Moscow backs Moldovan President after he accuses Romania of supporting coup
The crisis in Moldova, dubbed the "Twitter Revolution", was last night threatening to turn into another showdown between Russia and the West. Just weeks after Barack Obama's government spoke of "pressing the reset button" with Russia, the conflict risks derailing the fragile diplomatic truce.
Russia gave its backing yesterday to Moldova's President, Vladimir Voronin, when he accused EU and Nato member Romania of backing a coup attempt, and expelled the Romanian ambassador. Mr Voronin promised "harsh punishment" would be meted out to the organisers of protests which rocked the capital Chisinau on Tuesday after the ruling Communists claimed victory in weekend parliamentary elections.
Moscow, deeply suspicious of anti-government protests in what it considers its sphere of interest, condemned the protests in the strongest terms.
A foreign ministry statement supported Mr Voronin's actions and said "any attempts to play on the emotions of the young people who make up the majority of the crowds, especially from outside the country, is not just reckless and reprehensible, but also short-sighted." The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the protests "outrageous" and the Duma called on the EU to condemn the protests.
Mr Voronin said: "When the flag of Romania was raised on state buildings, the attempts of the opposition to carry out a coup became clear. We will not allow this." Romania and Moldova share deep historical ties but Romanian authorities vehemently denied the accusations and analysts in Chisinau accused elements in the Moldovan government of provoking the clashes to create a rift with the EU and push the country towards Russia.
Russia's main bargaining chip with Moldova, and a point of particular concern for the EU, is the "frozen conflict" in Transdniestria.
The sliver of land is officially part of Moldova but is run by a separatist regime with close links to Moscow. The situation is similar to that in South Ossetia, where Russia and Georgia came to blows last summer. Russia is the leading player in ongoing negotiations and has a military presence and a large armaments depot in the region.
Riot police retook control of the Moldovan parliament and presidential buildings yesterday as both sides took stock after Tuesday's violence. Protesters stormed and ransacked the buildings, demanding repeat elections. About 200 people were detained while opposition parties demanded access to television and new elections.
The protest organisers insisted that most of the protesters had been students with no party political links and no intention of violent action, determined simply to hold the government to account and force freer elections.
"The protests were initially very peaceful, but then a small group, which seemed to be very well organised, started these violent riots," said Igor Munteanu, the executive director of the Viitorul think-tank in Chisinau.
"My suspicion is that this was provoked and directed from within. Elements of the Communist leadership do not want closer relations with the EU as it will mean loosening their grip on power. They know that if they provoke a crisis with Romania and the EU and improve relations with Moscow, they will be able to continue running the country as they please."
Mr Munteanu said the protests should not be seen in the same light as the Georgian and Ukranian revolutions: "This was not organised by the opposition parties; it was a protest self-organised by young people who are unhappy with the Communist government," he said.
Young Moldovans discussed their next moves online as the role social networking sites played in organising the protests became clear.
Not too long ago, revolutions were named after colours or flowers – Orange for Ukraine, Rose for Georgia, Tulip for Kyrgyzstan. But in a sign that technology is now fuelling opposition to post-Soviet regimes as much as romantic ideals, the protests in Moldova have been dubbed the "Twitter Revolution".
In the list of most popular Twitter searches yesterday, along with contestants from Pop Idol and other television-related inanity, was "#pman" the abbreviation for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the Romanian name for the main square in Chisinau and the epicentre of the protests.
Every minute new posts were made in English and Romanian, with acquaintances and sympathisers keeping each other up to date on the situation in different parts of the country.
"North of Moldova TV IS OFF!!! but we have THE ALMIGHTY INTERNET! Let us use it to communicate peacefully for freedom!!" wrote one Twitter user yesterday afternoon, mirroring the many reports that television networks had been shut down in an attempt to stop the violence.
Others complained that their employers were not letting them join the protests; some simply posted rousing messages calling for freedom and a change of government.
Many of the "tweets" on Twitter, and blog posts on other internet sites, expressed dismay at the violent turn of events and suspicion that the authorities had provoked the violent clashes. Natalia Morar, a prominent Moldovan journalist and a leader of one of the youth groups behind the protests, posted a statement on her blog denouncing the violence.
She said the protests, organised under the slogan "I am not a Communist!", were organised online: "Six of us distributed information on the internet, Facebook, blogs, by SMS and email.
"All the organisation was through the internet, and 15,000 people came on to the street."
The EU called on all parties to refrain from any action that could escalate the situation and said it would send a special envoy to Chisinau. But any talk of a direct EU role in negotiations between the government and opposition is likely to infuriate Moscow further.
Opposition leaders yesterday postponed further protests in light of the violence, but several hundred people gathered outside government buildings demanding the release of the arrested protesters.
Borderline case: The changing shape of Moldova
*So where is Moldova?
This landlocked country lies on the fringes of eastern Europe, sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, south and east. It is the poorest country in Europe, with residents surviving on an average monthly wage of $250.
*Has it always been independent?
No, it used to be part of the USSR. Moldova declared its independence on 27 August 1991, at the same time as most Soviet republics, following a failed hardline coup against Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The territory has changed hands many times. Back in the Middle Ages it was part of the Principality of Moldavia. In 1812 it was annexed by the Russian Empire and became known as Bessarabia. It was unified with Romania in the early 20th century but then taken back into the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.
*What is the ethnic make-up?
About two-thirds of Moldova's 4.5 million people are of Romanian descent. The languages are virtually identical and there are strong cultural ties with the EU and Nato member. However, the sliver of land to the east of the Dniester River – known as Transdniestria – is home to many Russian and Ukrainian speakers.
*What sparked this week's unrest?
Moldovans went to the polls on Sunday to vote for a new parliament. The ruling Communists won with close to 50 per cent of the vote, but protesters allege that there was wide-scale rigging. President Vladimir Voronin – who was elected in 2001 – says he won fair and square and is blaming Romania for stoking the violent demonstrations.
*Are there any other ramifications?
The latest violence could complicate efforts to resolve an 18-year separatist rebellion in Transdniestria. The region unilaterally declared independence from Moldova in 1990. Up to 700 people were killed in fighting that raged until a July 1992 ceasefire. Transdniestria has run its own affairs, with Moscow's support, ever since. In a 2006 referendum, unrecognised by Moldova, the region reasserted its demand for independence and also backed a plan to join Russia.
Tweets of protest
How the Moldovan protesters discussed the unfolding situation on Twitter. The tag #pman is the acronym for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, name of the central square in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova
"Moldovan president blames opposition for anti-communist protests. He doesn't know youth used social media to gather for protests #pman"
"Public TV not covering the protest. Internet down in Moldova"
"A friend of mine just told me that some girls from #pman revolution gave flowers to policemen and they accepted with a smile. Flower-power"
#pman: on the public TV company just national music and good morning shows, nothing about what's going on in the country..."
"#pman: Chisinau is surrounded, Moldova's borders are closed, internet is partially blocked but this will not stop us"
"#pman Moldovan students in Romania are afraid to come back home. Rumours say they wouldn't be allowed to enter Romania again"