Moldova: the Twitter Revolution that wasn’t

William H. Hill David J. Kramer
28 May 2009

Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has spent a rare few weeks in the news after violent protests erupted on 7 April in the capital Chisinau

The violence broke out following the ruling Communist Party's apparently clear-cut victory in the nation's April 5 parliamentary elections. This gave the Communists just under fifty percent of the popular vote, and 60 deputies in the 101 seat Moldovan parliament. The result was sufficient to elect the speaker and the government, but was one vote short of the 61 seats required to choose the country's next president. 

Three centre-right opposition parties each won 10-15 percent of the vote. After taking into account the distribution of seats for parties that didn't cross the threshold, they gained a total of 41 seats in the new parliament.  Bitter at their failure to dislodge the Communist Party (formally the PCRM - Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) from its ruling position and angered by the regime's harsh treatment of the youthful demonstrators, opposition parties in the new parliament have so far refused to cooperate with the Communists. This has resulted in a deadlock that could lead to yet another round of elections.

The ongoing crisis in Moldova demands dialogue and reconciliation rather than further militancy and polarisation.  Many outside observers (and a number of interested participants) portrayed the recent events in Moldova as a democratic "colour" (what hue is twitter?) revolution mounted by pro-western political parties and youth against the electoral machinations of a repressive old-line communist regime operating under Moscow's tutelage and support.  However, it would be a serious mistake to view Moldova through a simplistic East-West prism.  Many of the country's ruling communist party aspire to European Union membership and claim to be building "a leftist party of the European type."  Whether one believes the hype, the communists clearly have a solid base of at least 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, making them by far the largest and most powerful political party in the country.  Yet the vast majority of Moldovans, even those who support the communists, are unhappy with their lot and pessimistic about their prospects.

The protests were largely spontaneous, growing out of a rally organised by some opposition figures and fed by tweeting and text-messaging.  These protests reflected increasingly widespread discontent and disillusionment, especially among Moldova's young people, after almost a decade of communist rule.  Although basic economic statistics in Moldova have been good over much of the past decade, this is because the Moldovan economy is largely supported by remittances from hundreds of thousands of Moldovans working abroad.  In 2007-2008 over 35 percent of the country's GDP came from foreign remittances.  For most Moldovans of working age there are no jobs at home; for most young Moldovans there is no future in their native land.

The government's goal - European integration

Given their bleak economic prospects, most Moldovans have fastened upon European integration as the way to ensure their country's future.  Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and his communist colleagues were initially elected on a pro-Russian platform in 2001. But after his 2003 rejection of the Russian attempt to broker a political settlement with Moldova's breakaway Transnistrian region, Euro-integration (with eventual EU membership) has been the official policy of the Moldovan government and the PCRM.  Voronin campaigned on a pro-EU platform for the 2005 parliamentary elections. He signed an Action Plan with the EU in 2005, and late that year together with Ukraine he accepted an EU Border Assistance Mission to improve efforts against smuggling and trafficking in the region, in particular around Transnistria.

However, despite the Moldovan Communists' promises and repeated professions in favour of European integration, visible progress and tangible benefits have been disappointing for most Moldovan citizens.  The steady increase in remittances spurred a boom in retail trade and construction in Chisinau, the capital city of about 750,000. But the countryside remains desperately poor, without jobs, and increasingly depopulated.  An estimated 600,000 or more of Moldova's 4 million people now live and work outside the country, in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, Romania, Italy, Portugal, and other European countries.  Despite massive international assistance efforts over the past decade, in per capita terms Moldova continues to be the largest source country in Europe of trafficked persons.

Moldova's police, correctional, and judicial systems were never adequately reformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since 1991 have been a source of continuing human rights abuses, meticulously chronicled by domestic and foreign experts.  However, during the 1990s Moldova developed both relatively free (though not particularly professional) broadcast and print media and small but promising elements of an independent civil society.  Most important, from the very start of post-Soviet independence, Moldova maintained a commendable record of political pluralism, consistently holding free and fair elections and respecting the results.

Moldova's   progress and consolidation as an independent state during the 1990s were beset by two major problems.  First, government management of the economic transition was both corrupt and not particularly competent.  Agricultural land was privatised in small holdings, not successfully converted to profitable economic activity.  A protective, cronyist business culture and absence of rule of law discouraged foreign direct investment, slowing Moldova's attempts at development.  Second, the unresolved Transnistrian separatist question left the country divided, and the lack of overall central governance opened opportunities for organised crime on both sides of the Nistru River.  The presence of Russian troops and support from Moscow for the Tiraspol separatists also kept alive linguistic, ethnic, and national passions on the right bank and hindered development of a clear national identity for the fledgling Moldovan state.

While communist rule since 2001 produced increased prosperity in Moldova's urban areas, paradoxically it did not increase social or economic opportunity in the country.  Paying lip service to market principles and European integration, communist authorities generally acted to consolidate control in major sectors and enterprises among the old-line party faithful, their friends, and relatives.  Independent media have been consistently under attack since 2001 from the ruling party; broadcast media in particular have been increasingly under pressure to support the party in power.  Elements of the unreformed Ministry of the Interior - that is, the police - and security services have been used by the administration in power to intimidate their most significant political opponents, by either threatening investigations or bringing criminal cases for real or imagined offenses.

Why the protest?

The 2009 parliamentary election campaign in Moldova was arguably not noticeably worse than the 2005 national election or the 2003 and 2007 municipal and local election campaigns.  In all of these contests international observers noted the misuse of government institutions and administrative resources by the administration in power. But they ended up judging that the abuses were not sufficiently severe to disqualify the results of the voting. As for the disorganised, inaccurate electoral rolls, OSCE election observation missions since the early 1990s have been warning Moldovans that their electoral lists are out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, and/or incomprehensible.  After every election Moldovan authorities have duly promised to correct these deficiencies; they have yet to do so.  Therefore many of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies noted by the opposition in the 2009 voting in Moldova have been present for more than a decade. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty whether the ruling party this time took greater unfair advantage of these flaws than did other candidates and administrations in earlier elections.

Several factors in the 2009 campaign made the communist victory much harder for the opposition to swallow than in previous elections.  Firstly, after the PCRM won an absolute majority in the 2001 vote, its percentage of the electorate shrank steadily in the 2003, 2005, and especially 2007 Chisinau elections.  Opposition activists and supporters, especially among the young, expected this trend would continue. 

Secondly, President Voronin and his party have loudly proclaimed a policy of European integration for Moldova since 2003. But tangible results of this policy have been disappointing.  The apparent victory of the PCRM was thus taken by many in the opposition to signify that this chasm between stated goals and real progress in Moldova might continue indefinitely. 

Third, as a result of the global economic crisis, remittances to Moldova from workers abroad have been declining and an undetermined number of Moldovans of prime working age have been returning to Moldova.  There are no accurate statistics yet for the scale of this phenomenon, but these Moldovans return to a country with no jobs for them and - after the elections - little apparent prospect for fundamental political change.

Spontaneous protest, excessive response

The demonstration and protests following the April 5 elections seem to have been largely unplanned and undirected.  Judging by the police presence in the capital on April 7, Moldovan authorities clearly did not expect serious trouble.  In fact, over the past fifteen years, Moldova has a history of intermittent but fairly regular political protests that have rarely if ever involved violence of any sort.  However, government and opposition responses and follow-up to the protests have hastened and deepened polarisation of the country's major political forces.

The response of government authorities after the violence on April 7 has clearly been excessive.  There are numerous, detailed, and credible allegations of serious violations of basic human rights by police, prison, and security authorities.  Despite the generally poor record of Moldova's police, prison, and court authorities since the fall of communism, the behavior of security and Interior Ministry forces after the elections has pretty clearly descended below the lamentably low level observed in Moldova over the past decade and a half.  These abuses need to be investigated for their own sake and as part of Moldova's living up to its commitments to the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Identifiable culprits on all sides need to be brought to justice, and the structural factors that lead to such abuses need at long last to be addressed and corrected.

Romanian destabilisation?

Reactions of many Moldovan and external actors have been unhelpful.  President Voronin blamed provocateurs from Romania - inter alia - for inciting the violence, an allegation gleefully echoed by separatist authorities in Tiraspol and some of their supporters in Moscow.  While generally refusing to rise to Voronin's bait, Romanian authorities have unhelpfully offered to expand and speed up issuance of Romanian passports to as many as a million Moldovan citizens.  Some observers have tried to cast events in Moldova as yet another "colour" revolution, similar to those in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This allegation was bolstered by Voronin's tactical appeal during the election campaign to Russophone and pro-Russian segments of the Moldovan population.

Voronin's recent flirtation with Moscow and Moldova's internal political disputes have highlighted Romania's ambivalent relationship with its eastern neighbor and former territory.  Romanian President Traian Basescu recently likened the division of Moldova from Romania to the two Germanies - East and West - before reunification.  Such statements exacerbate existing paranoia in Chisinau's ruling circles about possible Romanian territorial designs.  These fears are exacerbated by careless statements by some prominent officials in Bucharest, such as public speculation by a sitting parliamentarian and former foreign minister that Moldova might be better off (i.e. more inclined to reunification with Romania) without the Russian-dominated Transnistrian region.  Moldovan mistrust of Romanian intentions has also been stoked by Bucharest's reluctance to sign a formal treaty with Moldova on their mutual border.  Basescu says such a pact is unnecessary; Voronin interprets this as a threat to Moldova's independence.

Moldovan authorities also interpret recent changes in Romanian citizenship and passport policy in a sinister light.  While almost all recent polls indicate that only a small minority of Moldovans would actually wish to join with Romania, the tightening of border controls after Bucharest's entry into the EU led many Moldovans to seek a Romanian passport as a means of ensuring access to European travel.  During most of the past decade, Romania maintained a very restrictive policy on granting citizenship to Moldovan residents.  However, with political relations deteriorating and an increasing swell of Moldovan applications (as many as 800,000 by some estimates), authorities in Bucharest, including President Basescu, have implied an easing of passport issuance.  Moldovan authorities in turn have clamped down on Romanian consular activity in the country, and there are no reliable public statistics on how many passports have actually been distributed.  However, any visitor to Chisinau will see every day a mob of passport applicants outside the Romanian mission, as Moldovan residents seek to preserve an avenue of escape to western Europe.

Issues of national identity

It would be a serious mistake to blame either Bucharest or Moscow for the recent events in Moldova, or to view the situation there as simply another east-west confrontation.  Surveys and elections since 1993 have consistently shown that some 90 percent of Moldovans prefer independence and are not ready to sacrifice their sovereignty simply to gain access to the European Union. 

The same might be said of Moldova's attitude toward Russia.  Romanian and Russian speakers in Moldova actually get along remarkably well, even if the leaders in Bucharest, Chisinau, and Moscow do not.  While many Moldovans are willing to have good relations with Russia, they wish to be ruled from Chisinau, not Moscow, a fact not always well understood in the Kremlin.  Pro-Russian elements, particularly in breakaway Transnistria, use pro-Romanian sentiment on Moldova's right bank as a red herring to justify their separatist agenda.

Most worrying, the recent elections and ensuing violence provide evidence of increasingly deep, serious political, economic, linguistic, and especially generational divisions in Moldova that prevent the country from addressing  its real existential questions - developing a broadly accepted national identity in its ethnically and linguistically diverse population, building a viable economy that can end outmigration and brain drain, and restoring the country's territorial and political integrity through a lasting political settlement in Transnistria.  Moldova lies on the fault line between the Slavic and Mediterranean worlds, and attempts to make the country wholly "western" or "eastern" will most likely tear it apart.  For centuries the territory of the modern-day Republic of Moldova has been multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Attempts to achieve or ensure domination for one segment of this diverse population are recipes for failure.

Time for reconciliation

The crucial task now for Moldova if it is to have a European future - indeed any future at all - is to overcome the country's internal divisions through determined efforts at reconciliation and cooperation.  Moldova desperately needs a broad process of dialogue and reconciliation between the ruling communist party, the major opposition parties, and their supporters in Moldovan civil society.  Major European figures, such as EU President and Czech Prime Minister Topolanek, EU High Representative Solana, and Council of Europe General Secretary Davis have visited Moldova to assess the situation and encourage such a process, but these efforts so far lack organisation and focus.  In addition, while the State Department and U.S. Embassy have issued laudable statements, the U.S. has so far been largely absent, in part due to key personnel positions yet to be filled.

Without cooperation between the ruling party and opposition, Moldova is likely to repeat the experience of April, 2009, with similar results.  As the new Parliament convened on May 5, PCRM leaders forged ahead with the process of choosing new officers, heedless of opposition wishes and sensibilities.  The communist party elected outgoing President Vladimir Voronin as Speaker of the new legislative body, and nominated former Prime Minister Zinaida Grecianii as their presidential candidate.  According to a 2000 amendment of the constitution making Moldova a parliamentary republic, the legislature has two attempts to choose a head of state.  If no candidate obtains the required sixty percent of the vote (61 deputies out of the 101 in the parliament), new national elections are required.

The three opposition parties in Parliament announced they will boycott election of a new President in the legislative body.  If they persist and succeed in forcing repeat parliamentary elections, there is little prospect of a different or better result the next time. On May 20 all 41 opposition deputies absented themselves from the first round of balloting for president, in which Grecianii received all 60 votes from the PCRM deputies present.  A second vote is scheduled for May 28; opposition leaders vow to continue their boycott.  If the Moldovan parliament fails to elect a chief of state, Voronin (as Speaker) will remain acting president, and new national legislative elections must be held sometime this summer.  Such a vote would take place in a nation already deeply polarised by recent events, with the poorest economy in Europe increasingly beset by the effects of the global economic crisis.  Apart from dedicated opposition activists, many observers expect a new election to produce no substantial change in the distribution of power in Moldova, thus simply deepening the country's political polarization and economic woes.

A role for outside parties

The U.S., the EU, and other European institutions such as the Council and Europe and OSCE should work in concert to establish a comprehensive reconciliation process in Moldova.  They should insist that the ruling communist party and the opposition participate without reservations in this process.  For example, there should be real reform of the police, security organs, and courts - no empty promises and no excuses.  Similarly, opposition activists need to work with the ruling party to develop mutually-acceptable programs and accept the result if they are outvoted legitimately in legislative bodies.  With major assistance in the works from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. may have some fairly effective leverage at this time with all sides in Chisinau.

Without national reconciliation, fundamental political reform, and economic development, Moldova faces a future of providing the region and wider Europe with an increasing flow of migrants and trafficking victims, while increasingly offering a safe haven for smugglers and criminals of all sorts.  The resultant poverty, instability, and possible conflict will cause ripple effects that can spread far beyond the immediate region.  At some point, instability in Moldova could become more than just a footnote in the dialogue between Washington and Moscow.  However, U.S. involvement, with relatively limited resources, can help Europeans address, avert, and resolve the problems facing Moldova.  The key is to direct the U.S. effort at resolving Moldova's real internal problems and promoting genuine reform and tangible economic development, rather than simply seeking the will of the wisp of another colour revolution that never was.

William H. Hill, currently Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College, served two terms as Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.  David J. Kramer, currently a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served in several senior positions at the U.S. State Department, including as Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, in the George W. Bush Administration.  The opinions expressed are entirely their own.

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