Moldova, where Lenin still stands

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.

Possibly even more important is the ethnic fear factor that the communists have stoked. Before World War II Moldova was part of Romania, and the Moldovans are ethnically indistinguishable from their cousins across the border. The communists play on ethnic minorities’ fears — which are also significant among local Russians and Ukrainians — and claim that nationalist parties seek a “Moldova for the Moldovans.”

In Gagauzia, over 80 percent of the population is Gagauz, a Turkish people that converted to Christianity centuries ago and speaks primarily Russian or a Turkish dialect. Among the Gagauz it is an article of faith (abetted by communist advertisements) that the Alliance wants not closer ties with Europe, but unification with Romania. Alliance politicians have repeatedly denied this, however.

Despite their setbacks, the communists more than retain their capacity to generate mischief, if not regain power altogether. They remain the country’s single largest political party with almost 45 percent of the parliamentary vote. The next largest group, the Liberal Democrats, won just over 16 percent, or 18 seats.

Moldova’s legislature, not the general electorate, in fact chooses the country’s president. Since 61 votes are needed, the Alliance needs to entice eight communist deputies to cross the aisle. So far the communists are standing firm. The parliamentary presidential vote has been set for Oct. 23. If parliament is unable to choose a president by Nov. 11, the country might have to go through the whole thing again, with the acting president obliged to set a new election. Political deadlock has already gripped the country of 4.3 million for almost six months, and could ultimately produce dire economic consequences. Moldova is Europe’s poorest nation, held barely afloat by a combination of agricultural exports and money sent back by the hundreds of thousands of citizens working abroad. Both of these revenue streams have shrunk drastically because of the world economic recession, and the government is negotiating with international lending organizations to provide funds to patch a projected $700 million-gap in the national budget.

Voronin said that he is willing to work with the Alliance parties, but only if they sign onto declarations put forward by his party that seek to preserve the spending increases for pensions and the public sector.

For some observers, like Valeriu Prohnitchi, director of the Expert Group analytical center in Chisinau, despite the communists’ ability to adapt to the winds of change — “more opportunists than communists” he said — Voronin’s resignation signaled “the beginning of the end as the dominant party of Moldova.”

“I do not believe that Voronin has necessary nerves and energy to come back,” Prohnitchi said in an email message. “As the winds now are changing you will see how their political rhetoric changes as well.”

Gagauzia’s Bashkan, or governor, Mihail Formuzal — who is in fact a passionate anti-communist — said that the communists’ hold even in his region is not as strong as it appears. “Our region is not pro-communist, but pro-Gagauz,” he said. Nevertheless, the statue of Lenin will stay for the time being. “I did not put it there, so it’s not for me to take it away,” he said.