Ninety-two years after the Russian Revolution and 20 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe's last Soviet-style government is finally on its way out. In Moldova this week, four months after popular upheaval, the Communist Party accepted defeat in a national election. Four pro-Western opposition parties must now scrabble together a coalition which they say will distance the country from Moscow, more fully embrace democracy and integrate with Europe. "This is definitely the beginning of something new," says Viorel Ursu, Moldovan analyst with the Open Society Institute in Brussels. "The difference between the Communists and the incoming government is huge, even just in terms of mentality. They are Western-educated, a lot more open and more transparent."
Moldova rarely features on the world's radar. There is even a board game called Where is Moldova?, designed to teach geography. Locked between Ukraine and Romania, it has the sad distinction of being Europe's poorest country. About a sixth of its population works abroad, largely in menial jobs on the streets of Western Europe. But it made headlines in April when thousands of Moldovans, mostly young people, took to the street crying fraud after elections that returned the Communist Party to power. Protesters torched buildings and ransacked the presidential palace.
The ensuing crackdown was violent, with hundreds of opposition supporters jailed. In the aftermath, Moldovan leader and Communist strongman Vladimir Voronin, 68, turned inwards and to Moscow. He accused neighboring European Union member Romania of provoking the riots in order to pave the way for a coup against him. In June, Russia rewarded Voronin with $500 million in infrastructure loans. That was followed last week by good news from China, who announced $1 billion in similar loans. To put that in context: Moldova's annual GDP is just $4 billion.
The opposition managed to force snap elections held Wednesday in which voters, frustrated with worsening poverty and post-election violence, finally said enough. The Communists won 48 seats, short of the 61-seat majority needed to govern, although still a sizable 45% of the vote. But the opposition parties, as long as they can work together, will be able to control parliament and form a government. "The results will have a long lasting effect of sustaining democracy in Moldova and in other parts of the region," says Ursu. "It was the frustration of not being able to challenge a government no matter how undemocratically it behaves that led people to streets in April."
The future is by no means certain. Coalitions in the shaky former Soviet republics are rarely stable, as neighboring Ukraine has shown. Three of the four opposition parties are liberal and campaigned on a joint platform. But the fourth, the Democratic Party, is run by a former Communist who resigned in June and could yet change sides.
The new government will also need to negotiate with the Communists in parliament to choose a new President as Voronin's successor. A likely solution, analysts say, would be to agree on a non-political figure, such as an academic, to do the job. A new government is also likely to negotiate a deal to get Voronin to leave politics entirely in exchange for immunity from any prosecution for his conduct over the past eight years. "We've seen this in Russia when Yeltsin stepped down or in Georgia, when Shevardnadze left, these previous authoritarian presidents got informal immunity. I imagine that will be the case in Moldova," says Ursu.
Cold-shouldering Moscow could also come at a cost. Moldova is dependent on Russia for gas, oil and electricity imports. The new government says it will pursue stronger relations with Europe and Romania, with whom it shares many cultural similarities. Moldova was part of Romania until World War II, when a chunk of the country was given to the Soviets by the Nazis. Fears of unification kept previous Moldovan governments from building bilateral ties. And then there is the problem of Transnistria, a tiny Russian-speaking province backed by Moscow that wants to secede. "At least we have a year," says Ursu, laughing. "Because constitutionally, you cannot hold elections again for another year. So that gives everyone a little time. I'm optimistic, as are most analysts, that this is the start of a new era."