By Peter Graff
CHISINAU (Reuters) - One of the leading figures in Moldova's opposition said on Friday he plans to violate a ban on pro-Russian war symbols by wearing an orange and black ribbon during a march on May 9, in a direct challenge to the pro-Western government.
Moldova's parliament passed a law last month banning symbols of Russia's war in neighbouring Ukraine, including the orange and black ribbon of St. George worn widely by Kremlin supporters.
The opposition Socialists, widely viewed within Moldova as pro-Russian although they disavow that label, call the ban a violation of free speech rights, and say the ribbon, which was used on some Soviet-era medals, should not have been included.
Moldova has a history of political street unrest, and domestic attention has focused in recent days on plans for demonstrations on May 9, celebrated in Russia and other former Soviet states as marking victory in World War Two.
Vlad Batrincea, who as deputy speaker of parliament is the highest-ranked opposition lawmaker, told Reuters the party had informed its members that it was a personal decision whether or not to violate the ban by wearing the ribbon at the march.
"Personally, I will be wearing that ribbon, as I have in previous years, and as I will in future years. And for me this does not represent any symbol of aggression towards the neighbouring country, Ukraine," he said in an interview.
"The police should issue a fine. I will go to the court and contest it. That is my right as a citizen. So that justice will protect my right of free expression and my right to gather. Those are rights that are guaranteed by the constitution."
'MAY 9 IS ABOUT PEACE'
Moldova's pro-Western President Maia Sandu, who took power at the end of 2020 after defeating a Socialist incumbent, has defended the ban on the ribbon, saying it was "impossible to combine in the same symbol the memory of lives given for peace and the current inhumane war" in Ukraine. The "Z" and "V" symbols used by Russian troops are also banned.
Sandu's government has strongly backed Ukraine in its struggle against invading Russian forces and has expressed concern that Moscow could have designs on the pro-Russian region of Transdniestria that broke from Moldova three decades ago.
Batrincea said he expected no unrest at Monday's rally, unless counter-protesters tried to provoke clashes.
"May 9 is about peace," he said. "We hope the police will not permit any clashes. And we hope that our event will take place in a civilised manner as it has in so many past years."
Moldova's constitutional court rejected an appeal on Thursday by Socialist and Communist lawmakers against the ribbon ban. The law calls for fines of around $50 for individuals who display banned war symbols and higher fines for organisations.
Moldova's police have suggested they will not attempt to halt any peaceful opposition march, but will instead film it and issue fines to anyone found to have violated the symbol ban.
The police "will not respond to provocations, but are prepared to strictly document any violations...," Viorel Cernautanu, head of the general inspectorate of police, told a briefing on Friday, according to InfoTag news agency.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)