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Moldova's Twitter Activist Under House Arrest

Natalia Morar speaks to RFE/RL in Chisinau in December 2007
Natalia Morar speaks to RFE/RL in Chisinau in December 2007
Like many 25-year-olds, Natalia Morar blogs. She has 152 posts, six "userpics," and three virtual gifts from friends. The last virtual gift was a detention slip. Before that, someone sent her handcuffs.

The virtual gifts -- all sent with plenty of :) :) :) -- were meant as a joke. But now that Morar is under house arrest for masterminding Moldova's "Twitter revolution," a 20,000-strong flash protest that stormed the country's parliament building on April 7, the gifts seem like warnings.

The street protests followed the announcement that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's ruling Communist Party had won more than half the votes in the April 5 parliamentary elections, a result that would allow it unilaterally to pick a president to succeed Voronin as well as a prime minister.

Morar's lawyer, Natalia Molosag, told RFE/RL on April 16 that her client could be charged with “inciting mass disorder" for her role in the demonstration, during which the offices of the president and the parliamentary building were ransacked and nearly 200 protestors were arrested.

Morar says her role in the protest was nonviolent, and her lawyer told RFE/RL that she was "worried" about the charges of "extreme violence, pogroms, in which she definitely did not take part." The charge carries an eight- to 15-year sentence.

Amid rumors of mass arrests of protesters and allegations that authorities had tortured some of those arrested, Morar announced on her blog on April 9 that "information about my arrest was false. I'm all right."

But Molosag says she doubts that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's promise to free the detained demonstrators would help Morar. On April 15, Morar's husband Ilya Barabanov used the blog to tell friends that his wife was safe but is afraid to contact anyone outside of her immediate family.

Exiled From Russia

Before returning to her native Moldova in 2007 and founding the Internet forum ThinkMoldova, Morar worked as an investigative journalist for the Russian magazine "Novoye vremya," where she covered politics (she still freelances for them).

Morar told "The Independent" that people close to Russia's Federal Security Service warned her many times that her political investigations -- like her article on government officials' involvement in money-laundering schemes -- could cause problems.

After exposing a Kremlin fund that was secretly financing political parties during parliamentary elections in early 2007, Morar was exiled from Russia. She was a permanent resident of the country, a graduate of Moscow State University, and had applied for Russian citizenship.

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, called the exile -- which was also justified on the grounds that Morar was a threat to national security -- "a new form of censorship."

Morar pointed to the billions Russia spends on national security and told "The Independent" that "it's fairly worrying if a young girl can threaten it." Yakovenko told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he was "ashamed" that a "large, strong country is afraid of a small journalist."

Although she has been unable to report in Russia for over two years, Morar thinks the Kremlin is behind the Moldovan authorities' crackdown after April's unrest. It was only after Russia "expressed strong support for Moldova's position on the elections, and condemned the protests, that they started targeting us," she said.
The protests over disputed election results turned violent

Ties between Russia and Moldova are strong. On April 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov personally commented on the country's recent protests, saying that they were caused by foreign intervention.

In March, Moldovan authorities protested its inclusion in the European Union-sponsored Eastern Partnership program, which Russia opposes. Russia agreed to give Moldova 50,000 tons of fuel for "humanitarian aid" during a meeting between the two presidents in March.

Cafe Plan

Morar never expected a plan hatched by six friends in a small Chisinau cafe would receive worldwide attention. "We decided to organize a flash mob" by "using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS" text messages, but "we expected at the most a couple hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues," Morar told "The Guardian." When she and her friends arrived on the square, they found an "unbelievable" crowd of 20,000.

On April 7, Morar described the protest on her blog: "Six people. Ten minutes for creativity and action. A few hours of information on networks, Facebook, blogs, SMS to friends, and an e-mail newsletter. All of the organization through the Internet. On the street came out 15,000 young people!... Only the young, and no parties." The post has 724 comments.

"Not only did we underestimate the power of Twitter and the Internet," Morar told "The Guardian," "we also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the government's policies and electoral fraud."

After the protests President Vladimir Voronin and Moldova's Constitutional Court called for a recount. Results will be announced on April 17.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report

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