Moldovan politics makes strange bedfellows, as shown by recent protests in Chisinau. But the unlikely alliance of pro-Europe and pro-Russia parties is fueling concerns that Moscow will emerge the winner.
The main parties behind the protests -- the Socialist Party (PSRM), Our Party (PN), and the Dignity and Truth (DA) party -- have found some common ground. They staunchly oppose what they consider a corrupt political elite, blaming it for failing to lift Moldova's citizens out of deep poverty. They seek early elections and the dismissal of the country's newly approved government, which they accuse of being a puppet of that corrupt elite. And they're united in calling for the arrest of a hugely powerful oligarch and media mogul accused of involvement in a massive fraud that shook Moldovans' faith in government.
But their positions on the opposite end of the political spectrum are what makes their union so improbable. The Socialist Party and Our Party are pro-Russian, and have made no attempt to hide their desire to move closer to Moscow; Dignity and Truth is pro-European, and wants to maintain Moldova's course toward Brussels, and away from its Soviet past.
The leaders of the three parties -- the Socialist Party's Igor Dodon, Our Party's Renato Usatii, and Dignity and Truth's Andrei Nastase -- have spearheaded the recent protests, which erupted over the approval of Prime Minister Pavel Filip and his new government.
Analyst Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation explains that the three have teamed up out of convenience, and based on their mutual belief that oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc wields too much power over the current government.
"This is a short-term tactical alliance," Socor tells RFE/RL. "In the vision of those who made this alliance, they aim to topple the current government formally led by Pavel Filip, but actually controlled by Plahotniuc."
The controversial oligarch is seen by many as a main figure behind a massive fraud discovered last year. Around $1 billion, accounting for one-eighth of Moldova's GDP, disappeared from Moldova's banking system. The ensuing scandal led to the fall of the government in October, and the approval of Filip and his government came after two unsuccessful attempts to choose a new prime minister.
To the protest leaders -- pro-Russian or pro-European -- Filip's government too closely resembles the one voted out by Parliament three months ago, and which "not only the protest leaders but also probably a large majority of the Moldovan society views as a manifestation of organized crime and of a captive state," Socor says.
The three protest leaders have gone to great lengths to reassure their voters that once their immediate goal is achieved and early elections are announced, they will go their separate ways. But the alliance is nonetheless cause for consternation on both sides of Moldova's Russia-Europe divide.
Poised For Victory
The problem, for many, is that in the event the joint effort does succeed in forcing new elections, the pro-Russian parties are in the best position to gain.
A recent opinion poll showed that if elections were held today, the Socialist Party (with nearly 17 percent of the vote) and Our Party (with just under 15 percent) would garner the most votes.
Victory would put them in position to form the next government, and threaten to once again unravel Moldova's efforts to chart its own course since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In a country with a three-quarter Romanian-speaking majority, which on the surface identifies more closely with Europe, the pro-Russian parties have steadily grown in influence. Their rise is seen as an indication of growing nostalgia for more prosperous Soviet times and disappointment with ever-elusive EU integration, and also as a consequence of public dissatisfaction with successive pro-European governments that failed to improve living standards despite signing an Association Agreement with Brussels in 2014.
Pro-Russian leaders Dodon and Usatii strongly opposed Moldova's signing of that agreement, and are advocating membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union instead.
Dodon's Socialist Party made a strong showing in its debut election in November 2014, winning 20 percent of the vote on the back of its slogan "Together with Russia." Huge banners showing Dodon together with Russian President Vladimir Putin featured heavily in the party's campaign.
But with the Communist Party refusing any alliance with the Socialists ahead of the election, Dodon's party was left stranded upon winning, and pro-European parties were able to form the doomed minority government.
Usatii's arrival on the scene has the potential to alter the landscape enough to put a Moscow-friendly government in power.
Usatii returned to Moldova in 2014 after a decade spent in Russia. His last attempt to make his mark in Moldovan elections fell short when his pro-Russian Homeland party was banned just days ahead of the November 2014 parliamentary elections by order of the Supreme Court on the grounds that it had illegally received funding from abroad.
In February, his next effort -- Our Party -- was approved, and after having left Moldova in the wake of his election ban he returned to run for mayor of Balti, Moldova's second-largest city. He won the June election after spending generous amounts of money on charitable acts.
Criticism For Everyone
Both Dodon and Usatii have been traveling extensively to Russia, and were seen together on a plane returning from Moscow on January 20, just hours before launching the current protests outside Parliament as lawmakers hurriedly approved Filip's government.
The two have played down their anti-EU stance during the protests, instead focusing on their professed anticorruption fervor. But the effort has done little to diminish critics' suspicions that their ultimate goal is to bring Moldova back in Moscow's orbit once they accede to power.
Seeing Ukraine's struggles to shake off the Russian yoke, highlighted by a Russian-fueled separatist war in eastern Ukraine, the palpable fear among Europe-leaning Moldovans is that the same scenario could be repeated in their country.
"You cannot fight corruption and an oligarchic system together with two extremely dubious representatives of this very system -- one of them a former interloper and a current political adventurer such as Renato Usatii," Moldovan political commentator Petru Bogatu tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "You cannot clean out your house, your table, with dirty hands."
Meanwhile the pro-European Dignity and Truth party -- which finished a distant third in the recent opinion poll with 9 percent -- stands accused by critics of selling out despite Nastase's repeated declarations that he remains a staunch pro-European whose immediate goal is to release Moldova from oligarch Plahotniuc's "captivity."
According to Bogatu, Nastase has cast a shadow on Moldova's pro-EU camp, and risks his political future by teaming up with Dodon and Usatii.
"For a Moldovan citizen who is a pro-European, a unionist and a democrat, cohabitation with a filo-Russian interloper and a favorite of Putin, even directed against an oligarch such as Plahotniuc, is like you would join the Islamic State group to topple [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad," Bogatu says.
Against The Wall
As the Kremlin weighed in on the crisis, announcing on January 22 that President Putin had discussed "the worsening situation in Moldova" with permanent members of the Russian Security Council, Moldovan Prime Minister Filip looked West for support.
Romania, the United States, and the European Union have expressed support for his new government, while urging it to implement urgent pro-EU and anticorruption reforms.
But looking for more than just words, Filip traveled on January 26 to Romania -- with which Moldova shares a common language and history.
He left Bucharest with the promise of a $65 million tranche from an overall $162 million assistance package. But the lifeline came with a caveat: Filip needed to provide evidence that the new Moldovan government was serious about reform before the money would be sent.
As the three unlikely allies prepare to take their protest to the next level -- including a meeting with Parliament speaker Andrian Candu on January 29 to discuss their demand that Parliament hold an emergency session to dissolve the government and call early elections -- all eyes are on Filip to see if he can deliver.