How Unrest in Moldova Is Different This Time

5 MINS READOct 7, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Tens of thousands of Moldovans rally in the capital Chisinau on Sept. 6.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Social unrest in Moldova is not new, but this time it could portend serious destabilization for the small, strategically located country — which could have serious implications for the Russia-West standoff. An estimated 10,000-12,000 protesters gathered Oct. 4 to begin the fifth straight week of protests against the Moldovan government and to call for early elections. Social dissent and political paralysis have been the norm in the country for the past five years, and a collapse of the Moldovan government as a result of the demonstrations would not be unprecedented. However, this time around the demonstrations have lasted longer and have been noticeably more uncompromising, which could foretell more serious unrest to come. Such agitations could benefit Russia by undermining Moldova's chances for EU integration, but even so, Russia will have a hard time bringing the country into its fold.

Moldova is no stranger to political instability. Ever since the 2009 revolution, which brought a collection of pro-West parties known as the Alliance for European Integration to power, the country has been subject to frequent government collapses and early elections. Moldova's political environment, which is split nearly evenly between pro-Europe and pro-Russia parties and which depends on coalitions between embattled political personalities to pass legislation, is at the root of the problem. In this way Moldova is similar to Ukraine: It is the object of competition for influence between Russia and the West, both of which support parties and power players within the country to advance broader strategic goals.

Moldova's last parliamentary elections, held in November 2014, produced a narrow victory for the pro-West coalition. But initially the coalition was so weak it was unable to form a majority in the 101-seat parliament and had to depend on support from the pro-Russia Communist Party to pass legislation. Then in May, amid this already unstable political climate, allegations of corruption surfaced involving the disappearance of more than $1 billion from three of Moldova's largest banks — a figure equal to 12.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The scandal not only placed tremendous political pressure on the government but also led to the suspension of financing to Moldova from key institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union. 

When Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici resigned June 12, a new coalition between Moldova's three traditionally pro-Europe parties was able to secure a razor-thin majority of 51 seats in the 101-seat Parliament. However, the new government, led by Valeriu Strelet, has not placated the angry public over the banking scandal, and pressure on the government has continued to grow. Protesters first gathered in Chisinau's central square Sept. 6 to demand more prosecutions in and investigations into the corruption case, as well as to call for early elections, the dissolution of Parliament, and the resignation of the president and other key government officials.

Warning Signs

Though the protests have not yet forced the Moldovan government to resign, there are warning signs that they may pose a significant threat to the government and potentially to the stability of the country. First is their duration. Protests have continued for five weeks unabated, and a portion of the demonstrators have camped out in tents in Chisinau's central square since they began. This permanence has led some to fear what they call a Moldovan Maidan — a comparison to the months-long protests in Ukraine that eventually culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich. The second reason for concern is the expansion of the protests. Last week, pro-Russia groups staged actions in front of Parliament, blocking the main street through Chisinau and threatening to block other streets in the city and throughout the country.

Another worrisome characteristic of the protests is their violence. Though Moldova has experienced countless protests over the past five years, they have by and large been peaceful. But on Oct. 4, demonstrators clashed with police as they attempted to storm the Parliament building, and though the conflict mostly consisted of minor scuffles, this does not preclude more serious clashes in the future. Vasile Nastase, leader of the protest movement Dignity and Truth, called for "acts of civil disobedience" to start Oct. 6, promoting strikes in public buildings and calling on Moldovan citizens not to pay their bills. The country has already been hit hard financially, and such actions could put further economic strain on the government. And as tension rises, the potential for violence increases. During demonstrations on Oct. 4, protesters also announced that they were organizing a so-called national guard to maintain order in the protest camp and to protect demonstrators. If true, this could threaten national stability, as the group would parallel the national security institutions.

The government is also worried about the prominence of pro-Russia groups in the unrest. Though the protests have encompassed a wide spectrum of groups and citizens demanding action after the banking scandal, pro-Russia parties and their supporters in Moscow stand to gain the most from a government resignation and from early elections. Igor Dodon, whose Socialist Party won the most seats in parliamentary elections but who was kept out of the ruling coalition, has been active throughout the demonstrations, as has Our Party leader Renato Usatii. Both men could benefit from the downfall of the Moldovan government, which could put pro-Russia parties ahead of those that are Europe-oriented for the first time since 2009.

However, the same dynamics that have undermined Moldova's drive toward EU integration under the current Western-oriented government are likely to hinder any major swings toward Russia under a new government. Political and social divisions in the country have served to broadly cancel one other out, and the population is likely to remain divided on whether to align with Russia or the West for the foreseeable future. Any major moves toward Moscow could elicit backlash from the pro-Europe segments of the country, just as attempts to integrate with the European Union have been met with resistance from groups more closely aligned with Russia and from pro-Russia regions, including Gagauzia and Transdniestria. Therefore, while Moldova struggles with instability domestically, its foreign policy orientation will remain up in the air and will likely be bitterly disputed for quite some time.

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