Many Moldovan deputies voted in favor of the independence of the Republic of Moldova out of fear, but they opposed the unification with Romania, although Bucharest would have agreed to this move, says Bessarabian academician Valeriu Matei. A former deputy in the first Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, Valeriu Matei is the man who drafted the text of the Declaration of Independence, the document that on August 27, 1991, enshrined Moldova’s break with the USSR. In an interview to Veridica, Valeriu Matei discussed the broader context that led to Moldova achieving independence, how the Declaration of Independence left the door open for the unification with Romania, as well as Russia’s leverage in the Republic of Moldova.
VERIDICA: Mr. Matei, this year we celebrate 32 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Moldova. I would like us to look at the broader context surrounding this event and the key moments tied to the drafting and subsequent voting of the Declaration.
Valeriu Matei: Separation from the USSR and breaking the chains of Soviet captivity were the underlying pillars of the election campaign which my colleagues and I fronted on behalf of the Popular Front of Moldova. At the time, I was part of the leadership of this party, also as spokesman.
I have to say that back then we tested the reaction of Soviet central authorities by being the first country to recognize the independence of the Republic of Lithuania. Back in the day, I had the pleasure to go to Vilnius, where I informed the authorities of our decision. A great many things tied us to our Baltic peers – we had attended together conferences linked to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and other political gatherings. We had visited Vilnius a number of times, but we had talked to our Baltic counterparts also on the sidelines of similar conferences in Riga.
Moscow reacted shortly afterwards, and then we voted our Declaration of Sovereignty, whose ultimate goal at the time was not the break with the Soviet Empire, but merely served as a basis for negotiating the so-called New Union Treaty. However, we also voted our opinion on the political and judicial status of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. I recall this was on August 23, 1990, when we voted both the Declaration of Sovereignty as well as the aforementioned opinion on the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and its additional secret protocols.
Moscow issued an ultimatum in the fall of 1990, demanding we repeal these documents under a decree signed by Gorbachev on December 9, 1990. Actually, this decree turned out to be useful, because we used it as a point of reference to secure access to the documents of the Socialist Revolution of October 1917, as well as to military archives, and consult all these documents on the occupation of Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and Hertza Region in June 1940, as well as their annexation over June 28 – November 4, 1940, when northern Bukovina and Hertza became part of Ukraine under a decree issued by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
We subsequently published these documents in four languages. When I obtained access to these documents, I was accompanied by Vitalie Văratec and we went to the Russian archives together. If the photocopier at the Moldovan representative office in Moscow hadn’t broken down, we would have managed to copy the last of these files. The October Revolution archive contained complaints filed by people in Bessarabia and Bukovina who refused to move to Ukraine back then. Two folders in the archive specifically contained documents according to which many settlements opposed their annexation to Ukraine.
The anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991, the final stroke for Moldova’s independence
VERIDICA: How did you come to draft the Declaration of Independence?
Valeriu Matei: Obviously, the process of writing this document and raising public awareness started out with two documents we adopted. The first was the final resolution of the Great National Assembly regarding Moldova’s sovereignty and right to decide its own future, which I had the honor of writing on the night of August 26, 1989. The second was the Proclamation of the second Great National Assembly of December 16, 1990, a document which stipulated Bessarabia’s right to break with the Soviet Empire and reunite with the motherland, Romania.
Our rejection of the 1991 Soviet Union referendum, which Gorbachev called to preserve the integrity of the Soviet Empire, as well as our refusal, jointly with our colleagues from Georgia (former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia) as well as our peers from the Baltic States, to sign and ratify the new USSR Treaty, created the premises for Moldova to break away with the Soviet Empire as soon as the August 1991 coup erupted in Moscow.
The August 19-21 anti-Gorbachev coup somewhat took Moldova by surprise, because it happened during the summer holiday and most members of the Parliament Presidium, which served as the supreme authority in the state apparatus with statutory prerogatives, were off on vacation.
I vividly recall the developments on that day. It was 6 AM when I got a phone call from Alexandru Usatiuc, an old Moldovan activist and political prisoner in the Soviet Union. Together we were working on a sort of “Nurnberg 2” trial against the Communist Party. I was in charge of drafting the texts and building our case due to my expertise as a historian and my knowledge of Bessarabia’s problems and the Soviet communist dictatorship.
He asked what we were going to do with “Nurnberg 2”. I told him, partly as a joke, that we were going to put it off for the time being. I got out of bed and, and together my wife, we embarked on the saga of phoning our colleagues.
We called the officers on duty at the Parliament, but we got no answer. We then phoned the Popular Front headquarters, where the guards were all asleep. I woke them up and told them to man the gates, because anything was possible at this point, including the possibility we could be arrested.
But the putschists had something else in mind. I later phoned Ion Hadârcă, who was the highest-ranking official at the time. He had had an early-morning start that day, leaving with his driver. He hung up, because he was on his way to Sângerei to visit his father who was not feeling well. Only upon arrival did he get wind of coup in Moscow.
We went over to the Parliament, and there were some funny episodes too. Some were very scared. Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But those spur-of-the-moment hours required determination, resolve and nerve. I was the first to get to the Parliament building, but there was no one there.
The first person I managed to get in contact with over the phone was Valeriu Muravschi, the then Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova. Muravschi told me Generals Colesov and Osipov were outside his office, saying that the GKChP had appointed one as military commander of Moldova and the other commander of Chișinău, respectively. They were there to see the Prime Minister.
I told Valeriu Muravschi to tell the Russian generals I had rounded up a group of 5,000 combatants who had fought in Afghanistan and we were on our way to pick them up. That we were going to take them out in the public square and shoot them!
Of course, this was all talk – there were no combatants. But the two generals fell for it and took off. When we reached Valeriu Muravschi, the two generals were no longer there.
Then I went knocking on the doors of other colleagues whom I had phoned to come meet me so we could figure out what we needed to do. Action was required in order to secure certain objectives of strategic importance, such as train stations and airports. I then told Muravschi to call on the Interior Minister and order him to take precautionary measures, since at this point the Russians could have just come and occupy key state institutions.
I then went to the public television’s headquarters to look for Telecommunications Minister Timofei Andros and the head of the public TV broadcaster, who had fled the country. I only found Gheorghe Dan, the director of the public radio, who was scared half to death. He told me he wouldn’t take any decision because he didn’t want to get involved. So we had him replaced, because the heads of these media institutions reported to Parliament.
In the following hours I got in touch with Mircea Snegur’s chief of staff, who also sat on the Parliament Presidium – Ion Borșevici. I told him to come over to the Government, head to the fifth floor, where Presidium members were supposed to meet in order to make decisions and move forward.
It was there, in that conference room, that we laid out the details of our plan. We also drafted a statement we were going to release for the public radio and television broadcasters. Meanwhile, I left instructions and worked closely with Valeriu Saharneanu. We opened up frequencies and started broadcasting around the clock. Some journalists asked me how we would describe the events, and I told them this was a communist military coup.
I wrote up the document, and just as I was wrapping up up, Ion Hadârcă returned from Sângerei. He came up to the fifth floor and I told him that, as the highest-standing official, he was supposed to appear on public television and read the document. He went in front of the cameras on behalf of the Presidium and informed the public Moldova was facing a communist military coup which we needed to quell. We warned all military units to avoid clashes with the civilian population. It was August 20, 1991.
We weren’t the only ones broadcasting 24/7. We also worked closely with radio crews on content programming. The director of the public radio was scared and refused to do anything. I spoke to Vasile Lanciu and we closed down the newspapers of the putschists brought out by the Universul Azi (Universe Today) printing press. Those papers that had already come out of print were discontinued. They included calls of the putschist faction, approved by some guy at Moldova Press who was on duty. He got intimidated so he took them to print. He’s a Democrat heavyweight today, but let’s keep his name out of this, lest he should accuse us of coming out at him, now that he’s an MP. But these are the hard facts. I gave Vasile Lanciu a written order to stop all papers from going to print. Which is what he did, and all newspapers were taken off print.
We kicked off all these actions in the early hours of the morning, just us, the people in the Presidium and Prime Minister Vasile Muravschi. Then we got Mircea Snegur on the telephone. He told us he had phoned Pugo, the Russian Interior Minister, who had asked him “Who do you stand with?”, and Snegur replied: the Presidium.
We then dispatched a special security detail to Serhiivka, where Snegur had been vacationing, to pick him up on his way home.
As soon as he learned about the coup, Mr. Alexandru Moșeanu flew to Chișinău, travelling in the pilots’ cockpit as he hadn’t booked a ticket. At the meeting that evening, I presented them with a document I had written single-handedly. Mircea Snegur told an interview some 10-15 years ago that he had pushed me to fast-track its elaboration. I wrote the document on behalf of the President, the Presidium and Parliament and I addressed it to the entire Moldovan nation. We went out in the public square and from here you know how it all went down. But before that, we had blocked every entry into Chișinău and had installed heavy security at the public television, train stations and the airport. These were all placed under heavy guard, because some military units from Anenii Noi or Ialoveni had tried to enter Chișinău. We stopped them in their tracks and turned them around. We told them we had set up barricades and had armed men and we wanted to avoid bloodshed. The officers gave the order to withdraw, because they weren’t that keen on attacking Chișinău. Therefore, everything unfolded peacefully here, without violence.
As soon as the coup started, our priority was to convene a Parliament sitting. Therefore, on August 21, 1991 we called an extraordinary sitting, and invited all MPs who could attend, because many of them were still really scared as the coup in Moscow was not yet over.
So we weren’t able to add a vote on the declaration of independence from the Soviet Empire to the agenda of that sitting. The text was ready at the time, more specifically the draft of the Declaration of Independence. Many speculated that the text of this document had been drafted on the other side of the Prut River.
We couldn’t do anything on August 21, because the coup was still in full swing, and some were searching their pockets for their party cards. Therefore, the August 21 Parliament sitting amounted to nothing. On August 23, we readied the Resolution and we officially banned the Communist Party of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic.
We then called a Parliament sitting as well as the Great National Assembly in the public square in order to vote Moldova’s separation from the Soviet Union.
Romania would have said ‘yes’ to the unification with Moldova in 1991, but most politicians in Chișinău opposed it
I have heard many people saying we could have unified [with Romania]. Still, a historical event is the product of circumstances and facts and is bound by the balance of power. I have heard countless stories about these events.
As someone who was at the epicenter of it all, I know every detail of what happened, every minute of it. I have a very good memory, so it pains me to see people who back in the day were nowhere to be seen, didn’t pitch in whatsoever, didn’t take to the streets with the rest of the population, but now are posing as an authority on the matter.
The reality of recent events is in particular distorted, as there are those with a keen interest for that sort of thing. But we are still here, and thank God, our memory is intact. Was the unification with Romania possible at the time? No, because we lacked the Parliament majority that would back such an objective!
I am often asked why a majority of 267 deputies voted the Declaration of Independence. My answer: many of them feared for their lives. Part of us, those at the forefront of it all, knew the consequences. But why didn’t the others vote on August 21, 1991? Because the August Coup was still underway in Moscow. Once it was over and the Communist Party had been outlawed, the circumstances had radically changed. Except that, we should recall that on August 18, 1991, the members of the Agrarian Party submitted to the Presidium a resolution signed by the party president, Dumitru Moțpan and the party secretary, Andrei Rusnac, pleading with us to preserve the integrity of the Soviet Union. This was a few days before the coup, and their demand sounded like an ultimatum. Fearing their position, they later voted the Declaration of Independence. But now they don’t seem to remember the demands they had voiced a few days before and how they had “a change of heart” over such a short period of time.
We cannot sweep these things under the rug if we want to see the full picture. To achieve national unification, we needed some 48-50 votes from the Village Life party, which we didn’t have. This faction at the time was controlled by Mircea Snegur. And he didn’t share this objective with us back in 1991. Maybe he’s had a change of heart too in the meantime, but at the time he didn’t feel the way we did.
Romanian leaders were consulted and we need to call things for what they are. No Romanian leader opposed plans to achieve unification. I have heard all sorts of stories, that Snegur was in favor of unification while Iliescu argued against it. These are all “Arabian folk tales”.
We had sent Ion Hadârcă in Bucharest to represent Moldova as first vice-president of the Moldovan Parliament, as well as Nicolae Țâu, the then Foreign Minister, so in case we failed, we could always fall back on them to create a government in exile in Romania. They talked to the head of state in Bucharest and with other leaders of Romania those days. But Romanian representatives negotiated also with Snegur and Alexandru Moșeanu, while talking to us on the side.
Then, Alexandru Bârlădeanu, Romania’s second-highest ranking official, arrived in Chișinău a day earlier than originally planned. Talks were brief and focused on what we could achieve. The meeting also addressed our defense capabilities, in case the Soviet army, spread across the entire territory of the Republic of Moldova and led by General Lebed, would take action against us.
Lebed’s brother was in command of a unit on Vasile Lupu Street, in the very heart of Chișinău. So we discussed all these aspects. But there was no one to vote for in Parliament, although we had surveyed everyone. The Declaration of Independence, which I had the honor of reading, remains in my possession to this day, as do all the other drafts. I don’t want to brag about it, but nor do I want someone else to take all the credit. I will pass on the document to the State Archives in Bucharest, it will be kept safe there.
Perhaps I will also send a copy to Chișinău, but right now I just like to watch all these people who didn’t contribute, who kept their heads down all those days, as they are summoned by special services in the East to Moldova to revisit and distort history as they please. But that’s a different discussion.
The Declaration of Independence “leaves the door open for Romanian reunification”
The Declaration of Independence comprises three parts. An assessment (written in past participle and gerund) of our nation’s milestones and the most notable territories seized by foreign imperial forces. It contains one paragraph that refers to the fact that the March 27, 1918 document remains in force, because it has never been repealed by any legal authority. The ultimatums issued by the Soviets in June 1940 and the occupation couldn’t undo the pro-unification vote of March 27, 1918.
This paragraph was eliminated following debates held on the sidelines of the Presidium meeting of August 26, 1991, which started that day and ended sometime after midnight, without a decision on a final draft. Before leaving, Mr. Moșeanu told me: “Valeriu, my dear, please stay and work on a solution so we can finally adopt the document by morning!”
Everyone was at the end of their tethers. I spent a few hours by the Presidium rostrum, taking notes. I know exactly who said what, the relevant stuff and the nonsense both.
And because the paragraph referring to the March 27, 1918 resolution had been eliminated, I added a phrase inspired by ethnology, which is my primary specialization. It has to do with the ethnogenesis of a people, a nation. So I coined this beautiful phrase: “the right to decide its own future within the historical and ethnic boundaries of its prospective national identity”. What does that mean?
In case you haven’t noticed, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t speak about “the Moldovan people”, but refers to the population as part of the Romanian people and nation. All these concepts are ethnological. But you can read it in a biblical note too, because the Holy Scripture states that the peoples of the world can achieve salvation through unity. The right to forge our own fate within the historical and ethnic boundaries of Bessarabia leaves the door open to Romanian reunification. This should be made clear.
The Declaration of Independence also uses the term “the Romanian language”. It mentions the adoption of the Romanian flag, and is generally conducive of the idea of unification. Therefore, the elimination of the paragraph referring to the 1918 Unification of Bessarabia with Romania led to the creation of this powerful phrase that leaves the door open to the future.
Then there’s the declaration itself, describing the break from the Soviet Empire, which ends with the phrase “So help us God!” All these goals are outlined in a sober tone, reminding the tragedy of the dissolution, our resistance, the Great National Assembly of August 27, 1989 and December 1990, which I had the honor of presiding, as well as other events.
On August 27, 1991, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova ruled that the Romanian language should be the official language of Moldova, which will revert to the Latin script. On December 5, 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that Romanian is the state language of the Republic of Moldova. Why did we have to wait over 30 years for Romanian to be acknowledged as the official language of Moldova, under a Parliament resolution adopted on March 16, 2023? Because of the assimilation and dumbening policies of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union in Bessarabia. I can still see today disciples of the plastographer and plagiarizer Vasile Stati who create websites such as moldova1859.md and other mentally challenged people who deny the existence of the Romanian language, without ever wondering about the name of the first book ever printed on the territory of Moldova – The Homiliary of Vaarlam (“Cazania lui Vaarlam”), written in Romanian.
“The Soviet Empire will never be restored. The only option for the people of Transnistria and Găgăuzia is to join the majority population in Moldova and their European integration efforts”
VERIDICA: Mr. Matei, how would you describe Chișinău’s present-day attitude towards the conflict in Transnistria, because the Declaration of Independence refers to this issue as well. Over 30 years on, neither has Transnistria been annexed, nor have Russian troops withdrawn from the territory of the Republic of Moldova. In the event Ukraine wins the war against Russia, do you believe Transnistria will continue to exist as a breakaway entity?
Valeriu Matei: Transnistria is an enclave occupied by the former 14th Army of the Russian Empire. Under its military protection, the Russians operated a number of allegedly political moves, featuring a number of made-up characters. It is only natural this enclave should be disbanded because it was designed as a last bastion of Soviet power and underdeveloped Soviet socialism in this part of Europe. Transnistria has never seen conflicts of an ethnic nature or any other type.
On March 22, 1992, under a Parliament resolution, we defined this war of aggression of the Russian Federation against the Republic of Moldova. The Russians brought to Moldova a bunch of “Homo Sovieticus” strays, 80% of whom were not indigenous. What exactly could have triggered an inter-ethnic conflict?
Second of all, did Moldova at the time pass any piece of legislation that should encroach on their rights? The Russian language was preserved as a language of communication between all citizens, and it became even more widely spread than the state language. How has the Russian language ever been persecuted?
Russian is also spoken at all levels of state institutions [whereas] there are settlements that the official language of Moldova is not spoken to this day. The bear learns to ride the bicycle in six months, but there are people who are elected and reelected in public office who cannot speak the official language of Moldova. This is not just an expression of contempt, but of interethnic hatred towards this country and its people, the country where they make a living for themselves. Therefore, there has never been a document that would hamper their rights.
That we claimed our right, the right of the majority population, to speak in our mother tongue or use the Latin script – was that a crime? That we wanted to know our true history? Ethnic minorities in Moldova enjoy a plethora of rights, yet over the course of recent years, their representatives resorted to a number of offenses, including blackmail.
Let’s recall the words of Lukyanov, the second-most powerful man in the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, who said that “if you [the Republic of Moldova] unconditionally sign the new USSR Treaty, you’ll do fine. Otherwise, we will create two separatist republics in Transnistria and Găgăuzia”.
And that’s exactly what they did. Moscow wanted to keep us on our toes, humble and silent.
Transnistria and Găgăuzia are artificial constructs of Soviet origin. Some can’t get enough of Soviet nostalgia. The Soviet Empire will never be restored. It’s dead and buried and it will stay that way. The communist regime will never return, no matter how many times they try to bring it back. The only option for the people of Transnistria and Găgăuzia is to join the majority population in Moldova and their European integration efforts, to move towards genuine democracy, not rigged elections staged by Ilan Shor or others like him.
Transnistria is a big thorn in Moldova’s side. Moscow backs this region by any means possible – economic, logistic, military or propaganda. The Russian Federation will disappear as the aggressor, a country that disregards international standards or individual rights. Russia is today a terrorist state led by a KGB apparatchik who no longer answers to reason. There’s no way a country like that can endure, despite being able to sustain itself for a while. All that is built on a lie will eventually crumble.