Followers of the Moldovan elections can be forgiven for feeling the results have been something of an anticlimax.
Pronounced acceptable though faulty by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the poll has produced no closure to the country's tectonic political divisions. With 53 seats in the parliament, the anti-communist front of four parties -- the Liberals, Liberal Democrats, the Our Moldova Alliance, and the Democrats -- can form a government, but it falls eight votes short of being able to elect the president. In an overwhelmingly presidential political system, this could prove a fatal shortfall.
There appears to be nothing to prevent President Vladimir Voronin from hanging onto his post and forcing another round of elections next year. With his considerable administrative and media resources, he might think that he could go into new elections from a position of strength after more months of deadlock with an opposition-controlled cabinet.
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Although the opposition's darkest fears of a stolen election have not materialized, they may yet find themselves in an out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire situation. The leaders of the anti-Communist front certainly appear aware of this danger. Marian Lupu, the ex-Communist head of the Democratic Party who is now effectively a kingmaker, warned in an interview on July 27 that an inconclusive result and a drawn-out political crisis could eventually lead to a "civil war." Lupu warned the Communists do not have the requisite "political culture" to share power.
In another interview, the leader of the Liberal Party and mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, said Voronin is well capable of staging a coup. Dark rumors abounded on the eve of the elections, most centering on a mysterious plane bearing Russian markings which landed at the disused Masculesti military airport earlier this week. Chirtoaca said the Chisinau City Council was asked to provide the police with 10 buses -- an irregular request.
But beneath Moldova's political divisions lurk much graver problems for which elections alone, no matter how free and fair, are no panacea.
All analysts and foreign officials I had the chance to interview in Moldova this week agree the country needs a wholesale makeover. But none had a very clear idea as to how to fix Moldova's politics, economy, or its pervasive social ills.
Closer integration with the European Union is perhaps the most popular prospective remedy. All parties, including the Communists, support EU membership, but all are realistic enough to know the bloc's door will remain closed in the foreseeable future.
All parties also want better relations with Russia. The population at large seems to believe the two aims are not incompatible, with surveys showing 60 percent supporting a strategic partnership with Moscow and 66 percent in favor of EU entry.
What ordinary Moldovans want could perhaps be described as a shot at the pursuit of happiness. They want jobs and the ability to travel freely, preferably in prosperous Europe.
A close European embrace would arguably be the best guarantee of reforms in Moldova. Free travel and free trade would contribute to prosperity, which in turn would lower the domestic political stakes.
But the EU is unwilling and unable to oblige. The public in most of member states is opposed to further concessions to countries like Moldova, fearing immigration, crime, and the dilution of Europe's own identity.
The EU does provide Moldova with 60 million euros worth of aid annually -- second only to Palestine in per capita terms -- but in an unreformed and unreconstructed political environment this amounts to little more than a lifeline for the status quo.
Apart from the money, all the EU can offer, for the time being, is generalities -- action plans, road maps, partnerships, with all advances conditional on precisely the kind of administrative effort of which the Moldovan state appears increasingly incapable. What the EU is offering is virtual carrots. Effectively, it is asking the Moldovan government and people to take a leap of faith.
In an ideal world, such a leap would perhaps be conceivable, if a little unrealistic, to expect. Russia is keen to contest the spread of EU influence and openly backs Voronin. It possesses a very real stick in the shape of Transdniester, which will continue to provide powerful leverage over any government in Chisinau. Fortunately for Moldova, Russia has pursued its agenda in the country in a ham-fisted way. One well-placed Western official in Chisinau says Russia has been "arrogant."
"If the Russians were serious," he suggested, "it would all be already over."
Romania is another major external force exerting a destabilizing gravitational pull on Moldova. Bucharest has pursued a brazenly polarizing and patronizing agenda in Moldova, one that a senior EU figure describes as "shortsighted." Romania's strongest weapon is its passports -- as an EU member state its citizens can travel (if not yet work) freely in the bloc. The rush of hundreds of thousands of Moldovan citizens to take out Romanian passports -- for which Bucharest says they are eligible as de facto "Romanians" -- further contributes to political instability in Moldova.
The Communists, in particular, vehemently resent what they see as Romania's drive to erode Moldovan statehood.
This has created an unhappy paradox, notes the EU special representative for Moldova, Kalman Mizsei in an interview: "Access for freedom countervails state cohesion."
In a sense, Moldova seems caught in a time warp. Time stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed and has yet to restart. In the intermission, a feral capitalism has taken root in the country, which, together with the country's isolation, has gradually degraded its political system. (Opposition politicians claim Voronin's clan virtually owns all profitable sectors of the economy). That system is now on its last legs.
A Western official earlier this week enthused about Moldova's unique "social fabric," where political conflicts largely lack an ethnic dimension . A multiethnic, multilingual society at peace with itself is an enormous achievement in a European setting. But in Moldova's case, it now needs outside sustenance. Left to its own devices, Moldova's makeshift post-Soviet institutional settlement is liable to fail. Someone needs to step in and provide new values, ideals, and norms -- and that someone can only be the EU.