An opinion poll in Moldova this week came to the surprising conclusion that the popularity of the ruling Communists is on the rise, despite a three-month, antigovernment protest led by the main opposition party. Analysts say the protesters' calls to overthrow a democratically elected government have, in fact, only strengthened the Communists' position. They also say the current political turmoil and absence of stable political parties threaten Moldova's young democracy, as well as the very existence of a Moldovan state.
Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Moldovan protesters have been staging mass antigovernment demonstrations in the center of the capital Chisinau since January. But an opinion poll published on 16 April found that the popularity of the Communists was rising, despite -- or even as a result of -- the protests. At the same time, analysts say the current political turmoil and lack of stable political parties are posing a threat to democracy in Moldova.
Demonstrations organized and led by the opposition Christian Democratic People's Party (PPCD) began on 9 January after the government imposed the mandatory study of Russian in Moldovan schools and announced plans to make Russian an official language alongside Moldovan.
The plans were subsequently dropped, but demonstrators continued to gather, pressing for the resignation of the country's Communist government. Protests peaked last month, with an estimated 50,000 people rallying in Chisinau on 31 March.
However, this week's survey -- conducted by IMAS, an independent polling organization in neighboring Romania -- indicates that pro-Moscow Communists, who won more than 50 percent of the vote in general elections last year (February 2001), now enjoy the support of 73 percent of Moldovans.
Commentators say the poll's findings are not surprising. Moldovan-affairs analyst Charles King of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL that the protesters are in the minority.
"My view -- and the view of many analysts, I think, outside Moldova -- is that [the protesters] probably aren't terribly representative. In fact, the current demonstrations may have the long-term undesirable consequence of actually strengthening the position of the Communist government. This was a government that was elected in elections that were deemed by all parties -- even the current opposition -- to be free and fair," King said.
The PPCD won only 9 percent of the vote in last year's election. The current opinion poll found the party's popularity to have dwindled even further, with the support of only about 6 percent of Moldovans.
The Communists came to power promising to return living standards in Europe's poorest country to Soviet-era levels by bringing Moldova closer to Russia, and into the Russia-Belarus Union.
Communist President Vladimir Voronin also pledged to step up efforts to resolve a decade-long dispute with Moldova's separatist Transdniester Republic -- a pro-Russian region near the eastern border with Ukraine. Moldova and Transdniester -- which declared independence in 1990 -- fought a short but bloody war in 1992, and have yet to reach an agreement.
Most of Moldova was part of Romania until World War II and some two-thirds of its 4.5 million people speak what is officially called Moldovan -- virtually the same language as Romanian -- while most of the rest speak Russian.
Pro-Romanian circles in Moldova, primarily represented by the PPCD, have seen the Communists' pro-Russian rhetoric as an attempt to bring the country back into the Russian sphere of influence -- something they have vowed to oppose.
With only 11 seats in Moldova's 101-seat parliament, the PPCD has limited political power. But its leaders pledged to resort to civic actions to prevent what they call "the re-Russification" of Moldova. Many analysts, however, say Moldovans are indifferent to both the pro-Russian rhetoric of the Communists and the pro-Romanian stance of the PPCD.
With an average income of less than $1 per day, Moldovans may favor the Communists only out of nostalgia for the more prosperous days of the Soviet Union.
Analyst Vladimir Socor of the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation said the country's endemic poverty is the result of a decade of failed economic reforms that compromised the very idea of a market economy.
Socor told RFE/RL that the PPCD is losing support because it has failed to present credible solutions to Moldova's economic and political crisis.
"One [of the main causes for the party's dwindling popularity] is the limited capacity of PPCD leaders for coming up with demands [regarding issues] which could be attractive for Moldova's population as a whole, as well as for offering solutions to the current crisis. PPCD has neither the leaders nor the specialists who could come up with such programs and proposals," Socor said.
Analysts say Moldova also lacks solid, long-lasting political parties. The exception are those organized around emotional issues -- at one extreme, the Communists' nostalgia for the Soviet Union; at the other, the PPCD's pro-Romanian stance.
King of Georgetown University says both sides stake their claim to authority in Moldova on emotions rather than solid political strategies. The PPCD, he adds, is a Christian-Democrat party only by name, not by ideological orientation.
King told RFE/RL, "There is virtually no party -- largely because I think there's no constituency -- that would articulate either a center-left or center-right orientation that would have a particular view on economic reform or on foreign policy, or a particular view on how to resolve the situation in Transdniester."
Socor of the Jamestown Foundation, however, said the absence of an established political center is the result of Moldova's political fragmentation rather than the absence of a moderate, center-oriented electorate.
Socor said some 30 percent of Moldovans voted for center parties in last year's election. But due to Moldova's proportional-representation system, their votes were shared between Communists -- who acquired the lion's share -- and the PPCD, who got a small part of these votes.
Commentators agree that the continued dispute between the Communists and the PPCD could endanger Moldova's only political gain over the past decade: the establishment of a procedural democracy marked by several rounds of relatively free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
Analysts also point to the apparent paradox of the fact that Moldova's political class is composed principally of two major groups, the Communists and the PPCD, neither of which is convinced that a Moldovan state should actually exist.
King said this situation endangers the future of Moldova itself. "You have one group [the Communist Party] that is nostalgic for a time when there wasn't a Moldovan state and the other [the pro-Romanian PPCD] that sees the Moldovan state as a political and historical accident. So, in that kind of context one has to be rather skeptical about the degree to which a Moldova can actually exist in the future."
King said both Russia and Romania, however, have so far acted with restraint in responding to the situation in Moldova. In Romania's case, he said, the country may be too preoccupied with its current NATO bid to pay much attention to the Moldovan crisis.
King also says Russia has shown only limited interest in Moldova's internal affairs. But Russia and Moldova have what both sides call a strategic partnership, and Moscow maintains some 2,500 troops and a huge arsenal in Transdniester.
Russia in 1999 pledged under international pressure to withdraw its troops and equipment by the end of this year, but the process has stalled.
Socor said he believes the future of Moldova, as well as stability in the region, rests on whether Russia withdraws its troops. He said he is skeptical that Russia will abandon Transdniester.
"Even the Communists in Chisinau will realize that Moscow is not interested in resolving the Transdniester problem in a way which would consolidate Moldova's independence and sovereignty. The Communists will understand that on the contrary, Moscow wants a solution that will weaken Moldova and grant Russia the role of a permanent referee between Moldova and Transdniester -- with troops on the ground. The Western powers undoubtedly will realize the danger that here in Moldova a second Kaliningrad region might appear -- a Russian military exclave far from Russia itself, which will allow Russia to deploy troops in the region," Socor said.
In the wake of the 11 September attacks against the U.S. and the subsequent U.S.-led war on terrorism, fears arose that weapons stockpiled in Transdniester could end up in the hands of international terrorist organizations.
Rudolf Perina, special U.S. envoy to the region, said in Chisinau on 17 April that the U.S. supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Moldova. Perina said the Transdniester dispute should be resolved within the Moldovan state.
Analysts say that now, following the U.S. murmurs of support, there is increased hope that Moldova can resolve its conflict with the Transdniester separatists. But it falls to the Moldovan people alone to see whether they can preserve their frail democracy -- and their state.