Moldova: Europe’s forgotten corner, on the edge
Moscow -- Before it suddenly erupted into violence this week, with the parliament ablaze and thousands of angry protestors battling riot police, had you heard of Moldova?
Maybe for its bleak reputation as a preying ground for human traffickers, seeking young women for the Western European sex industry. Perhaps, more brightly, for having some of the best wines in the former Soviet Union.
Or for the travails of its football team — regularly trounced by stronger sides — or even the self-declared, unrecognised republic of Transdniestr which keeps a small sliver of eastern Moldova in an effective Soviet time warp.
Likely not, however, for being Eastern Europe’s latest trouble spot for political unrest.
But the country — with Europe’s lowest per capita income — has a complex cultural make-up and history which, combined with a weak economy, provide a perfect recipe for instability that could ripple well beyond its borders.
Moldova was unique in the Soviet Union for being the only republic whose main language, Romanian, was from the Romance family that also includes French and Italian. It is written with the Latin alphabet.
Its history is also very different from most ex-Soviet nations, with a history that has seen it as part of the Ottoman Empire, imperial Russia and then Romania between World War I and World War II.
The Ottoman principality of Moldova was divided in 1812 when its eastern half known as Bessarabia — the basis of the modern state of Moldova — was handed over by the Turks to the Russian Empire under a peace treaty.
This land was ruled by Russia until 1918 when it was unified with Romania. It was then annexed into the Soviet Union by Stalin in World War II.
Romania’s main northeast region is still called Moldova to this day, reflecting the historic bond between the two countries.
Adding to this heady historical mix, the majority Romanian-speaking Moldovan population is joined in Moldova by significant Russian and Ukrainian minorities as well as a Gagauz Turkic community.
Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, is now set on a very different course to its neighbour, where the Communist victory in the weekend’s legislative elections paved the way for more of the party’s eight year rule.
"When a single party is in power for so long, there are always reasons for discontent in the population," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
"The country (Moldova) is poor, the problems are numerous. A force that is not so great in numbers but energetic, like the nationalists, can arouse unhappy people."
The potential nationalist tensions were striking in the demonstrations, with the protestors yelling "We are Romanians!" and holding up maps showing the state of Moldova as part of an imagined greater Romania.
But Oazu Nantoi, director of programmes at the Public Policy Institute in Chisinau, said the economic grievances of a country with an average monthly wage of just over 250 dollars (185 euros) are the main reason for the unrest.
"There are maybe 10-15 percent of the population who say: ‘We have the same language, same history, we need to join together’," he said.
"But people in general are not thinking about that. What worries them are prices, misery and unemployment."
Mihai Fusu, one of Moldova’s best known theatre directors, said the unrest was "above all a social protest".
"The young have had enough of poverty of the lack of chance of having a worthy life and the humiliation of being the poorest in Europe, and they blame this on the Communists," he said.
"The young simply want the same level of life and opportunities of the Romanians and live in a more civilised and European way."
Moldova won independence in 1991, but despite some progress over the last year, its economy remains heavily dependent on agricultural. One quarter of the active working population works abroad to send funds home.
Despite the tensions, analysts doubt the current burst of unrest will bring about lasting change.
What makes the unrest different from the Orange and Rose Revolutions that swept the old order from power in Ukraine and Georgia is that the West does not seem keen to bring about dramatic change, Lukyanov said.
"Moldova is on the periphery of the field of interest. There needs to be a referee … like in Georgia or Ukraine to give its verdict and a green light to the opposition."