Less than a year after the country's last elections, the Republic of Moldova finds itself at a crossroads once again. The "Twitter revolution" in Chisinau last April that made waves in the international media mirrored, somehow, the 2004 Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine. It took six years for the Ukrainians to turn their clocks back, when they elected Viktor Yanukovych -- the main adversary of the Orange revolutionaries -- president earlier this year. Moldova's pro-Western coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, which formed a slim majority in parliament and a pro-reform government a year ago, may have an even shorter lifespan.
Authorities in Chisinau have scheduled a September referendum on how to elect the country's president, and they are likely to schedule new parliamentary elections for sometime in November. This round of legislative elections was prompted when lawmakers failed to elect a president after repeated attempts last July, prompting the current constitutional crisis. If the fragile coalition of four parties that essentially only had one thing in common -- a desire to defeat the Communists -- collapses, it is very likely the Communists will return to power.
In that case, Moldova would join the growing list of countries in Russia's "near abroad" whose pro-Western reform efforts failed. Ironically, these things are happening at a time when Washington's "reset" policy has apparently produced much-improved relations with Russia and EU members seem to be announcing new energy, military, and trade deals with the Kremlin every day.
Like in Ukraine and Georgia, the main focus of the Western donors in Moldova is on the central government's policies and upper-echelon reforms. Less attention is given to strengthening and support of the four pillars that should contribute to long-lasting reforms in post-totalitarian countries: civil society, independent media, judiciary, and local public administration.
In this piece, however, I'd like to focus on media and civil-society matters. Independent media outlets are rightly considered the watchdogs of any democratic society. However, in CIS countries, after decades of Soviet rule, these watchdogs are -- at best -- young and inexperienced. Even where they are allowed to operate without undue interference, they do not have sufficient strength or professionalism. They are always vulnerable to being turned from watchdogs into the attack dogs of the ruling parties.
Media Does Matter
This has certainly been the case in Moldova. Here, the majority of independent media (along with nongovernmental organizations, including think tanks and universities) found themselves in difficult straits during the eight years (2001-09) of Communist rule. Only a few outlets and NGOs reported on corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power by officials during these years. The vast majority were either restricted, persecuted, destroyed, or co-opted by the Communist authorities.
Although it was a tough environment for investigating and reporting, some human rights groups and media outlets -- with the support of some Western donors but mostly relying on the dedication and courage of certain individuals -- were in a position to report on the election fraud of 2009 and the other abuses of power that culminated in the mass protests in April of that year. They continued to report on the brutal suppression of those protests and the arrests, torture, and even killings of demonstrators by the Communist-backed law-enforcement agencies. All this pressure and the sacrifices of the young Moldovans who took to Chisinau's main square forced repeat elections in July 2009 that brought the current liberal coalition to power.
But in the wake of those elections, some important changes began. A good number of professionals from the nascent NGO community were recruited by the new coalition to enter parliament or work in the government. As a result, in many cases the NGOs they left were less comfortable criticizing state institutions and less motivated to do so. Many who remained in the NGOs felt that criticizing the authorities would only help the Communists in their bid to regain power.
The same thing happened in the media. It was one thing to criticize former Communist President Vladimir Voronin or his old, Soviet-style apparatchiks, but quite another to criticize former colleagues who are now in politics -- or your own relative who happens to be a minister or a friend who is in parliament. Worse, according to some reports, some of the new politicians have begun acquiring their own "independent" media outlets, either directly or by proxy. Sometimes these deals are even touted as examples of "foreign investment" in Moldova!
Getting Beneath The Surface
Although the ruling coalition is described in shorthand as liberal and pro-Western, a closer look at those who sit in parliament and occupy government offices reveals a much more mixed picture. In addition to some honest and principled reformers, there are former members of Communist governments, former Soviet-era diplomats and KGB officers, and some just plain opportunists. It is no wonder no post-independence governments or legislatures -- including the current ones -- have had any real interest in adopting serious lustration legislation.
Moldovans often complain that their country was not treated during the 1990s like the Baltic states were, but they don't acknowledge that their politicians lacked the courage of their Baltic counterparts and did not, like them, restrict the participation of the Soviet-era nomenclature in government from the very beginning of independence. The Baltic states have, over the last two decades, often selected presidents, parliament speakers, and other top officials from their diasporas abroad. Many of these officials were even born in exile.
But Moldova never made any significant attempts to recruit ethnic-Moldovan professionals from abroad. Instead, they have been viewed suspiciously as outsiders or, worse, even as traitors. In this regard, it seems the most Moldovans simply have not cut their ties with the Soviet past.
That is precisely why it is crucially important for Moldova to have a strong and vibrant civil society, including independent media, NGOs, and universities. Otherwise, each time there is election, the politicians who gain power will be tempted to adopt authoritarian means or follow the path of Vladimir Putin, who, by the way, is considered a role model by some Moldovan leaders.
During the Communist period, it was common to see elected officials or other public figures joining the Communist Party. That is why it was embarrassing and depressing on July 1 to see that nine rectors of Moldova's main public universities unanimously and publicly declared their support for the Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader is the current prime minister. I was reminded of the days when whole enterprises, collective farms, and universities raised their hands to support some Communist resolution or to praise Leonid Brezhnev's latest book. I couldn't help but think that this was another sign of the Soviet-era vassal mentality that remains engrained in Moldovans, even intellectuals such as these rectors.
Moldovan civil society and media, of course, must do the heavy lifting in forming a sustainable democratic country themselves. They must continue to expose corruption and abuses and incompetence. They must continue to hold officials to account for their campaign promises, even as they continue to criticize Communist policies and remind the public that the Communist Party remains the main obstacle to Moldova's democratic development.
Every society needs institutionalized checks and balances -- including Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Moldova stands at a crossroads now, and Western donors should focus on finding ways to help develop the pillars upon which any sustained democratization effort must rest.
Vlad Spanu served in the Moldovan foreign service from 1992 to 2001 and is the president of the Washington-based Moldova Foundation that, among others, sponsors the news portal moldova.org. He coauthored "The Historical Dictionary of Moldova." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL