Moldova: Europe’s Poorest Nation

September 2001


Chisinau: August 2001


Saturday afternoon in Chisinau’s Central Park. The sun is shining. People are seeking out shade on benches under the trees.

The Eastern european heat of late August lies heavily over Chisinau.

Saturday is the day to get married in Moldova - and to have your photo taken in front of the fountain.

Couples are promenading after the ceremonies in the orthodox churches - they waltz for the photographers - and dream about a happy future.

At Natasha's beauty parlour the staff are busy.

The clients are having their hair done, getting manicures and pedicures - Indulging at a beauty-parlour is part of being a real woman in Eastern europe.


"I want to be elegant, beautiful and fashionable.

They are good at what they do here. Prices are reasonable"


If you afford it in today’s Moldova it feels good to be pampered , to get away from the the stress of everyday life.



"When I start massaging I can feel if my client has had problems.

With my hands I am doing all I can to remove the bad energies, and give her positive energy so that she will leave satisfied and pleased.

I can see the result of my work in the faces of my clients.

They become younger and more beautiful and the spark returns to their eyes"


Ten years after Moldova's independence from the Soviet Union, the capital Chisinau sparkles – on the surface.

Mercedes cars are rolling down the streets, shops offer goods from all over the world. MacDonald's sells food - to those who can afford it.

The Dollar-exchange-rate is reasonably stable - one dollar gives app. 12.85 Moldovan lei - important for people surviving on dollars sent back from family-members living and working abroad.

And in Chisinau the women are well-dressed-- -- but behind the appearance of normality, the expensive cars, the nice dresses, the green trees -- Moldova is poor - poorer than any other place in Europe.



Once, most of Moldova was part of Romania.

Stalin and Word War Two changed that. Moldova was annexed and incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Now Moldova lies - isolated and forgotten - squeezed in between Romania and Ukraine, hidden away from the affluent West.



That is why there is no spark in the eyes of people in the central market in Chisinau.

Here the people are engaged in a tough struggle for survival in a society where few can survive on their income, and where, for years, pensioners have waited weeks and months to receive their inadequate pensions.

Here they trade anything that might put at least some food on the table.

TATIANA OKINCIUC, Unemployed37 years


"I have to struggle to provide for my family.

I brought some boxes from Ukraine. But the police confiscated them.

They should just give us jobs.

I sell tin cans and margarine to provide for my children.

I can't pay my bills.

I can't afford even an ice-cream for my children.

I make 30 leis per month, I can afford bread - but not meat."

"Why do you think Moldova has become so poor over the last ten years?

THEODORE NANII, Retired, 72 years


"It's all Gorbachov's fault.

You can take my apples for 1 lei (5 pence) I am going home now.

It is all Gorbachov's fault.

When the communists were in power, I said:

Can't You see what is happening? And I was right.




Nine years ago Moldova was hit by civil-war -

today there is no genocide, no natural disasters,

There is just endless poverty -

- no-one cares about Moldova.

1 in 5 lives beyond the cash-economy.

Half the population lives below the poverty line.

Here people sell organs and women

to provide for their families - or you go abroad.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Moldovans voted the communists back into power in the spring, the first people in the former Soviet Union to do so.

So - Welcome to Moldova - ten years after independence, the poorest country in Europe,

where people live on £12 to £18 - per month


At the Materiny Ward at the Municipal Hospital, the only such ward in Chisinau, the national tragedy affects them even from birth.

Only four of every ten babies born are in proper shape.

The rest - six of every ten newborn - are born with deficiences, related to the social decline.

IURIE DONDIUC, Doctor, Head of Maternity Ward

"A lot of people suffer from chronic diseases -

- without any possibilities of having them treated -

- or being operated on.

This means that both the actual illness and the overall health conditions are being aggravated -

- because most of the expenses must be paid by the patients themselves.

And the birthrate in Moldova has fallen dramatically.

They used to handle twelve thousand deliveries a year at this hospital -

- today they carry out just six thousand.

The birthrate has halved in just ten years

IURIE DONDIUC, Doctor, Head of Maternity Ward

"People can only afford one child, two at the very most.

Very, very few have the third child.

Most people only have one child -

- and only 20 % have a second"

Maria Basoc is 28 years old. She receives £3.50 per month in benefits - and is one of the very few Moldovans having her third child - not that she wanted it herself.

MARIA GRIGORE BASOC, Peasant, 28 years

"We are poor. We live a tough life in the country-side. But we are used to it -

- sometimes we have money, sometimes not. That is our fate.

Why do you want another child if your life is difficult?

We have two small girls, and my husband wanted a boy so much.

Do you know what it will be?

No, we don't.


The view over Chisinau blurs the poverty.

The soviet blocs may look impressive - at a distance.

Close up - and inside - they hide poverty of enormous proportions.

Every single working Moldovan supports three that don’t work, -- IF the wages are being paid at all.

Four out of five pensioners receive less than four pounds a month.

Elena and Irina Stomatina are mother and daughter.

Once they were a tight little family, enjoying a good life, with jobs and two cars.

Then the father moved out, the savings disappeared when their bank collapsed.

Today they live with the grandmother Maria in a two-room appartment.

The three women live on just 16£ per month - and that's impossible.

ELENE STOMATINA, Seamstress, 44 years

"A lot of the inhabitants in the block owe on the heat -

- so they switch the heat on and off.

But I can't pay 300 lei (£17) per month for heating.

What kind of food can you afford to buy on yours and your mothers income and pension?

The cheapest (oat)meals, bread, milk.

Elena taught herself to sew, and gets by as a seamstress. But it has never been recorded in her ’work book’, so the experience won’t help her get a proper job.

Besides, she is 44, and too old.

During better months she can make about £10

- but that doesn't even cover (mains) gas for cooking.


"They came to our home and switched off the gas -

- because we hadn't pay.

They said that when we had paid they would turn it back on.

We have other problems because we owe money.

My biggest debt is to the elevator.

Our block has nine floors.

They closed down the elevator, and the neighbours called the administrator -

- and asked when they would open it up again.

He answered that one apartment owed money.

Ask her! When she pays, we will reopen it!"


Only Irina is still clinging to her dreams of a better life.

She want s to be a lawyer, but there are no free places at Chisinau University. She will be left with the choice of so many other Moldovan girls - of whether to go abroad or not.

IRINA STOMATINA, Student, 18 years


"I will not leave my mother and my father.

Nor do I want to leave my friends.

It might be interesting abroad, but it depends on why you go.

It would be good to study abroad. You get a much better education there than you do here.

But I would not like to work there".


"I hope she will get a life different from mine -

- of course I wish her to find the right path -

-I wish her to succeed and fullfill her wishes".

Elena has every reason to be worried.

On the streets of Chisinau billboards warn women of the risks of being sold as prostitutes -

- and UNICEF is financing a center and a hot-line, where women in trouble or under threat can get assistance.

When we visited the center an elderly peasant woman was waiting.

Her daughter had been on her way to Greece, when she was jailed in Romania.

ANA, Peasantwoman

"She was supposed to work there.

She has two children and is divorced.

Here everybody is unemployed."


Very few of the Moldovan women who go abroad are aware that they have been sold as prostitutes before they leave – often by people they know

JANA COSTACHE, UNICEF-Centre for protection of women


"One category of pimps is the close family-members -

- they might even be cousins.

We are astounded that some of the pimps may be the girls' boyfriends -

- their future husbands, who were supposed to love them."


At Save the Children's Centre in Chisinau kids are playing all over the yard. Mariana heads the centre, She organises medical treatment and psychological care for the battered women.

She helped this young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, to get back on her feet.


"The girl who had left Moldova together with me said, that I should go to Podgoritza (Montenegro) with a gypsy-woman, and we would meet there.

When we arrived there I asked for Alla.

But I was told that Alla wouldn't show up, that she had gone back to Moldova.

A man told me that I had been sold to him, and he told me what I would have to do. I started to cry

- and said I wanted to go home.

But he had already sold me to two other men.

I also told them that I wanted to go home -

- but they put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me if I continued making trouble.

Then they brought me to a house in Podgoritza, where they kept another girl from Moldova. We were there for one week. We told each other how we had ended up there. We were there for one week.

We had to sleep with some men. We had no other choice"


Before she left, she had no idea of the risks facing her. She had been sold by her friend - and was sold again and again.

She had a miscarriage and an abortion after being abused in a policestation in Albania.

When she finally returned home, she had been beaten and maltreated for more than six months.



"The society blames her for being a prostitute,

but no one asks why she became a prostitute.

It all starts with total lack of concern and attention -

or it simply comes from poverty.

A lot of people are in such a situation that they don't know how to provide for their family and children"


We went to the village of Mingir in the southwestern part of Moldova to look for a young man, who was ready to step forward and tell his story.

Today Nicolai Bardan has a small house in Mingir - but he hasn’t had this house for long.

His situation was dire, and he was forced to act.

NICOLAI BARDAN, Peasant, Mingir


"I did it for the sake of my son. He asked me: where do we live? We lived in four different places so he couldn't figure out if we had a home. And as he is growing he must have somewhere to live.

Nicolai had seen others in Mingir suddenly getting wealthy. He heard about a woman who organised the selling of organs - and contacted her.

His wife Vera and the son Viorel stayed home, when he was escorted to Istanbul to sell a kidney - for three thousand dollars. Afterwards he felt cheated.



"They cheated me. They didn't pay very much.

First we bought the house.

Then we paid our debt.

And we bought firewood to heat the house.

Then I bought a bicycle and some other things we needed for the house. All the money simply vanished"

The day we visisted Nicolai, the family had no cash in the house.

And today Nicolai is physically weak and unable to carry heavy loads.



"If I carry more than, lets sa,y 20 - 30 kilos my remaining kidney hurts. If we have to do heavy work my wife has to help me. One day after I had worked three hours in a row I couldn't get out of bed. It's tough".





In Mingir at least 30 people sold their organs before the police stopped the practice.

In towns, poverty often stays hidden - in the countryside poverty is obvious to everyone.

During communism Moldova was isolated, cut off from the outside world - and was totally unprepared to face the reality of the new world ten years ago.

During the first few years of independence the consequences were limited.

Moldova continued exporting it's agricultural production to Russia.

But as the Russian economy collapsed in August 98, Moldova's vulnerable economy came crashing down too.

Agriculture - the foundation of more than half of Moldova's export-earnings, came to a halt overnight.

Newly privatised farms collapsed.

Production plummeted to levels, lower than during World War 2.

Moldova used to be the biggest tobacco-producer in the Sovietunion.

Now the export is less than half of what it used to be.

Tobacco-leaves used to hang here for drying.

Only a little is left.

There are very few signs of hope. And fortunes are still very much linked to Russia.

The wine-districts in southern Moldova have been hard hit too. Once half of all wine produced in the Soviet Union came from these vineyards.

But as Russia collapsed in 98, so did wine exports.

And when the fortunes finally seemed to look a little better this year, frost hit the blooming plants and the yield plummeted.

In Chisinau the police manage the traffic. The politicians however, have a somewhat tougher task - to manager an economy with hardly any income.

Sections of Chisinau have been dug up by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The Bank is financing several projects - among them a new central-heating system to replace the old soviet-style system.

Energy and heating is expensive for Moldova - totally at the mercy of their sole supplier - Russia.

Marina Cotruta is Moldovan and resident representative for the Bank.

MARINA COTRUTA, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development


"I would say that there are some positive signs,

the signs are that there are a lot of entrepreneurial people, who are self-made, who think differently,

who don't count on the state,

who want to take the initiative and

who want to change things.

And, you know we at EBRD are working closely with local banks, and we are trying to structure some programmes and loans for small and medium sized businesses.

And we can see that demand is growing".


Astroline is one of these glimmers of hope.

The textile-factory is located in Chisinau - in what was once the canteen in a Soviet factory.

Two years ago Nicolai and Margareta Cushnir hired twenty sewers.

Today they have a 180 employees - and their pride: an embroidery-machine.

They only produce for export - the domestic-market is non-existent for clothes made of imported fabric.

But it is difficult to export to the West, when you produce in Moldova.

First of all - it takes months to get a visa. Then the producers will have to overcome Western scepticism.

NICOLAI CUSHNIR, Director, "Astroline"


"They had no confidence in us.

When we signed the first deals, they didn't expect us to succeed.

Everything was wrong - with us and with our mentality.

But then the results proved that we could do a good job and our contracts have produced very positive results"


But one success story does not solve all Moldova’s problems.

International organisations lie next to Government offices in downtown Chisinau.

The UN delivers aid and advice, and is working hard to dismantle potential ethnic and political conflicts -- before they explode.

The World Bank and the IMF have both lent substantial amounts of money to Moldova over the last ten years.

Moldova has to pay back these loans to the West This year the Moldovan government is supposed to pay 40 percent of the county's GDP in debts and interest, rising to 70% next year.

The Moldovan electorate voted the communists back to power in February this year - and gave them absolute majority. The president's chief political adviser, Victor Doras, questions the effectiveness of the world bank and IMF loans on his stricken country.

VICTOR DORAS, Chief Political Adviser to the President


"I believe there is still some life left in the patient. In many ways -

the prescribed cure didn't give the expected results - rather the opposite.

But it is hard to say, whether to blame the IMF, the World Bank or our own governments.

They prescribe a cure - but if it doesn't help, they ought to try something else.

But if you use the same cure year after year - the money is lost".


To make Moldova's imposible situation even worse, the country is divided along the river Dniestr -

- into Moldova proper and TransDniestr, the communist break-away region east of the river.



Before Stalin's annexation of Moldova the region east of Dniestr was part of Ukraine.

After the annexation Moldova and TranDniestr became ONE republic in the Soviet Union -- until its collapse.

After a brief but bloody civilwar in 1992, the country was divided. The wide boulevards in Tiraspol are half empty. Monuments of various kinds remind people of past heroes and battles -

there are monuments for the dead - and for glorious tanks.

The two presidents - Smirnov from TransDniestr to the left, and Voronin from Moldova - meet regularly, assisted and guided by the OSCE - the European Organisatoion for Security and Cooperation.

The day we visited Tiraspol, the two presidents signed three agreements.

But they don't like each other - and the conflict is explosive.

Today 45.000 tons of Soviet military equipment and ammunition is stored in TransDniestr - supposedly controlled by the Russians, as long as they stay.

Smirnov claims that it all belongs to the people of TransDniestr. He refuses to give it up or even destroy parts of it without compensation – or to let the Russian forces withdraw.

IGOR SMIRNOV, President, TransDniestr


"Legally it belongs to the people of TransDniestr.

"Are you willing to assist in the destruction of some of these weapons?"

We do not want to the Russian army to withdraw from here.

The presence of the Russian army is the only physical guarantee we have - except for all the political statements and all the proclamations being issued of all the other parties, as guarantees.

Our people saw that very clearly in 92, when you were here".


In 1992 the conflict was about ethnic animosities – now its mainly about economics.

Smirnov controls TransDniestr's economy through his company SHERIFF.

Sheriff owns gas-stations, super-markets and is at present building a gigantic stadium with two swimming-pools and a hotel for tens of millions of dollars.

Moldova is deperate for the industy set up across the river.

Until the conflict is solved, soldiers still patrol along the river. Repairing this bridge across the Dniestr is a step in the right direction.

Back in Moldova, Victor Doras, the political adviser to President Voronin, can take stock of his country's situation -

- one in five live outside the cash-economy,

- one in two live below the poverty line -

- and every third Moldovan in the workforce - has left the country.

VICTOR DORAS, Presidential Adviser


"Even though Europe would like to turn a blind eye, it is impossible to ignore this poor country in the middle of Europe"

Returning to the churches in Chisinau - weddings continue.

The young ones will have to rely on help from the parents if possible -

- and they’ll probably never have more than one child -

They are, however, still full of hope



"I hope that we will be happy together -

- and that we will have a future -

- where we are happy and healthy and will see our dreams come true!"

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
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