Chisinau, 29 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-five-year-old agronomist Gavril Candu has been out of work for years. He and his five-year-old daughter live in a small village southwest of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. His wife lives in Italy, where she works as a caretaker.
"My wife was forced to leave because we had no way out of hardship," Candu said. "Now we live off what my wife sends. She's been abroad for almost three years. She came home last fall. Soon she'll come again on a short vacation and then leave again."
In addition to basic necessities, Candu says the money sent by his wife also helps pay for the small house they are building and for the education of their oldest daughter.
"To speak about total poverty would be a huge mistake and would be humiliating for us because, if you look at the way the people of Chisinau dress and behave, and the large number of cars -- prestigious brands, such as Mercedes...then it is not the case to speak about poverty."
Candu's wife is one of the lucky Moldovans who has found legal work abroad. But hundreds of thousands of others work abroad illegally, mostly in construction and agricultural jobs.
Experts say at least 20 percent of Moldova's active population -- or about 300,000 people -- work abroad, although the real figure could be as high as 1 million. More accurate data is expected after the completion of a new census in October.
Jana Costachi is the coordinator of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) International Migrant Program for Moldova. The program, which began last year, supports and implements new policies on workforce migration.
Costachi says a large part of Moldova's active population has left the country: "What is absolutely certain is that, even if we take into account the lowest estimated figure of 300,000 people who are abroad, a majority of them are working there illegally, without a contract and are between 25 and 45 years old, which means they are a very important part of the active workforce."
Costachi says the collapse of Moldova's economy after the breakup of the Soviet Union is the root cause for the mass migration: "Immediately after gaining independence, Moldova found itself totally incapable of dealing with tens of thousands of workers made redundant as a result of the massive closing down of so-called 'all-union' factories, and that eventually led to total disaster on Moldova's workforce market. One also has to take into account Moldova's absolute agricultural profile."
Olga Poalelungi, the director of Moldova's newly established Migration Department, says the exodus began in earnest around 1994, when economic hardship deepened. Poalelungi identifies three stages in the migration of Moldovans: "Initially, most migrants headed for Russia, where traditionally [during Soviet times] many Moldovans worked -- mainly to central Russia, the Moscow region. Then the direction changed, when a lot of Moldovans went to work in countries with which we have more linguistic, cultural, and social affinities, especially Italy -- with the largest number of Moldovans -- as well as Portugal, Greece, and Spain. After 1997 and 1998, the migration directions changed again, and in 2001 and 2002, Moldovans preferred to go to Germany, Ireland, Great Britain."
In October and November 2003, the ILO and the Soros Foundation in Moldova conducted a survey of some 5,000 families. The survey found that 50 percent of migrants from Moldova chose Russia because they did not need a visa. Italy came in second, with some 18 percent, perhaps because Italian authorities are quite accommodating toward Moldovans. Poalelungi: "For example, the Labor Ministry in Italy told us that there are about 80,000 Moldovans in Italy, and 50,000 have already gained legal status there."
The ILO-Soros study also found that at least one member of every third family in Moldova had gone abroad for work. Some 70 percent of these migrants were from rural areas, mostly farmers.
But other fields of activity have also been deeply affected by the exodus. ILO's Costachi says the construction sector in Moldova has lost virtually all of its workforce. Vasile Rotaru and Anatolie Ungureanu live in the northern village of Grigorauca. Rotaru -- a tall, blond 22-year-old -- says most young people in Grigorauca -- both men and women -- are working abroad. Rotaru says that he, too, wants to leave: "Most of them have gone to Moscow, to Portugal, to Italy. It's mostly the elderly who are here, and only a few young people. I don't have a permanent job, and I thought, of course, of going away. There's nothing to do here. I would stay abroad for a while, then come back and build a house. I'm not married, because I need to provide many things to have a family. I have two sisters. One is in Italy, one here. One brother-in-law is in Moscow."
Both Rotaru and Ungureanu have blackened hands from the day's work. Ungureanu, a short, stocky man in his early 30s, tells his story: "My wife has died. I have two children and a small plot of land. We all work here. Look at my hands. These are walnut [stains]. We earn our living [picking up] walnuts. I went to Krasnodar as a seasonal worker. I have two brothers. One lives in Yakutia, the other one is here. He came back from Yakutia. We all work the land. We all have big daily worries."
The ILO's Jana Costachi says many educated elites have also been forced to seek work abroad: "[There is] a class of educated but very poor people who also have children. They make up about 30 percent of those who have gone abroad. They were employed in the public sector before they left. They are professors, teachers, architects, engineers, doctors, trained nurses. They used to work in social fields critically underfunded over the last decade."
But not all Moldovans are willing to leave their country in search of better lives.
Tania is a young mother of four who lives in a shabby house with a muddy yard in Glicenii Vechi, a village near the northern town of Balti. Tania says she has no desire to leave Moldova, despite her harsh life: "I have four children. I am a trained nurse, and I work at the psychiatric hospital in Balti. A lot of people have left, even from my family. I have relatives in America. My sister is in Italy. She has left one of her daughters here with me. She is also a nurse, but it is impossible to live on a $60-a-month] salary. My husband earns 500 lei ($41) per month. Luckily, I have my sister and my parents who help us. I could leave, but there's something that keeps me here. I cannot imagine living somewhere else."
Thousands of young women who leave Moldova to seek their fortunes unwittingly end up as sex slaves at the hands of traffickers. Others, like 19-year-old Jana from Chisinau, are put to work as slave laborers. Jana says she was lured to Moscow with the promise of a job as a street vendor but ended up being forced to beg for seven months earlier this year.
Jana says she was made to wear a nun's attire and to pretend she was raising money for a church: "We were standing at the marketplace [in Moscow] dressed in those black [nun's] robes and with a box in front of me, on which it was written that we were collecting money for a church which was being built in Moldova. But we were working for this Gypsy gang. We were raising money for them to build houses and buy cars."
Jana escaped after she alerted her family in Moldova, who in turn called Interpol, the international police organization.
Moldovans leave their country for the lure of higher salaries. The ILO-Soros Foundation study estimates that, on average, Moldovans working abroad earn almost $800 dollars a month. Those who work in Germany, France, or Britain earn the most -- almost $1,200 per month -- while in Russia, the level is as low as $400.
This contrasts with an average salary of under $100 a month in Moldova.
But Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin tells RFE/RL that poverty in Moldova is not as serious as generally thought: "To speak about total poverty would be a huge mistake and would be humiliating for us because, if you look at the way the people of Chisinau dress and behave, and the large number of cars -- prestigious brands, such as Mercedes -- which makes driving from one side of the city to the other very difficult, then it is not the case to speak about poverty," Voronoin said. "Perhaps the data is not as exhaustive as it should be."
Experts estimate that Moldovans working abroad send back between $500 million and $1 billion annually into the country's economy. By comparison, the country's entire budget for 2004 is about $450 million.
However, this influx of cash from abroad has widened income gaps in a society where social equality -- even in poverty -- is highly valued. In Chisinau, many luxury cars are parked outside derelict Soviet-era apartment blocks, while old peddlers sell cheap Turkish and Chinese goods outside elegant boutiques full of expensive designer clothes.
The number of private currency exchange offices in Chisinau has soared -- virtually every fourth or fifth shop has one -- and many of them are open around the clock.
The unregulated inflow of cash from abroad has stimulated inflation. In Chisinau, prices for imported goods and apartments have escalated.
Economists and Moldovan emigrants blame the economic chaos on the government's incapacity to attract this money for legitimate investment.
Several years ago, Ioan Bouros, a former journalist, emigrated to Portugal, where he now works in construction. Bouros was in Chisinau on a recent visit: "A large majority will go back home, but this return will depend on the situation in Moldova. Very few of those who have saved some money abroad come back to invest in a business. I cannot see the end of this emigration issue because here on the spot, nothing is changing. Moldova lives off the money sent from abroad. Brothers, sisters, we help one another, and it is serious money [which pours into Moldova]. If the leadership wanted to change the situation, with this kind of money they could do a good job."
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev says the government is now adopting strategies to make Moldova's investment climate more attractive for its own citizens: "We are interested that the money returns to Moldova and are obviously interested and preoccupied that this money be invested in the local economy and not in luxury cars, offices, or houses. I think that things are already moving in this field, toward reducing the taxation and other means to develop small and medium businesses."
It is a warm autumn evening in the village of Rusestii Noi, near Chisinau, where Natalia and Slavik -- both 20 years old -- are celebrating their wedding among many guests:
NATALIA: "I study at the state university in Chisinau. I am studying foreign languages -- English and German."
SLAVIK: "I work in a pharmaceutical depot."
Natalia says she and her husband will leave Moldova if she can't find a good job after she graduates: "I hope I will find work here in Moldova, but if I can't, I will go abroad. Not alone, but with my husband, of course. If I go alone, there are many problems. Many families are destroyed nowadays. And we are just married. I wouldn't want that to happen."
Natalia's parents are like many in Moldova who have invested in their children's education, despite the hardship. And, like Natalia, many of these children say they will leave Moldova if they must.
Farmer Gheorghe Pamfil, also from Rusestii Noi, has two children, both of whom are pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States. Pamfil believes they -- and the many others like them -- could turn Moldova's fortunes around if they decide to return: "Many very clever children leave the country after graduation. They leave because they can't find work here, and they are forced to leave. It is the clever and very clever youths who leave. I reckon that if all these young and clever people will come back, something will change in our Moldova, our Bessarabia [Moldova's old name]. We hope for that, we hope something will change."