A faded Romanian flag hangs limply above an old wooden doorway in the Moldovan capital. Inside the headquarters of Moldova's pro-Romanian nationalists, the floorboards creak, and wind whistles through large, empty rooms.
Tacked to one wall is a map of the region. The borders of present-day Romania have been redrawn to include Moldova, small chunks of western Ukraine and Bulgaria, as well as a slice of eastern Hungary.
Two-thirds of Moldova's 4.4 million people are Romanian speakers, and union with Romania has long been a dream of nationalists here. Squeezed between Romania and Ukraine, this contested territory has passed between Russia and Romania seven times since 1812.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova has steered an uneasy path. Despite civil war and economic crisis, the little land-locked country has firmly established its sovereignty. Both candidates for president in the Dec. 1 election - incumbent Mircea Snegur and parliamentary leader Petru Lucinschi - staunchly supported independence.
Mr. Lucinschi, the Speaker of the parliament and a former Communist who won with 54 percent in an upset victory over Mr. Snegur, is considered friendlier toward Moldova's Russian minority than Snegur is.
That displeases some Moldovans, such as Petru Bogatu, editor in chief of the weekly Tara.
"Moldova belongs to Romania," he says. "One day it will be part of Romania ... but not now. Moldovans just aren't ready yet."
Mr. Bogatu concedes that the heady days of the early 1990s, when his office buzzed with young volunteers and visitors from Romania, seem like ages ago. Moldova had just thrown off Soviet domination, and Romanian speakers were rediscovering a culture suppressed under communism. Unification with Romania seemed imminent.
But it never happened. And in 1994, voters in a popular referendum overwhelmingly said no to joining Romania.
A brief civil war in 1992 ended with part of the country in the hands of Russian separatists. But international diplomats have praised Moldova's leadership, as well as neighboring Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, for halting the country's slide into protracted conflict. "[Former] President Snegur deserves a lot of credit," says Gerrit Timmer, a senior negotiator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Moldova. "He's been a stabilizing factor."
Vladimir Solonari disagrees. "Moldova is stable and independent in spite of Snegur," says Mr. Solonari, chairman of Moldova's parliamentary committee for minorities and human rights and a supporter of Lucinschi. Minorities, such as the Russians, Ukranians, Turkic Gagauz, and Gypsies, did not trust Snegur, Solonari says.
Moldova's ethnic tensions have led to inevitable comparisons to Bosnia. But many Moldovans see little in common.
"Romanians, Russians, and Gaguaz - we've always gotten along well," says Petru Stoica, a music student here who insists that an ethnic conflict like Bosnia in Moldova is unthinkable.
On the streets of Chisinau, ethnic tension is nowhere to be seen. The 1994 referendum revealed a broad consensus that diminutive Moldova is better off on its own, not as part of another country.
"I'm a Moldovan," says Valentina Borodina. "A Romanian Moldovan. We're different from Romanians," the music teacher says with a laugh. "I say we're 'Soviet Romanians.' "
Only a few years ago, she supported union with Romania. Now she can't remember why. "Today we have more important things to worry about," she says.
The morose economy remains issue No. 1. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Moldova's economy. Inflation leapt 2,000 percent. With the loss of markets and cheap energy supplies, factories shut down.
"Before, we were the richest republic in the Soviet Union," says Maria, an elderly former mine worker who says she hasn't received her pension in three months. "Things have never been worse here."
But international financiers hail Moldova as a model for other former Soviet republics. Moldova has implemented one of the region's strictest austerity programs. Inflation has fallen to less than 20 percent per year and the currency, the leu, has held firm against the dollar since 1993.
President-elect Lucinschi says that the breakaway Trans-Dniester "republic" to the east must return to government control. The question is exactly how to wrest power from its old-school Russian leaders, who are backed by 6,000 Russian Army troops still on Moldova's territory.
Heavy economic and diplomatic pressure has failed to dislodge Trans-Dniester's rulers.
Lucinschi favors a settlement offering Trans-Dniester wide-ranging autonomy of the kind the Turkic-speaking Gagauz enjoy in southern Moldova.
Although international negotiators are close to a compromise on Trans-Dniester, another variable has entered Moldova's fragile political equation.
Romania's defeated President Ion Illiescu and his ruling party kept unification with Moldova at arm's length. But for the new government of President Emil Constantinescu, unification with Moldova remains a goal.
The problem, as one young man in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, puts it, "is that our Moldovan brothers don't want us as much as we want them."