June 26, 2014
Moldova is signing the Free Trade Association agreement on June 27. While this is regarded by many as a definitive step towards the West and the European Union path, the signing of the agreement is mostly symbolic and doesn’t stop Moldovans from questioning their future, balancing the East and the West as equal options. Admitting that the Ukrainian crisis has helped Chisinau’s dialogue with Brussels, Moldova is yet fragmented in defining what is right and wrong, following its historical pattern of the ultimate mosaic-like borderline. This is how I discovered the country in early June 2014.
Crossing the Borderline – the Prut River
Originating in the north-eastern coast of the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine and an affluent of the Danube, the Prut river has served as a borderline throughout modern history: between Romania and the Russian Empire before the World War I and between Romania and the USSR after the World War II. The only exception occurred in between 1918 – 1939 when it became an internal river, crossing Poland and Romania before flowing into the Danube. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it became almost entirely Romanian, only to return to being a borderline once more, after the war ended. Starting its journey in Western Ukraine, it goes through Chernivsti (Cernauti) – one of the cosmopolitan cities where Ukrainian, Romanian, Polish and Jewish cultures and traditions meet before marking the border between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Symbolically, the edges of the East and West have always met on its banks, defining the fate of Central Europe, always dependent on how strongly the two cultures have been shaping up the waves of influence in Europe.
As we were going from Romania into the Republic of Moldova, we crossed the Prut at Ungheni, the Moldovan town on the frontier, where the river starts its downstream flow towards the Danube. During our drive last fall in Romania, on the strategic military road from Albita to Iasi, going along the Prut up north, I didn’t realize how narrow its riverbed really is. Back then, the forests spreading on our right as we were rolling up, with their trees not yet completely leafless, weren’t allowing us to see much of what Prut really was – from time to time we could only spot, in between the reeds, the swamps or lakes-like formations along the river. It’s been only now that I realized Prut is actually not a large river, considering its length (aprox. 380km).
Crossing the border was relatively easy – only 3 cars were waiting in line. It was a Sunday afternoon and this was not the main entry point into Moldova from Romania. On the other side of the border, the small city of Ungheni is not much different than a town of its size in Romania in the 90s. There was a band playing in the main square downtown – Romanian folk and pop music reminding me of the 80s and early 90s in Bucharest. As I was discovering the architecture of the square, I kept going back in time – the soviet-like building at one end of the square was facing a renovated Russian baroque-style small building: the 90s were facing the 40s. However, the surprise of the day got us back to present: the free wifi available in the square as well as around it, in the downtown area. Later I will find out that this is the case to most cities in Moldova.
The traffic is clearly high for the narrow streets. The cars – mostly second-hand cars imported from the EU countries – were parked everywhere and the shades under the old, leafy trees of the squared labyrinth made driving somewhat uncomfortable, especially since the roads hadn’t seen much renovation during the last few years. As we went away out of the city center, a much more rural landscape took shape.
Passing through the villages along the way, the one thing you notice immediately is the thin yellow gas pipes connecting each household to the gas distribution network. The next thing you observe is the prevalence of fountains both right and left sides of the road. Our guide explained that while the natural gas distribution network was widespread throughout the country, water supply remained problematic for most of the country, even for smaller cities. The natural gas comes from Russia – if Russia cuts the gas, the impact would be felt at the heart of society, considering that the cut would be made in the very standard of life of these households. And when the entire country – from the very rural community to the most urban one – is used to have gas for heating during winter, you have a very different situation than that of a country where most of rural communities are not being part of the national distribution system. To lower dependence on Russia, Moldova is working with Romania to ensure that there is an alternative for gas imports, through Iasi-Ungheni pipeline. While progress has been made in Romania in 2013, the Moldovan side has yet to build its part of the project… officials on both sides acknowledge that investments need to continue and the pipe needs to go at least to Chisinau, not forgetting to add a line or two about the strategic importance attached to the success of the project. They do forget to say that the gas needs to ultimately go to the Moldovan households and for that, Moldovans need to deal directly with Gazprom since the company controls the national distribution network. Seeing the level of investments into the local networks, in the very rural – and most likely some of the poorer villages of the country, it is quite clear to me that Gazprom regards supplies to Moldova strategically as well, well understanding their social implications.
I asked our guide if Romania or the West had tried to do anything about the water supply network – this country is after all, dependent on agriculture and water supply not only translates into a higher living standard for the rural population, but it also translates into irrigation systems that increase agricultural efficiency. His answer was negative – he explained investment figures would be high for the sector, considering essentials must be addressed first, with currently very low quality of drinking water in some of these rural communities. I remembered the short stories I used to read when I was a child about the Tatar and Turkish short invasions into medieval Moldova: there was a common feature to them all – the water fountains being poisoned as the easy way to make Moldovans capitulate fast.
The dramatic image of poisoned medieval fountains disappears as the scenery became greener and we found ourselves in the middle of the calm hills of the country. The birch trees the Russians planted after the World War II along with flourished acacia trees are giving the landscape a whiter, more solemn appearance. As we got closer to Chisinau, the road’s quality improved and traffic increased. We started seeing, among the crowd of second-hand cars, some last models of BMW, Mercedes and even some Jaguars. Clearly the people here are better off – or they just care more about appearance.
Perceptions and Realities in Chisinau
Going into Chisinau from North West, you feel the capital is being hidden by the forests surrounding it. Yet, minutes after getting out of the greenish outskirts, the Soviet style blocks of flats are coming to sight. And few minutes later we found ourselves downtown. The government and the parliament are still bearing the signs of renovation started as a result of the civil unrest in 2009.
Time is passing in a slower motion here – if you don’t visit Chisinau in a few years, you will still know where to eat the best pies in town or the location of the biggest shopping mall. There is a certain relaxation in the busy city life that reminds me of the basic philosophical question of existence: “who am I?” – just because no matter where you are in the city, you’ll find yourself wondering about its essence, its roots. At every corner, the city seems to struggle to find its reasoning. The mosaic of architectural differences of every building are seemingly fighting, through the slowness of the restoration works, to be accepted as a unitary piece defining the soul of the city, along with the glassy windows of the new, Western like buildings.
And yet, within the apparent calm of the city, the anxiety brought by the Ukraine crisis is also felt here. In conversations with academics, historians, policymakers, military and ordinary people, you will feel a mix of worry and resignation in their words. The crisis in Ukraine has put the spotlight on Moldova – in many ways, what has happened since November 2013 till spring 2014 in Ukraine has given the opportunity to Moldova to make its own worries heard in Brussels. As a result of the events in the neighboring country, the EU has been more receptive to dialogue – the FTA is the first step to the EU accession and there is money to come with it as well: assistance funds, grants and credit lines given by the EU and other international organizations after the signing of the document. The most advertised success of the current government in Chisinau is the visa liberalization with the EU Schengen area. While the achievement has been largely trumpeted both in local and European media, Moldovans are not as impressed as you’d first think – they see this pragmatically, as a good measure mostly meant for tourism. Moldovans can go visit the EU countries if they have a biometrical passport (not very cheap passport considering the living standard in the country). Free visas are less appealing for those searching for a job. I found out that there are less people wanting to go find a job in the EU than those working in Russia. The explanation is simple: the EU economic crisis made the EU countries less attractive and many Moldovans speak Russian.
There are other serious topics concerning Moldovans these days – and they mainly refer to risks of instability coming from Transnistria or even from Gagauzia, whose leader seems to be dreaming about founding “the Great Gagauzia”, in uniting Moldovan regions of Gagauzia with Ukrainian provinces. Rumors about him discussing such plans in Moscow were worrying my discussion partners.
Economic stability has been another topic of discussion – almost everyone whom I met explained me how the Russians are in control, as they have the largest employment pools in the country: the state bank and the airport. Not to mention energy supplies or wine exports market. Therefore, to avoid socio-economic problems, Moldova needs to keep Russia friendly. In the same time, however, the fact that Russians own more or less Moldovan economy seemed to equal, in discussions, with a guarantee for stability. Someone explained to me that as the EU has little visibility in practice, throughout the country, and as the Russians understand that the FTA relates mostly to symbolism, Moscow understands that Moldova needs to be kept going for the business’ sake. It may be just wishful thinking, but that tells a lot about the way the EU is perceived on the ground – at the level of symbols.
In Search of Essence – the Dniester
A white cement statue embodying a young man standing, with his arms wide opened, placed in a similarly whitish semi-circle of columns is guarding the other bank of the Dniester. A Soviet style city that seems to have lost all shades of green is watching with its empty gray eyes of stones-like architecture towards West. As I noticed the dark smoke arising from the highest hill of the town of Ribnita, I realized that the metallurgical plant here was still working at high capacity – it was afternoon already but the production process was still ongoing.
The road to Rezina, the town on the border with Transnistria is one of the best roads in the country, half of it being the same with the road to Balti – the region known to be the most pro-Russian of all Moldovan regions. This is why it’s almost ironical to see, while driving, on the right and left side of the road signs saying that the American people funded the rehabilitation of the road – through the Millenium program. About an hour after we got away from the main road to Balti, to follow our way to Rezina, we got into a road construction site – this time funded by the EU (I think). While clouds of dust were making driving difficult, loaded trucks passing by from the opposite direction were adding to the dramatic scene, as I was always wondering if the truck driver was actually seeing our car considering the dust clouds surrounding us. Luckily we were soon out of the troublesome sector and entering Rezina, we found a frontier town of the East…again the same blocks of flats of sun-dashed blue and gray cement and the green shades of the small but well maintained gardens. The center of the town was calm…almost too peaceful for my ears. Some men were chatting on the benches in front of the city hall in a language that I couldn’t understand, probably Russian.
The reason we were there was not to see the very borderline town and neither to see the bridge on the Dniester to Ribnita, even if both could have well justified the trip. We were instead interested in seeing the places where Stephen the Great, the 15th century Moldovan prince, has once visited – Saharna and Tipova monasteries, the latter being said to be the place where he first got married. This is how I saw the statue guarding the other bank of the Dniester: on the way to Saharna, from the tight road right by the river.
The Dniester was way more imposing than the Prut, a real border, drawing natural differences between the two shores: while on the right side, the one that we were driving on, we had a hilly landscape, guarded by tall, dark trees and, at their bottom by the natural swamps filled with lilies that were not yet flourished, on the other side the shore was sandy, almost flat, with smooth hills rising only hundreds of meters away from the shore. As we climbed up, I realized that the imposing whitish statue was a Liberation statue, erected there in the late 50s after the Soviets came in… In Saharna I will understand that the celebrated liberation was that of Moldovans from Romanian occupation of Antonescu regime. I will start finding out that the Moldovans still bear scars of Antonescu regime – and it is that regime that they sometimes reference Romania to, as they also bear the scars of Brezhnev’s rule in the early 50s. The monastery in Saharna had been closed down, as all monasteries had been in this part of the world in the 50s, being then transformed into a mental health institution for children. Everything – from documents, books, to the paintings on the walls had been burnt on the occasion of its closing and therefore the monastery looks now newly done, even if this was a place of prayer since the late 15th century. When you visit, the monks will tell you that they didn’t even knew where the old cemetery had been placed when they came back – and they have only discovered it when they were digging to build the new church. They will also tell you stories about the icons that were kept by the villagers and given back when the monastery was reopened. Stories of sad pride and hope for the better life of what has been rebuilt.
To go to Tipova, we took another way, a road of stones through villages and empty fields, bordered by poplars and acacia trees. While the church of the monastery is, as the one in Saharna, newly renovated, going down by the Dniester to the old caves that are said to have once served as hermitages for one of the oldest monasteries in Europe is very much a trip in time. The steep, abrupt way toward the Dniester resembles the troubled history of this borderline place – always in the shade of powers’ will, always seemingly shaped by forces humans can’t control…like the very river and the wind shaping up the walls of the hill. And, in the same time, the sun and the geography of place being enough for it all to survive, physically and in importance as a region of wonder, of permanent questions and permanent struggles.
As the guide talked, we understood that in essence, this is a place of mystery in all senses. As I looked around, I had mixed feelings: I realized that if this had been in any other part of Europe, it would have been transformed into a touristic attraction… the guide told me that to her and many others this was the Mount Athos for Romanians – it clearly has the essence of it, but lacks the marketing for it to become something similar. And, as I was sad that the place clearly didn’t get the attention it deserved in tourist books, I was also feeling grateful for the peace it gave us as it is now…empty and original, filled only with the energy of the rock bearing the touch of human hands, their souls and their prayers sent from an ancient, unknown time.
The place embodies the core of Moldova, defined through the word “imagination” in all its meanings. As the country discovers itself in matryoshka dolls of questions and answers, as one visits one region after another and tries to understand it, Tipova monastery, by the Dniester river, is the ultimate metaphor of wonder, the basic and yet unanswerable question of what it is and what it was. And yet, everyone discovers an answer as it visits it – the meaning of the trip and not the destination. Something that, in many ways, Moldovan history and realities relate to.Antonia Colibasanu