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Moldova: A Political Battle, With Christmas At Its Center

By Claire Bigg and Viorica Zaharia Christmas trees have been going up in cities worldwide - but Chisinau must wait (AFP) CHISINAU -- With Christmas just days away, most Western cities are resplendent with twinkling lights, wreaths, and lavishly adorned Christmas trees.

Chisinau, by contrast, conspicuously lacks a tree. In its place: a bitter political feud that is spoiling many a Moldovan's holiday spirit.

The dispute began earlier this month when Moldova's Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, declared that the traditional holiday tree would appear on Chisinau's main square only on December 30 -- days after Western Christmas.

Chisinau's new, pro-reform mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, had different plans.

"We thought that the Christmas tree shouldn't come after Christmas," says Lucia Culev, the deputy mayor of the Moldovan capital. "The mayor then ordered that a tree be erected and decorated by December 23, so that December 24 or 25 could be a proper holiday."


On December 9, accordingly, a Christmas tree went up on Chisinau's main square. But the mayor's initiative was short-lived. That night, police removed the tree and blocked off the site. In televised remarks, the city's police chief declared he had no intention of obeying the mayor's directive, even if it meant breaking the law.

Like Russia, Moldova officially celebrates Christmas on January 7, according to the old Julian calendar. But growing numbers of Moldovans now prefer to observe Christmas on December 25, particularly in the capital, where the tree's removal has upset many.

"All European countries put up Christmas trees as soon as December 1," said one woman in the city center. "Even in Moscow, in Russia, they have Christmas trees, beautiful ones. Why not here?"

"I would like the Christmas tree to come earlier, because it's a national holiday and it should be celebrated in a bigger way," a man added. "December 30 is too late; people travel to the city center and have nowhere to go. Some go to expensive restaurants where they can have a good time. But the Christmas tree is available to everyone; that's where most people converge."

East Vs. West, Old Vs. New

Nearly all Moldovans are Orthodox Christians. Some are loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar. Others, however, are members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas according to the new Gregorian calendar, on December 25.

Voronin's decision to postpone the tree's debut until the final days of the year belies not only his pro-Russian stance but his communist loyalties as well. In the Soviet era, New Year's was the main winter holiday, and fir trees traditionally went up on or around New Year's Eve.

Advocates of the December 25 Christmas say there is no sense celebrating the birth of Christ according to one calendar and the new year according to another.

The row has a certain comical dimension. But Igor Botzan, a Moldovan political analyst, says alarming tendencies lurk behind the squabble.

"It would be very funny if it weren't so sad," says Botzan. "In this country, no initiative, not even holidays, can be carried out without the president's approval. This dispute has to be viewed within the context of the ongoing conflict between the central authorities and the opposition."

Political Feud

This is, in fact, the first time Chisinau residents have been denied a Christmas tree before December 25. Voronin's government has not publicly taken responsibility for the tree's removal. But many view the move as retribution for the election this year of 29-year-old Chirtoaca, a dynamic opposition figure, who took the post after years of communist mayoral rule.

"The ruling party's popularity is dropping. It's lost almost 20 percent over the past two years," Botzan says. "That's why during the [June] local elections, the president declared the end of the political partnership with the opposition, and launched a fierce campaign against the opposition."

Many see the Christmas tree ban as a direct result of that campaign. They say it can also be interpreted as a hostile gesture toward neighboring Romania. Relations between the two governments soured after Romania vowed to ease legislation allowing Moldovans to obtain Romanian citizenship, prompting Voronin to accuse Bucharest of undermining his country's national security.

In the meantime, Chisinau residents may have to brace for more spoiled celebrations. Christmas is the second holiday to be marred by political feuding. On October 14, border guards attempted to bar Romanian mayors from reaching Chisinau, where Chirtoaca had invited them to attend City Day festivities.

City Day happened to coincide with Wine Day, a celebration overseen by Voronin -- and no Romanians, seemingly, were welcome.

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