For the first time in recent memory, the heavy hitters of international election monitoring -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament -- were in agreement with Russia-led observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States: Moldovan parliamentary elections on Sunday were run more or less in accordance with accepted norms.
Nonetheless, provocateur-instigated violence and vandalism broke out in Chisinau following massive, peaceful and spontaneous opposition protests. Shortly after the fires in the parliament were extinguished, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of the "rare display of unity" by the two usually conflicting groups of election observers and added that the demand to hold a new vote was "absolutely groundless."
Some might argue -- as did Emma Nicholson, a British member of the European Parliament -- that election violations were ignored because of Russia's sway over the consensus-bound OSCE. But Western-sponsored exit polls run by a respected Moldovan political analyst showed the Communists winning 45 percent of the vote. This was outside the usual margin of error for such polling but not by a preposterous amount. The current count gives the Communists 49.48 percent of the vote and still leaves them one seat short of avoiding a coalition government. Even the notoriously skeptical commentator Vladimir Socor compiled a convincing "10 Reasons Why the Communist Party Won Moldova's Elections Again," only one of which mentioned the power of the incumbency and pre-electoral irregularities.
So the burden is now on the opposition parties to prove their allegations that thousands of "dead souls" voted for the Communists on Sunday. The Moldovan Central Election Commission has promised to open its books and voter lists to the opposition. Eventually someone will be declared the winner of these elections and will form a new parliament, which will in turn elect a new president.
Beyond the elections and protests, we are seeing an enormous demographic and generation shift -- a trend not only in Moldova but in other former Soviet republics as they rediscover and reassert their national identities. According to exit polls, the majority of Moldovans who voted for the Communists were older, rural and less educated. They also had fond memories of the "stable times" when Moldova was a Soviet republic. Opposition voters tended to be young, urban, educated and more drawn toward Europe and an integrated future. A similar split is visible in the demographics of Moldova's breakaway, pro-Russian Transdnestr region, in contrast to the rest of Moldova, which leans more to the West. With each year, relations between the two regions become more estranged.
This schism in Moldova has profound implications for the region. It could also complicate U.S. efforts to "reset" relations with Russia -- in particular, finding common ground in building a new European security architecture. On the other hand, the Transdnestr conflict is by far the most amenable to resolution of the "frozen conflicts." A high-level, good-faith effort at resolving it in good faith could not only do much to develop the trust and substance that has for so long been lacking in U.S.-Russia relations but could actually advance the interests of both counties.
The United States, along with its European allies, wants a peaceful and democratic Europe. Russia wants to ensure security guarantees by, among other things, stopping NATO expansion and ensuring that it is surrounded by what it defines and perceives as friendly countries. Russia's refusal to withdraw its troops and armaments from Transdnestr has complicated the ratification of the Adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.
The recent violence in Moldova has been a wake-up call for the Kremlin. It caught a disturbing glimpse of its nightmare scenario in which a pro-Romanian and pro-NATO government could come to power. Under this scenario, younger Moldovan leaders with no interest in reuniting with Transdnestr would be more ready to cut this troublesome sliver of land loose. Then they would race toward European political, economic and perhaps security integration, establishing another "pro-Western" nation on Ukraine's border. This would leave the Kremlin with the responsibility of supporting an impoverished Transdnestr surrounded by an unfriendly Moldova and a divided Ukraine, creating an even bigger headache than it is now.
Historically, only a very small percentage of Moldovans has favored union with Romania, but that number is growing, especially among the young. This factor helps explain both Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Russia's accusations of Romanian interference in the election process, instigation of the protests and escalation of them to violence.
The "5+2" framework to settle the Transdnestr dispute includes the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, EU, United States, Moldova and Transdnestr. In 2007, the Moldovan and Transdnestr chief negotiators to the 5+2 talks on the breakaway region's settlement told me that if given the green light, they could resolve all the outstanding issues to settlement in about two weeks. The Moldovan "comprehensive package" plan -- which has never been rejected by Moscow and explicitly protects important Russian interests and institutions -- could form a road map for progress in the 5+2 talks. But, as with any negotiations, creative flexibility would be needed.
This willingness to compromise for an overall good deal has also been noticeably absent from U.S.-Russia relations. A strong commitment to solve the Transdnestr conflict in a way that respects key interests of all sides could open an important new area of trust in relations between the United States, EU and Russia. It could also improve the lives of people living in both Transdnestr region and the surrounding areas of Moldova and help eliminate the persistent zero-sum thinking that seems so out of place in the 21st century.
Louis O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.