A short travel note published in The Black Sea and Moldova.org
Chisinau is dark.
In the subterranean walkways, lights are scarce, burnt out, flashing or dim.
People walk in darkness. There are few lamps on the street.
In the playgrounds in the evening, children sway on the swings and climb on plastic castles. They can’t see each other. Parents sitting on nearby benches can’t see them, only hear their laughing and screaming.
By the main square, people wait at the edge of the street for Mercedes minibuses to take them home.
But you can’t make out the number on the vehicle until it is a meter from your face – too late to hail it down.
Whenever you see the shape of a minibus emerging from the shadows, you reach out your arm. They all stop for you. Even if they don’t want to. Even if they don’t take you where you want to go.
When you board a bus, inside it is packed with bodies. All the seats are occupied and there are as many people standing as it is possible for the bus to hold.
They are crushed against the windows. Their heads bent under the ceiling. If you stand, you cannot see where you are supposed to get out. You can only guess at the road – and when you arch your face, wipe the steam from the glass and finally manage to see outside, it is too dark on the street to be sure of the location.
“Where are we?” you ask the people in the bus, “and where are we going?”
I don’t know why there is so much dark.
Maybe the city believes there are not enough people willing to go out at night to merit lighting up the city. Maybe there is no money for electricity.
But it discourages meetings in the late hours. It inhibits communication. It makes people afraid of footsteps behind them. Builds suspicion where there is no threat. It creates borders where none should exist.
Chisinau is a city where you hear Russian in one bar, Romanian in the next, both on the street and you can speak in both languages – even mix them up – and people understand.
In the towns to the west, they speak more Romanian and to the north, more Russian. Communism’s policy of ‘the Soviet churn’ of moving races from one part of the Union to another created a rich but confused identity at its western border.
Now it has ambitious people with a vision too narrow for the country. Those I stayed with in Chisinau (who spoke Russian, Romanian and French) spend their evenings learning English and German by Skype. There is a desire to transcend Moldova, whatever that may be.
Almost half the workforce is abroad, on construction sites in Moscow, cleaning hotels in Milan, in nursing homes in Lyon, leaving a state of pensioners and kindergartens.
This is a nation in transit. Unsure of what it is, but aware of what it is not. It’s not Romania. It’s not Ukraine. It’s not Russia. Moldova has not yet fully become Moldova.
Torn, yes, but peaceful for now. Although there is pressure from larger states nearby.
Romanian politicians talk up the idea of a union with Moldova.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, in his bid to be President this year, has a ‘five-year plan’ for Moldova to be part of Romania within the EU.
Meanwhile President Traian Basescu and centre-right candidates for head of state Monica Macovei and Klaus Iohannis also casually employ unionist rhetoric.
But what does Moldova say about that? Only ten per cent want a union with their western neighbour.
This willingness to redraw the map of Europe raises the hopes of people who wish for Moldova to be part of Romania. But it is not realistic.
Some politicians in Romania who I have spoken to, who publicly endorse a union, say privately “I don’t mean it”.
They use this language because the ideal of a greater Romania wins votes from locals and Moldovans with Romanian passports.
Plus it has the added benefit of pissing off Russia – a game Romania has enjoyed ever since its entry into NATO.
But when Romania toys, Moldova trembles.
Russia does the same. It wants Moldova to join its customs’ union – an open market rival to the EU. Posters in Chisinau from the Socialist Party, ahead of the elections next month, advertise the benefits of the union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
At the same time, Russia enforces an embargo on the sale of Moldovan wine in Russia. Moscow is sending hundreds of ex-pat migrants back to their home country. In a nation of four million people, where 100,000s work in Russia, this wounds the economy and job prospects of the people.
Russia offers one hand out to greet Moldova and, with the other, it punches Moldova in the face.
Moldova is being wooed and fooled by both the east and the west. But there is no long-term plan. They don’t know what to do with the country.
To them, the Republic is important, but not that important. This is not Ukraine. This is not Poland. Moldova is disposable, but also significant. From a geopolitical point of view, the empires of Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint.
Meanwhile Moldova’s political class is equally deceptive. The politicians boast of their connection to western Europe, but the businessmen who back the politicians have financial links with Russia.
Their heart turns to Brussels, their wallet to Moscow.
But on the ground, there are bonuses to this.
From the people I spoke to, a major difference is that this year they have gained the right to travel visa-free through the Schengen space of the European Union, which they can add to their access to former states of the USSR, as well as Turkey and the Balkans.
Suddenly the poorest nation in Europe has the people with the greatest freedom of movement.
An evening in September. There are thousands of people out on the streets. In the distance in the town square is a stage flashing with red and white lights.
Chanteuse Sofia Rotaru is singing with Romanian lyrics, but when she ends a song, she shouts ‘Spasiba’ to the crowd.
The Cernauti-born 70s pop star is now in her sixties, but still packs a crowd when she gives a free concert, this time sponsored by Renato Usati, a businessman turned political opportunist, looking to advance in November’s Parliamentary election.
Crowds have brought their children to see Sofia.
But the sound is distorted. She needs to shout to be heard. The stage is no more than a blurry figure surrounded by bright colours.
The audience is standing, watching, unmoved, not lip-synching to the songs or clapping their hands. No one is eating or drinking. No one seems to care. They are here because there is something going on and that something is free.
Two three-year old kids are chasing an empty plastic bottle down the street, moving between the legs of the audience, tripping up, falling down, getting up, grabbing the bottle again, throwing it, all the time laughing and shrieking with joy.
The children don’t want to see Sofia.
They only want to watch a plastic bottle skipping down a pavement.
The crowd nearby turn away from the stage and watch the kids, with sympathy and envy.