Moldova Struggles with Post-Soviet Identity
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now another story about the changing face of Europe. Moldova became an independent nation after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It's desperately poor and its main export is people seeking better lives elsewhere.
NPR's Emily Harris has a profile of this small nation that's being pulled between East and West.
EMILY HARRIS: Moldova is a great example of the thorough footprint of the Soviet Union.
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HARRIS: Lucia Lisnik(ph), her young son and infant daughter live on the ninth floor of a Soviet-era high-rise. It's almost identical to apartment buildings found all over the former Soviet Union, down to the mailboxes and elevator. But 16 years after independence, Moldova has its own reputation. Lisnik found that out when she was caught trying to enter Austria, then Hungary, with fake travel documents.
Ms. LUCIA LISNIK (Resident): (Speaking foreign language)
HARRIS: When we got to the border, at both borders, she said, they were all treating us like, you know, oh, those Moldovans. They humiliated us. The Hungarians were nicer at the border, but when we got locked up they were horrible.
One of Moldova's biggest exports is people. As much as 25 percent of working population is abroad, many illegally. Trafficking is a serious problem, particularly selling young women into prostitution. Moldova was once a part of what's now Romania. The languages are still the same and many Moldovans now hold Romanian passports. In 1812, the occupying Turks gave Moldova to the Russian czar. One hundred years later, it became independent but was made a Soviet republic in 1940, after Hitler and Stalin divided Europe.
Head of a political research center, Igor Batsan(ph), says history has turned his identity into a mishmash.
Mr. IGOR BATSAN (Political Researcher): Ethnically, I consider ethnically I am Romanian. Politically, of course, I'm Moldovan, a citizen of Moldova. But I was a educated on Russian culture.
HARRIS: And he loves that culture, but he doesn't love the power Russia still wields over Moldova, nor the political heritage of the Soviet Union. He jokes that Russia is still interested in this small country because it's strategically important to Moscow.
Mr. BATSAN: Moldova is the single country in the world that Russia still can defeat economically, military and politically. So if they lose Moldova, nobody else could be used in order to demonstrate Russian power.
HARRIS: The president of Moldova is a communist. This is the only place in Europe where the Communist Party still leads the government. But after a split with Moscow over the status of the break Transnistria Region, Moldova is now officially oriented toward joining the European Union. Earlier this year, Moscow banned all Moldovan agricultural products.
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HARRIS: In the tasting room of Moldova's Milestii Mici winery and cellars, tourists can sample from an enormous collection. Wine is a vital export for Moldova, and until this year Russia was by far its biggest customer.
Marina Britvina is the winery's marketing director.
Ms. MARINA BRITVINA (Marketing Director, Milestii Mici Winery): (Through translator) In March this year, everything was closed. They let no wine in. The Russians even sent back the Moldovan wine they had.
HARRIS: Moldova hopes Europe will buy more of its wine as part of its efforts to join the European Union. But Europe is still skeptical about Moldova's commitment to transparency and rule of law.
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HARRIS: Chisinau is the capital of Moldova. A café here displays cakes that rival Vienna's and cooks up French bistro staples such as quiche and croc monsieur. But journalist Sarina Radu(ph) says Moldova has miles to go. A lot has changed since independence she says, but not enough.
Ms. SARINA RADU (Journalist): Young people started to like freedom, started to want to do something more, started to be creative. But all presidents and governments were from that generation of old style people, you know. And now it seems that people - regular people are changed, but the government never change his methods of work. That is the huge problem which doesn't work.
HARRIS: Diplomats are publicly diplomatic when evaluating Moldova. Louis O'Neill heads the Moldova Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Mr. LOUIS O'NEILL (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe): There's no reason to think in zero sum terms about Moldova vis-à-vis Russia and Europe. That's old thinking, Cold War thinking. It doesn't work that way.
We're now trying to build bridges between all of Europe and have a Europe whole and stable and unified, and so Moldova could be a wonderful country for building those bridges with linguistic plurality, tolerance, real deep understanding of the Russian culture, but part of Europe.
HARRIS: If Moldova can make up its mind that's the role it wants to play. Emily Harris, NPR News, Chisinau.