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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.’

Moldova has a mild climate and fertile soil, but since the Soviet period, agricultural production has declined and it now imports more food than it exports. Like a country in Central America or an island in the Caribbean, it relies heavily on remittances from Moldovans who work as Gastarbeiter in Russia, Ukraine and the EU. The contraction in both the Russian and EU economies is putting many of them out of work. According to Veaceslav Ionitsa of the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives remittances went down by almost half in the space of a month at the beginning of this year. The government, Ionitsa claims, is doing nothing to find alternative sources of growth. ‘Moldova is the only country in the world where the state budget depends almost 90 per cent on consumption,’ he told me. ‘VAT provides 65 per cent, excise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes provide 12 per cent and import tariffs 10 per cent.’

What loyalty do Moldovans have to their poor country? Do they feel Romanian and would they join Romania, if they could? When I was here in 1990 at the height of perestroika, the republic’s Supreme Soviet had just passed a declaration of sovereignty, which was followed by a decision to abandon the Cyrillic alphabet and switch to Roman letters; Romanian was made the state language in place of Russian. Romanian nationalists expected that Moldova would soon apply to join them, believing the anti-Russian trend to be a replay of the events of the early 20th century, when the tsarist empire collapsed and Bessarabia joined Romania. It stayed part of it until 1940, when Stalin, in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, ordered the government in Bucharest to cede Bessarabia to Russia.

As the USSR crumbled it seemed that Romania would get the territory back again, and it wasn’t only Romanian nationalists who thought so: many outside observers were under the same illusion. They were overlooking the fact that in its immediate post-Ceausescu period Romania was not an attractive model. And having just won independence from Moscow, Moldovans did not want to cede it to Bucharest. Besides, most of the three-quarters of Moldova’s population of 4.3 million who speak Romanian preferred to seek legitimacy in their own national origins, the medieval Moldavian principality ruled over by Stefan cel Mare, who repulsed forces from Hungary and Poland and resisted the Ottoman Empire.

‘I identify myself as a Romanian, though my wife is Russian,’ Oazu Nantoi, a colleague of Barbarosie, told me. ‘No party which advocates unity with Romania has got even 10 per cent of the vote.’ If a referendum were held today, unification with Romania would probably get at most 15 per cent support. Another reason for the lack of interest in unification, according to a government official who did not want to be named, is that elderly people remember the prewar Bessarabian period as worse than the postwar Soviet one. ‘Bucharest took over the territory but for 20 years spent nothing on developing it,’ she said, adding that this was her parents’ view.

The Moldovan constitution allows citizens to have dual nationality, and when Romania opened accession talks with the EU a decade ago, more Moldovans than ever before acquired Romanian passports. Fearful of a flood of immigrants, Brussels insisted that Romania slow down the application system. About a million Moldovans have Romanian passports, and it is estimated that 800,000 more are waiting for them. These people ‘have no loyalty to Romania’, the government official said. ‘Many of them are not even Romanian speakers. They are native Russian speakers.’

The day after the election, a crowd of some 25,000 mainly young people gathered outside the parliament building, shouting anti-Communist slogans and claiming massive electoral fraud. After the low-key campaign the outburst took everyone by surprise. The police were hastily called, but lost control when the demonstrators hurled paving stones at them. The crowd then stormed the buildings and ransacked them, burning files and stealing computers.

Over the next few days the police rounded up some 300 people, many of whom later alleged they had been beaten while in detention. Protest leaders claimed that three people had been killed, but the Interior Ministry said there was no record that the three had been in police custody. EU leaders issued statements condemning the violence, and called for an end to abuses by the police. The president, Vladimir Voronin, declared an amnesty and released the detainees. Opposition leaders demanded a rerun of the vote. The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Miroslav Topolanek, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, rushed to Chisinau.

The protest aroused widespread interest in the Western media. The use of anti-Communist slogans was bound to attract attention, reviving memories of 1989. The fact that Moldova’s Communists, in spite of their past, respect the norms of democratic pluralism and have changed radically since the 1980s was scarcely credited. There was also excitement because some of the young organisers had summoned their friends using Twitter; some reports referred to the ‘Twitter revolution’. In fact, the Twitter element was exaggerated. The protest was organised by the two main losing parties, the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats, both of which have links with Romania. They urged their members to take to the streets, although their leaders later deplored the violence and vandalism and claimed the trouble had been started by Communist agents provocateurs intent on discrediting the party’s opponents.

For their part, the Communists blamed Romania. Seizing on a statement by Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, that Romania has a duty to protect all its citizens abroad, they charged him with orchestrating the protests as a way of inciting Moldovans to abandon hope in their country’s independence. They also hinted that Basescu wanted to get Romania’s new Moldovan citizens to vote for his party in elections due later this year. The Romanian ambassador was ordered to leave the country. This seemed an extreme reaction. Nantoi, who as well as working for the Institute of Public Policy, is vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, believes Voronin is trying to curry favour with Moscow. ‘They are deliberately creating quarrels with Bucharest in order to show their loyalty to the Russian tsar,’ he told me.

Whatever the truth of Romania’s involvement, there was something odd about the protests. The Communist victory cannot have come as a shock to anyone who was aware of the opinion polls. If the demonstration was a spontaneous outburst caused by rising joblessness and the economic crisis, the slogans did not reflect that. The protests looked more like an amateur effort to replicate the Rose Revolution in Georgia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, although in both these countries there had been strong evidence of significant election fraud, which there wasn’t in Moldova. The April protests subsided as quickly as they began.

It would be wrong to assume that young Moldovans are overwhelmingly anti-Communist. The Gallup poll showed that the older people were, the more likely they were to vote Communist, with 23 per cent of under-30s supporting the Communists, compared to 31 per cent who supported the three main opposition parties. Ethnicity was not a crucial factor. People who identified themselves as Russian or Ukrainian came out strongly against the opposition parties and in favour of the Communists, but even among those who called themselves Moldovans or Romanians the Communists fared better than the opposition.

Every party in Moldova, including the Communist Party, is pro-EU. But most Moldovans are not pro-Nato. The country’s 1994 constitution defines neutrality as the country’s basic position. As a result, Moldova has not experienced the tension over potential Nato membership that has destabilised Georgia and Ukraine. The most recent polls show 47 per cent against Nato membership and only 24 per cent in favour, a margin which remains the same whatever the age of the respondents. Sixty per cent see Russia as Moldova’s principal strategic partner.

For me the biggest surprise of the election was the absence of any discussion of Transdniestria, the region which declared independence from Moldova in 1990. It didn’t figure in any campaign flyers, posters or television ads. During the campaign one small party, the Social Democrats, came out with a radical proposal to lease Transdniestria to Russia for 30 years on condition that it would then revert to Moldova. In the Balkans a suggestion of this kind would have been seized on by opponents to whip up excitement and portrayed as surrender and national betrayal. In Moldova it was virtually ignored.

One reason is that Moldovans are more concerned about getting out of poverty and surviving the new economic crisis. They see no chance of an early solution to the country’s split, which prompted a four-month war in 1992 that left close to a thousand people dead. ‘We’ve been marking time on the issue for 17 years,’ says Ion Liachu, a member of Moldova’s delegation to the Joint Control Commission for the conflict. ‘The election rivals have neither the imagination nor the willingness to think up anything new.’ Georgia’s futile effort to regain South Ossetia by force last summer confirmed most Moldovans in their view that there is no military solution and that stirring up national passions on the issue might well lead to disaster. When Russia recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Voronin criticised the move, but in a tense meeting with Putin, he made it clear that Moldova wanted its own secession problem solved by peaceful means. He was, in effect, saying: ‘If I don’t use force like Saakashvili, then you shouldn’t recognise Transdniestria.’

The border between Moldova and its breakaway region remains open. Hundreds of Moldovans make shopping trips to Transdniestria (where the local brandy is better and cheaper), and vice versa. Some 4500 Transdniestrians attend university or colleges in Chisinau. During the week I spent in Chisinau I trained a group of 12 journalists, six of them from Moldova and six from Transdniestria, on behalf of the BBC World Service Trust. From their conversation it was impossible to work out who was from the Left Bank and who from the Right Bank of the River Dniestr. No one showed any hint of resentment or discrimination. The discussion was lively, uninhibited; there was no regional competitiveness.

The tiny enclave between the river and the Ukrainian border declared independence from Moldova in 1990 in large part because its population feared Moldova would join Romania. Unlike Moldova, the region has only a minority of Romanian speakers; its population is divided almost equally between Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans. Three of the estimated 1200 Russian troops in Transdniestria man a checkpoint west of Benderi, on the main road from Chisinau. An armoured personnel carrier lurks under camouflage netting by the side of the road, but once we had slowed to a halt the Russians waved us on without bothering to inspect our papers.

This is standard, I was told. The process takes longer when you reach the Transdniestrian border, marked by a large arch over the road emblazoned with the breakaway republic’s coat of arms, a hammer and sickle above a rising sun and a bunch of purple grapes. The name Transdniestrian Moldavian Republic is tactfully written in Romanian. Two groups of uniformed men, representing immigration and customs, take turns to look into the car’s boot and glove compartment, and check passports before sending the driver into a small office to fill in entry forms. They charge a fee of around two euros in foreign currency. (The region has its own money, the rouble, as well as kopeks, which have long since vanished in Russia. The local rouble’s value is pegged higher than Russia’s.) The delays and fees may deter some traffic, but the open border at least keeps contact alive.

On the outskirts of Tiraspol, the secessionist territory’s capital, we passed a huge stadium, hotel and sports complex built by Transdniestria’s richest man, Viktor Gushan, who calls his company Sheriff. The name suggests he has political ambitions; local journalists say he wants full independence for Transdniestria as soon as possible in order to end its uncertain status and secure his investments. They expect him to challenge Igor Smirnov, the jovial former director of Elektromash, one of Tiraspol’s biggest factories, who has been the territory’s strongman since 1990.

Early spring sunshine brightened the streets of Tiraspol as we drove in, but hardly anyone was enjoying it. The town looked empty and forlorn. Thousands, it was said, had gone to work on construction sites in Russia. Others must have been hunkered down at home, victims of the economic crisis, which is having a more severe effect here than in Moldova itself. Transdniestria was Soviet Moldavia’s industrial heartland. Stalin sent Russians to man its factories, thereby adding what he hoped would be a cohort of loyal citizens who could dilute the nationalism of the original inhabitants. But what was once a benefit has become a curse. The economic downturn has wrought havoc: more than half the staff of Elektromash have been sent home on unpaid leave, and the number of people registered at Tiraspol’s job centre quintupled between December and March.

I didn’t have time for the formalities involved in getting press accreditation, so I didn’t try to talk to government spokespeople. Instead, I went to the extremes of the political spectrum. Nadezhda Bondarenko calls herself a ‘true Communist’. She ran as the party’s presidential candidate in Transdniestria’s last elections. She used to live in Russia but came to Tiraspol in 1993 ‘to escape the illegitimate Yeltsin regime’. She blasts both Smirnov and Voronin for selling out to ‘the bourgeoisie’, and for seeking to buy state enterprises for themselves or to sell them to foreigners. She has no great faith, she says, in the policies of Medvedev and Putin, but believes they will protect Transdniestria’s independence, and may even let it one day join Russia – a goal she aspires to.

Dmitri Soin, a one-time major in the territory’s security service, runs a murky outfit called Proryv (Breakthrough). A large portrait of Che Guevara hangs on his office wall. He says that his well-funded organisation is attempting to mobilise young people in the service of the territory. ‘We’re against any antagonism between the EU and Russia,’ he told me, ‘but our strategy is for Transdniestria to be with Russia. Russia stopped the war here in 1992 and invests a lot. People have a different identification here from Moldova. If liberal parties win power in Chisinau, they’ll reopen the issue of unification with Romania. Romanians have imperial pretensions going back to Roman times.’ In Chisinau it’s argued that Russia wants to keep the sliver of territory largely as a way of preventing Moldova from joining Nato – a divided country is bound to be seen as unstable – even though there’s no great support for joining among Moldovans. But even without Moscow’s influence there is no popular appetite in Transdniestria for reunification with Moldova.

Moldova is one of the six former Soviet republics included in the EU’s new ‘Eastern Partnership’, which aims to provide support in the long transition period before any of these countries can even hope to apply for membership. The others are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine: of the six, Moldova is the smallest as well as the poorest. The EU helps Moldova by operating a small border monitoring mission that tries to prevent smuggling. But what Moldovans want most is the lifting of visa requirements so that more people can look for jobs in the EU. That would reduce their dependence on Romania. The difficulty is that while the deepening economic crisis has made Moldova more reliant on the EU, the election protests have made the EU less likely to be sympathetic. Moldova’s image has not been helped by the protesters’ violence or the police’s response. Its political and economic limbo has no foreseeable end.

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