The current unrest in Moldova over disputed election results has turned the international spotlight on the small former Soviet state and its complicated relationship with Europe and Russia.
Anti-communist protests have dragged Moldova into the spotlight
For a lot of people, it is the first time that this complicated country has entered the modern consciousness. But for many centuries, the Republic of Moldova, to give its full name, has been at the center of numerous power struggles on Europe's eastern fringes.
Way back in the Middle Ages, the territory which is modern day Moldova was part of the Principality of Moldavia. It was then part of the Russian Empire from 1812 until the Russian Revolution in 1917 before becoming part of Romania. Its stewardship changed hands a number of times during World War II until it was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1944.
It remained a part of the USSR until the fall of the Soviet Union and survived a short but bloody civil war before gaining its independence in 1991. Since then, Moldova has struggled to produce a stable economy and is currently one of the poorest nations in Europe. But despite its economic strife and its checkered history, Moldova has been relatively peaceful over the last 18 years.
Moldova has been caught up in regional power-struggles for centuries
All of which led to a certain amount of surprise when protesters ransacked Communist President Vladimir Voronin's office and the parliament building during demonstrations over allegedly rigged parliamentary elections on Tuesday.
The violence seemed to erupt from nowhere, but the protests that rocked Moldova reflected tensions that have long been simmering in a poor corner of Europe perched on the East-West fault line.
"The deeper causes go back to questions of identity and what Moldova's future is," Samuel Greene, deputy director at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told Deutsche Welle. "Moldova is still suffering from the aftermath of a civil war and it doesn't have full sovereignty over its territory. In addition, in order to keep the peace Voronin has struck a compromise with Russia by which it promises basically not to move towards unification with Romania, which was being discussed at some point; it promises to really not look that seriously at European Union membership and certainly not to look at NATO membership."
Compromises hinder Moldovan progress, say critics
Greene believes that many Moldovans accuse the Communist government's compliance with Russian demands of holding the country back and that has led, to a certain degree, to the violent protests.
"These compromises have closed off socio-economic prospects for a large part of the Moldovan population that really didn't have a hand in making those compromises and didn't necessarily approve of those compromises," he said. "When the ruling group that had made those compromises and essentially closed that door for Moldova announces that it is trying to stay in power indefinitely and at any cost and any means, it can lead to a certain amount of emotion and maybe even desperation. What we're seeing now is a sort of 'now or never' situation."
More than 5,000 demonstrators stormed the palace and parliament
With Voronin's Communist party likely to remain in power despite doubts over the validity of the vote, there is concern that the protests could continue and even escalate. However, Greene believes that Moldova has seen enough violence.
"I don't think that we would see the return to violence and civil war," he said. "I think most people in Moldova have been fairly shocked by the violence of these protests and have seemed not to have approved of that degree of violence. I think that if there are further protests they are likely to a lot more peaceful."
President's balancing act causing frustration
Many experts think that the reasons for the sudden outbursts can be traced to the complicated relationship, cultivated by Voronin, between Moldova, the EU and Russia.
Voronin has made concessions to Russia
Voronin, a Soviet-era interior minister for Moldova, has in recent years reinvented himself as "pro-EU" leader interested in forging strong ties with the West. Under his leadership, Moldova has implemented the first three-year Action Plan within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) which precedes accession talks.
And the EU, pushed in particular by its newest members from the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, has supported Voronin, promising as recently as October to seal a "new and ambitious" relationship with Moldova.
A year earlier, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia issued a joint statement pushing the EU to "acknowledge the pace of progress, Moldova's efforts and concrete achievements" under Voronin's leadership.
While turning to the West, Voronin has also managed to keep relations with Moscow -- the supporter of the rebel Transnistra region in eastern Moldova -- on a very warm track, also with support from the Russian side.
Moldova standing at East-West crossroads
With Voronin courting both Brussels and Moscow, and both sides reciprocating his overtures, each anxious not to cede dominant influence to the other, the stage was set for some kind of rupture within the country itself. Many Moldovans believe that their country is going to have to make a choice: is it with Europe or is it with Russia?
Voronin has positioned Moldova between the EU and Russia
"Well, it's a balancing act and to be honest, Russia is incredibly important for Moldova's stability because it does control the fate of the breakaway republican interests in Transnistra and it's also important for Moldova's economy," Greene said. "Moldova's economy depends tremendously on remittances from Moldovans working abroad -- a large number of those are in Russia -- and so that is obviously important to any Moldovan government.
"But a large number of those workers are in Europe and Europe is a significantly more lucrative place for them to be than in Russia," he added. "It is also impossible for any Moldovan government to entirely close the door on Europe. But what Voronin has tried to do is this balancing act which over time evolves basically into institutionalized indecisiveness that says 'we're not going to move in any direction' and that makes it very difficult for foreigners to invest in Moldova and for people to develop the economy when you have no idea what the long term prospects for the country are."
The EU will on May 7 launch the so-called "Eastern Partnership" program of closer ties with Moldova along with Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus.
The plan envisages aid, the gradual creation of a free trade zone and better energy ties. The EU will also negotiate accords setting terms for cooperation in reward for democratic and free-market reforms.
Will these initiatives sway the Communists towards Europe or lead to another power struggle to join the many that have gone before it in Moldova's history? How the new Moldovan government and its Russian overseers respond to these developments, only time will tell.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Robert Mudge