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Moldova: Villagers Face Stark Poverty Amid Once-Prosperous Agricultural Economy

Looking back at better days Moldova is one of Europe's poorest states, despite its rich farmland and renowned vineyards that during communism earned the country the status of the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union. Lack of reforms, political turmoil, and dependence on Russian energy imports have brought Moldova's once prosperous agriculture-based economy to its knees and forced its mostly rural population into deep poverty and mass migration.

Chisinau, 8 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Eleonora, from the village of Pelivan, some 25 kilometers northeast of the capital, Chisinau, embodies the present-day Moldovan villager.

"My monthly salary is about 30 euros. We manage to survive somehow thanks to what we grow in the garden, around the house. We also have a small plot of land on the hill. But there is no perspective at all here. Several years ago, they started at least to pay pensions and salaries on time, but between 1994 and 1999, it was very hard," she says.

Eleonora, lives in the countryside, but has a state job. She has a patch of land, but can't make a profit off it. At 49, she is able to work, but depends heavily on financial help from her children abroad. She works as an accountant in the mayor's office in Pelivan, but there is not much left to count in the village.

Signs of poverty are everywhere in Pelivan. Its muddy, narrow country roads are deserted. The onetime pride of the village, the Soviet-era culture house, is locked, but there's nothing left to steal anyway. Everything -- from windows to furniture -- has long been gone, and its crumbling facade seems ready to fall at any moment.

Like Pelivan, many of Moldova's villages are half-deserted, most of its young people having gone abroad to find work so they can send money to feed their families back home. According to various estimates, between 350,000 and 1 million of Moldova's more than 4 million people are living abroad, many illegally.

Not everybody has left the countryside, though. According to official data, there are more than 500,000 small farm households in Moldova, although many times they are being looked after by the elderly.

During Soviet times and before World War II, when it was part of Romania, Moldova was famous for fertile land that supported wheat fields, fruit trees, and huge vineyards that produced wines renowned throughout the former Soviet bloc.

But after it gained independence in 1991, Moldova's economy collapsed in the absence of the centralized Soviet era market. Now, farmers who are trying to stand on their own feet face numerous obstacles.

Gheorghe Pamfil has some 4.5 hectares in Rusestii Noi, 25 kilometers southwest of Chisinau. He grows peaches, apricots, and grapes, which he sells at the marketplace in the city.

But Pamfil complains that his land is divided into several patches far from each other. He says the government is interested in maintaining the Soviet-era collective farms under a different name.

"We grew up with [Soviet collective farms] kolhoz and sovhoz, and it's very difficult [for the government] to part with those huge kolhoz-type associations, where people used to work for nothing," he says. "I think that the government is not keen to help the farmers. They don't even pay attention to us. They repeatedly refused to come to our farmers' association meetings, although we invited them. They want to export grapes and wine only from huge farms, which are basically the same kolhoz. They only changed the names on the door."

Moldova's economy remains heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia. Its main export product, wine, is seen as an important means to reduce its energy debts to Russia.

But Moldovan economic analyst Mihai Patras says most of the $600 million gas debt is owed by Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, which is causing huge losses to Moldova's economy. Patras told RFE/RL that interest groups from Russia have started taking over Moldova's wine industry to make up for Moldova's gas debt.

"We have ended up in triple [Russian economic] embrace -- through fuel imports, through [the Trasndniester separatist regime's actions in] Tiraspol, and through the [Russian] control over important [wine-producing] factories. I believe that these processes must be stopped [if Moldova wants to recover economically]," Patras says.
"How can a country develop in an adequate, viable manner without a unified customs service?"

Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev, meanwhile, told RFE/RL that much of Moldova's economic doldrums can be blamed on its inability to control its border -- hence, customs -- with separatist Transdniester. Transdniester is seen as a major international contraband and trafficking hub.

Tarlev says Moldova's economic growth would increase tenfold if customs in Transdniester could be brought under Moldovan control. "Speaking of the difficulties we have to confront, they are also a major consequence of the lack of a single customs space," he says. "How can a country develop in an adequate, viable manner without a unified customs service? This is a painful problem. If it hadn't been for this problem with Transdniester, we would have had at least 10 times better economic results. This is painful for me personally and for Moldova's people as a whole."

Tarlev says the Communist government, which took power in 2001 by promising to restore living standards to Soviet-era levels, has managed to turn the economy around after three years in power. He says taxation was reduced from 28 percent in 2001 to 20 percent this year, and is set to decrease to 18 percent next year. He says the underground economy was already reduced from up to 65 percent in 2001 to some 30 percent this year.

Furthermore, Tarlev says a strategy to fight poverty has been finalized. "First of all, it is a strategy which determines clearly the priorities for Moldova," he says. "It was a wide-ranging process, which involved the local administration, civil society, NGOs and international organizations. In other words, the whole society took part in the making of this strategy. We have recently finalized it, and it has been approved by the government."

In Moldova's villages, however, antipoverty strategies are a distant notion, and people confront the stark reality of not being able to feed their children.

In Braviceni, some 50 kilometers northwest of Chisinau, 57-year-old Natalia Cociorva faces despair. Her sons and their wives have gone to Moscow to work, and she has not heard from them for months. She had to sell things from her home to get money to buy medicine for a small granddaughter she is taking care of. She says the government only pretends that things are getting better.

"They [the officials] should go visit the villages unexpectedly, and not with two weeks notice that [President Vladimir] Voronin is going to visit some village. Of course, then they clean up everything and welcome Voronin with a rich dinner, and then [officials] say, 'Look! People live well.' No, people live very hard lives. It's as bad as it was after the [World] War [II]," she says.

Not everybody is displeased with the job the government is doing. Many old pensioners in rural areas praise one achievement of the Communists over the past four years -- paying pensions and salaries on time.

Seventy-seven-year-old Gheorghe Dohocheru lives in Pelivan. "They [the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists] have done a lot of good," he says. "We get the pension every month, on the same day. I get my pension on the eighth of every month. They increased our pension, too, in the last four years [since the Communists came to power]. I used to get 160 leis [$13] per month. But now I get 400 leis [$34]."

For Moldova, hope may come from the young people who went abroad but chose to come back. Anatolie Rusu -- from Vasieni, 18 kilometers south of Chisinau -- has a degree in agriculture and went for postgraduate studies in the United States and the Netherlands. Unlike many others, Anatolie decided to return to his village.

Rusu started a small sheep farm this year. He has 115 sheep and an old Soviet tractor, but his farm has no electricity. He hopes to get a small loan from the World Bank in Moldova to bring electricity to his farm. He told RFE/RL that getting more young people to invest in farming could change Moldova's fortunes.

"Private property is sacred. We have to understand that from the very beginning. Everything starts from this, and I reckon this should be the basis for development," he says. "Where there's private property, there are hard-working people who implement new technologies, new ideas. That's what I saw abroad. What you learn, you need to implement in practice. [Very important would be] to get more young people to open businesses in agriculture."