Will Moldovans, cowed by crackdown, rise up again?

CHISINAU, Moldova

Moldovans go to the polls Wednesday, three months after protesters stormed the capital accusing the communist-led government of rigging nationwide elections — and used Twitter to rally support after cell phone networks went down.

Authorities swiftly suppressed the unrest using brute force that left at least three dead and hundreds arrested.

So, will the nation rise up again?

Few expect a fresh wave of violence in this week’s tightly contested parliamentary vote, which could help determine whether the ex-Soviet republic remains in Russia’s orbit or edges closer to the European Union and the West.

Fear of another crackdown is just one factor. With some 3,000 observers being deployed to help guard against any fraud, the world will be paying closer attention this time.

“A repeat of violence … is very unlikely because people are tired and the parties’ resources are depleted,” said Igor Botan, a political analyst.

In April, opposition supporters resorted to Twitter to organize after cell phone service was cut and cable news stations were taken off the air, blacking out coverage of the protests.

It’s not the only time Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social networking have been used to organize protests. Iran’s embattled opposition turned to the Internet to get the word out during last month’s crackdown by the clerical regime, and online tools played a key role in the recent ethnic unrest in southern China.

But so far such Web technology hasn’t contributed to bringing about regime change.

“It’s a great tool for organizing and mobilizing people. But it’s just a tool — not an end in itself,” Juan Carlos Zarate, deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, told The Associated Press.

“People still have to find ways to challenge a regime. At the end of the day, there has to be a shift in the power dynamics.”

Things have loosened up a bit in Chisinau, the capital, since April’s protests.

The mayor, a key opposition figure, has set up free wireless Internet access in a downtown park, where young people have been logging on with their laptops. And reformists staged a small rally Monday in front of the election commission, some waving signs that read: “NO FRAUD.”

In an apparent attempt to deflect challenges to his government, President Vladimir Voronin has been appealing to Moldovans’ collective pride in their country.

Voronin, who leads the ruling Communist Party, has been campaigning on fears the center-right opposition — which claimed the April 5 parliamentary elections were rigged — might want to reunite the nation with neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania until 1940.

Appealing to voters last week, Voronin said Wednesday’s election “will answer this question: Should Moldova exist as a country, as a society, this wonderful and unique fatherland of ours?”

Support for his Communist Party, in power since 2001, has been falling in recent months — partly because of the ferocity of the government’s crackdown, but also because of the fresh misery inflicted by the global economic crisis.

The world economic downturn has exacted a heavy toll on Moldova, where the average monthly wage is only $350 (€245).

The International Monetary Fund warns that Moldova’s gross domestic product will tumble by 9 percent this year. And 20 percent of its 4.1 million people say they’re poorer now than they were in March, just before the last elections, according to a survey by the Institute for Public Politics.

“Things can’t go on this way. We need change, we need a new political class,” said Andrei Tighineanu, 32, a clerk in Chisinau.

“They tell us one day we’ll be in the European Union, but things are getting worse by the day,” he said. “I think we need real and deep change. We need new people, serious-minded and young people who can help Moldova join the EU — not through words, but with actions.”

During the Communist Party’s eight years in power, there has been international criticism about the lack of press freedom and critics say some arrests are politically motivated.

Tensions have soared since the opposition accused the government of rigging April’s vote.

Voronin, 68, accused Romania of trying to overthrow the government, a charge Bucharest vehemently denied. Romanians now need visas to travel to Moldova.

Last month, Voronin dissolved parliament after his Communists twice failed to muster enough votes in the bitterly dividedassembly to elect a president.

Voronin — a former baker known for keeping a bust of Lenin on his desk and a painting of the former Soviet leader on the wall — is not eligible to run again. He has served two consecutive four-year terms as president, the maximum allowed under the constitution, though he is still expected to retain influence in parliament.

The opposition wants to move Moldova closer to the EU and NATO. Moldova is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, but the Communists oppose full membership in the Western military alliance.

Almost four in five Moldovans are ethnic Romanians, and thousands have Romanian passports. Romania, a EU member, is Moldova’s top advocate in the EU and NATO.

Still, Russian influence remains strong. The country was part of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in 1991, and last year Russia was Moldova’s No. 2 trading partner after Romania. Many Moldovans speak both Romanian and Russian fluently.

Voronin’s Communists appeal mainly to older voters, and they have an important say in their country’s political future. That’s because 600,000 Moldovans aged 20-40 — who normally would vote for the opposition — are working abroad in Europe, mainly in Russia, Italy, Spain and Ireland.

Although legally entitled to vote absentee, few traditionally have made it to a Moldovan embassy to cast a ballot in a weekday election.

Political analysts say the Communists and the opposition will likely have to negotiate on a new president because no party will get the 61 seats needed in the 101-member parliament to name a successor to Voronin.

A recent poll by the Institute for Public Politics shows the Communists leading with 31 percent, although four center-right opposition parties could win a combined 33 percent and form an alliance. The June 26-July 10 survey of 1,500 people gave a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

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