*The idea of a referendum and how it can be changed from a democratic into an anti-democratic instrument has recently become the subject of discussion for many people, including experts, sociologists, journalists and politicians.
By Dr. Argentina GRIBINCEA
The fact that this problem is an important one today is shown even by the Recommendation 1704 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: Referendums: towards good practices in Europe (2005). In the press and also in scholarly studies, there are references that some regimes are using plebiscites in order to “aneasthetize civic consciousness”. It is a device largely used in the totalitarian states, especially in the post-Soviet ones, as many authors emphasize: “In the former Soviet countries or in the African ones, the referenda conducted by the incumbent regime as a rule resulted in the validation of already taken decisions and in the further weakening of fragile democracies. The appeal to the divided and politically inert nation can result in the extension of number of mandates permited to the heads of states or in the changing of the fundamental law on the basis of suggestions made by the head of the state. The crisis of the rule of law can be made worse by this practice of unfree referenda” or: “The most dangerous attack on democracy comes, strangelly enough, from one of the most democratic devices: the referendum”. The examples can continue.
The Association for a Participative Democracy from the Republic of Moldova has been writing since 2003 about the undermining of the election process in the Republic of Moldova:”A tradition has already been established that the referenda can take place only if it is favourable to the governments”.
Two events from the recent history of the Republic of Moldova can confirm these opinions of various commentators. This article must be understood as an attempt to look beyond the official declarations, an attempt inspired by the curiosity to observe certain tendencies and by the supposition that we are attending to a confiscation of democracy. And this is done by misusing the most important values of democracy.
Undoubtedly, the referendum is an efficient practice for the voicing the public opinion, but only if it takes place in a democratic framework and ensures citizens’ rights to information and free expression. Another precondition, an elementary one, is the formulation of questions according to scientific rules, which first of all means clarity in drafting the text and avoiding the ambiguities. The analysis of the conditions in which the recent Transnistrian referendum took place, leads to the inevitable conclusion that its results can not be considered valid. Various observers and political analysts such as Oazu Nantoi, Igor Botan, Stefan Uratu etc stated their opinions in this respect. The OSCE, the United States, Ukraine, Romania, France, Turkey and the European Union refused to recognize the results of this referendum, mentioning deficiencies in the conduct of the referendum, including the “suggestive character of the proposed questions” (Karel de Gucht; Louis O’Neill) . Only the representatives of the Kremlin had a favourable opinion about this event. According to the INFOTAG Agency, which quotes the Russian press, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Serghei Lavrov, considers that the referendum took place “respecting all proceedings, and in a democratic and open way”.
Political commentator Igor Botan makes a detailed analysis of the conditions in which the Transnistrian referendum was held and of the manipulative methods that were used. For example, referring to the way in which the questions were formulated, Igor Botan wrote: “the two questions which were proposed for the referendum are, in fact, four. Mentioning the first question, an elementary exercise emphasizes the fact that the way of formulating: „Do you support the course of independence of the Transistrian Moldovan Republic and the subsequent free joining of Transnistria to the Russian Federation?” – induces automatically and extra-answer: the consent for the subsequent free joining to the Russian Federation, which automatically becomes an imperative for the separatist authorities. Thus, the option for Transnistria’s independence without its subsequent joining to the Russian Federation is eliminated.
The alternative question „Do you consider rejecting the independence of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic and subsequently becoming part of Moldova?” also denies the need of existence of Transnistria. An eventual positive answer to this question, like an eventual positive answer to the first question, annuls the need of existence of „independent Transnistria”. The second part of the question on Transistria’s integration into Moldova is needless, but it was necessary from reasons of symmetry in order to justify the second part of the first question. Of course, Transnistria is part of Moldova, a fact admitted inclusively by „the only supporter of Transnistria” – the Russian Federation”.
Those who remember the Public Opinion Poll “Council with the people” from March 6, 1994 would have noticed that the poll had the same imperfections, including an unrigorous style with an obvious intention “to bewilder” the respondent, it took place in thw same undemocratic conditions: the population’s fear of the presence and aggression of the Russian army illegally stationed on the left bank of the Nistru (Dniester), the Moldovenist ideology promoted by the officials from Chisinau, an ideology which is associated with the Stalinist period), the lack of an efficient institutional framework for exercising human liberties and rights, etc.
Here it is the text of the question proposed by the Moldovan government on 6 March 1994: “Are you for the Republic of Moldova to develop as an independent and integral undivided state within the borders recognized on the day when the sovereignity of Moldova was proclaimed (23.06, 1990), to promote a policy of neutrality, maintain mutually advantageous economic relations with all countries of the world and to guarantee all citizens equal rights, according to the norms of international law?” (see The Report No. 4/94 of the OSCE Mission in Moldova). As it can be seen, the sentence contains, in fact, six questions, to which only one answer is requested. The method that was used was the same as in the recent „referendum” in Transnistria.
It is interesting that on that occasion, the OSCE had nothing to object to the unprofessional formulation of the questions, as well as to the undemocratic atmosphere in which the poll took place. From the above-mentioned report of the OSCE Mission, we can also find out that the turnout for „the presidential public opinion poll on 6 March 1994 regarding the integrity and independence of Moldova was slightly over 75 per cent”. Moreover, the OSCE report says that this percentage is high „when bearing in mind that the opposition boycotted the poll and participation from Transnistria was negligible. The yes-vote was 95.4 percent. The poll confirmed the political trend against union with Romania as already revealed by the results of the parliamentary election”. I do not know who could have read between the lines of that fuzzy question that it was referring to the unification with Romania. On the contrary, the text seemed to refer to the recently “frozen” Transnistrian conflict at the time and also to the separatist tendencies of the region from the left bank of the River. The questions of the Public Opinion Poll “Council with people” could not have any relation with the problem of unification with Romania. And this was not only because there was not any official unification proposal of the Republic of Moldova (or of the part between the Prut and the Dniester) with Romania and no public discussion at the level of entire society on that topic, but also because the survey was organized in a period in which the term of “Romanian language” was forbidden on the state television, the Romanian press in Moldova was not independent (it was confronted with significant financial, bureaucratic and political problems), and Moldovenist ideology had become the “state ideology” of the Republic of Moldova. In order to understand how dangerous this ideology is, it is enough to mention that this has brought about a real witch hunt in the Chisinau press, in which the Bassarabian writers who used to publish books in Romania were punished for their “unpatriotic” gesture and considered a kind of “enemies” of the Moldovan people. This was followed by an anti-Romanian campaign the climax of which can be considered Ion Morei’s speech delivered at ECHR, on 2 October, 2001, or Viktor Stephaniuk’s famous statements about Romanians.
In conclusion, there are more similarities between these two so-called referenda, the most obvious of which is the ambiguity of the socio-political context in which the two simulations of public surveys took place and the added confusion of the population upon which the organizers have relied, ignoring the necessity of an institutional framework for pre-referendum debates. It is certain that a referendum that does not clarify anything may be very helpful for some politicians who are unable to govern through democratic means. For example, the results of the 1994 Public Opinion Poll were used by some politicians as a pretext to promote an anti-Romanian policy, a declarative-chauvinistic one, as a substitute for a genuine reforms (e.g., the kind of reforms which helped the former Baltic republics to join NATO and the EU). Nevertheless, the Transnistrian referendum will provide the leadership from Tiraspol a pretext to continue its secessionist, anti-Moldovan policy (and, implicitly anti-Romanian) up to the present, and for Russia to follow its imperialistic policy. It will be done by sacrifying the interests of the population fed up with slogans. If we also take into account the fact that these “referenda” (here I can also mention the proposed referendum in the South Ossetia) are used by Russia to manipulate world public opinion, asking that these regions with conflicts that it has provoked be treated in the same way as Montenegro and Kosovo, then the picture appears in collossal dimensions due to the Russian apetite. The issue is whether in the end the effort of giving up the methods from the Soviet era and learning democracy would not be less expencive. And here we can invoke again the example of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
 Recommendation 1704 (2005). Referendums: towards good practices in Europe, Assembly debate on 29 April 2005 (16th Sitting) (see Doc. 10498, report of the Political Affairs Committee, rapporteur: Mr Elo).
Text adopted by the Assembly on 29 April 2005 (16th Sitting).
 Ioan Stanomir, Referendum and Democracy, in 22 Magazine, 4 August-10 August 2006.
 See Subminarea integrităţii procesului electoral, 17 January 2003,
 Ion Santu, Visions and Political Interests, Sovereign Moldova, 23 January, 1996.