'The show must go on' for defrauded and destitute Moldova: Don Murray

Moldova, perhaps the poorest country in Europe, is where post-Soviet leaders in the Kremlin have tested techniques also used in Georgia and Ukraine to destabilize those countries to try to keep them under Moscow's influence. And in Moldova, Don Murray writes, the experiment seems to be succeeding.

Russia has exacerbated the many troubles of what is possibly Europe's poorest country

Moldovan farmers protest for better subsidies on March 27, 2015, near the village of Causeni. In July 2014, Russia slapped an embargo on fruit exports from the ex-Soviet nation in apparent retaliation for its historic shift towards the European Union. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a feast for family and friends — the table is filled with delicacies like succulent spicy chicken and vegetables, grilled and fresh. There is local wine and home-made apricot brandy, and enough food to feed the people around the table for days.

Only four of the 12 people at the table actually still live in the country. And they are the old ones, three grandparents and a great-grandmother.

This is Moldova, perhaps the poorest country in Europe. The small country of 3.6 million is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and was once part of the Soviet Union. In August it marked — "celebrated" is hardly the word — the 25th anniversary of its independence.

Statistics are vague when they aren't false here, but the estimate is 900,000 Moldovans work in the country — and more than one million have left to try to find work abroad.
Moldovan citizens residing in Russia queue outside a polling station during a parliamentary election at the Moldovan Embassy in Moscow on Nov. 30, 2014. Hundreds of thousands of Moldovans have been forced to leave their country to find work. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Moldova is a mess, but it's also a laboratory. The men running the experiment are in the Kremlin. It's in Moldova where post-Soviet leaders have tested the techniques also used in Georgia and Ukraine to destabilize those countries to try to keep them under Moscow's influence.

And in Moldova the experiment seems to be succeeding.

But first the family feast.

I was there because I had met some of the Moldovans in France. They had come, some with false papers to begin with, to find work. They were of Ukrainian origin and spoke Russian, the language of education in the Soviet Union and into the '90s.

Those in their 40s and 50s were university educated but worked in France in construction or as cleaners. But it was better than not working at all at home and far better paid than any job they might have found in Moldova.

Forced to leave

There are an estimated 300,000 Moldovans in the European Union (Moldova has an association agreement with the EU), and more than double that number in Russia, almost all driven to leave by economic necessity.

"I knew I had to leave in the '90s," one said, "when we didn't have enough money to buy milk for our baby."

Many went, including some at the table, and left their children behind with the grandparents. One boy we know didn't see his parents for seven years. The parents waited in France until they received long-term visas before returning to their country.

Now the adults return in August with their children to see the grandparents. And during the year they send money back. Remittances from Moldovans living abroad account for more than 10 per cent of the country's gross national product.
Anti-government protesters speak to Moldovan policemen during a protest in Chisinau on April 24. Thousands demanded the resignation of the government and early elections. (Roveliu Buga/Associated Press)

What they return to in the summer is a society frozen in poverty. How then to explain the feast we ate?

Almost everything on the table came from the grandmother's backyard, from the freshly slaughtered chicken to the ripe vegetables from her carefully tended plot. This is Soviet-style self-reliance brought on by necessity.

Her house does have electricity, but it only works intermittently. She must draw water from a well. And wells are drying up due to a succession of very hot summers. Her toilet is outside behind the henyard.

At night, the village is a study in potholes and deep darkness. There's no street lighting. And in the next village, some people must walk to their houses even if they have cars. The roads are impassable, with no money to fix them.

Edge of an economic precipice

Still, the old people are thankful for small improvements. "At least now we receive our pensions," one of the women said. "Fifteen years ago we were getting nothing."

Their pensions are the equivalent of $75 a month.

But those pensions are shaky. Moldova sits on the edge of an economic precipice, the victim of its own mistakes and of the Kremlin's long and nasty experiment.
People sell food and alcohol at an improvised marketplace on the streets of Chisinau on Jan. 28. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

It began the year after Moldovan independence when Russian soldiers took over an industrial chunk of eastern Moldova called Transnistria. The strip contains 550,000 Russian speakers, calls itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic and is recognized by no other UN country, including Russia, whose soldiers are still there. 

In the new century, Vladimir Putin began turning the economic screws. In 2006, the Kremlin banned the import of Moldovan and Georgian wine to Russia, on the pretext that they contained dangerous impurities. It was a serious economic blow since wine was a major source of export revenue.

Two years ago, the Russian president ordered the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and promoted a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. The West responded with sanctions. Moscow retaliated with sanctions of its own. Among the countries hardest hit was Moldova, largely because it had just signed an association agreement with the EU.
A billboard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed on a street in Kerch, Crimea, on April 7. The board reads: 'Crimea. Russia. Forever.' (Andrew Osborn/Reuters)

The Kremlin banned all Moldovan fruit and vegetable imports. The result in this poor agricultural land was catastrophic. In the fields, apples and vegetables rotted by the millions. Russia had been the country's main export market.

The Moldovan response to the ban was quirky, to say the least. With money from the World Bank, a theatre director from the capital Chisinau filmed 80 peasants in their devastated fields singing the Queen hit The Show Must Go On — in English. The result was a two-minute video that rang up more than a million hits on YouTube. It's funny and sad and well worth a look.

The Kremlin was not amused. The fruit and vegetable ban is still in place. And worse was to come.

In 2015, the country discovered it had been the victim of an enormous fraud. Almost $1.5 billion had been siphoned out of three main banks, causing their collapse. That's almost 15 per cent of Moldova's gross national product. 

The EU blocked aid money and the International Monetary Fund is reluctant to offer new financial help.

Meticulous Western investigators traced the fraud back to a vast money-laundering scheme running through Moscow and involving criminal elements and oligarchs with Kremlin connections.
Former Moldovan prime minister Vladimir Filat was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in a massive bank fraud. (Viktor Dimitrov/Reuters)

But the highest-profile fraudster actually nailed was the Western-leaning Moldovan prime minister, Vladimir Filat. He was accused of pocketing almost $300 million in the scheme. He was convicted and sentenced this summer to nine years in prison.

The upshot of the massive fraud was political chaos — anger, demonstrations and five prime ministers in less than a year. Filat's EU-friendly party is still in power, but probably not for long. A presidential election will take place in October and, because of the backlash against Filat's Western-oriented party, the contender who favours much closer ties with Moscow is well in the lead.

The Kremlin's experiment in destabilization could be about to pay big dividends.

As for the downtrodden population, the show must go on.
Protesters shout slogans during an anti-government rally in central Chisinau, Moldova, on Sept. 6, 2015. (Viktor Dimitrov/Reuters)


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.