Struggling to realize potential, Moldova faces up to issues

The country's gas supplies were cut off last month, and the IMF has

As the calendar flips over to 2000, Europeans from West to East are toasting the future prospect of a united and prosperous Continent. But Moldova, a small, proud nation deep in Europe's hinterland, has little to celebrate.

While part of the Soviet Union, its citizens enjoyed one of the empire's highest standards of living. Since winning independence in 1991, however, it has become one of the poorest countries in Europe.

The country, just larger than Maryland and landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, has potential. It's renowned for its fertile black soil, and it produced 20 percent of all wine in the Soviet Union and one-third of its tobacco. But among other problems, Russia, which supplies 93 percent of Moldova's energy needs, cut off gas supplies on Dec. 22-24, citing Moldova's mounting debt. That forced the closure of hundreds of primary schools.

To alleviate the situation, the local office of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is contributing $3.5 million worth of coal and heating oil for the elderly, orphanages, and hospitals.

But that won't fix everything. Moldova has struggled to replace USSR markets with new partners. It has also struggled with official mismanagement, corruption, and an intractable dispute over the breakaway region known as Trans-Dniester - home to the last remaining cold-war-era Russian troops.

Moldova's refusal to privatize the wine and tobacco industries in November led the International Monetary Fund to freeze a $100 million loan. The money would have partly paid off salary and pension arrears, which now eat up 14 percent of the gross domestic product, estimated at $10.8 billion in 1997.

Frustration runs high among both foreign and local officials. "We don't see where all this will end," says Anatoly Gudym, head of the Center for Strategic Studies and Reforms, an independent think tank in Moldova's capital, Chisinau. "We have destroyed our economy, and a majority of our population is in poverty."

How poor are the 4.4 million Moldovans? A mayor typically earns between $50 and $90 a month. Pensions - if they arrive - average $8 per month. In contrast, a Big Mac at one of the two McDonald's in Chisinau costs $1.25.

In the countryside, they do without cash. Villagers can't tell you how much a box of detergent costs - only that it's worth one live chicken. Or one kilo of sour cream.

Then there are districts like Briceni, in the north, home to a creaking sugar factory. When district authorities come knocking for taxes, the factory pays them in sugar. The cash-strapped district, in turn, pays its employees, like teachers and doctors, in sugar.

But mostly, Moldovans live off the land: They smoke meats, pickle peppers, and preserve jams. "Money is a rare event in this village," says Lidia Omelianov, of Parkani, 30 miles southeast of Chisinau.

After eight governments in eight years, politicians are feeling the heat to stop lining their own pockets and start addressing society's problems, says new Prime Minister Dumitru Bragish, who took office Dec. 21. "Our credibility is at a critical point," he says. "The public is so desperate, because there is no assurance they'll be able to survive. Previously, they always blamed a political party or the government, but unfortunately, nothing has changed."

Moldovan society is a Balkans-like ethnic mix. The country is roughly 65 percent ethnic Romanian, 14 percent Ukrainian, 13 percent Russian, with the rest including Turkic-speaking Gagauz, Bulgarians, and Jews.

Under Stalin, Russian was dominant. But with independence came a wave of "Romanization." Moldovan, a Romanian dialect, again became the official language, and there was even talk of rejoining Romania. This made the Russians and Ukrainians of the eastern Trans-Dniester region - who constitute half the population - nervous they would become second-class citizens. A brief civil war broke out in 1992 - aided by the Russian 14th Army, based in Trans-Dniester - and some 1,000 people were killed in the clashes.

Outsiders are paying attention now, because the separatists in Trans-Dniester, backed by 2,600 Russian troops, today control 41,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition, including bullets, mortars, and antitank rounds. The West is pressing Russia to either destroy the arsenal, melt it down, or take it home.

At the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul in November, Russia agreed to withdraw its heavy military equipment - tanks, armored personnel carriers, and combat aircraft - by the end of 2001, and to pull out troops by the end of 2002.

"There are criminals who may try to steal and sell the ammo on the black market," says Ambassador William Hill, head of the OSCE mission to Moldova. "It could ultimately fall into the wrong hands - Chechens and others would love to buy it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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