As Goes Moldova . . . The dangers of government monopolies in Eastern Europe

By Dave Kopel and Dennis Polhill, Independence Institute

9/11/00 12:05 p.m., National Review Online. Also by Kopel on (pre-independence) Moldova: Communist Gun Control. Gun control in Rumania and the rest of the Warsaw Pact. In italiano.

Can Eastern Europe stay free, or will it relapse into totalitarianism? Dangerously close to the brink is Moldova, whose four million mostly agricultural people occupy a land mass between Romania and Ukraine. Independent since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova is now beginning to see the dangers of government monopolies — as a parliament with monopoly power within the government takes the first steps towards creating a monopoly of force for the government.

Independence meant the immediate outlawing of the Communist party, and with no intervening election the Parliament wrote the new constitution on behalf of the newly free people. The document adequately borrowed a reasonable list of individual rights from other nations, but reserved unilateral power unto the Parliament to approve constitutional amendments. The fatal flaw of assuming perpetual Parliamentary virtue is becoming evident.

In a republic, branches of government must be separate and equal. The tension between branches is natural and healthy to make checks and balances work. But frustration easily turns to oppression when one branch controls the constitution.

In a non-binding national referendum in 1999, President Petru Lucinschi received public support for enlarging presidential powers. Ignoring national sentiment, Parliament in mid-August 2000 amended the constitution, effectively eliminating the presidency — and thereby eliminating a check on parliamentary power. The previously popularly elected president will henceforth be selected by Parliament. The popular Lucinschi would likely have won re-election in December 2000, but now stands virtually no chance of being chosen by Parliament.

Formerly a staunch Communist, Lucinschi argues that the constitution should be the people's document: "Only the people have the right to decide the form of governance." And, "We cannot announce democracy and manipulate it from Chisinau [the capitol]". Lucinschi's born-again experience has yet to be shared by former Communists in Parliament. The prospect of lapsing into totalitarianism seems real.

In a not unrelated move, Parliament on August 21 gave citizens possessing firearms six months to register their weapons. Registration in the six-month period includes amnesty from criminal punishment for not complying with previous registration laws. Registrants must pay a tax of 98 lei for registration itself and 30 lei for the ballistics test and record-keeping. This is close to $10, which is about two weeks pay. Current government registration records show Moldovans owning guns at the rate of slightly more than one gun per person; but the supply of unregistered firearms is considered enormous.

Notwithstanding the Criminal Code, registrants will not be required to explain where they got their guns. Presumably, many of the unregistered guns entered the civilian market after being stolen from some army, or as part of the thriving black market that pervades the Balkans.

Moldovans are not allowed to own machine guns, handguns, or grenades, and the Ministry of the Interior is paying 500 lei for each surrendered submachine gun, 200 lei for a pistol, 100 lei for a grenade. Since many of the ex-military guns are automatic battle rifles, Moldovans who wish to retain these arms have no choice but to hide them from the government.

Although the amnesty for unregistered guns will end in six months, many cautious Moldovans will make sure that, regardless of the legal risks, they keep an unregistered gun or two at home.

Older Moldovans remember the 1949 "despaisantment" movement to force collectivization of farming. The kulaks (land owners) just disappeared one night. Some were murdered, and others sent to gulags. After many years in Siberia before returning to Moldova, the victims of communism may not tell their children to "just trust the government."

Those too young to recall despaisantment do recall the Transdniester Civil War of 1992 that left 1,500 dead and demolished the major east-west land transportation route between Spain and Turkey. The part of Moldova east of the Dniester River, Transnistria, prefers either independence or annexation with Ukraine over being part of the more ethnically-Romanian Moldova. Hostilities ceased when the Russian 14th Army parked in-between the two sides. A 1997 accord makes the Russian Army's presence obsolete, but funds are unavailable to return the army to Russia. No one know what will happen when the army leaves.

Before obtaining independence, Moldova had been a "republic" in the Soviet Union. Previously, Moldova had been part of Rumania, and part of the old kingdom of Moldavia remains within modern-day Rumania. The national language of Moldova is Rumanian, and so plenty of Moldovans know a lot about Rumania-including about life under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolai Ceausescu.

Nowhere in the Soviet bloc was gun control fiercer than in Rumania. Shortly after the Red Army installed a communist regime following World War II, the Communists used registration lists to confiscate all firearms in private hands. The government also registered typewriters.

Ceausescu, the "Comrade Supreme Commander", enjoyed bear hunting with his Holland & Holland custom British rifle. The Securitate (the secret police) manufactured all of Ceausescu's clothes for him, including German-style hunting outfits. Each item of clothing would be worn only once, and then burned.

Sportsmanship was not Ceausescu's style. Squads of Rumanian forest rangers would spend all of their time preparing an area for a bear hunt. The rangers would tie down half of a dead horse near a watering hole. When a large bear began feeding there, the rangers would notify Ceausescu. He would arrive by helicopter at three a.m., and leave with a bear skin by five.

Frustrated by missing a few shots in the dark, Ceausescu had his security forces steal Western military infrared scopes for his night-time hunting forays. High Communist party officials in other countries, such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia, also enjoyed hunting, and maintained expensive hunting lodges at government expense, while the people went short of meat and fruit.

The Ceaucescu regime fell when the Rumanian army turned against the government, and refused to shoot protestors in the streets. Had the Rumanians been well-armed, the population might not have had to endure 45 years of brutal dictatorship, waiting until the regime alienated even the Communist army officers. In the days following the revolution, Ceaucescu's secret police, the Securitate, waged a vicious counter-revolutionary campaign against the population, much like the one carried out by Manuel Noriega's "Dignity" battalions after the American invasion.

In December 1989, both Panamanian and Rumanian citizens took up arms to defend themselves after theirs dictatorships were toppled. A fair number of Panamanian citizens already owned guns, and were able to speedily form Vigilance Committees to protect their neighborhoods.

Most Rumanians, though, had never touched a gun until they picked up a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the dead hands of a Securitate soldier. One can only speculate about how many Rumanian citizens were mowed down by Securitate because the citizens lacked the first idea about how to fire an automatic weapon effectively, how to clear a firing chamber jam, or how to use a rifle sight.

Given the terrible history of firearms prohibition in Moldova, no decent government would impose mandatory universal registration. And no sensible Moldovan would obey a registration decree.

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