“Moldova is my motherland,” “Chisinau the most beautiful city on earth,” “Love your country, love your language.”
These are the phrases plastered on billboards at almost every junction in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. These are the essay topics given to children in the formative years of their education.
In the new media age, this is beginning to change. Now, before children start to build their identity and find answers, they discover the Internet. For the vast majority of young people living in Moldova this is their real education.
Soon they start understanding that Chisinau is not the most beautiful city on earth, and most of the people who travel to other cities never come back. The Internet has become a fair and safe place, where it’s possible to express one’s political views and opinions anonymously without fear of censorship and reprisals.
In Moldova, vocal protest in real life often results in arrest. Saying nothing can sometimes be enough, as was the case for the Hyde Park members, renowned civil activists, arrested just for sitting in front of the Russian embassy with a piece of black canvas.
In the last five years, online growth and accessibility has made the Internet ideal for electronic advocacy. The government’s fear of the Internet was the main reason investigations were made in June 2008, when a group of activists protested against Article 341 of the Moldovan constitution — an article forbidding “public calls to overthrow or forcibly change the constitutional order of the Republic of Moldova”.
Several citizens were incriminated for inciting unrest after government officials monitored their postings on local online forums, resulting in the illegal seizure of personal computers. The government knew then, and even more so today, that they can’t control the Internet entirely.
I discussed with co-workers what we should do about the previous day’s parliamentary elections, which we were sure had been rigged. We decided to organise a flash mob for the same day using Twitter. With no recent history of mass protests in Moldova, we expected at most a couple of hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues. When we went to the square, 15 thousand people had gathered in less than four hours. Almost all of them young, with Internet access and Twitter. It resulted in my arrest and, importantly, a recount of election results.
I admit that I totally underestimated the power of Twitter and the Internet. What perhaps we underestimated most was the explosive anger among young people at the government’s policies and the alleged electoral fraud. Moldova, with a population of four million, is Europe’s poorest country, and a large number of young people are forced to find work in the West. The discrepancy between what they see and learn there, and what they come back to in Moldova, has just become too much.
The authorities’ reaction over the next few days demonstrated their fear of control on communication and assembly, as they went on to filter the Internet. In some cases it was completely blocked along with decreased, virtually non-existent, media coverage of the protests and the collapse of mobile phone networks. One undeniable fact is that everything started from the Internet. This is not only about Moldova: it is about the whole meaning of cyber space, and its impact on our freedoms.
Natalia Morar is a Moldova-born investigative journalist who writes for the Russian magazine New Times. She was expelled from Russia in 2007 after accusing Kremlin officials of murder and corruption. This is her first article since the protests.