Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Did the Internet Break the Political Machine? Moldova's 2009 "Twitter Revolution That Wasn't"1

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Did the Internet Break the Political Machine? Moldova's 2009 "Twitter Revolution That Wasn't"1

Article excerpt

In 2009, Moldova experienced a dramatic and violent political upheaval that broke the political machine of longtime president and Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin and replaced it with a coalition known as the Alliance for European Integration. Much remains unclear about what actually happened. Reporters initially focused on the role of social networking websites,2 and the term "Twitter Revolution" gained wide currency as a moniker for this episode in Moldova's history.3 But for an event that has become a common reference point for arguments about the Internet's democratizing effects, and more generally for an event that is so dramatic in content and outcome, Moldova's 2009 revolution is remark- ably under-researched. We thus lack clear answers regarding the role of the Internet and, crucially, what lessons this case might hold for how social media might be expected to impact non-democratic regimes.

Drawing on field work in Moldova both before and after the revo- lution, including face-to-face elite interviews and an examination of a wide range of media sources, the present article employs the method of process-tracing to construct an account of the chain of events preceding, constituting, and immediately following the April 2009 protests.4 This method reveals that Moldova's revolution can best be explained not by social-media-driven activism, but instead first and foremost by a succes- sion crisis that happened to hit as the country was just entering a sharp economic decline as a consequence of the global financial crisis. These two crucial factors, which boil down to public opinion and succession politics in the dominant political machine, are shown to have generated both the mass rioting and the subsequent ouster of the Communist Party that are often attributed to social media. The Internet's effects on these events were marginal at best. This suggests that studies of social media's impact on revolution5 must not only examine patterns in their use and the activi- ties of their users, but crucially be embedded in rigorous and systematic study of the larger political context in which the Internet operates. Without this, we cannot hope to gain a true understanding of the extent of social media's effects.

Moldova's "Twitter Revolution" and Theories of the Internet's Effects

Moldova, a country with a population of under four million citizens sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, emerged from the USSR in considerable political chaos, including a civil war that resulted in the loss of its Transnistrian region after Russian troops intervened.6 Parliament eventually won a power struggle with the presidency in 2000, eliminat- ing direct elections for president and deciding to choose the president itself in a vote that would require a supermajority of 61 of the body's 101 members. The parliament deadlocked when it came time to select the next president, calling new parliamentary elections in 2001 to resolve the crisis. The Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) then surprised observers by surging from opposition to win a whopping 71-seat delega- tion, more than enough to install its own leader, Vladimir Voronin, in the presidency and also to fill the major posts of prime minister and parlia- mentary speaker. Voronin gradually closed Moldova's political space, constructing an increasingly strong political machine that featured growing control over mass media (especially television), a tight relationship between power and business, and the reputed use of state force agencies for political purposes.7 But since opposition parties were allowed to exist and compete in the most important elections, including the 2009 parliamentary contest that is at the center of attention here, Moldova remained a classic "hybrid regime," combining some significant elements of both democracy and authoritarianism.8

Voronin ultimately lost power through a series of events that began with a sudden and dramatic outbreak of mass street protest against the results of the April 5, 2009, parliamentary election. …

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