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Don’t mention Transnistria: Moldova on the eve of elections

On Sunday, Moldova goes to the polling booths for the fourth time in nineteen months. Despite the best efforts of leading politicians to emphasize a multi-vectored foreign policy, most Moldovans still see the election as a straight choice between the EU and Russia. Alexa Chopivsky interviews Prime Minister Vlad Filat.

"Tell me please," says Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, slightly agitated. "Italy is in the West and has good relations with Russia. Germany is in the West and has good relations with Russia, France, and many other countries. So why can’t the Republic of Moldova be in the European Union and have good relations with Russia?"

Vlad Filat: "if we manage to move effectively towards European integration, I see no problem why we can’t move just as effectively in an eastern direction …" Photo europeanpeoplesparty

Filat, in open-necked shirt, is sitting behind a round table in Moldova's Government building. Just outside is Chisinau's Stefan cel Mare boulevard, where one and a half years ago violent demonstrations protested against the falsified Communist “victory”. The chain of incidents that is now collectively referred to as “the events of 7 April 2009” forced a new vote in July, sweeping the four-party “Alliance for European Integration” to power.

"Let's be very clear — Moldova doesn’t have another option. We have to work hard to align ourselves with European standards. But what doesn’t automatically follow is that Euro-integration should mean enemy relations with our Eastern partners".

On Sunday, Moldovans go to the polls for the fourth time in 19 months. Many hope the parliamentary elections will break a political deadlock that has left the ex-Soviet, 3.5 million-strong country without a president for the past year. The former President Vladimir Voronin — the first post-Soviet communist leader to be elected in Europe — stood down in September 2009 after reaching his term limit of eight years. At that moment, the Alliance had a parliamentary majority, but it did not have control of the 61 seats it needed for a qualified majority election of the new President. A referendum to change the presidential election system from a parliamentary vote to a popular one also failed due to insufficient voter turnout. It was at this point that Acting President Mihai Ghimpu dissolved parliament and called snap elections for November 28.

"Moldova doesn’t have another option - we have align ourselves with Europe. But it doesn't automatically follow that we should be enemies of our Eastern partners"

Moldovan PM Vlad Filat

Representatives of the ruling Alliance claim a victory of the coalition is essential if the country is to continue the reform programme it began a year ago, particularly in respect to accelerated European integration. Filat describes integration as "Moldova’s biggest opportunity [..and one] that should not be missed". Others are painting the contest between the Alliance and Communists as a pro-West vs. pro-Russia one. Filat dismisses this talk: “if we manage to move effectively towards European integration, I see no problem why we can’t move just as effectively in an eastern direction … why we can’t establish good relations in the areas of international law and other issues where we have a common interest. It is entirely natural that the Russian position, as well as the EU position, has an influence in Moldova".

This assertion is backed up by Marian Lupu, who leads Democratic party members of the Alliance. "This ideological choice that we either have to be with Western partners or we have to be with Eastern partners is very damaging to the national interests of Moldova. If you continue to ask this question, we will end up with an eternally split society: one part pro-Russian, the other part pro-Romanian. Half of Moldova Communist, another half anti-Communist. These dividing lines are destroying society, destroying the country”.

Moldova was, with the exception of the breakaway republic of Transnistria, part of Romania before it was annexed to the Soviet Union during World War II. Roughly 76% of the population considers Romanian its mother tongue, and some 11% call Russian its native language. According to polls, a good half of Moldovans think Russia should be the country's strategic partner — Moldova receives all of its gas from Russia's Gazprom — while at the same time, a comfortable two-thirds majority of Moldovans want to join the EU.

The 7 April 2009 demonstrations in Chisinau disputed the results of the last parlaimentary elections, which claimed a Communist victory. The result was another vote three months later, and general political stalemate.

According to Lupu, the country's geographical location at the crossroads of two worlds — Latin and Slavic — give it two options. "Either it can leave the two issues as a contradiction, which would be a source of permanent war and permanent instability. Or it can apply the European principle of unity by diversity. A principle of tolerance".

Ahead of Sunday's vote, signs indicate tension within the ruling coalition. Lupu opposed the decision of his Alliance colleague and Acting President Ghimpu to institute a new “Day of Soviet Occupation”, declaring that it “adds coals to the fire”. Lupu's Democratic Party, in turn, signed a partnership agreement with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in September.

One critical issue getting in the way of Moldova's European integration is the status of the frozen conflict in Transnistria, the 530,000-strong majority Slavic and Russian-speaking separatist region sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.  In 1992, Transnistria fought a brief war to separate from the rest of Moldova. In 2006 Transnistria held a referendum, which saw a 97% voter turnout and a 95% vote in favour of independence, with an eye toward joining the Russian Federation. A walk through the Trandniestrian capital Tiraspol takes one through a shopping mall named after the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and several Soviet-era monuments proclaiming the “glory of labour”. Woven intermittently in this retro-Soviet landscape are splashes of globalization, like the shiny storefronts which advertise Kyoto Restaurant and Andy's Pizza. A local driver recently entering Tiraspol praised the "new, smooth road". Since 2006, some $62 million of Russian aid has come to the region, used in part to deliver "Putin pensions" to locals.

There have been signs of a rapprochement between Chisinau and Tiraspol this year. A regular passenger train service was introduced between Moldova and the separatist region, in addition to an agreement to resume direct fixed telecommunication, which was interrupted in 2003. In August, Filat also engaged in some sports diplomacy by attending a football match in Tiraspol, making a beeline to shake hands with to Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov.

Nonetheless, Transnistria sits low on the list of campaigning issues. "We're trying not to focus too much on this problem", says Filat. "Clearly, it is an important day-to-day issue, with the involvement of many important international actors. It is also the subject of substantial negotiations and continuous dialogue, but it's absolutely necessary to proceed this way. We want the eventual resolution to be sustainable".

An opinion poll published last week by the Institute for Public Policy showed the Communist party on 26% support, the collective Alliance on 40% and 26% still undecided. Filat dismisses the possibility of a Communist victory. "You have to go back and look at what the Republic of Moldova was like throughout the eight years that the Communists were in power. They presided over an isolated country, an authoritarian regime, a non-functional, fully-monopolized economy. Over 500,000 Moldovans left for abroad. And I could go on…"

Indeed, there are over half-million Moldovan migrant workers living abroad, most of them in Western Europe and Russia. Moldovan guest workers' remittances, according to the World Bank, make up approximately one-third of Moldova's GDP. Unsurprisingly, expatriates are also a large target electorate for the Alliance, and there are plans to open 75 polling stations abroad to increase turnout. "These voters, these citizens abroad are important not only as voters but as transmitters of messages home," says Filat. "Messages about what Europe means, what the work conditions are like there, and why it is necessary to vote for the future and not for the past."

"Things are still generally presented in terms of ”Are we going to be with Russia or are we going to be with the EU” ... That is certainly how it's being perceived by the population at least"

Petru Culeac, political analyst

Since the Alliance came to power, the Romanian government has accelerated its naturalization push in neighbouring Moldova. Over 100,000 Moldovans now hold Romanian passports, giving them backdoor entry into the EU’s labour market. At least nine Alliance members have a second, Romanian passport, with additional applications pending. “We are one people with a right to unity and a future together", Romanian President Traian Basescu was reported as saying in Spiegel. While Filat has also made great strides to improve neighbourly relations between the two countries, he does still assert that Moldova will always remain a sovereign and independent state.

It is unclear to what extent the electorate itself accepts the Alliance's dual-vector Europe-Russia foreign policy rhetoric. "Things are still generally presented both by the media and politicians in terms of ”Are we going to be with Russia or are we going to be with the EU”, says Petru Culeac, a Chisinau-based PhD researcher at the Vienna School of Governance. “At least that it how it's being perceived by the population."

For Lupu, who left the Communist party in June 2009, declaring he was “no longer willing to play dirty games", the biggest difference between the Alliance and the Communists is not so much ideology as methods. "The democratic parties are much more honest, much more correct in how they do things. The Communist party uses what I would describe as old methods: scaring people, and employing dictatorial methods in running a monopoly of state power".