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Chisinau Unrest Exposes Moldova's Fault Lines

Protesters wave the Moldovan flag near the government building in Chisinau on April 8
Protesters wave the Moldovan flag near the government building in Chisinau on April 8
By Robert Coalson
On April 6 and 7, a crowd of thousands of mostly young Moldovans erupted into violence to protest the preliminary results of the country's April 5 parliamentary elections. The storming of the parliament and presidential residence were the first violent political actions in the country's post-Soviet history and came as a surprise to virtually all observers.

As the smoke clears, the country is coming to grips with the question of how events took such a turn.

There is no shortage of explanations for what happened in Moldova this week. Everyone, it seems, can point the finger at someone.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has said repeatedly he believes the protests were sparked by Romania.

"The neighboring state, Romania, has been involved in all these events. We have proof of that,” Voronin said. “Romania's ambassador will be declared persona non grata today. This is a political step meant to make the Romanians understand that we have our own independent state, Moldova. They shouldn't stick their noses in our boiling pot, as we Moldovans say."

Speaking on Russian state television, State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Babakov, of the A Just Russia party, repeated Voronin's charges against Romania. Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said many foreign countries, "including the United States," have the expertise to carry out uprisings such as what transpired in Moldova and argued that "the same tactics" were used against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, as well as in Ukraine and Georgia.

Some in the opposition, however, think Voronin instigated the unrest to justify a crackdown and secure his hold on power. At a meeting between Voronin and opposition leaders on April 7, Our Moldova party leader Serafim Urechean raised his concerns with Voronin.

“I am very concerned that all these actions were organized today [April 7] by the special services, because you can see a logic behind them, a reason,” Urechean said.

“Are you saying this seriously?” Voronin asked.

“Yes, this is very serious,” Urechean said. “I am strongly convinced that this was organized by the special services. Which one? I don't know. You are in charge of the country and you have to answer this."

Volatile Youth

Others see the violence as the actions of spontaneous, leaderless youths who are frustrated with the waning of Moldovan democracy. Former Moldovan President Petru Lucinski told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that there is no need to look further to explain the unrest.

"I see it as an unorganized youth movement,” Lucinski said. “On the 6th, it was OK, but on the 7th there were more people coming and they could not be controlled. They didn't have any leaders. One part went in one direction, a peaceful one. And another part took a violent turn."

What is clear is that Moldova is a deeply divided country facing dire economic straits. The protesters were primarily Western-oriented, urban youths who are frustrated by the country's Communist rulers. The Communists, however, are supported by an aging, largely rural electorate that is more comfortable looking to Russia for support.

Remittances from Moldovans working abroad -- many in the European Union, many in Russia -- once made up one-third of GDP, but that source of revenue is drying up as the global economic crisis deepens.

On top of this, Voronin's second and final term as president is drawing to a close and the new parliament will choose his successor. Analysts believe Voronin intends to maintain his hold on power, perhaps by becoming parliament speaker.

In addition, there is evidence that the country's Communist Party itself is divided between the conservative, Russia-oriented followers of Voronin and a younger generation that favors greater Moldovan integration into European structures. That faction is headed by parliament speaker Marian Lupu and Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. In the present crisis, however, the party has been united.

Russian Influence

All these divisions leave Moldova, a country with weak and underdeveloped political institutions, vulnerable to domestic and foreign manipulation.

Although Voronin has generally tried to follow a path toward integration with the EU, he has tried to do so without antagonizing Moscow. However, with his grip on power in transition, some analysts think he may be inclined to strengthen relations with the Kremlin.

Moldova is among the six Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member countries that will be formally included in the EU's Eastern Partnership at a summit in Prague on May 7. Russia has harshly criticized the EU initiative as an attempt to set up a sphere of influence among the traditionally Russia-friendly countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Russian Duma Deputy Babakov told Russian state television that the violence in Chisinau could have been avoided if Moldova had been "better integrated" into the CIS and other Russia-dominated regional structures.

Nicu Popescu, a researcher at the European Council for Foreign Affairs in London, told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that Russia will likely benefit most from this week's events in Moldova, at least in the short term.

"Under these conditions, the only beneficiary of this could be the Russian Federation,” Popescu said. “We can draw some parallels between the current events and the protests in Ukraine in 2002. That action, called Ukraine Without Kuchma, was brutally suppressed. And those events in Ukraine in 2002 pushed President [Leonid] Kuchma to become more authoritarian, closer to the Russian Federation and to make more concessions. But it also radicalized the opposition."

Popescu added that in response to the unrest, Voronin will likewise become more authoritarian, meaning that Moldova will be increasingly isolated from the West and, therefore, dependent on Russia.

However, he added, this is not inevitable. "What Moldova needs today is a negotiated solution -- a solution in which the Communist Party, the opposition parties, and civil society come together to the negotiating table under the mediation of the European Union to defuse the crisis and find a peaceful solution to strengthen Moldovan democracy and prevent the country from becoming isolated from regional processes," Popescu said.

At present, though, that seems unlikely. The European Union has been largely silent on the Moldovan crisis, issuing on April 8 a tepid statement urging "proper respect for freedom of the media and freedom of expression."

Analyst Andrew Wilson, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters the same day that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana should mediate in Moldova. "The EU should go and it should go now," Wilson was quoted as saying. "But, yes, that would annoy the hell out of Russia."

RFE/RL's Moldova Service contributed to this report

Robert Coalson

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