This week economist.com is featuring my five-part diary of a recent trip to Moldova, Romania and Ukraine.
Moldova & Romania
The country that Europe forgot
Our correspondent takes refuge in an ex-brothel
MOLDOVA is not only the poorest ex-communist country in Europe; it is also last in the queue for love and attention. It lacks central Europe’s glorious culture, the pungent romance of the Balkans, the charm and excitement of the Baltics, or the huge strategic importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Its main role is that of a country so obscure that it can safely be ridiculed, as it was in a book about a hapless British comedian’s attempt to play tennis with the national football team.
Moldova is indeed flat, small, isolated, and ill-run. But it is not ridiculous. Its sadnesses spill over to other countries in the form of smuggling and prostitution. Bits of it—chiefly the breakaway puppet state of Transdniestria—are sinister. Its fate is tremendously important. As it wobbles between east and west, Moldova may be the first country that the Kremlin wins back from the west since the 1970s.
Simply getting there is quite hard. Deplorable state interference (to protect the national carrier) means that the low-cost European airlines that fly to the farthest corners of countries such as Poland don’t serve the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. Municipal corruption means that no western hotel chains have opened. The best one is an ex-brothel, built for Turkish clients. After four lucrative years, the owners changed its name and went respectable, more or less.
The best way to get to Moldova is from Romania. Ties between these two countries ought to be the closest anywhere in eastern Europe. They share, broadly speaking, a common language and history. Moldova was part of Romania until 1940, when Stalin grabbed it as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Now the mood is icy. Romanians mostly find it hard to think of Moldova as a separate country: rather the same way many English used to feel about Ireland, and still do about Scotland and Wales. Romania’s beleaguered (and currently suspended) president, Traian Basescu, a cheerful former sea-captain, sees Moldova as a failed experiment that would be much better off rejoining Romania. His views would be fine in his old job, discussed in a lively harbourside bar, lubricated by a few glasses of Romania’s national drink, tuica. Coming from a head of state, amid the delicate levantine gold filigrees and white plaster of the former royal palace, they sound crass.
Only the most flimsy euphemisms disguise his real views: Moldova is run an incompetent provincial Soviet elite that has lost the confidence not only of the outside world, but also its own people. They are signing up for Romanian passports en masse—he reckons 800,000 out of a population of 4.5m. Romania’s newly won membership of the European Union makes its citizenship—available to most Moldovans—irresistibly attractive, and the process of unification unstoppable.
Mr Basescu may be over-reaching
Yet a few moments’ thought show the difficulty with Mr Basescu’s simplistic notions. Romania struggled to get into the EU and is now struggling to survive there. Moldova has far worse problems, and is not even in the waiting room for membership. The last thing the EU wants is another chunk of dirt-poor, ill-run, ex-communist nuisance. What would happen to Transdniestria, the mainly Russian-speaking territory that was stitched to Moldova in Soviet times, and now tries to be independent?
Crucially, reunification with Romania is not popular in Moldova. Mr Basescu’s views may be coloured by the rapturous reception he received from his fans there during a recent visit. But less than a sixth of the population declare themselves as “Romanians”. The majority have got used, over the past 50 years, to living in a separate country. They do not want to go back to being a neglected province of Greater Romania.