MOSCOW – Twenty years ago, as Romanians were overthrowing their despotic Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu in an explosive discovery of freedom, their ethnically Romanian brethren in next-door Moldova – then still part of the USSR – were quiescent.
In recent years, as nearby Georgians and Ukrainians launched pro-democracy "colored revolutions" that brought down their bureaucratic regimes, the citizens of now-independent Moldova, having elected Europe's only Communist Party government in 2001, remained conspicuously calm and silent.
But on Tuesday, thousands of young Moldovans surprised the world by erupting into the streets of the capital Chisinau to protest alleged fraud in Sunday's elections, which saw the ruling Communist Party returned with 50 percent of the votes.
The protesters moved rapidly through the city, telegraphing their plans to supporters via text-messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, and succeeded in trashing several government offices and the president's headquarters and setting fire to the Parliament before riot troops clawed back control by early Wednesday.
Nearly 100 police were injured, more than 200 protesters were hurt during the riots, and 193 were arrested, according to Moldova's Interior Ministry. A few hundred demonstrators were reportedly regrouping Wednesday, but experts said the worst was probably over for now.
"I can't say it was the beginning of a revolution," says Arkady Barbaroshiye, director of the independent Institute of Public Policy in Chisinau. "It was a spontaneous protest by young people, mostly students, caused by rumors of falsification in the elections. The deeper causes are poverty, hopeless prospects for youth, and the deterioration of democratic standards in this country."
Communist President Vladimir Voronin declared victory, announcing that a Romanian-inspired "colored revolution" had been averted in his country.
"We know that certain forces from Romania masterminded these riots," he told journalists. "Romanian flags which were planted on state buildings in Chisinau prove this."
Moldova, a tiny Balkan state of around 4.5 million that was part of Romania until 1940, is Europe's poorest country and potentially one of the most unstable. It remains deeply divided between the ethnically Romanian majority and the Slavic-populated breakaway statelet of Transdniestr, which has maintained its defacto independence, backed by Russia, since winning a bloody civil war in the early 1990s.
Sunday's elections were certified as meeting international standards by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but that didn't allay suspicions of vote-rigging and coercion among many Moldovans, who felt dismayed that only three non-Communist opposition parties managed to hurdle the 6 percent barrier for getting into Parliament, with a combined total of 35 percent of the votes.
Full control of Parliament will enable the Communists to name Moldova's next president after Mr. Voronin steps down next month.
"There is no trust in the authorities who organized the election," says Mr. Barbaroshiye. "People are frightened that we are heading into a police regime, a dictatorship."
Officials accuse the protesters of being Romanian nationalists seeking reunification with that state, which is now a member of the European Union and the NATO military alliance. But many protesters, speaking to journalists during the demonstrations, said that all they wanted was a replay of the disputed elections.
"We call for a new election to be held, we will win it," Serafim Urecheanu of the parliamentary opposition party Our Moldova, told a Chisinau rally Wednesday, according to news reports.
But in Moscow, there was palpable satisfaction at the evident survival of one the few relatively pro-Russian governments in the region, even though relations between the two countries have cooled in recent years.
"Yes, it was an attempt to stage a colored revolution in Moldova, but it failed," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
"Unfortunately, it has become common for the opposition in post-Soviet countries to try to seize power after losing elections by taking to the streets. We know of some successful cases [in Ukraine and Georgia], but it's not a democratic way of coming to power."