The great majority of Moldova's population is Eastern Orthodox. There are a small number of Jewish and Baptist adherents among the population. Ethnic groups include Moldovan/Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Gagauz, and Bulgarian. Romanian is the official language; Russian and Gagauz also are spoken.

The Republic of Moldova occupies most of what has been known as Bessarabia. Moldova's location has made it a historic passageway between Asia and southern Europe as well as the victim of frequent warfare. Greeks, Romans, Huns, and Bulgars invaded the area, which in the 13th century became part of the Mongol empire. An independent Moldovan state emerged briefly in the 14th century under celebrated leader Stefan the Great, but subsequently fell under Ottoman Turkish rule in the 16th century.

After the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12, the eastern half of Moldova (Bessarabia) between the Prut and the Dniester Rivers was ceded to Russia, while Romanian Moldova (west of the Prut) remained with the Turks. Romania, which gained independence in 1878, took control of the Russian half of Moldova in 1918. The Soviet Union never recognized the action and created an autonomous Moldavian republic on the east side of the Dniester River in 1924.

In 1940, Romania was forced to cede eastern Moldova to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), which established the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic by merging the autonomous republic east of the Dniester and the annexed Bessarabian portion. Romania sought to regain it by joining with Germany in the 1941 attack on the U.S.S.R. Moldova was ceded back to Moscow when hostilities between the U.S.S.R. and Romania ceased at the end of World War II. The present boundary between Moldova and Romania was established in 1947. Moldova remained part of the U.S.S.R. until the early 1990s; the Soviet Union was formally dissolved InÊDecember 1991.

In October 1990, Mircea Snegur was elected president of Moldova by the Parliament. A former Communist Party official, he endorsed independence from the Soviet UnionÊand actively sought Western recognition. Moldova declared its independence from theÊU.S.S.R. in August 1991. However, Snegur's opposition to immediate reunification with Romania led to a split with the Moldovan Popular Front in October 1991 and to his decision to run as an independent candidate in a December 1991 presidential election. Running unopposed, he won after the Popular Front's efforts to organize a voter boycott failed.

Moldova's transition to democracy initially had been impeded by an ineffective Parliament, the lack of a new constitution, a separatist movement led by the Gagauz (Christian Turkic) minority in the south, and unrest in the Transnistria region on the left bank of the Nistru/Dniester River, where a separatist movement--assisted by uniformed Russian military forces in the region and led by supporters of the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow--declared a "Dniester republic."

In 1992, the government negotiated a cease-fire arrangement with Russian and Transnistrian officials, although tensions continue, and negotiations are ongoing. In February 1994, new legislative elections were held, and the ineffective Parliament that had been elected in 1990 to a 5-year term was replaced. A new constitution was adopted in July 1994. The conflict with the Gagauz minority was defused by the granting of local autonomy in 1994.

The February 1994 Parliamentary elections were conducted peacefully and received good ratings from international observers for their fairness. Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli was re-elected to his post in March 1994, as was Petru Lucinschi to his post as speaker of the Parliament. Authorities in Transnistria, however, refused to allow balloting there and discouraged the local population from participating. Inhabitants of the Gagauz separatist region did participate in the elections.

In the presidential elections of 1996, Parliamentary speaker Petru Lucinschi surprised the nation with an upset victory over the incumbent, Mircea Snegur, in a second round of balloting. The elections were widely judged as free and fair by international observers, a hallmark that would come to characterize future nationwide elections in Moldova as well.

Though President Lucinschi managed to institute some very important reforms--among them the successful fight for the "Pamint" land privatization program--his tenure was marked by constant legislative struggle with Moldova's Parliament. Several times, the Parliament considered votes of no confidence in the President's government, and a succession of moderate, pro-reform prime ministers were dismissed by a Parliament increasingly dominated by the Communist Party faction.

In 2000, Parliament passed a decree declaring Moldova a parliamentary republic, with the presidency henceforth to be decided not by popular vote, but by parliamentary vote. However, since no single candidate was able to garner a majority of votes, Lucinschi temporarily remained president. Later that year, when Parliament failed three times to successfully elect a new president, Lucinschi exercised his right to dissolve Parliament, calling for new parliamentary elections in the hope that a new Parliament would be more open to his initiatives--and, possibly, even rescind the decree on election of the president.

Widespread popular dissatisfaction with the government and the economy, however, led to a surprise at the polls in February 2001. In elections certified by international observers as free and fair, slightly over half of Moldova's voters cast their ballots for the communists. Under the rules of Moldova's proportional representation system, the communist faction, which in the previous parliament consisted of 40 of Parliament's 101 seats, jumped to 71--a clear majority. Communist deputies were then able to elect as president Vladimir Voronin, the leader of their faction.

Voronin's tenure has been marked by up and down relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The assistance of these international financial institutions is critical because large government debts must be rescheduled. Politically, the government is committed to the reduction of poverty by allocating more resources to social safety net items such as health, education, and increasing pensions and salaries. Since election, President Voronin has proceeded with President Lucinschi's plans to privatize several important state-owned industries, and has even on occasion broken with his own party over important issues. Under President Voronin, relations with the United States remain strong.

From January to April 2002, large demonstrations took place in opposition to several controversial government proposals, including expanded use of the Russian language in schools and its designation as an official language. While the demonstrations were sometimes tense, the government did not use force, and ultimately, agreed to Council of Europe (CoE) mediation.

Local elections in May and June 2003--the first nationwide contests since the Communists came to power--did not meet the relatively high electoral standards set in previous Moldovan elections, according to international observers. While the voting itself generally met international standards, the government's behavior in the campaign period--including bias in state media, misuse of administrative resources, and the arrests of two opposition mayors--represented a step backward. The Communists won the largest share of votes, but lost in the country's highest-profile race, for mayor of Chisinau. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early 2005.

In addition to state-sponsored media, there are several independent newspapers, radio and television stations, and news services. The independent media organizations, along with some that are affiliated with political parties, often criticize government policies. Peaceful assembly is allowed, though permits for demonstrations must be obtained; private organizations, including political parties, are required to register with the government. Legislation passed in 1992 codified freedom of religion but required that religious groups be recognized by the government.

A 1990 Soviet law and a 1991 Parliamentary decision authorizing formation of social organizations provide for independent trade unions. The General Federation of Trade Unions succeeded the Soviet trade union system upon Moldovan independence. In late 2000, the union split. The Trade Union Confederation of Moldova (TUCM), successor to the previous federation, retained 80% of the union members in Moldova, and primarily represents agriculture and agricultural processing sector, public services, radio electronics, medicine, education, and culture. "Solidaritate" (solidarity), a new organization, includes the remaining 20% of unionized workers from industry, transport, telecommunication, construction, and social protection. The unions have tried to influence government policy in labor issues and been critical of many economic policies. Moldovan labor law, which is based on former Soviet legislation, provides for collective bargaining rights.