William Schreiber on Moldova's Upcoming Election

Moldovan students wave their country’s flag at an April protest. Daniel Mihailescu / AFP-Getty Images

Next Sunday, Europe's poorest country will head to the polls for its third election in two years. If the West has learned from its mistakes promoting democracy in formerly Soviet countries like Georgia and Ukraine, the parliamentary elections in Moldova could be Europe's biggest chance to expand its values eastward. If not, the elections could trigger an ersatz popular revolution, thanks to an impatient young generation, eager for the economic benefits of EU membership.

This is a country where the Communist Party could prove democracy's greatest hope—and pro-Western youth its greatest threat. In April 2009, mobs of young protesters stormed the Parliament building, chanting anticommunist slogans and waving EU flags. They could do it again this Sunday if things don't go their way.

These protesters may be looking to Europe, but don't call them democrats. The elections they rioted against were declared free and fair by international observers. Unlike the color revolutions, which swept the former Soviet Union in response to blatant fraud, there is no evidence of rigged elections to justify revolution in Moldova. Turns out, the Communist Party of Moldova doesn't need to fix results: communists go to the polls. Years of required participation taught them voter discipline. Turnout in regular elections typically exceeds 60 percent, much to the frustration of some younger voters. Dana Condrea, a recent college grad, says young Moldovans want to see European standards of living. "We're sick and tired of communism," she says. "At our university, you can barely find anyone who sympathizes with them." When the communists won some 50 percent of the April vote, word spread, and students took to the streets.

Moldovan youth apparently don't remember that the loss of a fair election is not an occasion for revolution. But their basic complaints—about the failure of the regime to bring economic growth—are legitimate. To be sure, countries without democratic values can never be European. But experts say the West should accommodate their thirst for change by pressuring the country's strongest politicians to become better state builders. "This isn't 1989 in Moldova," says Damon Wilson, vice president of the Atlantic Council. "But I would say there is a real opportunity for an increasingly democratic and pluralistic system to take hold."

The West should offer mentorship in good governance to whoever wins Sunday's election, Wilson argues. It's a lesson learned the hard way in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution's inability to follow through led to widespread disgust and apathy. "When you have the opportunity to govern in a country like Moldova, you need to deliver," he says. "You need to demonstrate the benefits of democratic elections. The reality is, the day after elections, whoever is running the show has a very hard slog before them."

Moldova's liberal forces, now in power, have perhaps the hardest slog. Supporters are split between two major leaders: Vlad Filat, the prime minister, and Mihai Ghimpu, the country's acting president. Each has trouble putting rivalry aside. Their feuding has been an asset to the communists in the past. It could become an additional liability for establishing democratic legitimacy through governance.

That leaves an unlikely champion for Western values: Vladimir Voronin, Europe's first electable communist since the fall of the U.S.S.R. Voronin and his party held the Moldovan presidency for eight years straight until they lost in late 2009. While maintaining the Kremlin's favor, Voronin proved himself to the West by saying yes to trade and a firm no to Russian-backed separatists. In fact, the blessings of Moscow should be another plus for Europeans. Georgia became unstable thanks to Russia's perception of Mikheil Saakashvili as a satellite threat. Germans thought twice about supporting Ukrainian independence after Viktor Yushchenko's friction with Moscow shut off Ukraine's gas-transit pipelines.

Still, even Wilson admits it may be hard to persuade skeptical U.S. congressmen to go to bat for a party that embraces communism—hammer, sickle, and all. But he remains optimistic about Voronin's role. Wilson believes that with coaching from center-left European socialists, the Moldovan communists could evolve into garden-type social democrats. No matter who comes to power Sunday, Moldova may not soon resemble a worker's paradise. But with the right kind of help from its neighbors, it may start looking more European.

Schreiber is a Boren National Security Scholar based in Warsaw.