In April 2009, Rodion Burca celebrated his 21st birthday in jail. He had been arrested on the 7th of the month in the center of Chisinau when a peaceful protest erupted into street riots and the burning and gutting of the Moldovan parliament building. Like his fellow demonstrators, Burca had hoped the election two days earlier would bring pro-European forces to power. When it didn’t, he felt certain the Communist Party that had ruled Moldova for eight years had rigged the vote.
“It seemed like this protest was the last chance for change,” recalled Burca, who was then a history student at Moldova State University. And bring change it did, setting in motion a chain of events that led to new elections that July and the enshrinement of a westward-looking coalition, the Alliance for European Integration.
In November 2013 Moldova initialed a free trade and political association agreement with Brussels, the fruit of an arduous three-year process. Late last month the European Parliament voted to lift visa requirements for Moldovans traveling to the Schengen zone, ratifying the European Commission’s approval three months earlier.
But for many veterans of the 2009 protests those steps toward EU integration pale against what they consider the government’s deep failures at home, from corruption scandals to an infamous illegal hunting trip in December 2012, attended by several top Moldovan officials, that left a young businessman dead and the pro-EU coalition in tatters.
Economic volatility has not helped the coalition’s standing. After robust post-crash growth, Moldova went into recession in the second half of 2012, in part due the impact of a severe drought on the key agriculture industry. Since 2009 gross monthly wages have risen from $203 to $278, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and GDP was up 8 percent in the first nine months of 2013. Still, a November survey by Public Opinion Barometer found that only 6 percent of the population is satisfied with the economic situation, with respondents expressing deep concern about poverty and their children’s economic future.
“I expected the pro-European coalition would implement reforms and that once I graduated I would be able to have a decent salary. I believed they would truly fight against corruption. I hoped the Transdniester conflict would be solved,” Burca said. Instead, “the socioeconomic situation is deplorable. The level of corruption is the same. The Transdniester solution is as far away as ever. Not to mention the unresolved cases of those mistreated in April 2009.” When Moldovans vote in parliamentary elections this November, he said, “I’m afraid the Communists could regain power.”
Burca does not plan to vote for the Communists – he doesn’t plan to vote at all – but many Moldovans will. The November poll showed the party with 34.3 percent support, more than 20 points ahead of the second-place, co-governing Liberal Democrats. Among voters with a firm preference, 50.8 percent backed the Communists, compared with 31.8 percent in polling 10 months earlier.
If the recent figures hold, the Communists will return to power this year, and they appear poised to shift Moldova from Brussels’ orbit to Moscow’s.
“In 2009 our legislative motto was, ‘Let’s build a European Moldova together,’ ” Communist lawmaker Mark Tkaciuk, a leading policy voice in the party, told a November conference on the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an outreach program to a group of countries that includes Moldova. “Beyond a doubt, this year we will speak exclusively about the benefits of integration into the [Russia-led] Eurasian Customs Union. It’s not only our position; it’s the preference of more than half of the population, who will vote for us.”
This isn’t just Communist rhetoric: an exhaustive survey on Moldovan views on Europe issued last fall by the Slovak Atlantic commission and Central European Policy Institute found that EU integration has lost support since the coalition came to power in 2009. According to some political observers, Western ties have lost their shine as the government was tarnished by corruption allegations and political scandals. It’s not that the Communists have done anything to raise their rating, these experts say – the coalition has discredited itself.
“The Communists’ high rating is the result of people’s discontent,” said Igor Botan, a political commentator and executive director of the Association for Participatory Democracy in Chisinau. “The Moldovan electorate is split in two. One side turns toward Europe, the other toward Russia. People were waiting for changes. Now they’re disappointed in the coalition. The continuous succession of scandals led to this.”
“The people who determine the political atmosphere in the country don’t support the Communists,” said Anatol Taranu, a former member of parliament who now heads the Political Science and Political History Center at Moldova State University. “Still, the ruling parties have to convince people that they have achieved something and that everything is going be fine. Otherwise they will lose the election, and the Ukrainian scenario could be repeated in Moldova” – a move away from the EU toward the Customs Union followed by widespread unrest.
SPOILS AND SCANDALS
The Alliance for European Integration took power in 2009 promising to reform the judiciary and battle corruption, but before long its three main parties – the Liberal Democrats, the Liberals, and the Democrats – were divvying up state institutions and revenue streams into spheres of political influence. In the meantime, with the Communists still holding a large bloc of seats, parliament failed repeatedly over 2 ½ years to muster the super majority necessary to elect a president, aggravating the political crisis.
In the summer of 2011, Chisinau’s municipal election campaign was dominated by mudslinging between Liberal Democratic Prime Minister Vlad Filat and wealthy businessman and Democratic politician Vladimir Plahotniuc. Filat called his rival a “puppeteer” who engineered hostile takeovers of banks and other companies; Plahotniuc accused the premier of smuggling.
The coalition infighting really exploded as a result of a tragic accident, the fatal shooting of a businessman during a wild-boar hunt in a nature reserve two days before Christmas 2012. The death of Sorin Paciu was not made public for two weeks, and Filat accused Moldova’s prosecutor general, Valeriu Zubco, of orchestrating a cover-up. Zubco, who was loyal to Plahotniuc’s Democrats, was among some 30 political and judicial VIPs at the hunt. He was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, but the case inflamed old grudges and sundered the government, which collapsed in a March 2013 no-confidence vote.
The scandal sent public dissatisfaction into the stratosphere. In an April 2013 Public Opinion Barometer poll, 87 percent of those surveyed declared that the country was moving in the wrong direction.
It also consigned Moldova’s three major pro-European figures – Filat, Democratic Party leader Marian Lupu, and Liberal chief Mihai Ghimpu – to the political sidelines. Filat stepped down as prime minister; an attempt by President Nicolae Timofti to reinstate him failed. Lupu was dismissed as speaker of parliament in another no-confidence vote. The Liberal Party split in two, with Ghimpu taking his faction into opposition. Negotiations between the pro-Europe parties and the Communists to hold early elections were scuttled amid pressure from European officials, who threatened to withdraw future investment in Moldova unless the main rivals came to terms, and a caretaker government was formed – the Pro-European Coalition, under Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
The current rulers say 2014 will be a decisive year, as the government signs the accord initialed in November at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius and faces the voters in the fall elections. Leanca fired an opening salvo as parliament convened its spring-summer legislative session last month, in chambers reconstructed from the burned shell of 2009.
“Since autumn 2009 the government has achieved great results. The first one is the victory over the Communists’ authoritarian regime,” the prime minister said. “It’s no wonder I pay so much attention to the Communists. They warrant it. They represent the main obstacle on our country’s path to modernization.”
Communist lawmaker Artur Resetnicov ridiculed the coalition’s rhetoric. “After almost five years of governing it’s shameful to blame the Communists. It means the government hasn’t really achieved anything,” he said in an interview. “We have the support of the half of the population – no less. We will promote Eurasian integration.”
That does not mean a prospective Communist government is giving up on Europe, Resetnicov said.
“European integration means modernization, fighting against corruption. External forces make us choose between East and West. We don’t want to make a choice,” he said. “Ukrainian events show the consequences of such politics.”
Sergui Mocanu, leader of the Anti-Mafia opposition party, also invokes Ukraine in talking about the state of Moldovan affairs. But for him the lesson of Kyiv is the wages of rampant corruption, on both sides of the political divide.
“The Communists represent an important factor that impedes our country’s development. They represent evil just as much as the pro-European parties do. The ruling parties have their origins in the same system,” Mocanu said. “They haven’t achieved anything, and they both use the same criminal schemes. They are mafia, oligarchs. … If European officials don’t study the Ukrainian lesson, everything will come to a bad end in Chisinau as well. Filat and Plahotniuc are the same as Yanukovych.”
Stefan Grigorita shares that pox-on-both-their-houses pessimism. He was another participant in the April 2009 protests. He was 18 and had just voted for the first time. Shocked by the seemingly rigged results, he joined a flash mob in the capital’s main square. When mass disorder broke out on 7 April, he clambered up a tree and waved the Moldovan flag.
“I had big expectations indeed. Afterward I hoped for the arrests, resignations, and punishment of those responsible for that day’s violence. But nothing was done,” he said.
Like his fellow protester Burca, Grigorita does not plan to vote this November. He doesn’t want a return to the Communist past, but he is equally certain the current government has nothing to offer.
“The eventual visa-free regime is something, but it’s not enough after four years of governing,” Grigorita said.