The Republic of Moldova surprised many in April when youths took control of Chisinau's main square, Piata Marii Adunari Nationale (or "PMAN", which became one of the most "wanted" words on Twitter during those days). The young Moldovans protested against the Communist-controlled government’s way of conducting parliamentary election.
I was reminded of August 31, 1989, when hundreds of thousands of Moldovans took to the streets and forced the Soviet political elites to adopt a law reinstating Romanian as the republic’s official language and restoring the Latin alphabet. Both in 1989 and in 2009, few in the West were paying attention.
That August day in 1989 marked the culmination of a national civic movement that had been forming since late 1987. But there was virtually no support from the outside world. When some courageous Moldovans laid down on the street in front of Soviet tanks and successfully blocked a military parade being held to mark the anniversary of the Soviet revolution on November 7, there was no international media coverage.
Moldova's "Tiananmen moment" passed virtually unnoticed.
In the minds of most Moldovans in 1989, the country had aligned itself solidly with the emerging democracies in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Baltic states, and elsewhere. But, unfortunately for them, the West considered Moldova small and insignificant -- a part of Russia's backyard, in fact.
The people of Moldova were on their own back then.
The outside world was caught by surprise again with the April protests. Pleas to CNN, Fox News, and other major networks to report on what was happening in Moldova were ignored. However, the protesting youths used new media and social-networking websites to thrust their country into the spotlight anyway.
The youths, mostly students, succeeded in forcing the ruling Communist Party to admit that the parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair and to adjust the results in favor of the opposition. They paid a high price for this success, as at least three protesters were killed and scores were injured in connection with the uprising.
The protests produced a chain of events that led to repeat parliamentary elections on July 29 that brought to power a four-party, Western-leaning, pro-reform coalition called the Alliance for European Integration (AIE). But the alliance controls only 53 seats in the 101-seat parliament, making it impossible for the coalition to elect a new president without at least eight votes from the now-opposition Communist faction.
When lawmakers convened on November 10 to try to elect a president, the Communist faction boycotted the poll. Doing so, they risk being viewed as obstructionist and possibly being punished at the polls if the country is dragged into yet another round of legislative elections.
The size of the Communist faction in parliament has been steadily declining, from 71 deputies in 2001 to 56 in 2005 and now just 48. The party faces a tough choice: either it must support the election of the AEI’s moderate candidate, Marian Lupu (who defected from the Communist Party in June), or it must face another round of elections that could result in even fewer mandates.
If the party goes for the second option, the country would have parliament speaker Mihai Ghimpu as acting president until the new elections are held and certified. Legal experts are still squabbling over when the new elections would be have to be held (as soon as in the spring of 2010 or as far as two years off), but these months or years with Ghimpu -- a veteran of Moldovan politics and an avowed anticommunist -- could be extremely annoying for the Communist Party.
Voting for Lupu might well be the less-bitter pill to swallow.
Regardless of how the current political standoff plays out, the AIE has a window of opportunity to push ahead with real reforms and set Moldova on the path of democratic and economic development. But it needs the active support of the international community to do so. The United States and the European Union have pledged political and financial aid to the new government, but their funds are mostly committed to long-term infrastructure projects.
The International Monetary Fund, on the other hand, is uniquely positioned to disburse funds to cover Moldova's large budget deficit, allowing the government to meet its domestic commitments. If, on the other hand, pensions and state-sector wages are not paid on time or if the government is unable to foster an economic climate that minimizes unemployment, the Communists will be quick to capitalize with populist slogans and could return in force following the next elections.
This month the world is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Moldova, the South Caucasus countries, Belarus, and Ukraine have not been as fortunate as the Central European democracies over the last two decades.
Now, with the West’s attention focused on Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the chances are great that the emerging democracies of the Baltic-Black seas region might again be denied the international support they need and deserve. Just as in 1989, it will take vision and leadership to tear down the walls and barriers that still exist in this corner of Europe.