Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Stephen the Great and identity in the Balkans

Our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar travelled far from the British parliament to the Balkans, as Dr Jonathan Eagles spoke on ‘Stephen the Great and the Moldovan election crisis of 2009’. Dr Eagles’s recent book, ‘Stephen the Great and Balkan Nationalism: Moldova and Eastern European History’ looks at the life of the 15th century Moldovan king and his legacy in the Balkans.

In his paper, Dr Eagles gave us an outline of Stephen III’s many achievements and then discussed his still-complicated legacy in Moldova today. Stephen ruled for nearly fifty years and partly earned his soubriquet for keeping Moldova independent from the advancing Ottoman Empire. Although an extremely successful military commander, winning 37 out of 39 battles, Stephen held together his territory through his diplomatic manoeuvres as well as on the battlefield. He was also a dedicated Christian and patron of religious architecture and art; leaving a legacy of churches, castles and frescoes that helped establish a recognisable Moldovan culture that long outlasted his reign. On top of this, in 1992 he was made a saint of the Romanian Orthodox church.

Today, the Moldova that Stephen ruled is split largely between northern Romania and the current Republic of Moldova. Dr Eagles discussed the differences in Stephen’s legacy in the two countries. In Romania, Stephen is celebrated as a great heritage figure, and used to promote tourism in the region; for the Republic of Moldova he a contested national emblem. Dr Eagles demonstrated how in modern-day Moldovan politics Stephen’s image is claimed by two rival political groupings with very different visions for Moldova’s future. The country gained independence from Soviet rule in 1991 as a small, internally divided state, immediately under pressure to be incorporated into their larger neighbour, Romania. After a series of nationalist governments and economic crisis throughout the 1990s, in 2001 a Communist government was returned to power. Communist government was stable until 2009, but not universally popular. The Communists won the 2009 elections, but huge protests followed (the first ‘twitter’ revolution of that year) from a younger generation keen to turn away from Russian influence and towards the West. For these protesters, Stephen the Great was a symbol of Moldova’s independence and internationalist outlook.

Dr Eagles noted, however, that the protesters did not have a monopoly on Stephen’s legacy.  The Communists also claimed it, having built him up as a national hero. They accused the protesters in 2009 of working to undermine Moldovan independence and blamed the protests on Romanian interference. For both parties Stephen’s statue in the capital, Chisinău, became a rallying point and a symbol to capture during the unrest.

Questions afterwards further probed the issues surrounding the 2009 elections, in particular the differences between generations, both politically and in their use of Stephen’s image. The artistic and architectural legacy Stephen’s rule was also further debated, and the different ways his memory was used in Romania and Moldova.

In our next seminar, today, Dr John Stevenson will speak on ‘Cobbett at 250: A failed MP?’ Do join us, or if you can’t, a blog will follow soon.


For more from Dr Eagles, his recent blogpost ‘Dracula’s perfect Couisn

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