Even before Saakashvili's visit, analysts concluded that Russian-Moldovan relations had hit a new low during the lead-up to Moldova's elections. President Voronin complained of Russia's alleged interference in the election process in the deployment of Russian campaign consultants to help the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD). At a press conference on 23 February, Voronin called a recent declaration by Russia's State Duma calling for economic sanctions against Moldova an attempt to influence Moldova's elections and interfere in the country's domestic affairs. And according to Vasile Botnaru of RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau on 2 March, Voronin launched a counterattack on Russia's ORT state television for its negative coverage of his policy toward the separatist Transdniester region and allegations of corruption.
In a story broadcast on ORT on 27 March, "Vremya" charged that Voronin's family, specifically his son Oleg, who heads Fincombank, controls most businesses in Moldova. The report also quoted analyst Sergei Markov, who predicted that Voronin will "gag the opposition media" and use state prosecutors against his political opponents. Other stories produced by ORT didn't attack Voronin directly, but instead highlighted Voronin's anti-Russia policy, a policy that the reports implied will have negative economic consequences for Moldova. For example, a report on 2 March discussed the implication of revoking the visa-free travel arrangement between Moldova and Russia.
TV host Leontev summed up the Kremlin's position nicely -- anyone but Voronin.
In a commentary for ORT on 2 March, "Odnako" program host Mikhail Leontev, who is considered close to the Kremlin, explained Moscow's policy quite simply. Leontev said that "in general, Russia does not have its 'own' candidate in Moldova." At the same time, according to Leontev, Russia "is not totally indifferent to how the situation in [Transdniester] develops. [Russia] doesn't need any pro-Moscow candidate to win in proud, independent Moldova, even though half its population works in Russia and the country only exists because of Russia. But we also don't need the orange Communist and falsifier [President Vladimir] Voronin.... That is our only interest." Leontev summed up the Kremlin's position nicely -- anyone but Voronin.
ORT's coverage did not go unnoticed by Moldovan officialdom. Moldova's Television and Radio Coordination Council warned Moldova's First Channel to stop broadcasting campaign "agitation" or it would be prohibited from rebroadcasting "Vremya." The council specifically complained about a 19 February "Vremya" segment on the congress of Moldovan citizens working abroad. The report included negative reporting about the Moldovan government and included direct speech from BMD leader Serafim Urechean, in violation of Moldovan electoral law.
But observers found not only ORT's coverage faulty. International and domestic observers also faulted domestic media outlets. For example, media experts from Coalition 2005 -- an association of 152 nongovernmental Moldovan organizations set up in May 2004 to ensure free, fair, transparent, and democratic elections -- said on 7 February in a preliminary report that electronic media in Moldova were heavily biased in favor of the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). Moreover, Moldova's Television and Radio Coordination Council concluded on 18 February that not one of Moldova's television or radio companies was in full compliance with election norms. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded in an interim report for 13-22 February that many of Moldova's private television stations simply opted out of covering the elections at all because of ambiguously worded election law.
Of course, such findings are not unusual in post-Soviet space -- newly independent media rarely provide either equal access to all political parties or balanced coverage, particularly during an election when the stakes are high. In a roundtable broadcast by RFE/RL's Russian Service on 2 March, commentator Vitalii Portnikov suggested that the real puzzle of the Moldovan election coverage was why the Russian media continued to emphasize the possibility of some kind of revolution occurring in that country when the polls showed that was unlikely. A majority of opinion polls showed the only question was whether the Party of Moldovan Communists would win an absolute or only a constitutional majority in the parliament. Portnikov also asked why no one in the Russian media was asking the Russian authorities to explain their support for the opposition, when past stated policy has always been to support the powers-that-be.
"Novoe vremya" Deputy Editor in Chief Vadim Dubnov suggested that the answer lies not in any kind of articulated policy shift but in "very human" pique. The Russian press and political elite are still angry at Voronin for failing to sign the Kozak memorandum in November 2003, which proposed a solution to the Transdniester conflict. Plus, after Ukraine, according to Dubnov, Moscow understands that the same old approaches will no longer pass muster.