed by an external (kin-)state as co-ethnic.

This article was drafted, following the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea and Moldova in 2012 and 2013, in the months preceding the height of the Euromaidan violence in Kyiv when Crimea remained an autonomous region of Ukraine. Since then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has unalterably shape post-Soviet politics and relations between post-Soviet states and Russia, and Russia, the EU and US. In this sense, the main argument of the article became the importance of studying bottom-up politics, engaging people who live in these contexts, not just to put people back into political science but also offer a point of reflection in a period of shifting political and geopolitical contexts.

Political science and identity politics from the bottom-up

In a simplistic sense, political science typically follows a neo-positivist goal of trying to measure political phenomena and establish causal relations between these phenomena to explain political outcomes. Contrastingly, interpretivism, the approach I use, is concerned with the meanings, experiences and plurality of interpretations, built on recognising subjectivity of these experiences, meanings and interpretations. While positivists might conduct surveys to verify, deductively, their ideas about the world (e.g. ethnic group membership), interpretivists can turn these identity categories on their head, question the mutual exclusivity of these identity categories and find out how individuals identify, how they experience these forms of identification, how they explain these identifications and why they identify in different ways.

Applying this bottom-up approach to identity politics, I argue the bottom-up perspective of identity politics is vital to understand how taken-for-granted concepts, like ethnicity and citizenship, function in everyday life. In particular, I criticise censuses as dominant a way in which identity is conceived, measured and analysed, by providing overly ascriptive and mutually exclusive categories, which indicate more about the way the state and regime conducting the census conceive of ethnicity than about those answering censuses.

In particular, post-Communist regimes have politicised censuses, both in the way regimes, such as Ukraine and Moldova, conceive of identity and try to measure it, to bolster the legitimacy of the regime. It may be significant that Crimea was a region that reported a majority identifying as ethnically Russian (58%) and speaking Russian (77%) in Ukraine’s 2001 census. However this indicates little about what itmeans to be Russian in Crimea, what relations are with Russia or the dynamics of ethnic identification in the post-Soviet period (i.e. where it has been well over a decade since a previous census). In this context, these regimes have struggled to conduct regular censuses, both in terms of the cost and the politicised context in which these censuses are conducted and their results interpreted.

Crimea and Moldova from the bottom-up

To circumvent the problems of existing data, and to collect more context-rich research exploring the meanings and experiences of kin identification, I conducted fieldwork with everyday citizens, such as students, in Crimea and Moldova between 2012 and 2013. In this sense, I was interested to analyse if individuals identified as Russian (in Crimea) and Romanian (in Moldova), how they identified as Russian or Romanian, as opposed to other identifications (e.g. Ukrainian, Crimean, Moldovan) and why they identified in this way.

The data I gathered showed identification in both cases to be highly diverse, according to different individual explanations of identification in terms of language, culture, history, territory and political affiliation. This data, conducted from a people-centred perspective, allowed me to challenge existing framings of both cases, whether Crimea as a homogenous region of pro-Russian nationalist and separatist sentiment before annexation in 2014, and a challenge to kin-state narratives, that want to frame Crimea as homogenously Russian, Russian speaking, and hence supportive of Russian nationalism, and eventually annexation.

In Moldova too, I was able to explore the relationship between being Romanian and being Moldovan, identities that are variously conceived (by Romania) as co-terminous or oppositional (by the Soviet Union). Rather I demonstrated a diversity of opinions between those who conceived of themselves as naturally Romanian, because of their language and “blood”, to those who negotiated these identities, pitching being Romanian as different because it meant more European.

The Benefits of a Bottom-up Approach for Post-Soviet Political Research

In political science, context-rich and specific, bottom-up interpretive approaches have been (unfairly) labelled as soft, unscientific, nonempirical and not really political science. However, empirically, I argue the approach I used in this research offers an important perspective for challenging the dominant framings of these cases. More theoretically, I argue it is important to challenge how identification is conceived within political science, not as something mutually exclusive that can be measured by separate census categories, but as something worth exploring from the perspective not only of how but also why, by gathering data about experiences, personal, familial, political and educational, that individuals used to construct identity narratives. The challenge is to frame and design interpretive research to ensure standards of rigour and transparency, for example by making interview questions available, while not reproaching interpretivism for not generating generalizable or representative findings, when the intention is to derive context-specific research, whether in a single case or a comparative context.

Beyond identity politics and kin-state relations, I argue the bottom-up everyday approach is an overlooked and under-utilised approach in political science. This approach has the potential to enrich understandings of other processes and phenomena too, such as democratization and Europeanization, by encouraging researchers to go further in to the “gray zone” of politics, away from state-centred formal institutional approaches, towards studying the informal practices and everyday experiences of politics. This may also be the pursuit of anthropologists but political scientists too should be concerned with collecting data that probes, and challenges, informal and everyday experiences of politics, whether in post-Communist states and societies and beyond.


This blog summarises the main conclusions from a recent article I published in East European Politics and Societies: Eleanor Knott (2015) Generating data: studying identity politics from a bottom-up perspective in Ukraine and Moldova, East European Politics and Societies, 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047 [ungated pdf].

This article was originally posted on LSE Government Department’s blog.

New Publication – Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova

A bit excitedly, my first publication was just published in the May 2015 issue of East European Politics & Societies. The article is part of a special issue, following a workshop on “Whither Eastern Europe?” at the University of Florida at the beginning of 2014. My article, Generating Data Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, argues for a bottom-up approach to political science, in particularly to political studies of ethnicity and citizenship, by trying to understand what these concepts mean in the context of people’s everyday lives.

The article first introduces the methods of political ethnography and bottom–up interviews by discussing how they can be applied and their value within political science. The paper uses data gathered from interviews in Moldova and Crimea (when it was still a de jure and de facto part of Ukraine) to demonstrate the value of this approach. It shows how interview data can add significantly to the understanding of kin-state relations within political science by adding a richness of context and a bottom–up perspective that quantitative and elite-level interviews fail to provide. Lastly, the paper draws on experiences gained from research design to discuss how bottom–up research in political science can be conducted rigorously.

The article argues that this bottom-up approach can deepen the understanding of identity politics and kin-state relations or, more broadly, important post-communist questions such as democratization and Europeanization. In particular, in the article, I reflect on the context when this article was originally drafted, when violence on the Euromaidan was in its infancy, and re-drafted, following Crimea’s annexation. In this way, we have to keep studying everyday politics, to challenge and, as Michael Bernhard and Krzysztof Jasiewicz describe, “to confront conventional wisdom on the Ukrainian crisis with the reality on the ground” and realities elsewhere that can, and may shift, dramatically.


You can read the article on the article on EEPS page or read an ungated pdf here.

Citation: Knott, E. (2015) Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, East European Politics & Societies, May 2015 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047.