The Twitter revolution that wasn't.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 20 2009 8:02 PM

The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't

The story of Moldova's technology-driven uprising was too good to be true.

Moldovan students in Romania. Click image to expand.
Moldovan students protest in Romania

We've been waiting a long time for political upheaval to follow in the wake of technological change, and on April 7, it seemed to have arrived. From Moldova, of all places, came news of the Twitter revolution: In one of the poorest backwaters in Europe—a place that frequently features in global surveys as the world's unhappiest country —a group of fresh-faced young people reportedly used Twitter tweets, text messages, and Facebook postings to organize a demonstration in favor of democracy and against rigged elections. New technology confronted old autocracy in an almost ideal, made-for-the-front-pages story line: On one side stood Moldovan Communist President Vladimir Voronin, a man who is not only a former Soviet secret police boss but—amazing coincidence!—also the father of the country's richest man. On the other side stood the forces of modernity, youth, and social networking. The young democrats expected 1,000 demonstrators, and, thanks to technology, more than 10,000 showed up.

It sounded too good to be true—and it was. Alas, it is now becoming clear that there was no Twitter revolution in Moldova, and not merely because there are only a handful of registered Twitter users in the whole country. The more important point, according to observers on the ground, is that the unexpectedly large demonstration (10,000-15,000 is a lot for apathetic Moldova) was not a spontaneous product of technical advance. Nor was it an accident that the demonstrators turned violent, burned government buildings, or placed a Romanian flag on top of the parliament.

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I don't want to exaggerate here, nor do I want to join the flash mob of conspiracy theorists who instantly gather whenever a crisis takes place somewhere in the post-Soviet world: This event wasn't well-organized enough to qualify as a conspiracy, and it definitely unnerved the authorities, who surely feared the violence would get out of hand. But nor did it look, to those who were there, like a spontaneous crowd of young people harnessing technology in order to build a better future. The Moldovan opposition isn't well-organized or popular enough to inspire a movement like that, with or without Twitter. More to the point, some of the most violent demonstrators were immediately identified—by Western observers and by local politicians—as members of the Moldovan security services. One observer told me that it would have been difficult even to get onto the roof of the parliament building without tools and preparation, let alone to put up a flag.

For those who have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, it's worth remembering why the Romanian flag matters: Moldova, after all, was created in 1940, when Stalin, under the terms of his pact with Hitler, occupied the Romanian province of Bessarabia, reorganized it into a Soviet republic, and, with a perverse flourish of imperial high-handedness, replaced the Latin alphabet with Cyrillic. To this day, Moldovan paranoia about Romania's ambitions in the region has some basis in fact. Some Moldovan opposition politicians do support reunification with Romania. So do some Romanians.

As for the Romanian government, it advocates nothing more radical than closer ties between Moldova and Europe. But Moldova's Communist leaders do not want closer ties to Romania or Europe, largely because their Russian friends do not want them to have closer ties with Romania or Europe. Hence the events of April 7: Just as EU negotiations with Moldova were moving along nicely, this terrible yet perfectly believable outburst of Romanian nationalism! Naturally, the Moldovan government last week accused the Romanians of revanchism, expelled the Romanian ambassador, and arrested the alleged ringleaders of the alleged Romanian coup d'etat, in some cases beating them brutally. Naturally, the president of Russia chimed in to condemn "the mass disorder unfolding on the pretext of disagreement with the election results." Europe's stoic envoy to Moldova has tried to calm everyone down, with some success. But his influence has limits. At one point, Voronin told some diplomats that he didn't care about Europe, muttering darkly that "we have friends elsewhere."

What we witnessed on YouTube, in other words, was not a new kind of Twitter revolution, but rather a new kind of manipulated revolution; not an Orange or a Rose revolution, but a revolution led deliberately astray. There were special circumstances, of course: It's relatively easy to make people angry and get them to burn down government buildings in the world's unhappiest country. Still, I predict this is a sign of more such "revolutions" to come. A scenario like this is too good to waste on Moldova alone.