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The Forgotten Country

Edward Lucas, blogger and Economist reporter extraordinaire, is currently touring Moldova this week and is posting some diary entries commenting on institutional weaknesses, Soviet legacies, and the problematic breakaway region of Transdniestria. (For further info, Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow has done some of the best blogging on this conflict).

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From Part I:

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. … 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.

From Part II:

MOLDOVA is run by Vladimir Voronin, the only serving head of state in the world to have won a contested election on a communist ticket. His views have changed a lot from 2001, when he said he would make his country the “Cuba of eastern Europe”. Now he is pro-market and pro-European Union. He’s pro-democracy too, in theory. But the justice system is dismal and the security services powerful. The authorities treat journalists they don’t like with silly vindictiveness. The opposition finds it hard to get on telly: in short, it’s a typical bureaucratic and fairly authoritarian presidential republic, a bit like Ukraine used to be before the “Orange Revolution”. The story the Moldovans want to tell is of their conversion to radical economic reform. It is certainly needed. Moldova is the poorest country in post-communist Europe; 47% of the population lives below the poverty line. At least 25% of the working age population has emigrated. Their remittances keep the place going. Now Mr Voronin has announced an amnesty for illegal capital and unpaid taxes, and a sweeping tax cut for business. The idea, ministers and officials say with unconvincing confidence, is to make Moldova like Estonia.

From Part III:

IN THEORY, Transdniestria is scary. It is the sort of place where thugs in leather jackets tote their guns in restaurants, a place where anything can be smuggled, laundered, bought or disposed of. Bad things can happen to the unwary or unlucky Westerner, and if they do, nobody will help you. Chisinau-based diplomats shun the illegal, unrecognised “Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic”. The place is run by a Ministry of State Security—”MGB”, for its Russian initials—which has close and unexplained ties to powerful people in Moscow. That outfit is run by Vladimir Antufeyev, who—in the eyes of his enemies at least—is a villain straight out of a James Bond film. He is physically imposing, brainy, ruthless and has a suitably chequered background. He arrived here years ago under an assumed name, having staged an unsuccessful putsch in Latvia.