The Kremlin Wins a Round in Moldova

Seen from the Kremlin, the scenes of protesters overrunning Moldova's parliament and ransacking its president's office looked chillingly familiar. More than five years ago, young pro-Western protesters toppled Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia and Ukraine. Those "color" revolutions marked the nadir of Russia's power in the region and became the cornerstone of Kremlin policy ever after. At home, Moscow stamped out foreign-funded NGOs, abolished local elections and concocted youth groups to counter the possibility of anything similar happening inside Russia. Abroad, the Kremlin's priority has been asserting its right to a sphere of influence and fighting back the tide of Western influence. The outcome of Moldova's latest unrest, then, is about much more than a disputed election: it's a key test of both Russia's soft and hard power in the region.

The unrest in Chisinau erupted last week as students—many summoned by messages on Facebook and Twitter—gathered in the Moldovan capital's central square to protest the ruling Communist Party's suspiciously large electoral victory a few days earlier. Protesters set fire to government buildings, built barricades and some waved Romanian flags—an uncomfortable reminder that two thirds of the country is composed of ethnic Romanians and some wish to reunite with the neighbor, from which they split in 1940. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin called the unrest "an attempted coup d'état" and accused Romania, a NATO and European Union member, of fomenting the protests. Heavy-handed police quickly restored order after arresting more than 200 people.

What's important about the abortive "Twitter Revolution" is what it revealed about Russia's ability to project power and protect friends like Voronin. For at least four years, Moscow has mounted a campaign to woo Voronin away from the EU and NATO with offers of subsidized gas and closer economic ties. The charm offensive seems to have paid off. Even though European trade accounted for 51 percent of Moldova's economy last year, compared with just 20 percent with Russia, Voronin pointedly refused to join Brussels's Eastern Partnership program in January, calling it "a plot to surround Russia."

Russia also scored a quiet victory against the EU last month over the breakaway republic of Transdniestria, a sliver of territory between Moldova and Ukraine that split from Chisinau in 1992 and whose independence from Moldova is maintained in part by the presence of 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops. The EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other Western bodies had pushed Moldova to insist that Moscow remove its troops as a precondition to any peace settlement. But in March, at talks hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Voronin dropped the demand for Russian troops to leave, giving Russia a continued foothold in Moldova's politics. "Keeping troops in Transdniestria gives Moscow a bargaining chip," says Valeriu Druc, a parliamentary aide for the opposition Liberal Party. "They can use it to gain something from Europe, if they want—but the price [for us] is that it will put back peace for years."

Last week, Moscow was quick to back Voronin's claims that Romania was behind the violence, suggesting that Russia wants to encourage a split between Chisinau and Bucharest. "Radical nationalistic groups of Romania are involved in an attempt to take in Moldova," says Duma deputy and Kremlin loyalist Sergei Markov. "This is an attempt to accomplish an 'orange coup'."

Many young Moldovans resent their leaders' turn toward Moscow—as well as the role of the Communist Party. "Omg i feel so sick that i am living in Moldova back to the ussr," read one of the thousands of Twitter posts labeled with the tag "#pman," shorthand for the Romanian name of Chisinau's largest square. And with a shared border with the EU and more than half a million Moldovans working there, there's little chance that Moldova could turn its back on Europe entirely.

Yet Moldova's opposition is small and not nearly as organized as the colored revolutionaries in Kiev and Tbilisi. The Moscow-backed ruling Communist Party enjoys a genuine approval rating of roughly 45 percent, and it owes at least part of its popularity to the economic ties to Moscow fostered by Voronin. The opposition's approval rating is about 25 percent, and as the economic crisis shrinks the possibility of joining the EU, Russia seems to Voronin and the Communists "like a richer and more reliable ally," says Pavel Khoroshev of Moscow's Academy of Political Sciences. That means the Kremlin can finally chalk up a victory—a potent mixture of aggressive diplomacy, money and political support has helped stem this would-be colored revolution in the bud.