Caught Between East & West
The poorest country in Europe, Moldova looks to the EU for a boost and new hope
On the first Sunday of November, 70,000 Moldovans gathered at a rally in the capital Chisinau.
They were pledging support for the government’s pro-western policies in the run up to a major summit in Vilnius on 28 and 29 November, where Moldova was due to initial an "association agreement" with the European Union.
Moldova, officially the poorest country in Europe, hopes the E.U. Association Agreement move will help boost investment and kick-start its beleaguered industry.
It hopes thereby to trigger the changes that could bring a better quality of life to a population so poor that many Moldovans still have to collect their daily water supply in buckets dipped in wells.
Wicher Slagter, the head of the EU delegation to Moldova, describes this as a significant moment:
"It means the EU market, more than 500 million consumers, will be fully opened to Moldova and that will be a big boost to the Moldovan economy," he says. Schlagter predicts the move will lead to the "modernisation of the country".
Moldova, a country of 4 million that was born out of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, certainly needs some urgent modernisation.
The bumpy road to the small town of Straseni is lined with the empty shells of abandoned Soviet-era factories and the former workers face a bleak retirement: "The average pension is nearly €50, in the villages it is less, and the minimum basket of existence is more than €100 per month," complains social worker Veronica Timbalari, who runs a charity to help the neglected elderly.
"A lot of houses in the village have no electricity, they use gas lamps. They have no [running] water supply so they carry buckets from a community well."
Her charity can help around 250 of the most needy, but she says that is a drop in the ocean and deciding the cut-off is "heart-wrenching."
Faced with such poverty, a third of Moldovans of working age have left the country looking for a better life abroad.
Parents often leave children to be raised by grandparents and Gabrielle Damian, the director of Moldova’s Professional Capacity Institute, says this brain drain is one of the greatest threats to social stability.
"The young generation is left at home without their parents and without a decent family life and without having prospects for their future."
Social worker Veronica Timbalari hopes that the EU Association Agreement will help improve the economic situation.
"I’m very optimistic about this summit. Moldova is a country with a very hard-working people and good land. We just need some investment and some help."
Moldovans also need to change their attitudes, warns Oazu Nantoi, a veteran political analyst.
"We have a problem with corruption and with our justice [system]," he scoffs, "and so it is nonsense to discuss the investment climate."
Moldova was given a 94 on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, with 1s given to Denmark and Finland as least corrupt. Diana Railean, the editor of Radio Europa Libera, says this is part of the legacy of the Soviet-era when Moldovans feared the state and didn’t dare report incidents:
"So now people do have a freedom of speech, but they don’t know how to use it. You are not going to see people going on the street saying we don’t want corruption anymore."
Under Moscow’s shadow
The legacy of the Soviet era is mentioned often in Moldova. Timbalari blames this legacy for the lack of enthusiasm for EU integration among parts of the population.
In a 2012 poll, carried out by the Moldovan Institute of Public Affairs, only 52% supported Moldova’s membership in the EU: "Of course there is opposition. But this is because they have this old mentality with old memories from the old Soviet times when everybody was equal and everyone had salaries and pensions."
The influence of Moscow challenges the Moldovan government’s westward outlook on many levels. Most notably there is the unresolved future of the breakaway territory of Transnistria, a mini-regime, which unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Moldova two decades ago.
An internationally unrecognised and anachronistic regime, Transnistria sports the hammer and sickle on its flag and has declared hopes to join Russia. Oazu Nantoi fears that the negative international headlines over this "frozen conflict" are hampering any serious development.
There is also a growing trade war with Russia that is worrying Moldovans. Despite the government’s pro-EU stance, opinion polls suggest support for the EU in Moldova is falling rather than rising.
The problem is that "Moldova is rather vulnerable to Russian pressure in terms of trade and labour organisation," admits EU delegation head Schlagter. "Many Moldovans are concerned that it would lead to problems with Russia."
Moscow had hoped Moldova would follow Ukraine in halting negotiations with the EU and join Russia’s rival free market Customs Union project.
In September it banned Moldovan wine imports, arguing that they did not meet quality standards.
But many, including Schlagter, suspect the ban was a punishment for Moldova’s pro-EU policies: "We have made it very clear that this kind of blackmail is unacceptable," says Schlagter. "This is not the way countries should deal with each other."
So wine, cultivated here for thousands of years, has become a battleground. The EU has tried to cancel out the corresponding damage to trade by speeding up its own moves to abolish quotas on imports of wine.
Daniel Voda, a reporter at Radio Moldova, says the Russian threats will backfire. He compares geopolitical battles to the politics of a school playground:
"If you have two friends and one is being nice, polite, welcoming and friendly you will like that person more than someone who is bullying you all the time. So that’s why the decision of being part of the European Union is way better for a lot of Moldovans." ÷