This country of 5 million, west of Ukraine and east of Romania, is Europe’s poorest. A steep economic slide that began in the late 1980s continues unbroken. A land that once sent fruit and wine to Europe now exports women and kidneys.

Fed up with the calamities and corruption of its “centrist” leadership, Moldova elected Europe’s only communist government a year ago. President Vladimir Voronov pushes Russification–Russian language in the schools and in government offices, a Russian orientation in foreign policy and a Soviet-style economics of collective farming and nationalized industry that the Russians long ago abandoned.

Now anticommunist demonstrations are gathering force in the capital of Chisinau. Crowds have grown from a few thousand students who marched on January 9 to something close to 100,000 Moldovans who turned out for a rally last Sunday. Organizers say the demonstrations will continue.

But oddly, though economic failures certainly contribute to public rage, the target of the daily crowds of marchers is not poverty but language. The Romanian language is the mother tongue of 80 or 90 percent of Moldovans, a symbol and source of national pride. Defense of Romanian, and demands for its primacy over Russian, are a patriotic antidote to a sense of national shame over the country’s wretched condition.

The demonstrations set up a confrontation between a central-planning government stuck in the 1970s and a historical-romantic opposition stuck in the 1870s. Neither side seems to hold the key to Moldova’s future.