The life of social activists in Moldova today is fraught with paradoxes.
Few know this better than 42-year-old Oleg Brega, who has become a local celebrity in recent years for his in-your-face videos showing Moldova as it is, warts and all: politicians and their lavish lifestyles, cops explaining why cars with government plates can park wherever they like, long lines of people waiting outside a church for holy water from a tank connected by a frayed hose to an ordinary spigot.
His career is a reflection of Moldova's relatively new freedom to protest and to publish, although these freedoms are putting increasing pressure on the liberal governments that, albeit unevenly, allow them.
"These days many Moldovans participate in protests, sometimes without even announcing them in advance to the authorities," Brega tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "This was impossible when the communists were in power. That means a lot. That is progress."
"But this is also all that we have got," he adds.
Brega began his life as a social activist in 2001 after a Communist Party victory in dubious elections sparked mass protests. He hosted a short-lived radio call-in program in which ordinary Moldovans could air their grievances. The authorities shut him down.
In 2009, after another round of questionable elections, popular protests drove the Communist Party from power. Since then, various coalitions of pro-European integration parties have ruled the impoverished country. But a string of embarrassing corruption scandals and a widely perceived failure to improve the lives of ordinary citizens have left many disenchanted.
"Everybody is disappointed now because their expectations of the new regime were too high," Brega says. "But I had reservations even back then. I was skeptical. I knew that politicians defecting from the Communist Party wouldn't behave differently."
"And my worst fears came true," he adds. "The new rulers stole from us -- and more ruthlessly than the communists did."
Now Brega runs the Curaj TV website and YouTube channel, producing dozens of short videos each month, some of which gather hundreds of thousands of views.
However, as discontent with the pro-European parties grows, so does support for the pro-Russian parties waiting in the wings, including the Socialist Party headed by former Communist Party member Igor Dodon. Recent turmoil in parliament has repeatedly rocked the pro-European coalition and brought the country to the brink of early elections.
Asked whether he worries that his exposes could end up bringing authoritarian forces to power and derailing Moldova's Westward trajectory, Brega remains fundamentally idealistic.
"I am not afraid of early elections," he says. "And I'm not afraid to be in opposition to any government. If I survived eight years of communist government, I can survive anything. Democracy has never damaged any society, and elections are a way of getting more people involved."
So almost every day Brega straps on his helmet-mounted video camera and gets on his bike to create another video for Curaj TV.
Fellow Moldovan activist Angela Frolov, who campaigns for the rights of sexual minorities, is sure that Brega is playing an important role by showing her country "as it really is."
"He is very controversial in what he does," she says. "He doesn't leave anyone indifferent. Some people love him and others cannot stand him. But my personal opinion is we need more Moldovans like him. Definitely."
Brega worries about the apathy of the deeply conservative Moldovan public and the lack of substantial response to his activities.He and his fellow activists try to counter this by following the lead of some Russian and Belarusian protesters by carrying out "absurdist protests." Although these actions have shock value and gain superficial attention, they run the risk of further marginalizing the activists and distracting from the seriousness of their concerns.
Moreover, he says, increasingly the authorities are resorting to communist-like tactics such as charging protesters with "hooliganism." That is what is happening now to Anatol Matasaru, an ally of Brega's and regular contributor to the Curaj website. In late January, he sat with his pants down on a toilet in front of the National Anticorruption Center next to a pile of artificial feces while holding a sign that read simply,
WATCH: Moldova's Potty Protester Anatol Matasaru
But Brega says he intends to keep trying to make his voice heard and plans to continue his political career as well, despite failed campaigns for parliament and mayor of Chisinau in the last couple of years.
"Since [the protests of] 2009, I haven't considered emigrating," he says. "But if things here were to get much worse, the way they are in Russia, then… If we get an authoritarian regime here, a dictatorship like they have now in Russia, then I won't be able to resist for long."