Moldova's pro-Western opposition has resumed mass rallies against the governing Communist Party, with several thousand protesters accusing the government of trying to prevent a referendum on whether Moldova should join the European Union and NATO. A four-month-long protest last year ended in an uneasy deal mediated by the Council of Europe. But protesters calling for the resignation of the pro-Moscow Communists yesterday warned that demonstrations will once again become a regular occurrence.
Prague, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Up to 5,000 people gathered yesterday in the main square of the capital, Chisinau, to protest against the country's Communist government.
Protesters were answering a call from the opposition Christian Democratic Party (PPCD) to demonstrate against the government's decision to block a referendum on the country's future integration into the European Union and NATO.
The Central Electoral Commission last week refused to accept the pro-Western Christian Democrats' initiative to organize a consultative referendum on Moldova's quest for membership in the EU and NATO.
The commission attributed its refusal to Moldova's neutral status, ruling that its constitution bans the country from joining any military alliance.
But Christian Democrat leader Iurie Rosca said the Communists, who favor closer ties with Russia, are trying to block the referendum because they are afraid Moldovans will overwhelmingly vote in favor of joining the West.
Rosca told demonstrators: "The last straw was the Central Electoral Commission's decision to reject our initiative to organize a consultative national referendum on Moldova's membership in the European Union and NATO. It was very clearly known that the answer of Moldova's sovereign people would be categorically, 'Yes, we want into the EU. Yes, we want into the North Atlantic alliance!'"
Moldova, a country of 4.5 million, was part of Romania before its annexation by the Soviet Union during World War II, and two-thirds of Moldovans are of Romanian descent.
But the country, which became independent in 1991, is also host to a strong Russian-speaking minority that fears Moldova might seek reunification with neighboring Romania.
Despite feeble general interest in unionist ideas over the past decade, some Moldovans have, indeed, been looking with renewed interest toward Romania after Bucharest last year secured an invitation to join NATO and gained approval, in principle, from the European Union for becoming a member in 2007.
But while yesterday's protest was seen as an expression of many Moldovans' desire to align themselves with the West rather than Moscow, the impoverished nation stands little chance of qualifying for membership in either the EU or NATO in the near future.
Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries, with an average monthly wage of just $30, and its backward economy is being controlled by cronies of the governing party.
Furthermore, Moldova's unresolved, decade-long dispute with its pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester has raised questions about the ability of the government to maintain control over its own territory.
Demonstrators yesterday also accused the ruling Communists -- who came to power in 2001 on a promise to alleviate poverty -- of destroying democracy.
Carrying Moldovan and Romanian flags, as well as U.S., NATO, and EU banners, they called on the international community to prevent the country from sliding back into totalitarianism.
Some participants told RFE/RL that they rejected what they said were attempts by Communist President Vladimir Voronin to bring Chisinau under Moscow's influence once again:
"We came here to defend our civil rights, to [say we want to] live in Europe, where we, indeed, are. This is Europe's land. We do not want Russia [or] Siberia, where our ancestors have been deported. We came to say no to Voronin and his gang. They should leave us alone, to arrange our lives as we wish."
Christian Democratic leader Rosca is pledging to stage demonstrations every Sunday until the Communist government resigns.
Similar rallies were staged last year from January until April, bringing tens of thousands of people into the streets of the capital to protest an attempt by the government to make Russian an official language alongside Moldovan. The rallies ended only after mediation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which called on both sides to adhere to democratic norms.
But Rosca said yesterday that the Communists have not observed the PACE recommendations. The government did not officially comment on yesterday's demonstration. But newspapers close to the ruling Communist Party have accused Rosca's group of planning to overthrow the democratically elected government.
Some critics last year also pointed out that, while outspoken, PPCD supporters represent only a minority of Moldova's voters.
The PPCD itself, which won only 11 mandates in Moldova's 101-seat parliament, has only limited political power.
Rosca has called for the backing of other opposition parties and movements, but only the nonparliamentary Liberal Party has pledged support.
However, without more consistent political support, the Christian Democrats are unlikely to become a serious threat to the Communists, who control 71 mandates in parliament.