The rows of vines which stripe the hills around Chisinau traditionally produced about the best wine in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s prohibition drive in the 1980s destroyed some but what Gorbachev failed to do, post-Soviet economics have almost achieved. Many surviving vineyards lie untended and the wine presses stand idle. The workers are abroad: in Romania, Turkey, Britain, Israel; wherever they can find unskilled jobs that will earn them a decent wage.
At the fall of the Soviet Union, the tiny area known as Moldova was the most densely populated of the Soviet republics. Now around 600,000 Moldovans live and work abroad – about a third of the country’s workforce.
Moldova is a Soviet invention, created out of the territory historically known as Bessarabia and fought over by Turks and Russians until it became part of Romania after the First World War. It shares a culture and a language with Romania but when under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact it was assigned to the Soviet Union there began a period of ‘Romanophobia.’ The Soviets invented a spurious Moldovan language and culture, and colonized the territory with Russians and Ukrainians.
Leader: Petru Lucinschi, though an election has been called.
Economy: GNP per capita $370, by some distance the lowest in Europe (Russia $2,270; Britain $22,640). Average annual inflation rate since independence has been 174%.
Monetary Unit: Lei
Most of Moldova’s trade is with Russia and Ukraine. Its main resource is its climate and rich black chernozem soil, which is ideal for growing grapes, tobacco and sugar beet.
People: 4.4 million. 130 per square kilometre (Britain 238). Population growth rate 0.0% per year.
Health: Infant mortality 27 per 1,000 live births (Russia 18, Canada 6). Since independence the death rate has increased by 15 per cent and the birth rate has dropped by 38 per cent. Poverty is taking its toll on health and healthcare services.
Environment: With state agriculture at a standstill the environment has a breathing space.
Culture: Moldovans, who share a common culture with Romanians, 64%; Russians 14%; Ukrainians 14%; also minorities of Bulgarians, the Turkic-speaking Gagauz (who have their own semi-autonomous region in the south) and Roma.
Religion: Christian Orthodox.
Language: The Soviet-invented Moldovan language, written in Cyrillic, is still taught in Transdniestrian schools, but Romanian is now the official language.
Sources: World Guide 2001/2; State of the World’s Children 2000; Europe Review 1999; information supplied by author.
Never previously profiled.
The resultant ethnic tensions came to a head when the Soviet Union collapsed. Moldova declared itself an independent republic in 1991 but immediately the heavily industrialized and Russian-settled area east of the river Dniestr tried to split off from the new republic. The claim was that the area’s Russian-speaking population would be discriminated against as the Moldovan Government adopted Romanian as the state language. In the ensuing conflict, several hundred people died and over 50,000 were displaced.
The border is not officially recognized anywhere, but today tanks and lounging armed men in combat gear mark the entrance to the bridge crossing the Dniestr from Moldova to the self-proclaimed republic of Transdniestria.
The fighting has officially ended but random violence is common. Transdniestria is a black hole for smuggled cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and arms. Moldovans say if you want to hire a killer, the cheapest and most efficient are found there.
None of the concerned parties – the Transdniestrian leadership, the Moldovan Government, Russia and Ukraine – want to solve the present deadlock. The contraband trade is too profitable. Meanwhile the pretence of democracy in Transdniestria is paper-thin and human rights are flouted as children are denied the right to study Romanian at school and parents can lose their jobs for a too pro-Romanian or Moldovan attitude.
The rest of Moldova also suffers from poor leadership. The Moldovan Parliament has been chronically split between Communists and various rightist and centrist parties for a decade. When it voted in 2000 to limit the post of president to being the largely symbolic head of a parliamentary republic, it signed the death warrant for effective government. Endemic corruption and a failure to pass any significant economic reforms have halted international loans, and Moldova has only avoided defaulting on its debts because of the money earned abroad by its ostarbeiters, migrant workers who sent home $170 million in 2000.
The cost of such economic survival is high. In villages, children live like orphans, farmed out to relatives and neighbours while their parents work abroad. The only teachers left in schools are pensioners: all the young teachers have left the country to work as builders, nannies, maids and sex workers. The vast majority of migrants go illegally and are all too often exploited. In 2000, 19 Moldovans died in Italy alone, many of them women trafficked into the sex trade. Also in 2000, the Ministry of Internal Affairs filed 12 criminal cases on behalf of Moldovans who went abroad to sell their internal organs.
Corruption and the lack of a stable majority cripples the Moldovan Parliament. Most politicians are more interested in private gain than in economic recovery or human rights. The decision to change the constitution from a presidential to a parliamentary republic without a national referendum has called into question Parliament's commitment to democracy and internal power struggles still stand in the way of progress.