Voronin viewed as obstacle to change

Moldova’s political crisis centres largely on one man – Vladimir Voronin, the veteran president and leader of the ruling Communist party.

After serving since 2001 and completing two terms, Mr Voronin is obliged to stand down. But the 67-year-old former Soviet communist party official is determined to stay in power, if not in office, publicly declaring that he sees himself as Moldova’s Deng Xiaoping.

Mr Voronin’s authoritarian ambitions set him on a collision course with the opposition parties and with more radical elements, particularly young people in Chisinau, Moldova’s leafy capital, who have seen their dirt-poor country make some economic progress before the global crisis hit, and now want political change.

Although divided, these parties are generally more oriented towards the European Union and Romania, Moldova’s western neighbour, which incorporated most of Moldova before the second world war. They question Mr Voronin’s preference for Russia and links with Moscow that go back to the decades when Moldova was a republic of the Soviet Union. They also worry about Mr Voronin’s efforts to solve Chisinau’s key challenge – the breakaway territory of Transdniestria, with its ethnic Ukrainian-Russian majority and Russian troops serving as peacekeepers. The opposition fears Mr Voronin might reach a settlement that would increase Moscow’s influence at the expense of the EU’s.

This weekend’s parliamentary election was crucial to Mr Voronin’s hopes of staying close to power. His Communist party was always comfortably ahead of rivals but he needed 61 seats in the 101-member assembly to ensure communists alone could elect his successor.

According to the official count, the communists won 49.9 per cent of the vote, which would give them 61 seats. The opposition parties conceded defeat but as news of the scale of the communist victory spread, activists took to the streets. Nicu Popescu, a Moldova expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, says radicals seized control of the protests, which spiralled into violence.

The opposition parties want a recount, claiming the count was falsified, even though observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared the results mostly fair. Mr Voronin has promised a recount if the election authorities deem it necessary. However, diplomats say the position is unclear.

If the communists secure their victory, the consequences could be:

● Mr Voronin could cement a personal authoritarian regime. He would then inevitably rely more on Moscow and invest less in countervailing ties with the EU. With the global crisis hitting hard, Moldova might, like other ex-Soviet republics, depend more on Russian economic aid.

● The EU’s prospects of drawing Moldova closer to the west would dim, just when it is redoubling efforts with the launch of a new policy, the Eastern Partnership.

● Such developments would do little to ease the poverty of many of Moldova’s 4.5m inhabitants, including about 450,000 migrants, among them many now returning having lost their jobs. The country, with an annual gross domestic product per head of $250, exports mainly food and wine.

● The impact on the Transdniestrian issue is uncertain. In 2003, Mr Voronin came close to a settlement on Russian terms, which would have given the Transdniestrians a big political say in the reunited country and permitted Russian troops to stay. He backed off under EU pressure. But in the past two years he has revived contacts with Moscow, sometimes bypassing the so-called 5+2 negotiating forum, which includes the EU, the OSCE, Ukraine, the US and Russia, plus Moldova and Transdniestria.

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