Anti-government protests erupted this week in the wake of general elections in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe.

Moldovan general elections

The demonstrations started on Monday, April 6, after the ruling Moldovan Communists claimed 50% of the Parliament seats in the general elections held a day before. The Communist win was no surprise; however, the pre-election polls suggested a smaller percentage. The 50% win allows them to single-handedly form the government and name the next President.

In turn, the opposition leaders accused the Communist government of rigging votes and demanded a recount. This was initially rejected by the authorities. An OSCE report described the elections as generally fair, although the British delegate expressed serious misgivings.

Protests turn violent

The anti-government protests initially started out peacefully, but this changed on Tuesday, April 7. Reportedly spurred on by Twitter and Facebook messaging, more than 10,000 young people gathered in downtown Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. The demonstration turned violent as the day passed on; by Tuesday night, the protesters occupied government buildings, including the President’s offices and the Parliament. Rioters broke windows and set furniture on fire before they were driven back by the police on Wednesday. More than thirty people were hurt.

Calm returns as blame game continues

By Friday, April 10th, the protests appeared to subside as only few protesters showed up at an organized rally. The opposition accused the authorities of using threats to keep students away, while the government spokesperson affirmed that they had merely advised the parents to keep young people home. A similar shouting match ensued over the blame for Tuesday’s violence as well.

The President, Vladimir Voronin, who is also the leader of the Communist Party, accused Romania of subversively sponsoring the violence and expelled the Romanian Ambassador. Romania, which shares strong cultural ties to Moldova, has declined any involvement in the demonstrations. In turn, the opposition retorted that the Moldovan Secret Police was in fact responsible for sparking violence.

Despite the dispute, the Government announced on Friday that it agreed to a recounting of the election votes, in an attempt to calm spirits down.

Moldova’s Economic and Political Situation

A tiny country bordered by Ukraine and Romania, Moldova was a state of the former Soviet Union between 1940 and 1991. From 1991 until 2001, Moldova experienced political instability, economic crises and a general deterioration of living standards. This downward trend was generally reversed since 2001, when Moldova began to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year. However, much of Moldova’s growth is deemed to be actually fuelled by remittances of employees working abroad. Currently, the money sent home accounts for 38% of Moldova’s GDP, the second-largest such percentage in the world.

Recently, however, the global financial crisis has forced hundreds of Moldovan workers to return home as their jobs were made redundant. These disgruntled returnees – mostly young people – generally hold an anti-government and pro-Western attitude. They are unhappy with what they perceive as the pro-Russian and pro-Communist stance of the government, and look to the West, Romania and the European Union for support. Their opinion runs against that of older Moldovans, who are generally nostalgic of the Soviet rule and perceive the Communist Party as a guarantee of stability.

The Communist Party and its leader, President Vladimir Voronin, have ruled in Moldova since 2001. Despite youth protests, the Communist leadership has not necessarily been pro-Russian. In 2003, the government has clashed with Russia over the disputed territory of Transnistria, which has been virtually independent since 1992. The disagreement resulted in Voronin taking a much more pro-Western stance. For instance, Moldova has entered the European Union’s Neighborhood Policy and is looking to join in the future.

Future prospects

For now, a recount of the vote – widely perceived to confirm the Communist win – should appease the spirits in Moldova. However, the new government has a difficult job ahead – tackling Moldova’s economic situation as well as the grievances of the unemployed youth. As the traditional Communist electoral base – mostly older Moldovans – is slowly dwindling, the Communists will have to address the needs of the pro-Western young people as well in order to survive. In their turn, in order to win future elections, the opposition has to take greater account of the needs of the ageing and country-based population.