It’s hard to write about Moldova without immediately resorting to “east-meets-west” type clichés, because to a foreigner, the immediate visual reality is that of a porous grey infrastructure adorned with symbols of what it might have meant to be comfortably capitalist in the 1990s. Europe’s least visited republic and poorest country, Moldova sits (un)comfortably between EU member and older sibling Romania and tense, socially fragmented Ukraine.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Moldova is essentially a patch of land that has undergone many ethnic and socio-cultural permutations, with external powers trying to impose a homogenised culture from above in a way that has traditionally disregarded those who do not wish to loyally adhere to dominant political factions. Those factions today — the European Union and the sprawling Eurasian Customs Union — rival each other in influence and power. Add to that the fact that Moldova hosts two autonomous regions on its minuscule territory: Gagauzia (a self-governing region home to the Gagauz people, a Turkic ethnic group with a strong pro-Russian stance), and Transnistria (a breakaway state with its own currency, postal service, and border control, host to a population of people who would similarly rather be part of Russia). And if that weren’t enough, you’ve also got the north-eastern town of Soroca, whose sizeable Romani population are governed by a “baron” called Artur.
Looking at the city, it seems as if its turbulent future was predicted by the start of pogroms against Jews amongst the fabricated blood libel scandals of the early 20th century. Today, the Jewish cemetery is as neglected as could be, and many of the graves have been dismantled and a few even graffitied over. The many periods of occupation have left a palpable mark on the country, for it is a schizophrenic mix of aggressive capitalism, all-you-can-drink casinos, monk-run insular Orthodox churches, clashing traditions and interests, and crumbling infrastructure.
Soviet-born Romanian writer and activist Vasile Ernu recently wrote that if one wanted to see capitalism undiluted, one needed to “go east”. The newfound post-1989 liberty and freedom have morphed into a way of understanding the individual or the state that may be alien to many of us now. Where else but in the east, he asks, can you find a shop that will sell you a fur coat in the middle of the night? And it’s true. Where else in Europe do you have access to a 24-hour McDonald’s delivery service? The answer is unsurprisingly Chișinău (disclaimer: the delivery website claims that McDonald’s deliveries are temporarily down but the menu is still available online).
Chișinău has the best of both worlds: on the major central boulevard, a couple of American Peace Corps volunteers recently founded a pulled pork pub called “Smokehouse”, while a few streets away, the word “seedy” takes on new meanings as a nightclub cloakroom operator breezily tells us he needs to check for weapons. The waitresses and groups of lone women inside eye you up as you enter a smoky dancefloor where a beer will set you back the same amount as in London (the existence of prostitutes in this venue is documented in travel reviews and spread by word of mouth).
Navigating my way through the city’s various attractions — both the TripAdvisor-endorsed cash cows and those off the beaten track — it became quickly apparent that the pro-EU apparatus is doing its best to attract Moldova to a closer union with Europe and thus away from Russia. Legal work in Poland, Italy, and Spain is advertised on every corner, and some kind of EU-related body seems to be regularly paying for posters that depict how many kilometres of Moldovan motorway the EU has paid to build. Last but not least, NORLAM — the Norwegian-sponsored Mission of Rule of Law Advisers to Moldova is tacitly carrying out its mission of implementing the supremacy of the rule of law above all else. Even “webcam girl” jobs advertise “support for EU citizenship” as one of its perks (otherwise EU citizenship can be gained by proving sufficient Romanian heritage so as to gain a Romanian passport).
On city centre walls and the backs of buildings, I occasionally saw the odd bit of graffiti satirising the precarious position of a country uncertain of where it’s heading and left as prey to oligarchs who have not hesitated in applying survivalist instincts to their seizure of assets and money-laundering under the premise: if I don’t do it, others will. The graffiti above is a stencil depicting Putin in an irreverent but serene mood. The wordplay in the speech bubble seems to indicate an underlying frustration with the status quo and points to older tensions between Romanian and Russian speaking populations. The tag, a pun on the Russian president’s name, says “you powerless” — and relies on the fact that “putin” is more or less the root of the word “possibility” in Moldovan and Romanian.
In the centre of town, which the authorities are trying their best to renovate, I saw several protest groups camping in public spaces, each espousing their own agenda. I had a look at what the tents in the area encroaching upon the family Christmas funfair had to say. The gathering seemed to be an eclectic alliance well represented by ex-servicemen who had served in Afghanistan and participated in the Transnistrian conflict in the early 90s (presumably on the pro-unification/Moldovan side). The movement calls itself the Demnitate si Adevar movement (abbreviated to DA, the word for yes in Moldovan, Romanian and Russian — no language tensions here), which means “Dignity and Truth”. Of course any attempts at imposing well-defined categories of social or ethnic groups have proven frustrating and alienating, as the enclaves within the country are not clear cut. A trivial but somewhat fitting analogy is that of an exotic fruit salad. Categorically speaking, the mass it’s made of is all the same (we’re all fruit, aren’t we, claims the autocratic pineapple), but the differences in history, political and economic requirements and cultural symbolism varies wildly (a slice of apple does not spoil as easily as a freshly cut strawberry), and different segments do not grow or develop in unison.
The other side of the protest camps presented a slightly different story, sceptical of the illusion the Alliance for European Integration has created — that of a prosperous and transparent future within an EU alliance. A view reflected in a satirical cartoon that shows a run-of-the-mill Moldovan being shown the EU flag while the alliance robs him blind.
From a conversation with our Airbnb host we learned about a local bar called Propaganda, which he recommends to anyone who wants a taste of old Soviet relics. Upon visiting, I remarked that the wi-fi password was “down with the alliance”, all in one word. The slogan, which in Moldovan is “Jos alianţa”, refers to three oligarchs by the name of Vlad: Voronin (president of Moldova between 2001 and 2009 and head of the Moldovan Communist Party), Filat (prime minister of Moldova from 2009 to 2013 and head of the Liberal Democratic Party), and Plahotniuc (chief financial backer of the Democratic Party of Moldova).
Having exited one of the newly built pale ale pubs in the city, I headed to the train station to entertain the prospect of making a day trip to Odessa, ultimately deciding against it for lack of time. Inside the grand, renovated station, I found several old women peering at an illuminated tank full of imported exotic fish, and a sign showing various destinations from Chișinău. The duration of the journeys is long to the point of being completely inconvenient, as the country’s railway track is not electrified. Trains travelling in both directions share the same track and have to undergo a break-of-gauge process when crossing into Romania as the Soviet style system used in Moldova is incompatible with the standard gauge used in other countries — something of a metaphor for the country, especially given its current political and economic turmoil.
Once home to the world’s largest concealed underground wine cellar (used to store wines brought in from all over the Soviet Republic) and the city where Alexander Pushkin happened to become a freemason, Chișinău may have been forgotten by all but those with a stake in its political alignment, but it remains a fascinating example of the multi-layered and transitional phase of the more far-flung corners of Europe.