The unexpectedly passionate protests in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau this week -- spurred by an election on Sunday that kept the Communist Party in power -- have moved Moscow to denounce the uprising. Now the electoral crisis in this corner of the former Soviet Union is shaping up as another showdown between east and west -- and one that might just hobble Washington's Russian charm offensive.
Monday's Twitter-organized student protest brought some 10,000 people to Chisinau's main square, who accused the government of rigging Sunday's vote. The protest turned violent on Tuesday, with some demonstrators throwing rocks and storming the Moldovan parliament. The original protest organizers, including a journalist named Natalia Morar -- who said she only expected 300 people to show up -- have distanced themselves from the violence.
Now Morar has been charged with "calls for organizing and staging mass disturbances," according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS. Moldova's current president, Vladimir Voronin, has belittled the protests and accused neighboring Romania of organizing a coup. He even expelled Romania's ambassador on Wednesday. "When the flag of Romania was raised on state buildings, the attempts of the opposition to carry out a coup became clear," he said. "We will not allow this."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lined up behind Voronin on Thursday and described the protesters who ransacked the parliament as "pogrom-makers" bent on destroying the country.
Reunification With Romania?
In the West, the uprising looked like another post-Soviet "color" revolution, a people's movement against an old-guard Communist regime, such as Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" or Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution." From Moscow's perspective, that's exactly the problem. "The Moscow authorities are afraid of spontaneous mass protests in the regions and, for this reason, Russian television is showing what is happening in an exclusively negative light," Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, told Reuters. "It is beneficial for the Kremlin to show the consequences of peoples' protests to justify why it needs to be tough."
The Duma, or Russia's lower house of parliament, has called on the EU to condemn the protests. But some of the anti-Communist opposition parties in Moldova want to join the EU, if possible by reunifying with Romania. The two nations were unified for a while before World War II, and about two-thirds of Moldovans claim Romanian descent. Reunification was a campaign issue in Sunday's election. "If Romanians and Moldovans decide in favor of a union," one European diplomat said in last week's run-up to the vote, "the EU will not oppose them."
However, the Communist (and anti-Romanian) influence also has passionate defenders in Moldova, since Romanian troops allied with Nazis had a cruel record in Moldova during World War II. Russia is seen as a protective big brother against the Romanian influence in parts of Moldova -- especially Transnistria, a breakaway region with many Russian speakers and its own, but still internationally unrecognized, president.
Russian troops have kept the peace in Transnistria since 1992, and Russian support for the region has been compared to Russian support for breakaway regions in Georgia and Ukraine.
More Protests Friday
Riot police took back the Moldovan parliament and presidential buildings on Wednesday, and Thursday was calm in Chisinau. But a large protest in the capital was brewing on Friday -- organized on a Twitter stream tagged #pman, which stands for the initials of Chisinau's biggest square-- with protesters claiming the government would use the threat of a Romanian coup as a reason to arrest people illegally.
"Communists block students in their classrooms and threaten them with exmatriculation if they protest," claimed one Twitterer on Friday. "Somebody help Moldova pleaseeee," wrote another.
The violence on Tuesday was a setback for the protesters' cause even within Moldova's anti-Communist community, and some experts wondered if it wasn't orchestrated.
"The protests were initially very peaceful, but then a small group, which seemed to be very well-organized, started these violent riots," Igor Munteanu, who runs a think tank in Chisinau called Viitorul, told Britain's Independent newspaper. "My suspicion is that this was provoked and directed from within. Elements of the Communist leadership do not want closer relations with the EU, as it will mean loosening their grip on power. They know that if they provoke a crisis with Romania and the EU, and improve relations with Moscow, they will be able to continue running the country as they please."
Sunday's vote gave the Communist Party 60 parliamentary seats, one shy of the number needed to elect a Communist successor to President Voronin, who will have to step down because of term limits. Because of the protests the government has been mulling a recount, but the opposition isn't satisfied.
"Voronin and his Commies had enough time to stage the votes again -- it's obvious what that means," wrote one skeptical Twitterer on Friday. "Recounting is worthless."
The heated accusations weren't restricted to the region. Some Russian analysts on Wednesday were blaming President Barack Obama for the Moldovan unrest, saying American's interest is to hem in Russia. In response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that: "We're calling on the parties to refrain from further violence and resolve their differences peacefully and through peaceful means."