This is a revolution!" exclaims Ivan Ursu, a lifelong communist, surveying the banquet tables at the Inauguration of Moldova's new communist president. "And there wasn't even any shooting!"
In Moldova, the party is partying again. Back in 1991, the tiny former Soviet republic was among the first to declare independence and embrace capitalism. The country even outlawed the Communist Party. But after 10 years of poverty, corruption and misery, Moldovans have decided that maybe the old days weren't so bad after all. In February, the country became the first former Soviet republic to vote the Communist Party back into power. On April 7, it became the first to reinstall a communist president. To hear him tell it, it won't be alone for long. "The vanguard of the world communist movement has fallen [on Moldova]," Vladimir Voronin told comrades at the party's Fourth Congress recently. Now, he said, Moldova has the "honor" of leading the revival.
Most Moldovans would have been appalled by such talk a few years ago. In the early 1990s freedom brought a blossoming of ethnic pride--some people even advocated merging with Romania; at least 65 percent of Moldova's 4 million citizens are ethnic Romanians. But now Moldova has become the poster child for the frustrations of the former Soviet republics. And hunger and nostalgia are proving to be stronger political forces than self-determination. Increasingly, Moldovans view impoverished Russia as a beacon of prosperity. "Democracy" has become a dirty word, associated with a laissez-faire approach to corruption, the rise of the mafia and declining living standards. "Life was freer under communism," says villager Sveta Mraga, who equates "freedom" with clothes for her children and heat for her home that she can no longer afford. "We want some of that freedom back."
It's not hard to see why. In just 10 years Moldova has become the poorest country not only in Europe but in the entire former Soviet Union. Nowadays it's best known for a bustling trade in women, smuggled out of the country and forced into prostitution. More than 75 percent of the population lives in poverty. Industrial production is one third its 1991 levels. Things are so bad that "night thieves" steal power-line wires and telephone cables. In March two women were caught selling human meat, stolen from the garbage bin outside a cancer ward. "This country has an economy?" asks an adviser to the World Bank working in Moldova.
Still, Moldova's appetite for a wholesale return to Stalinism remains unclear. "The communists didn't win because of ideology," says journalist Alexander Tanas. "They won because the past 10 years of 'reforms' brought nothing to the people." These communists, he explains, are not the ideological, Soviet-era apparatchiks of the 1930s. "They're not red," he says. "They're kind of pink." Voronin told NEWSWEEK that he plans to stick with the market economy. (Recently he described himself as Moldova's Deng Xiaoping.) But he says it's impossible to blindly adopt American-style democracy. "People have different blood types. Some of our values are democratic. Some are not. We want to take the best from socialism and the best from the past 10 years."
Some elements of capitalism will be difficult to erase. Many people don't want to lose the little private property they gained during those first heady years of democracy. The communists say they won't snatch privatized businesses, but lawmaker Viktor Stepanyuk says the new government will have to "fight thieves and the mafia" and "might have some renationalization if property has been taken unlawfully."
Before they can do anything, Moldova's new leaders will have to come up with a plan to revive their failing economy. They probably won't be able to do it alone. And the issue of whether to look to European capitals or to Moscow for help is sure to prove contentious. Iurie Rosca, leader of a pro-Romanian movement in Parliament, insists that nationalism hasn't lost its force. "The people voted communist because they want to eat," he says. "All the pain of our history is tied to Russia. Why should we love them? For killing our parents? We don't want to be their banana republic."
But Voronin is clear about where his loyalties lie. During his campaign, he promised to bring Moldova into the loose economic union that binds Russia and Belarus. He wants to hold a referendum on the issue and on whether to re-establish Russian as an official language. "We must speak about restoration of our traditional links with Russia and with other republics of the Soviet Union," says Voronin. The Soviet breakup "was done without anesthetics--a live body was cut, and we are suffering."
Most Moldovans agree about the suffering part. Villager Ivan Sekiera, 52, who was never a party member, says he voted for the communists to oust the regime of the past decade. Is he worried that they might bring repression back? "No, not at all," he says. "What could be worse than democracy?"