CHISINAU, Moldova — Europe’s only Communist government was toppled from power this week by a collection of pro-Western forces, after a bitter parliamentary election that both sides portrayed as crucial in determining the country’s future.
Officials from the winning four-party coalition hailed their victory in the July 29 contest. Together, they seized 53 of the legislature’s 101 seats, or some 50 percent of the vote.
Moldova matters little in U.S. foreign policy, but plays a role that outstrips its diminutive size — just over 4 million citizens — in European politics. It is viewed as a potential source of instability on Europe’s periphery and is wedged between two major players, Ukraine and Romania. Its breakaway region of Trans-Dniester — a “frozen conflict” in official parlance — is also a potential source of black market goods and narcotics, since it possesses no officially recognized borders.
Some commentators compared this election to other popular uprisings, the so-called “color revolutions,” in which questions about election returns eventually dislodged entrenched political elites.
In the Moldovan case, more than 10,000 people gathered after parliamentary elections on April 5 to challenge official results, which showed the Communists storming to a massive majority that would allow them to choose the country’s president. (The president is elected by parliament and not by a direct vote.) The predominantly younger crowd was partially called to the streets by internet social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter — providing a vivid glimpse into the generational divide, in addition to the ethnic and urban-rural divides, that polarize Moldovan society.
“[Wednesday's election] was an Orange Revolution — a quiet Orange Revolution,” said Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, a Chisinau think tank. “April was a manifestation of a large frustration in society, which was hidden but then exploded.”
But the protests drew unexpected attention for another reason: Protesters broke into and ransacked parliament and the presidential palace. Opposition leaders claimed that agent provocateurs were among the throngs, but the sheer numbers involved in the violence indicated that many regular demonstrators participated, regardless of who the instigators were.
After the protests, the opposition closed ranks in parliament and denied the Communists the single vote that they needed to elect their designated candidate outright. After two failed attempts, new elections were called for July 29.
The second round of campaigning was as vicious as they come. Vladimir Voronin, the Communists’ charismatic leader who was stepping down as president after eight years, but who was widely expected to keep hold of the reigns of power, portrayed the contest as a struggle for Moldova’s very existence.
The country was part of Romania before World War II (and a possession of czarist Russia before that) and Romanians and Moldovans share a common language and culture. Voronin accused the Romanians of fomenting revolution in Moldova, and the opposition of harboring designs of reuniting with their brothers to the West.
The opposition gave as good as it got, however. Voronin’s Communists were painted as retrograde Stalinists, who wished to align Moldova with Moscow and establish an authoritarian state. They were aided in their portrayal by the fact that Moldovan authorities arrested hundreds after the April protests, and three people died in police custody under murky circumstances.
On election day, the voting was marred by extremely poor voter lists, which added some names and eliminated others, in addition to a biased media and official intimidation. But, according to Boris Frlec, head of the election observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which fielded some 300 observers, “The irregularities were many, but of the level and quality that would not affect the final results.”
Voronin’s party is actually “more opportunists than communists,” according to Valeriu Prohnitchi, director of the Expert Group analytical center. Voronin has during his two terms tacked between pro-Western and pro-Eastern stances. In this election as well he stressed the need to maintain a positive relationship with the European Union.
But he also emphasized that Moscow remained Moldova’s most strategic partner. A $500 million loan secured from the Kremlin (and $1 billion from the Chinese), in addition to the dark warnings against his opponents’ pro-western stance, led many observers to believe that the country was turning sharply eastward.
The mood in Chisinau one day after the election was quiet — business as usual after the hard-fought campaign. Perhaps the two sides were gearing up for the battle that lay ahead: the Communists were defeated but not entirely vanquished.
Under Moldova’s unusual parliamentary system, 52 seats constitute a majority and 61 seats a super-majority. The Communists may be able to shave off a deputy or two from the coalition, or — though less likely — entice former Communist turned oppositionist Marian Lupu of the Democratic Party to change sides with his 13 seats. In any case, more parliamentary elections could lie ahead next year if the two sides cannot agree on a president.
In the end the Communists’ scorched-earth campaign may have been one of the main factors to turn the tide against them. According to Barbarosie and other commentators, the crackdown that followed the April protests frightened many voters, especially among the young.
Eugene, a 22-year-old sitting in a Chisinau park on the eve of the vote, who gave only his first name, refused to divulge which party he was voting for, but added: “It won’t be for the Communists. I'm voting for democracy.”
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