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Moldova Braces For Another Contentious Election

  • Gregory Feifer

Flying party flags in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, ahead of the end of campaigning on July 27

Flying party flags in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, ahead of the end of campaigning on July 27

No one in Moldova was prepared for what happened the last time Moldovans voted in parliamentary elections.

Protesters in the capital, Chisinau, set fire to parliament and ransacked the president's office. Police arrested hundreds. Reports alleged numerous beatings in custody and several deaths, something the authorities have denied.

The demonstrators objected to what they said were rigged elections. Official results gave the Communist Party nearly 50 percent of the vote.* But the party secured only 60 of the 61 seats in parliament needed to ensure it could select a successor to outgoing Communist President Vladimir Voronin. After opposition deputies twice blocked the ruling party's attempts to elect a president, Voronin was forced to dissolve parliament and call this week's snap elections.

Now Moldovans have begun voting in a repeat election to determine the country's political future.

But some of the critics who accused Moldova's Communist leadership of rigging the April vote and not wanting to integrate with the West insist those officials are continuing to commit violations in order to stay in power.

Clean-up after protesters ransacked the presidential building in April
There have been numerous reports of election-law violations in the intervening three months. In a series of interviews with RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, regional leaders across the country have alleged wide-ranging intimidation by the Communist Party, ballot stuffing, and paying for votes. There have also been widespread accusations of improper counting of absentee ballots: Up to one-quarter of impoverished Moldova's electorate lives and works abroad.

Tudor Cazacu, mayor of the village of Carabetovca in southern Moldova who is a member of the opposition Our Moldova Alliance (AMN), says Communist officials have been pressuring local authorities ahead of the vote.

"I've just been called in to the prosecutor's office for questioning -- that's how they treat us," Cazacu says. "We would like to engage in a civilized and democratic dialogue, but [the Communists] won't listen."

Anatol Zavalisca, the independent mayor of the city of Slobozia in central Moldova, says the Communist authorities have ordered businesses to threaten employees.

"People are afraid to campaign for the opposition," Zavalisca says. "They're told they'll be fired and that their spouses or children will also lose their jobs."

The Romanian Question

Zavalisca says opposition supporters have also been threatened with arrest. But he says the most common forms of intimidation are claims the opposition wants to unite Moldova with Romania.

Much of Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, and the two countries share a language and strong cultural ties. In April, Voronin accused Romania of helping orchestrate the demonstrations.

Last week, the president -- who has indicated he wants to remain close to power after stepping down and who had been elected to the powerful post of parliament speaker in the failed legislature that was dissolved -- warned Moldovans that the country's "existence depends" on a Communist victory.

Romanian President Traian Basescu has angered the Moldovan authorities by publicly supporting the opposition. But speaking to RFE/RL earlier this month, he rejected accusations his country is meddling in Moldova's politics.

"What I can tell you with certainty is that we have seen such events before," Basescu said. "We saw them in December 1989, when another Communist leader [Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu] failed to understand his own people and, furthermore, failed to understand the younger generation."

'Generation #'

More than anything, April's protests exposed a generational split in Moldova. Voronin is popular chiefly among elderly and rural voters in the former Soviet republic. The mostly young demonstrators accused the Communist Party of wanting to keep Moldova mired in the past. Believing closer ties with Romania and integration into the European Union are the country's best option, they surprised even themselves by bringing thousands onto the streets with the help of text messaging and Internet tools like Twitter.

Is Moldova caught in a generational split?
The generational struggle is playing out amid the backdrop of a competition for influence between the European Union and Russia. In May, the EU included Moldova in its Eastern Partnership program, which holds out the promise of greater economic integration and civil-society engagement. Moscow, on the other hand, offered Voronin a $500 million loan in June and has backed the Moldovan authorities' claims of outside interference aimed at undermining Moldova's sovereignty.

Although critics point out that Moscow backs a pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region, Transdniester, one of several ex-Soviet "frozen conflict" zones, many older Moldovans see Russia as their closest ally.

"People are scared," one Chisinau voter told RFE/RL to explain the mood of the vote. "They don't want the unification with Romania."

Tumbling Expectations?

Three main liberal opposition parties are running against the Communists, including the Democratic Party, recently formed by former Communist Marian Lupu after he split with the ruling party last month.

Polls have showed the Communist Party trailing the combined opposition. Many Moldovans believe the election's outcome will hinge on just how far the Communists will go to hold on to power.

Igor Botan of the Association for Participatory Democracy says he doesn't expect the voting to be free and fair.

"The big problem isn't voting day as much as the unfair campaign. The [Communist-controlled] media is brainwashing voters," Botan says. "The use of administrative resources is also important, as is the use of the police forces to intimidate the opposition. The impact on voters is considerable."

A delegation of independent elections monitors under the auspices of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO) was detained in Moldova on the eve of the election, with some monitors ordered to leave.

Aleksandr Chernenko, a spokesperson for the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that his group's delegation -- which included citizens of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan -- was stopped in Chisinau and given 24 hours to leave the country. He said ENEMO had received permission last week to send election monitors.

"The Moldovan authorities want to see less control over the elections," Chernenko said. "Most of these observers are not random people -- they have monitored dozens of elections in their own countries and abroad."

Campaigning for the elections ended on July 27.

* The original version of this story erroneously put the Communists' April vote tally at 60 percent. In fact, it was just under 50 percent. We regret the error.

RFE/RL's Moldovan and Ukrainian services contributed to this report
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