Moldova: time to take sides

The decision to hold a recount in Moldova’s disputed election offers the European Union an opportunity to rediscover its democratic agency, says Vessela Tcherneva

This article was first published in Open Democracy on 14 April 2009.

In the days following the declaration of the results of the parliamentary election, people were marching on the streets – but also wandering around them, devastated. The reformed communists had taken the majority of the votes in a contest recognised by the international community as largely free and fair. No, this is not Moldova after the vote on 5 April 2009. The episode is from the early days of Bulgaria’s newly re-won democracy in 1990.

The young citizens of Sofia at the beginning of the 1990s were at heart driven by the same motive as the protesters in Chisinau: the straightforward and even not-very-well-articulated desire to see an end to a corrupt establishment of apparatchiks, and to break with Russia and the past. The Moldovans’ slogans – including “we are Romanians” – are far less an ethnic claim than an expression of a genuine wish to become part of the west and the European Union: making up for time lost, skipping the EU conditions, overcoming resistance to their participation in the enlargement process, and joining a path that ends in a “normal” country.

After romance

But there are three great differences between the two situations – quite apart from the fact that the post-election dispute and tumult led Moldova’s constitutional court on 12 April to agree to a suggestion by the country’s communist president, Vladimir Voronin, and announce a recount of the vote.

First, Moldova’s long-serving leader has survived the challenges faced by his post-cold-war counterparts in east-central Europe in the early 1990s to be repeatedly re-elected in essentially non-contested elections and become the incarnation of the status quo. The official results of the 5 April election continued the pattern, in giving the ruling communists almost 50% of the vote, against around 36% for the three main liberal opposition parties combined. This gives Voronin the rooted advantage of incumbency, while also giving time for the opposition to mobilise against him (which the Bulgarian opposition, in the first months of post-communist rule, did not have).

Second, the Moldovan political establishment has been able to portray the country as threatened by a “foreign enemy” (namely neighbouring Romania, with which Moldova shares a common language and history) whom it could blame for domestic unrest. This nationalist-communist argument is a useful instrument of power.

Third, the prevailing attitudes in much of the European Union to events beyond its eastern border have undergone a subtle change in recent years. In particular, there has been a falling away of romanticism towards what were called the “colour revolutions” of the early 1990s (in Ukraine and Georgia, but also if more complexly in Serbia). At the time, their example swept westwards and revitalised the idea of the “historic mission of democracy”. The transition to democracy, liberal economy and the rule of law was a project backed by the west as a whole, and incorporated into the European Union’s pre-accession programme for candidate-states. The west then was not afraid to take sides: it became a “democracy agent” in eastern Europe, a supporter of the emerging democratic forces and a co-author of the agenda of a young civil society.

By contrast, the Moldovan public today has received at best “calls” on “all parties” to “refrain from any violence” – while the government beats up and imprisons peaceful protesters, and closes opposition websites.

It could be argued that the authorities’ actions are justified in view of the protesters’ violent invasion of the Moldovan parliament and other institutions. But had this episode occurred at the beginning of the 1990s, there would have been more attention from abroad on the suspicious gaps in the lists of registered voters that triggered the post-election protests, and on the numerous hints of police intimidation. So what has changed in the west’s perceptions to provoke a far more cautious reaction vis-à-vis Moldova in 2009?

Soft power, hard principle

The “orange” and “rose” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have been widely cited as precedents of Moldova’s “Twitter revolution“. These however have become less than inspiring comparisons, for the current condition of both countries’ democracies is bleak. Ukraine, amid endemic political turmoil and on the brink of economic collapse, could turn into the biggest failed state in Europe. Georgia, amid rooted political polarisation and distrust, faces constant street protests against Mikheil Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies (including curbs on the independence of Georgian courts and media, and intimidation of the opposition) and discontent over his handling of the war with Russia in August 2008.

Moreover, the democracy landscape in the countries that became the European Union’s most recent member-states is not much more presentable. Bulgaria, for example, remains a volatile society stalked by populism and corruption. Its inability to cope with notorious problems of corruption and associated violence, symbolised by its request to the European commission effectively to take over the business of governance, is perhaps the most excessive example of eastern Europe’s democracy deficits (see Ivan Krastev, “Europe’s other legitimacy crisis“, 23 July 2008). With all this on its plate, why should the European Union care about the youngsters on the streets of Chisinau?

Well, there is a reason – and it goes beyond the obvious one of political and ethical principle. By acting in support of democracy in Moldova, the EU could secure long-lasting leverage in a country that is considered vital to the success of the EU’s new “Eastern Partnership” programme – and at little cost (see Nicu Popescu, “An EU response to Moldova’s ‘Twitter Revolution’“, European Council on Foreign Relations [7 April 2009]).

At present, Russia exerts a very great influence on Moldova’s political life and energy sector; the many correspondences between the “frozen dispute” over Transdniestria and those over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, confirm the appearance of a country where Russia’s preferences have a shaping role (see Thomas de Waal, “Transdniestria: a family quarrel” [27 November 2008]).

In these circumstances, the quality of the European Union’s engagement with Moldova is vital – and for the entire region as well as for Moldova itself (see Andrew Wilson, “Europe’s Next Revolution?“, New York Times [8 April 2009]). The EU, by displaying understanding of and sympathy for Moldovan civil society and its problems, can have a true and long-term impact on the country’s reform path. This could even be an inspiring exercise of the EU’s “soft power” – of which very little has been seen since the last enlargement in January 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined. The European Union can still give hope for change to many in Moldova. If it fails the test, it will mean that Europe does not consider the prospect of change in places like Moldova possible.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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