All eyes turn to a very small country

CHISINAU, Moldova — Moldovans went to the polls July 29 in a snap parliamentary election that is being billed by some as battle between East and West, but for many is crucial simply because it may deliver the country from a protracted political deadlock

The ex-Soviet nation of 4 million — Europe’s poorest country by some measures — was unexpectedly thrust into the headlines four months ago when protesters ransacked the legislature and presidential palace after a previous round of voting, which they said was rigged.

That vote produced only further political stalemate in this country where parliament elects the president, instead of a direct vote by the population. When deputies from the ruling Communist party were unable to secure just one extra vote so that their chosen candidate could prevail, the legislature was dissolved and a new round of voting was called.

This second election campaign quickly descended into an epic mud-slinging contest, with either side of the political spectrum painting its opponents in the most apocalyptic terms.

The country was advertised as yet another battleground for influence between Moscow and the West. The Communists, led by two-term President Vladimir Voronin, ran on a slogan of “To Defend the Motherland!” — a reference to a World War II-era battle cry, and an insinuation that their opponents would destroy Moldova through poor policies or unification with neighboring Romania.

The center and center-right coalition, a diverse group united primarily by their anti-communism and Western-leaning stance, pointed to a crackdown that followed the April riots and said the Communists wanted to draw the country closer to Moscow and construct an authoritarian state along Russian lines — or worse.

“The Communists want to resurrect the old traditions — they have a Stalinist view of history and culture,” said Alexandru Tanase, vice-chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party. “We believe that Moldovans are voting … for civilization and Europe — or else a return to Soviet times awaits them.”

Voting day proceeded for the most part without any major disturbances, though local election observers reported numerous voting list irregularities. The pre-election campaign was also sedate. No major rallies took place and campaign posters were virtually invisible — a reflection perhaps of the country’s exhaustion after four months of bitter fighting (and lack of money).

The country remains deeply polarized, however. A preliminary exit poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy, a Chisinau think tank, placed the Communists ahead with 41.7 percent, but nevertheless behind a potential coalition of the Liberal Democrats, Liberal Party, Democratic Party and Our Moldova that collectively received 54 percent.

Its supporters view President Voronin’s Communists as the party that will maintain stability — as well as preserve what little wealth the country now possesses. Their greatest devotees are considered to be the elderly and those from rural communities, although large numbers of younger voters also seems to have opted for the party.

To the party's detractors — primarily the urban elite and youth — a Communist victory will push the goals of free migration into Europe (in the short run) and full integration into the European Union (in the long run) further into the future. After the April events, hundreds were rounded up and three protesters died while in police custody. (Moldovan authorities deny that they had anything to do with the demonstrators’ deaths.) That the Moldovan Communists are now perceived as an anti-democratic force in many European capitals will only isolate the country further, the opposition believes.

In the end, the country’s plummeting economy is the issue that looms over political reality like a dark storm cloud, regardless of which party (or parties) takes power. International organizations predict that gross domestic product will shrink by 9 percent this year, though the Expert Group, an analytical center in the capital, puts this number at 12 percent.

Moldova squeaks by primarily on a combination of agricultural exports and remittances sent from abroad. Hundreds of thousands work outside the country, and the money they send back made up over 30 percent of GDP last year, according to the Expert Group. This shriveled by nearly two-fifths in the first quarter this year. Furthermore, wine making, the country’s most important industry, dropped by half.

More on politics in the former Soviet Republics:

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The frontline of a new Cold War?

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name in a photo caption.