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

By Hale, Henry E. | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Hale, Henry E., Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: Moldova's April 2009 mass unrest and the subsequent ouster of Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party have become widely known as the country's "Twitter Revolution," which in turn is often cited as an example of the Internet promoting revolution and democratization in a hybrid regime, a political system combining elements of democracy and authoritarianism. A close analysis of these events, however, shows that social media played a secondary role at best. Instead, Moldova's revolution is best understood as the product of a succession crisis that happened to hit the regime as the country was entering a sharp economic decline linked to the global financial crisis. The findings emphasize the risk of overestimating the Internet's effects on regime change if researchers neglect the hard work of carefully tracing the actual processes by which nondemocratic regimes are ousted.

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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 remarkably 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 revolution, 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 succession 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 revolution (5) must not only examine patterns in their use and the activities 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, eliminating 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 delegation, more than enough to install its own leader, Vladimir Voronin, in the presidency and also to fill the major posts of prime minister and parliamentary speaker. …

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