The spectre of coloured revolutions loomed again over the former Soviet Union earlier this month, when young protesters in Moldova stormed government offices in capital Chisinau in what eerily resembled the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003.
Violence erupted on April 7 when about 10,000 students thronged the streets of Chisinau protesting alleged rigging in the April 5 parliamentary election, even as Russian and European observers certified the vote generally free and fair. The ruling Communist Party, which is in fact a centre-right party, trounced the opposition, winning 60 seats in the 101-member Parliament.
The protesters in Moldova used the same tactics as did adopt the organisers of the Rose Revolution. In the wake of a parliamentary election in November 2003, student protesters led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed Parliament claiming that the vote had been rigged. The prime target of attacks in Moldova was also the Parliament building. The rioters broke into the building, smashing furniture and setting rooms on fire. They moved on to the office of the President, shattering windows and hurling stones at the police. Two men died and about 200 were wounded. As in Georgia five years earlier, the Moldovan protesters called for the ouster of the government and a rerun of the parliamentary election.
In Georgia, the coup succeeded because the police and the security forces crossed the lines, whereas in Moldova they stood by the President. Also, leaders of the main opposition parties in Moldova flinched, dissociating themselves from the protests when they turned violent.
What made the Moldovan protests different was that the demonstrators demanded re-unification with neighbouring Romania. They shouted, “We are Romanians,” and waved Romanian flags. The Moldovan and Romanian people have common ethnic roots and speak the same language. Romanians call themselves Europe’s last divided nation and say they should eventually reunite with Moldova along the German model, that is, Romania with a population of 20 million would absorb the 4-million strong Moldova, Europe’s poorest state sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. The protests petered out after the Moldovan authorities arrested the organisers, closed the border with Romania and expelled its ambassador.
President Vladimir Voronin rejected charges of election fraud and agreed to the Opposition demand for a vote recount (it confirmed the Communist victory). He accused Romania of trying to overthrow his government by staging a “coloured revolution.” “We know that certain political forces in Romania are behind this unrest,” Mr. Voronin said. The Romanian flags fixed on the government buildings in Chisinau attest to this.
Romania’s embassy in Chisinau has issued hundreds of thousands of Romanian passports to Moldovans seeking jobs in Europe. Romania is known to have been financing the Opposition parties. According to Moldova’s Central Election Commission, half of all Opposition deputies elected to Parliament on April 5 hold Romanian passports.
From Russia’s perspective, Romania’s plan to annex Moldova is an attempt to drag another ex-Soviet republic into NATO through the back door. Moscow said it was deeply disturbed by the attempts to destroy Moldovan statehood. Neither the European Union nor the U.S. condemned Bucharest’s interference or demanded a probe into its role in the Moldova violence. The western media also took the side of the protesters as they did during other coloured revolutions, and accused the authorities of police brutality.
President Voronin not only denounced Romania’s expansionist plans but also hinted at the involvement of other foreign forces in the Chisinau riots. He said the police identified nine Serb nationals among those who led the protests.
It may be recalled that Serb activists from the Otpor opposition group, who were trained in U.S.-funded camps, helped to topple Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and coached young revolutionaries in Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.
As in the earlier coloured revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzia, Russian politicians saw a U.S. hand in Moldova as well. “We are witnessing the continuation of the negative trend involving attempts by security services of some western states, above all the U.S., to destabilise former Soviet republics and incite protests that would trigger a rose or orange revolution,” said the head of the Duma committee for CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) relations, Alexei Ostrovsky.
Analysts find it improbable that Romania, a NATO and European Union member and which hosts two U.S. military bases on its territory, could have acted without consulting Washington. The Moldovan protests came to be known as the Twitter Revolution because the organisers used online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to mobilise supporters. The U.S. government’s Agency for International Development (USAID) has been active in Moldova providing, among other things, free Internet access and training in information technology to local NGOs and students.
The U.S. has reason to feel frustrated with Moldova’s recent drift towards Russia. Mr. Voronin, who has always advocated Moldova’s integration in Europe, has sharply criticised Brussels’ new Eastern Partnership programme for former Soviet states, calling it a plot to encircle Russia. He has also opposed attempts to turn the U.S.-sponsored GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbajian-Moldova) group into a full-fledged anti-Russian bloc.
Finally, Mr. Voronin last month agreed to revive talks on a Moscow plan for Moldova’s reunification with its Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniestr, which he spurned five years ago under strong pressure from Washington and Brussels. He also dropped the demand for Russian peacekeepers pulling out of Transdniestr, which is a key point of disagreement between Moscow and Brussels. With Mr. Voronin’s term in office expiring and Moldova’s new Parliament due to choose a new President, organisers of the coup attempt apparently sought to tip the scales in favour of a pro-western candidate.
The failure of the Twitter Revolution in Moldova underscored the general disillusionment with the West-inspired coloured revolutions in the former Soviet Union. As Moldovan protesters were re-enacting the Rose Revolution, a much bigger crowd demonstrated in Georgian capital Tbilisi, calling for the resignation of President Saakashvili, hero of the revolution. The Georgian Opposition leaders vowed to keep up continuous protests until he quit. The former U.S. President, George W. Bush, described Mr. Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy, but Georgian politicians who helped to install Mr. Saakashvili in power five years ago now denounce him as a dictator.
“Georgia’s record on democracy today is far worse than it was in 2003,” says a former Saakashvili ally and Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze. “The media are under the total control [of the President], business is under total control, courts are terrorised and manipulated, and we have a real police state and an autocratic system of justice.”
Experts say the opposition in Georgia is too fragmented to oust Mr. Saakashvili anytime soon, but the current protests show that he is being hated as intensely as he was lauded five years ago. The Rose Revolution withered away after Mr. Saakashvili dragged Georgia into a war against Russia last August in which the Georgian army was routed and two Georgian provinces gained independence.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine has, likewise, sunk into a morass of crippling political infighting, rampant corruption and economic meltdown. If elections were held today, Ukraine’s orange President Viktor Yushchenko would get 1.9 per cent of the votes, according to a recent survey.
As coloured revolutions melted into twilight, Russia has expanded its influence in the former Soviet Union. Moscow convincingly demonstrated a readiness to project its hard power when it pummelled Georgia in the five-day war. This had a strong impression on its neighbours. Kyrgyzstan, the target of a Tulip Revolution four years ago, recently decided to close the only remaining U.S. airbase in Central Asia even as Russia enlarged its airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
The NATO plans to give membership to Ukraine and Georgia have gone awry, while Russia is busy setting up military bases in Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia, whose independence Moscow recognised after the August war with Georgia. Moscow’s strong support for Moldova’s sovereignty during the Twitter Revolution is likely to push Moldova further closer to Russia and facilitate Moscow’s strategic goal of securing a non-NATO status for Moldova.
The abortive attempt to stage a coloured revolution in Moldova has cast a new shadow over Russia’s relations with the West just as Moscow and Washington agreed to push the reset button on their ties.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had no problem cooperating with the U.S. in the former Soviet Union provided the U.S. policies were transparent and free from under-the-carpet scheming and secret agendas.
The chill caused by the Moldova crisis deepened when NATO announced plans to hold three-week military exercises in Georgia next month. President Dmitry Medvedev denounced the war games as muscle-flexing and dangerous. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. plan to rearm Georgia amounted to nothing but encouragement of the aggressor. Such policies can well derail the efforts to reset Russian-American relations.