CHISINAU -- The chances that Moldova's November 30 legislative elections could end up provoking legal challenges and even protests keep going up.
The Appeals Court disqualified the pro-Russian Patria (Homeland) party on November 27, a day after the country's Central Election Commission asked for the party to be thrown out of the race, claiming it had illegally used "foreign funds" to finance its campaign. The commission has frozen the party's accounts.
The decision can still be appealed in the Supreme Court by the evening of November 28.
A November 26 video has also appeared on a Moldovan site that purported to include audio of Patria party head Renato Usatii admitting that he was being controlled by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).
Moldovan security forces detained five people who are suspected of planning postelection violence. Police claimed they confiscated pistols, grenade launchers, and undisclosed sums of money. They said as many as 15 people who are allegedly members of an outlawed pro-Russian organization were involved in the plot.
Even before these developments, Moldova's pro-European ruling coalition and outside observers were warning of the possibility of postelection demonstrations.
A recent report by the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw said, "in the event of the pro-Russian forces losing, we may primarily expect the election results to be contested, as well as mass demonstrations or even lengthy protests both in Chisinau and in Gagauzia and Balti."
The Moldovan government has already given the opposition a powerful potential weapon for such protests by deciding to open just five polling stations in Russia for the election, although about 1 million Moldovan citizens are living there. Russian media have already been accusing the government of doing so in order to "ensure a relatively legitimate means of falsification."
"The only one who is interested in destabilizing Moldova is, undoubtedly, Russia," Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, says. "A Moldovan pseudo-Maidan would play very much into Russia's hands."
The November 30 elections are a stern test for Moldova's pro-European ruling coalition, a vote that could determine the country's geopolitical trajectory for the foreseeable future.
"If before everyone thought it was possible to adapt and find a stable balance between East and West, now, I think, voters really must make a choice between East and West," says former Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi.
"This is because the 'reset' in relations between Washington and Moscow was not successful and because there are processes going on in the region that no one would like to see repeated in Moldova. So it is not a choice of the 'lesser evil,' as is so often the case in democratic countries -- but is a choice of direction for the long-term future," Baconschi adds.
What The Polls Say
It is impossible to tell from the opinion polls what kind of ruling coalition might emerge from the elections. The pro-European Liberal Democratic Party and the Moscow-leaning Communist Party are leading with about 21 percent each. They are followed by the Democratic Party at 18 percent, and the Liberal Party and the Socialist Party at about 10 percent each.
The pro-Russian Patria party had polled about 12 percent. A party must receive 6 percent of the vote to enter parliament.
Collectively, the parties of the current pro-European ruling coalition -- together with the Liberal Party, which withdrew from the coalition in February 2013 but supports the country's European ambitions -- have about 49 percent, according to the polls.
The solidly pro-customs union Socialist Party, together with the now-disqualified Patria, had polled about 22 percent. The Communist Party, which has traditionally been pro-Moscow but is currently divided and weakened, is polling 21 percent.
It is unclear whether the Communists would be willing to form a coalition with any of the other parties, particularly since the Socialist Party is headed by Igor Dodon, who split from the Communists in 2011. In fact, there has been speculation the Communists might find it easier to ally with the Democratic Party of former parliament speaker Marian Lupu.
Although there are many parties on the ballot, the choice really comes down to one between further European integration or a turn to the East and closer ties with the Russian-led customs union.
"It is a decisive election for the future of Moldova, absolutely and unquestionably," analyst Socor says. "For the first time in its 23 years of independence, Moldova has the opportunity to finally tear itself away from Russia and decisively and irreversibly turn in the direction of the West."
Paris-based analyst Nicu Popescu, however, notes that it is just as likely that the election returns -- and the resulting policy -- could remain muddled.
Rather than a stark East-West choice, he sees a choice between "rapid Europeanization" under a pro-European government or a return to "multivectoral politics," in which Chisinau tries to steer a middle course between Russia and Europe. Moldova pursued such a policy under former Communist President Vladimir Voronin prior to 2009.
Russia Uses Its Leverage
Since 2009, Moldova has been headed by coalitions of pro-European parties. The government has achieved some remarkable successes in the framework of the European Union's Eastern Partnership program. Most notably, it has signed an Association Agreement with the EU and has achieved a visa-free travel regime with the bloc. The EU is Moldova's largest trading partner (45 percent), followed by Russia at 25 percent.
But the government suffers from the perception of widespread and unaddressed corruption. Many Moldovans feel their hopes of 2009 have been disappointed.
At the same time, the government's European-integration successes have raised Russia's hackles. Moscow has said it views any alteration in Moldova's neutral status as unacceptable.
Moscow has used its leverage to tip the scales toward parties oriented toward Russia and its customs union. It exercises considerable leverage in the area of natural-gas prices. It has exploited Chisinau's dependence on Moldovan migrant workers in Russia. And it has exacerbated tensions in Moldova's pro-Moscow separatist region, Transdniester. It has hinted that it could lift its embargo of Moldova wines and other goods if Chisinau changes its geopolitical orientation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a high-visibility meeting earlier this month with Socialist Party head Dodon. The party's billboards show photos of that meeting and bear the slogan "Together with Russia."
Dodon has received considerable support from the Russian state media that still dominates Moldova's airwaves. Russian crooner and State Duma Deputy Iosif Kobzon has held concerts to support him.
"It is noticeable how Russia is trying to exert pressure, including by playing the card of Moldovan migrant workers and threatening to expel them," Elmar Brok, head of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, says. "Interfering in Moldovan politics is another method by which Russia -- as it did in the case of Ukraine -- is trying to prevent Moldova from independently making the decision to follow a European path."
The Controversy Around Patria
The newcomer on Moldova's political stage is the pro-Russian Patria party, headed by 36-year-old businessman Usatii. The party was registered only in September, and it has been accused of being a "Russian project" since the beginning.
Usatii made his fortune in Russia and returned to Moldova in April. He has been running a well-funded campaign that is tightly focused on the topic of corruption.
"The first job to do," Usatii told journalists in September, "we will jail the oligarchs and the first such jailbird will be Mr. Filat [former prime minister and head of the Liberal Democratic Party]. I am announcing for everybody to hear -- upon our coming to parliament, Filat will cease being a cover for oligarchs."
Usatii has called the policy of EU integration a "Trojan horse" aimed at ultimately uniting Moldova with Romania.
But Moscow's tough policies on Moldova in the past and the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine have left many Moldovans wary of Russia. The Socialist Party's openly pro-Moscow position has failed to attract a large part of the Communist Party's traditional base. Although the Patria party favors the Kremlin's customs union, it campaigns largely on the populist corruption issue and tries to avoid being pegged as pro-Russian.
For now, however, Moldova's fate is in the hands of voters, who have traditionally been overlooked in the country's politics, says Moldova Foundation head Vlad Spanu.
"In Moldova, the voter is a little pawn who is only used during election campaigns," Spanu says. "He is often deceived, tricked by various concerts, bought with bags of groceries, and then they forget about him for four years until once again the need for his vote arises."