CHISINAU It all started when Moldova's top judiciary and businessmen gathered in a snow-laden forest called Tsar's Wood to mark the year's end by stalking wild boar. In the course of the hunt, a shot rang out and a man fell fatally wounded.
Someone in the 32-strong private party of VIP amateur hunters had accidentally discharged his rifle. The 41-year-old businessman died the next day but the shot has echoed through Moldovan politics, felling prime minister Vlad Filat and threatening the ex-Soviet state's drive for a place in the European mainstream.
An appeals court judge who was on the December 23 hunt has been suspended and police have opened a case of manslaughter "through negligence". No-one has yet been charged over Paciu's death, but the drama has passed to the political stage.
Early in the New Year, Filat denounced prosecutor general Valerii Zubco, a man appointed by one of his allies, for taking part in the hunt which was conducted illegally in a nature reserve on the border with Romania. Filat also accused him of trying to cover up the shooting of Sorin Paciu.
Filat's attack on Zubco caused uproar in the three-party Alliance for European Integration, which has led the once communist-ruled country since 2009.
Estranged allies revived old accusations against Filat of past involvement in cigarette black-marketeering, which he denies. Filat, for his part, has accused a wealthy rival of 'buying up' judges and political influence.
"I never expected things to degenerate to the point of taking down an entire government," Filat wrote on his website, after former partners rounded on him along with the communists last month in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.
Former ally, Liberal leader Mihai Ghimpu, saw no way back.
"Filat will compromise the European integration of the country. With him, we won't have anything good to take to the people in elections at the end of 2014," he said.
No let-up is in sight in a crisis that has dredged up grudges and rivalries that appear to have little to do with ideologies or political ambitions for the impoverished ex-Soviet state wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania.
The country's top court ratcheted up the crisis on Monday when it torpedoed an effort by the president to get Filat back into office at the head a new government.
None of this furor has been about the detail of what happened in Tsar's Wood or who pulled the trigger. It was the political attack on Zubco, who has since resigned protesting his innocence, that broke a consensus and ended the alliance with the Democratic party that had backed Zubco.
CRUDE POWER PLAY
For Filat's former allies in the coalition, his action amounted to a crude power play, undermining a basic agreement according to which senior state posts were shared out among Alliance parties. It was seen as a blow at the Alliance itself.
Moldova, with a population of 3.6 million, is one of Europe's poorest countries with an average monthly salary of about $230. Heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies, its economy is kept afloat by remittances from several hundred thousand Moldovans working in Russia and EU countries.
With the pro-Western alliance in tatters, Moldova's aspirations of one day finding prosperity in Europe could also be in doubt. Political chaos could derail its pro-Europe agenda ahead of a November summit with the EU when it hopes to sign landmark association and free trade agreements with the bloc.
Early elections caused by political stalemate would not help either if they brought back the communists, who are the biggest single party in parliament and still strong in the countryside.
The Alliance, made up of Filat's Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Party of centre-left politician Marian Lupu and the Liberals led by former acting president Ghimpu, was always a strained 'menage a trois' of convenience.
Since taking over in 2009, Filat has become popular with European politicians as he pushes Moldova's pro-Europe reform agenda in Brussels and other European capitals - something which, insiders say, has aroused jealousy at home.
Ghimpu, his sharpest critic, routinely refers to him as "the smuggler in chief", in reference to the unsubstantiated cigarette smuggling accusations.
"He should go on holiday and let the customs and tax inspectorate get on with their work," Ghimpu remarked dryly.
Filat, currently acting prime minister, has hit back with equally-fierce invective against his rivals, particularly Vladimir Plakhotniuk, Moldova's richest entrepreneur who made a fortune in hotels and petrol stations before entering politics in 2009 as the Democrats' pay-master.
Filat, seeking to oust Plakhotniuk from the position of parliament's first vice-speaker, denounced him as a "puppet-master".
"He's bought up the party and judges and now he wants to buy up the whole country."
Filat's government quit on March 8 after losing a no-confidence vote mounted by opposition communists and his erstwhile Democratic party allies, still angry at him for chasing Zubco out. They accused his government of corruption.
After weeks of back-stage bartering though, Filat was tasked by the president to put together a new program and team. News of defections in other coalition parties suggested he would get the required 51 votes in the 101-seat parliament.
But in its bombshell ruling on Monday the Constitutional Court said he could not run for prime minister again because of the weight of corruption charges leveled at his government.
President Nicolae Timofti late on Tuesday bowed to the court's decision, naming a deputy prime minister, Iurie Leanca, as acting head of government and withdrawing his nomination of Filat.
Filat's political future was not immediately clear. He said enigmatically on Tuesday that he would hold talks with Timofti and his Liberal Democrats before deciding on a course of action "in the interests of a beautiful, future Moldova."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
(Writing By Richard Balmforth)