Twittering revolutionaries in Moldova

By bne IntelliNews April 17, 2009

Graham Stack in Chisinau -

Oddly for someone thrown out of mighty Russia on charges of being a threat to state security and planning the violent overthrow of the government, 25-year-old journalist Natalia Morar looks as if sugar wouldn't melt in her mouth. And for someone facing up to eight years in jail on charges of inciting mass riots, she seems remarkably bright and fresh - and as surprised as anyone about the scale of the protests that followed Moldova's parliamentary elections on April 5.

Morar's current problems all started the morning after Moldova's elections. She and six like-minded friends from their informal pro-democracy group Hyde Park met at a café for a brainstorming session on what to do about the seemingly rigged elections. President Vladimir Voronin's ruling Communist Party had got precisely the right number of seats in parliament to allow them to name the next president without having to talk to the opposition parties. Voronin himself must stand down after two terms in office, and has openly said he would seek a Den Xiaoping status for himself, referring to the late Chinese leader who never held office as the head of state or head of government, but served as the de facto leader of China for almost 20 years.

The elections results were just too neat to be true, Morar and her friends thought, although the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) had largely given the vote a clean bill of health. But on the internet, rumours abounded of voting lists packed with the names of dead souls and emigrant workers.

Morar's friends decided to organize a flash mob for that evening to take place using Twitter, Facebook and the Russian social network site Odnoklassniki, plus good old-fashioned sms. They counted on getting together a crowd of a several hundred at the most, Morar told bne at a secret location in Chishinau. Instead of the hundreds they expected, tens of thousands turned out - estimates range from 10,000-20,000. Moreover they returned the next day as well.

The crowd was initially peaceful, but very suddenly on the Tuesday after midday, the mood turned ugly. Stones rained down on the under-equipped and undermanned police. Protestors burst through the police cordon into the parliament building and presidential office. Fire broke out in the left wing of the parliament, and protestors defenestrated computers and files. "The violence had nothing to do with us," explains Morar. "At that time, we together with the political opposition leaders had called on the crowd in front of the parliament to disperse and join the official demonstration in front of the government building."

Conspiracy or cock up?

The outbreak of violence was so unexpected and unusual for Moldova that it has given rise to a host of conspiracy theories. According to Morar and other opposition activists, there were police provocateurs among the crowd, who incited and organized the violence with the aim of discrediting the democratic opposition. Many neutral observers also report that there emerged unidentified micro-leaders in the crowd giving instructions how to act.

The Voronin administration has its competing conspiracy theory: that the protests were engineered by Romanian agents with the aim of destabilizing Moldova and initiating reunification of the two countries. The government points to the fact that the protestors hung out a flag of Greater Romania on the parliament, which, it should be noted, encompasses not only Moldava, referred to by Romanians as Bessarabia, but also Ukraine's Bukovina region around Czernowitz, which belonged to Romania before the war.

The Kremlin also has its conspiracy theory: that it was an attempt at a US-inspired "coloured revolution", with Morar and Hyde Park playing the role of youth organizations like Ukraine's Pora and Serbia Upor.

However, while it is perfectly possible that all three conspiracy theories have an element of truth, taken on balance, the cock-up theory is preferable.

The first major cock-up related to Moldova's non-existent crowd policing. Before the violence started, observers report that protecting the parliament building from tens of thousands of demonstrators stood a thin blue line of sometimes not more than 10 local bobbies. This can be attributed to surprise at the numbers, but is also a result of the extremely negative international media response to police violence against demonstrators in Russia and Georgia in 2007-2008. In Tbilisi in April, there was a minimal police presence despite 50,000 demonstrators turning out.

Additionally, Moldova, Europe's poorest country with no recent history of mass protests, seems simply to lack any trained and properly equipped riot police, just as it lacks tanks, luckily. Even after the protests turned violent and stones started to rain down on the police, reinforcements wore helmets mostly lacking visors, and carried non-transparent steel shields, greatly limiting their ability to defend themselves. This turned policemen into sitting ducks for stone throwers. Policemen were seen reduced to tears by the assault, where they weren't masked in blood. Many simply ceased to offer resistance.

This also does not seem to have been feigned weakness to provoke an attack. This correspondent's room in Chisinau looked directly on to the courtyard of the Interior Ministry, where in the days following the protests, hasty but fairly desultory attempts to train police on how to use seemingly new plexiglass riot shields could be seen.

The second major cock-up relates to the crowd. Activating young people via Internet and sms does not necessarily mean getting a crowd of peace-loving democratic Euro-youth together, as activists such as Morar might have hoped for. The most connected population group are the 14- to 20-year-old boys in computer-game and football-fan age, and these are also the most likely to have a go at under-equipped and outnumbered police on the first warm day of spring. A fair proportion of the protesters were minors. Add to this that Chisinau's universities are all within walking distance of where the demonstrations took place; it was no coincidence that protests turned nasty when lessons ended at 1pm.

Moreover, this segment of the population is most prone to hold nationalist convictions as a surf through the chatrooms of the region shows. Nationalism in Moldova among the younger generation is Greater Romanian nationalism, dreaming at unification, and as such deeply anti-Communist, though not necessarily democratic. 120,000 young Romanians have already taken up Romania's offer of dual citizenship. Add to this the desolate economic situation in Moldova - where many qualified young people are forced to take menial work abroad due to lack of chances home - and you have a very disaffected youth.

Morar, while alleging the presence of government provocateurs, also told bne that, organizing the protests, she and her friends crucially underestimated two factors - the unpredictable power of social networking technologies, and the political convictions of Moldovan youths. Now Morar's groups are the inadvertent victims of the protests they triggered, but did not control. On April 15, Morar was placed under house arrest and is facing up to eight years in jail on charges of inciting mass riots.

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Twittering revolutionaries in Moldova

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