This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 9 April 2009.
The demonstrations in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau after last Sunday’s elections are not like Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004. Most obviously, they have been far from peaceful. Nor have they been provoked by incontrovertible evidence of massive voting fraud. The demonstrators just don’t like the governing party: Moldova is the only European country where a nominally “Communist” party has won largely free and fair elections, in 2001 and 2005.
So why the protests? The Communists fought dirty in the campaign, but not as dirty as others in the region. Regional TV was harassed, but the main national opposition channel stayed open. Businesses were pressured to sever ties with the opposition and the president reminded voters none too subtly who would pay for their new schools. Nothing was done to make voting easier for the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans abroad, who were less likely to vote for the Communists.
But Moldova is still a relatively open country. Its people have access to Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian mass media. There is no single economic player of which ownership would effectively grant control of the whole country – like Gazprom in Russia. In 2007, 51 percent of Moldovan exports went to the E.U. and only 17 percent to Russia. Even Transnistria, a major producer of steel and cement, trades mainly with Europe.
So the Communists may have padded the result. The official exit poll gave them 45 percent of the vote and they claimed exactly 50 percent – compared with 46 percent in 2005 and less than 40 percent in local elections in 2007. But the result was not a total steal. The main opposition parties, the pro-European Liberals and Liberal-Democrats, only won around 13 percent each, and the “Our Moldova” alliance just under 10 percent.
But the Communists need 61 out of the 101 seats to elect the next president and other officials. Their leader, President Vladimir Voronin, has served his maximum two terms: The most likely outcome is for him to become chairman of Parliament and for Moldova to “rediscover” that it is actually a parliamentary republic.
Funnily enough, the Communists are forecast to get exactly 61 seats. In 2005 they had to make an alliance with the Christian Democrats – who suffered in the long-term, losing their traditional pro-Romanian electorate and ending up with only 3 percent of the vote. This time, the Communists will not need to make alliances: They can easily pick off one or two businessmen from the other three parties’ lists.
A second reason for the protests has been the Communists’ flirtation with Russia. Moldova’s foreign policy has swung back and forth in recent years, but Voronin has conducted a largely pro-E.U. course since 2003. Yet in a close contest this time, he relied heavily on Moscow as an election resource.
This trend could well continue. Russia is seeking to settle the dispute with the separatist “Transnistrian Republic” on its own terms. It is also seeking to buy up assets such as power plants in Chisinau and Balti, which now look relatively cheap.
A third factor is that Moldova is yet another country facing economic crisis. It has artificially prolonged a boom in local consumption through the April elections, financed by external remittances from as many as 500,000 Moldovans working in the E.U. and 344,000 in Russia – sums that once comprised a third of GDP. Mr. Voronin’s circle takes a cut on imports and on construction fueled by remittances – and so has tried to keep the cycle going for more than the usual electoral reasons. But imports are now three times exports and customs duties make up 70 percent of budget revenues. A crunch is coming.
When it does, the E.U. has a number of cards to play. Visas are a huge issue for Moldovans working legally or illegally in the E.U. The E.U. Border Monitoring Mission has helped cut down on corruption and the trafficking of people and drugs through Transnistria. Moldova may soon have to go cap-in-hand to the I.M.F.
Moldova may be a small country, but it is one of the region’s few democracies. And it is symptomatic of a broader trend. In the global economic crisis there is a real risk of the E.U. stepping back from the “eastern neighborhood” as it plunges into ever deeper crises. Russia, on the other hand, does not fall back on utilitarian thinking in times of crisis. It is investing to win influence in the future.
Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.