Jonathan Steele

I have lived in and reported from Communist countries for many years, but until this spring I had never been to one where the Communists had won power in a nationwide multi-party poll that international observers judged broadly free and fair. Moldova is unique.

The old nomenklatura still rules half the former Soviet republics, from Central Asia to Azerbaijan and Belarus, not to mention Russia itself. But in the decade and a half since the USSR’s collapse these elites have formed new parties and, like laboratory scientists rapidly moving on to more promising tests, publicly reject Communism as a failed experiment. Russia is unusual in preserving a sizeable Communist Party (and several tiny splinter parties), whose leaders are fierce opponents of the Putin/Medvedev regime. Moldova’s Communists, still proud of their name and their symbols, were voted into power in 2001, and have just won a third four-year term by an overwhelming margin.

Moldova is trapped between the rival influences of Russia and Romania. Part of its territory, Transdniestria, has seceded and is now protected by a Russian army. The rest is coveted by Romanian nationalists, who want to return Moldova to its interwar status as a minor Romanian province known as Bessarabia. It is Europe’s poorest country. According to the UN Development Programme’s most recent assessment, in 2006, its GDP per capita is lower than India’s; and on the Human Development Index for 2008, which includes life expectancy, women’s rights and educational opportunities as well as income, Moldova is ranked just below Mongolia and Bolivia.

When I reached Chisinau, the capital, in the third week of March, the first effects of the world recession were beginning to be felt there. Unemployment figures were going up and remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who work abroad were going down. Strangely, little of this was reflected in the election campaign, then in its final phase. It was as though every politician, whether in government or out of it, knew there was little that he or she could do about the imminent crisis. So they kept quiet about it and stuck to generalities.

Banners for the Liberal Party screamed ‘Stop Communism’. Across the street the Communist Party urged voters: ‘Let’s build Europe together.’ (The letter ‘o’ was replaced by the hammer and sickle.) The 12 parties running for parliament were allowed a fixed ration of television advertising slots, but, posters aside, I saw few signs of political activity. Voters had joined the conspiracy of silence. The parties didn’t hold many rallies and after the first few minutes of those that did take place sizeable chunks of the audience, brought in hired buses from nearby towns, would slope off to Chisinau’s shops or the large outdoor market.

Everyone expected the Communists to win. A Gallup poll gave them 36 per cent of the vote, while the next two parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, had 8 per cent each. No other party seemed likely to reach the 6 per cent threshold required to get seats in parliament. Their votes would be divided up among the successful parties, ensuring the Communists an easy victory.

Why wouldn’t Moldova’s Communists be popular? They have presided over a steady increase in living standards: since 2001 salaries have tripled in real terms. For many in the older generation who feel nostalgic for the stability of the USSR, Communism means safe streets, public order, and wages and pensions paid on time. In foreign policy the Communists have managed to straddle the fence, advocating a ‘strategic’ course towards EU membership while also maintaining a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia.

My impression on the drive from Chisinau airport was that little had changed in the capital’s appearance since my last visit in 1990. Soviet architecture still predominates: dull high-rise housing blocks line the main streets and the suburbs. On Stefan cel Mare boulevard, the capital’s central avenue, there is a bit more neon alongside the largely empty brand-name shops, like Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana, but most of the roads are potholed, and the pavements pitted and full of puddles. Take a torch when you go out in the evenings, visiting Western consultants are warned.

In the side-streets a number of prewar villas and mansions have been converted into cafés, restaurants and offices for banks, embassies and foreign firms. In one such building I found the Institute for Public Policy, whose director, Arcadie Barbarosie, had just discovered that a hacker had sabotaged the institute’s pre-election opinion poll. Shortly before the results were due to be published, the hacker had put out a version that showed the Christian Democrats in second place (the genuine poll gave them barely 1 per cent support). Barbarosie found the incident more amusing than shocking; he was especially amused that Radio Free Europe had put out a story reporting the fake data.

Barbarosie explained the Communists’ popularity after the chaos of the 1990s. ‘People remember the problems with salaries and pensions,’ he said. ‘By mid-2003 the Communists had managed to restore payment on time. It’s also a matter of history, mentality, and the fact that the Communists dominate the information space. They control all the main national TV stations except for one.’

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