Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Imagining Moldova -- and the First Twitter Revolution (Part 1)

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Moldova. I confess I knew little about the place before my plans formed. Most of what I knew (vaguely) derived from the public protests in the capital, Chisinau, as well as the second, city, Balti, that occurred last spring and briefly dominated Twitter.

Protesters took to the streets in early April following Parliamentary elections in which the ruling Communist party won roughly 50% of the seats. They picketed the Election Commission Headquarters and then the President’s residence before temporarily occupying both the Parliament building and the President’s office. Organized largely via Twitter calls under the tag, “#pman" (for the capital’s main square, “Piata Marii Adunari Nationale”), sizeable public gatherings numbering as many as 15,000 continued daily for more than a week claiming election fraud and later illegal arrests and the violation of human right. While the government agreed to a re-count, the election results stood and the Communist party president and parliamentary majority remained in power.

Wanting to know more, I consulted with several Romanian friends and their advice was simpler: the country is poor and stagnant, they responded quickly, but it has great wine and beautiful women. Perusing maps of the region and tourist websites, friends in New York had an even more peremptory assessment: I was heading to an only slightly Europeanized land of Borat -- Kazakhstan with a splash of Romanian charm. Okay. Thanks.

So I sought out more background. There's not a lot out there in terms of books or detailed websites. Wikipedia has a cursory if up-to-date entry. Lonelyplanet.com offered a worthwhile download of pages from a travel guide primarily focused on Romania. The one helpful book available on Amazon was the scholarly if conservatively slanted The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, by Charles King (2000). (Another that I ordered but didn't arrive before departing was Steven Henighan's travelogue about a Canadian teaching English in the country, Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family [2003].)

The broad strokes of what I learned are these. Referred to by some as the poorest country in Europe, with a GDP per person estimated by the IMF at only $2200, Moldova is situated to the far east of the continent, nestled between Romania and Ukraine. The land is arable (to the degree that volumes of its soil were actually shipped to the Soviet Union in past years) but holds few mineral reserves. The geographical position speaks to the complex status of the country’s people, politics, culture, and even language as a meeting ground of east and west, of Romania and Russia, of Europe and Central Asia. As former Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR, Moldova's present-day relation to Russia remains strong, not least in the continuing rule of the Communist party. Complicating politics further are two regions of simmering independence movements. Transdniestr, which declared its autonomy shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and Moldova's own declaration of independence, and Gagauz, an area in the country's south populated by Turkic Orthodox Christians.

Not a bad overview, particularly in the individual strands of historical development. But in pursuing various sources, a serious question arose for me: how does Twitter or any of the vaunted digital information and communication technologies we enjoy actually deepen our understanding of the world to which we seem to have much fuller and more rapid access? Part of this concerns Twitter specifically, with its endless stream of brief information text and its ongoing tracks of trending for certain topics that seem to feed on themselves. While many well-researched sources are only a link away from the tweets, there’s little telling how many are accessed or read (or, particularly for the uninitiated, which are genuinely well-researched and which to be avoided). The result is that Twitter becomes the latest manifestation of a digital source of nearly endless information for which the political (and reading) preferences of the user shape the eventual output.

Put differently, it’s very easy to maintain a thorough familiarity with headlines and the soundbytes of political rhetoric or policy and other debates, but delving beyond that superficial and ephemeral familiarity to a deeper understanding is anything but assured. That seems especially true for geopolitics today, when news cycles and attention economies rely on a dizzying shifting of media focus (yes, trending) from one hot spot or crisis or disaster to another. It is still more an issue with the lack of history that figures into even many of the better accounts of contemporary events. Beyond the disconnected entries offered by Wikipedia and other scattered websites, printed materials and fictional films, the history even of the late twentieth century that unavoidably shapes our lives and world today is increasingly grounded in fragmented digital sources.

I offer all this as prologue to recounting my physical entry to Moldova precisely because my reliance on Twitter and various, mostly web-based accounts of politics and peoples so strongly framed my thinking and expectations of this place about which I knew so little. While similar in ways to what has long been available to travelers in guidebooks, from the nineteenth-century Baedeckers onward, the contemporary mediascape has grown both quantitatively and qualitatively different. The digital world is ultimately smaller, infinitely more accessible, and, particularly as one imagines lesser known places like Moldova, conducive to unprecedentedly superficial and partial understandings.

In Part 2, I move from my imagined Moldova to the actual, physical country.

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