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Moldova: Protests, Demands Grow Amid Russian Objections

  • Jolyon Naegele

In Moldova, students and members of the opposition Christian Democratic People's Party are calling for 50,000 people to join a rally on 24 February to try to force the resignation of the president, parliament, and government, and early parliamentary elections, as the ruling Communists mark a year in power. The call came as large crowds gathered in Chisinau yesterday for the latest rally in a two-month campaign against the government and its Russification policies. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday protested against what it termed "anti-Russian actions aimed against the Russian Embassy" in Chisinau and warned that the organizers of the protests risk unleashing yet another conflict in southeastern Europe.

Prague, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, yesterday, past the government and parliament to the Russian Embassy, as they have done almost daily since early January.

"Down with communism! Resign! Ole! Ole! Communism exists no more!"

Later, as they passed by secret police headquarters and then the Russian Embassy, they chanted, "We don't want a Bolshevik president!" and, "We don't want any more communists or KGB!" as well as, "Down with the occupiers!"

The demonstrators' demands, which initially were limited to ending mandatory Russian classes for schoolchildren and pro-Russian history textbooks, are now expanding. Yesterday, for the first time, they demanded that the government, president, and parliament resign and that early elections be held.

Analysts in Chisinau warn that the socio-political situation in the country could destabilize if social issues overtake dissatisfaction with Russian elements in education as the main motivator for the students' protests.

Christian Democratic leader Iurie Rosca addressed the crowd yesterday, saying, "The time has come for us to save democracy in Moldova, to do away with communism for good."

"Tomorrow, parliament will hold a special session to examine the socio-political situation in Moldova. I invite them to do this together with the Christian Democratic MPs and that the session be broadcast live on television and radio," Rosca said.

Today's session was canceled, however, apparently at the behest of the Communists, who have 71 of the 101 seats in parliament. The organizers of the demonstrations, the Christian Democratic People's Party, has just 11 seats.

Moldova is the only former Soviet republic where voters have returned hard-line Marxist-Leninist communists to power.

The head of another opposition party, Dumitru Braghis of the Braghis Alliance, backed the Christian Democrats' call for the resignations of the government and president, saying Moldova needs a government that can help improve the economic situation.

The number of protesters is growing and yesterday surpassed 40,000, according to RFE/RL correspondents on the scene. Protests yesterday also spread to Moldova's second-largest city, Balti, in the north of the country, where some 200 students demonstrated in solidarity with the striking students in the capital.

Among the student demonstrators in Balti was a young man who explained, "We are against introducing the Russian language as an obligatory subject in schools. And we oppose the use of the Cyrillic alphabet and the use of Russian as a state language..."

Today's protest march in Chisinau attracted some 30,000 people, and organizers say they are hoping for at least 50,000 on 24 February. Russian news media have reported considerably lower numbers in an apparent bid to downplay public dissatisfaction with the ruling Communist Party's imposition of the Russian language.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin says the demonstrations are illegal but that he will not permit the use of force by law-enforcement agencies, mainly because of the large numbers of young people. As a result, he says, police are being deployed to prevent children from being injured. Some protest organizers have publicly welcomed the police presence.

Nevertheless, authorities in Balti, where Russian-speakers are in the majority, banned a demonstration planned for today after tolerating a modest protest yesterday.

The Communists returned to power in Moldova one year ago on a platform of economic improvements and union with Russia and Belarus, neither of which share a common border with Moldova. So far, the Communists have failed to revitalize Moldova's poverty-stricken economy, Europe's weakest.

The Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday issued a statement accusing the demonstrators in Chisinau of "anti-Russian acts aimed at the Embassy of Russia in the Republic of Moldova." The statement said such activities do not contribute to civic accord in Moldova's multi-ethnic society. It said the organizers and their backers must understand that they risk unleashing yet another conflict in southeastern Europe.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement expressed support for Moldova's leadership and credited it with taking steps toward economic transformation and improving the standard of living.

However, the deputy chairman of the Moldovan Christian Democrats, Vlad Cubreacov, responded to the Russian statement by accusing Moscow of "interference in the internal affairs of the Republic of Moldova" and alleging that the Russian declaration had what he called an "imperialist spirit."

Although Moldovan authorities have not responded, Romanian authorities reiterated their belief that whatever happens in Moldova is an internal matter. This, like Russia's other recent moves in Moldova -- such as backing down from its declared intention to withdraw all its forces from Transdniester -- may well strengthen Bucharest's hand in persuading NATO to accept Romania in the next wave of expansion.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is due to visit Moscow tomorrow for talks with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kasyanov, and possibly with President Vladimir Putin. Russian leaders can be expected to raise the issue of Moldova, despite Romania's call for non-interference.