As the world closely watches turmoil in Ukraine play out, the geopolitical importance of its Eastern European neighbors has become a focus of attention. The Republic of Moldova, in particular, has received an influx of high-level visits from Europe and the United States. Many people in the West are learning about the country and why it matters – probably for the first time.

Unfortunately, for Moldova, this increased attention is unlikely to create long-term changes in the country. The small, landlocked nation’s only real resource is its talented and multilingual workforce. But many of Moldova’s most talented citizens – some 17% of the total population – live abroad. Those left behind generally depend on remittances from relatives, thanks to the extremely low salaries for most jobs, and are often looking for opportunities to work abroad themselves.

Moldovans continue to dream of a better life in their country but are struggling to find a clear path forward given current realities. As prices skyrocket and bank accounts diminish in size, average Moldovans feel powerless. They know things in the country need to change, but escape seems like the easiest option. On the political level and across the spectrum, politicians in Moldova are viewed as corrupt. They have aggravated the situation inside the country and blocked progress on social and economic issues by refusing to endorse initiatives coming from opposing parties.

While the Moldovan government is currently pursuing EU membership, this is not a magic fix for all the country’s problems. The government must take ownership over the country’s future instead of relying so heavily on external actors to pave the way.

A Pawn in the EU-Russia Power Struggle

Given its communist past and location on the outskirts of the European Union, Moldova has been used as a bargaining chip by the EU and Russia. Russia hopes to maintain its sphere of influence by enforcing the status quo and fighting against Moldova’s aspirations for European integration. For its part, Moldova has taken significant steps to orient itself toward the West. For these efforts, the EU has rewarded Moldova with visa free travel for Moldovans visiting Europe and an EU association agreement that was signed in July 2014. Russia responded to the signing of the association agreement by slapping import duties on products from Moldova in August and suspending fruit imports from the country.

These reactions are nothing new for Moldova. In the past, Russia has banned the importation of Moldovan wine and increased the price of gas from Russia whenever unfavorable news has come out of the capital, Chisinau. Before declaring independence in 1991, Moldova’s economy was closely intertwined with the Soviet Union, for goods such as energy sources, non-agricultural raw materials, machinery, and equipment for production.

Reliance on Russia for its energy needs has constrained Moldova’s economic and political circumstances. Moscow has used its gas resources to manipulate states within its sphere of influence, particularly when they have oriented themselves toward the West, as Moldova has. Throughout most of the post-Soviet period, Moldova received gas at a relatively low price compared with European rates. Until 2006, Moldova paid $80 on average per 1,000 cubic meters of gas from Russia. From 2003 to 2004, Moldova was allowed to pay just $60 of this price, with the remaining $20 to be paid in three years. In 2006, prices increased twice: to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first six months of the year, and $160 per 1,000 cubic meters for July through December. In 2012, the price Moldova paid for Russian gas rose to $392 per 1,000 cubic meters, the highest among customers of the Russian state energy company, Gazprom’s.

In the years since independence, Moldova has failed to successfully extricate itself from Russia’s grasp, despite monetary and technical support from the EU and United States. While many Moldovans are patriotic and would like to remain in their country, most have completely lost hope in Moldova’s ability to offer a good life to its citizens.

While Moldova is touted as a democracy success story in Eastern Europe, most Moldovans are exasperated by this rhetoric. A recent public opinion poll shows that 75% of Moldovans do not believe the popular will rules in Moldova. 68% consider the country to be moving in the wrong direction on economic growth. Average Moldovans, who struggle to buy groceries and heat their homes, watch as the rich get richer, with Porsches and BMWs often seen parked outside upscale restaurants in the center of Chisinau.

Low salaries and an overall lack of economic opportunities, coupled with the high cost of living, have forced Moldovans to seek education and employment abroad. The monthly average gross salary varies from $138 in the agricultural sector to $199 in education, $270 in the public sector, $503 in information technology and communications, and $556 in financial services. The average salary is almost two and a half times less than in Romania and Russia. The number of job vacancies registered at the National Employment Agency (NEA) has plummeted by 40% since 2008.

Social Divisiveness

Another issue holding Moldova back is the debate surrounding national identity. A recent Economist article referenced a popular joke that goes: Mom’s Russian, Dad’s Romanian, but little Ivan is Moldovan. The authors suggest that Moldova will be unable to effectively deal with opposition to EU integration from minority groups, such as ethnic Russians and Gagauz, until the majority comes to terms with its own identity. Moldova’s history and demographic makeup is incredibly complicated. In the midst of serious discussions about its geopolitical orientation, the issue is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

In his book The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, historian and Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University Charles King provides background on Moldovan identity by examining the nation’s history as a borderland over which competing world powers have fought for centuries. The Principality of Moldavia was established in 1359, only to be repeatedly invaded by Crimean Tatars and Turks. In 1538, the principality became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. Almost three centuries later, in accordance with the 1812 Treaty of Bucharest, Bessarabia (present-day Moldova) was ceded to the Russian Empire. Bessarabia declared independence in 1918 and subsequently joined the Kingdom of Romania. In 1940, the Soviet Union regained the territory and established the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR), which was seized once more by Romania in 1941 during the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army re-captured the territory in 1944, and the MSSR remained in place until the Republic of Moldova declared independence in 1991.

By 1989, Moldovans were the third most russified nationality in the Soviet Union, following Ukraine and Belarus. Reportedly, 11.2% of ethnic Russians in the MSSR spoke Moldovan fluently, with the figure standing at 15.2% for Jews, 12.8% for Ukrainians, 6.9% for Bulgarians, and a low 4.4% for Gagauz. Only in Central Asia did fewer Russians know the language of their titular state. To this day, controversy over language usage has caused grievances between political parties, as well as between neighbors and co-workers, in Moldova.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought identity issues to the forefront of political debates. The language laws of 1989 recognized the similar linguistic character of Romanian and Moldovan, adopted the Latin alphabet, and made Moldovan the sole official language. Moldova’s 1994 constitution is, however, explicitly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, guaranteeing citizens “the right to preserve, develop and express their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity.”

Throughout the 1990s, presidential and parliamentary elections showed a clear division between pro-Romanian, centrist, and pro-Russian or pro-Soviet camps, with the identity question serving as a line that divided the nation. While the Moldovan government attempted to develop a state based on civic culture rather than ethnic identity, the country has remained the only Eastern Europe state in which substantial disputes persist among political elites over the fundamentals of national identity. In his book, The Language of the Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and Identity in an Ex-Soviet Republic, Matthew Ciscel, author and Professor at Central Connecticut University, explains that the consolidation of Moldovan identity based on multi-ethnicity and multilingualism “is impeded by elite competition and economic difficulties, both of which promote the continuation of perceived conflicts in national identity through rigid, simplistic nationalism.” Because it represents one of the only ways they can differentiate themselves, Moldovan political parties play up identity-based divisions, knowing they will benefit from manipulating the biases of their constituents, who wrestle with questions about national and ethnic identity.

Moving Forward

In order for Moldova to address widespread socio-economic challenges, its citizens must put their personal convictions about national identity aside for the time being. Moldovans need to challenge their elected representatives to focus on issues that are crucial for the country’s economic development, such as a reformed social security policy and better paying jobs for the highly skilled workforce. They need to hold their government accountable and pressure political parties to work together instead of filling the pockets of elites.

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