CHISINAU, Moldova — If the residents of Chisinau ever forget that they live on a fault line, they can count on Christmas to remind them.
For two years running, the city’s 30-year-old, Romanian-educated mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, has erected a Christmas tree in time for Dec. 25, when the holiday is celebrated in Romania and Western Europe.
And both times, the 67-year-old, Soviet-educated president, Vladimir Voronin, has ordered it removed, because Moldova officially celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, in keeping with the Russian Orthodox calendar. The dispute has taken on a loopy, Keystone Kops character, with reports of fir trees detained by the police in the forest or “abducted during the night by unknown persons.”
As the world learned last week, though, the divisions within this society are dangerous and deep. In a way, Moldova is grappling with the same challenge as Georgia and Ukraine — trying to join the West after decades of Russian influence. But Moldova’s narrative is complicated by its history of domination: over the last two centuries, the territory once known as Bessarabia was ruled by the Russian czar for 106 years, then by the Romanian king for 22 years and then by the Soviet Union for 51 years.
After nearly two decades of independence, Moldova’s citizens are still at odds over the basic question of who they are. That division boiled over last week, when a huge anti-Communist demonstration turned violent. Its participants, in their teens and 20s, say they are desperate to escape a Soviet time warp and enter Europe. But many of their elders feel more affinity with Russia, and see the protests as a plot by their western neighbor Romania to snatch away Moldova’s sovereignty.
But Claus Neukirch, deputy head of the Moldova mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he did not believe that the demonstrators sought unification with Romania.
“It is rather a movement eager for recognition that the two countries have the same roots and the same language — and that Moldova is part of Europe and not part of Russia,” he said. “Bessarabia has been on this fault line through all of history.”
What Moldovans think about Romania and Russia depends entirely on whom you ask, even among the 76 percent of the population that, according to the 2004 census, identify themselves as ethnically Moldovan.
Vyacheslav Turcan, a burly 39-year-old taxi driver, gets misty recalling his service in the Soviet Army, which he said taught him “culture, decency, respect — how to carry myself.” For him, the Soviet era was a time of predictable plenty, when Romania was the poor neighbor, reliant on Moldova for shipments of potatoes.
Now, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, with remittances from workers abroad making up 36.5 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. Mr. Turcan has joined the army of foreign workers, driving a cab in Russia. He has faith in Russia as an ally in a time of crisis; Europe seems untested and unreliable. Ask him about Romania, and he darkens.
“They’re Gypsies,” he said. “They occupied Moldova before, and they want to occupy us again.”
Vasile Botnaru, a journalist, has a different perspective. He was 13 when he stumbled across Romanian books in his father’s attic and realized, to his astonishment, that the language was so close to Moldovan that he could read it without a dictionary. Everything he had learned in Soviet schools — that Moldovans were ethnically and linguistically distinct from Romanians — was wrong, he said.
“Willingly or not, this history that they had hidden began to come out onto the surface, like oil on water,” said Mr. Botnaru, 52, who now works as a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “I understood that we had a shared history.”
As the Soviet Union entered its final years, a movement to reconcile the two countries burst into the mainstream. Moldova’s Parliament switched to the Roman alphabet, and Romanian replaced Russian as the state language. Clocks changed from Moscow to Bucharest time, and the government introduced a new flag virtually identical to Romania’s.
Unification with Romania became a high-profile political cause. Its splashy figurehead, Iurie Rosca, spoke beside huge maps of a “greater Romania” that included most of Moldova.
But the notion was anathema to Russian-speaking Moldovans, the Soviet-era elites who made up about a quarter of the population. And in 2001, after a decade of unruly capitalism had left the country bankrupt, there was a swing back to the old order. Voters elected the Communist government of Mr. Voronin, who promised to restore the Soviet-era safety net and join a union with Russia and Belarus.
“Moldova must hold out in Europe as Cuba is holding out on the American continent,” he told a rally celebrating Lenin’s birthday shortly after his election, Interfax reported. “We will hold out to the end as Cuba is holding out among imperialist predators.”
Since then, the reunification movement has faded to the margins of political life. Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, an independent research organization, said only 15 percent of Moldovans would support unification with Romania if a referendum were held now. Political elites, meanwhile, have lost interest for pragmatic reasons.
“Not everyone wants to be second in Bucharest if they can be first in Chisinau,” said Konstantin F. Zatulin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But the question has never been entirely set aside, either. As recently as 2006, President Traian Basescu of Romania said, “The Romanian-Moldavian unification will take place within the European Union and in no other way.” The issue was churned up again by last week’s protests, when Romanian flags were raised at two government buildings. Mr. Voronin has said he can prove that Romanian agents planned and organized the protests.
“I would not call it nationalism, because nationalism is when people fight in the interest of their own nation,” Mark E. Tkachuk, one of Mr. Voronin’s key aides, said in an interview. “This I would call ‘unionism,’ when people are fighting for the liquidation of their own nation, and absorption by another country.”
Opposition leaders reject that explanation. Iulian Fruntasu, a deputy chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, said the accusation of Romanian influence diverted attention from growing complaints about the ruling Communists. Deep down, he said, Russia knows it is losing its hold on young Moldovans. Faced with this crisis, he said, Moscow-backed leaders “would claim we want to join with the moon.”
“What they were able to do in Soviet times — it’s not possible any more,” Mr. Fruntasu said. “They have the Russian-language media, but this is another generation that has access to the Internet and books. No one now believes that there is a Moldovan language and a Romanian language. People travel a lot. I don’t think Russia in the long term has any chance to keep Moldova in its orbit.”
In the meantime, Moldovans will part ways every Sunday morning, with some headed to a Romanian Orthodox Church and some to the Russian Orthodox Church. At newsstands, Russian newspapers refer to last week’s events as a “putsch,” and Romanian newspapers cast them as a revolution. Mr. Botnaru says he has friends on both sides of the divide, and they keep asking him to choose.
“It’s like stupid parents who get divorced and say to their children, ‘Who do you love more, Papa or Mama?’ ” Mr. Botnaru said. “There are children who cannot love either Papa or Mama. And there are a lot of people in that situation.”
Opposition to Boycott Recount
MOSCOW — Moldova’s main opposition leaders announced Tuesday that they would not participate in a vote recount in disputed parliamentary elections, and the president of Romania angrily rejected accusations that Romanian agents were behind huge anti-Communist rallies last week.
“We will not allow Romanians to be blamed simply because they are Romanians,” President Traian Basescu of Romania said in an address to Parliament in Bucharest that was posted on his Web site. “We will not allow Romania to be accused of attempting to destabilize the Republic of Moldova. We will not allow Romanians who live across the Prut to be humiliated simply because they believe in an open society.”
Communists made a better-than-expected showing in parliamentary elections held April 5, leading to youth demonstrations that turned violent. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova immediately cut diplomatic ties with Romania, saying its secret services had staged the events in an attempt to topple his government.
Mr. Voronin ordered a recount of votes last Friday. But Vlad Filat of the Liberal Democratic Party said at a news conference that he would insist that the elections be invalidated and held again, Interfax reported. Mr. Filat said voter lists had included the names of long-dead people, minors and longtime expatriates.