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Moldova, where Lenin still stands

How the Communist Party has held on to Moldovans' votes.

A protester holds up a newspaper depicting a photo of a clash during a rally in central Chisinau, Moldova, on April 12, 2009, following the Communist Party's disputed victory in parliamentary elections. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

COMRAT, Moldova — The cast-iron statue of Vladimir Lenin gazing severely from this regional capital’s town hall may look a bit weather-beaten, but the important fact is that it is still standing.

Old Vlad’s likeness could be seen as a metaphor for the fortunes of Moldova’s Communist Party as a whole. The communists received a political battering recently, but they are still far from vanquished completely.

Last month another Vlad — Vladimir Voronin, the party’s iron-willed leader — resigned as Moldova’s president after eight years, ending the reign of Europe’s only communists to hold power.

The resignation was required by the country’s constitution after a coalition of western-leaning parties, the Alliance for European Integration, eked out a victory in July in bitterly-contested parliamentary elections, winning 53 seats to the communists' 48. The campaign saw the two opposing camps trading accusations of treason and dictatorial designs.

“I hand over power to the hands of the new authorities with a heavy heart," Voronin said in a statement Sept. 11. “I do not believe that politicians who have made an alliance only on the basis of emotions of denial and complete denigration of their own country, with the only goal of distributing posts, are able to put forward a new positive program.” 

The party hardly resembles communists of old however: Its leaders have embraced free market economics and speak often of closer ties with the European Union. But they also have struck a chord among large portions of the population by combining a nostalgia for the past, a reputation as a guarantor for stability and a pinch of populist politics — by raising pensions every year, for example (though these increases do not keep pace with inflation).

The large numbers of Moldovans who work abroad also contribute indirectly to the Communists' strength: Many who would vote against the party cannot cast absentee ballots.  Not many overseas Moldovans vote because to do so they must visit at an embassy or consulate, and there simply aren't that many Moldovan embassies and consulates abroad.

Also, many overseas Moldovans are working illegally in the countries in which they are located and, while they would likely vote for the non-communist parties that favor closer ties with the EU and simpler immigration laws, they are also reluctant to do anything "official" that would draw attention to themselves.

Nowhere is the communists’ continued grip on large parts of Moldova’s psyche more evident than in Comrat, the regional capital of Gagauzia, an autonomous ethnic enclave in Moldova’s south where the communists collected nearly 80 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections.

In Comrat’s open-air market, traders sit in idle groups, whiling away the afternoon as a smattering of customers wander half-heartedly through the mostly shuttered stalls. The economic crisis has begun to squeeze the region hard, because wine exports, the main money maker, have dropped precipitously.

Nevertheless, few here speak favorably of the “democrats,” as many here refer to the anti-communist opposition. For Gagauzia locals, the parties that make up the newly-elected Alliance are associated mostly with the economic chaos of the 1990s, when they were last in power.

“Stability — most of all the last eight years have been stable,” says Ivan Bessarab, a trader.