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PCV Terry Stevens in Moldova
PCV Terry Stevens in Moldova
MOLDOVA, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, has changed noticeably since independence. A beautiful, fertile land of black soil and rolling hills, Moldova had been notably mismanaged by Soviet authorities for fifty years. Today, however, free from Moscow's aid and subsidies, the small republic is none the stronger: Moldova is an independent economy for the first time, yet its most vital trade relationships have bound it in renewed dependence upon Russia. Moldova is geographically, economically, and culturally stuck fast between East and West. Though not doomed as a country - it has seen a bit of promise in recent years - Moldova is certainly not as upwardly mobile as had once been hoped.
A map showing Drochia Before moving to the capital city of Chisinau, I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Drochia (pop. 20,000 and falling rapidly)-a pretty town in the north with wonderful people, but with problems of its own. While I lived there (1994-1996, 2 school years) I saw that Drochia was better off than many other small towns, in that the teachers of my school received their wages every few months, and did not once go on strike. This was quite unusual at that time; unfortunately, it is no longer true, as living conditions have worsened markedly since 1996. In January of 2000, for example, 20 school systems went on strike, and the teachers at Drochia's most prestigious lyceum were among the first to declare their unwillingness to return to work. In March of this year, every single Moldovan public school went on a 3-day strike-a strike well timed to correspond with the end of spring break, thus lengthening vacation a bit.
Although teachers would prefer to object more forcefully to their working conditions, they can ill afford to place such an issue above the needs of their pupils. In towns like Drochia, it is common knowledge that if a school strikes, neither other teachers nor another school will be able to take its place, and the children will remain without educators indefinitely. If teachers refuse to work for no pay, they only serve to increase the suffering of their community. In order to survive, towns and villages Village photo - click here for larger imageare forced to cope with minimal input or aid from the national government, which leaves them to shoulder added burdens-yet, perhaps paradoxically, this also fosters a distinct sense of civic independence and self-reliance. Villagers understand that if they don't take the initiative in solving their own problems, the government certainly won't either. Such attitudes are absent, however, in the larger cities.
Chisinau, a small metropolis now dotted with western stores and goods (current pop. nearing 700,000 due to recent increases in migration from outlying towns and villages), is a dramatic step away from the rest of Moldova. The capital is, for all intents and purposes, an island in the middle of Moldova. A surprising number of residents have never seen a Moldovan village up close, and have never really traveled outside the city, other than on visits to Moscow, Kiev, or the Black Sea. In fact, many residents of Chisinau share certain mannerisms and patterns of thinking with Americans. Chisinau's standard of living has consistently been higher than anywhere else in the country (for example: in Drochia and nearly every other city, town or village, hot water has never existed). As a result, a wall of sorts stands between the capital and the rest of Moldova, one result of which is Chisinau's high concentration of political bodies, foreign aid, NGOs and university-educated citizens. In moving between Chisinau and the villages of Moldova, one notices marked shifts in everything from accents to attitudes to currency exchange rates.
One of the most meaningful events to strike Moldova while I was there was the devaluation of the Russian ruble, the shock wave of which began moving through Moldova in September 1998. Despite early predictions to the contrary, significant recovery simply has not been generated, and I've found that the crisis, as Moldovans refer to it, has changed more than the fragile economy of the country. What little pride local populations take in their towns and villages has nearly vanished as both young and middle-aged families in desperation seek ways to leave Moldova in order to earn a living. More and more often I have recently met families in which the father is home less than 3 or 4 months a year: he lives in Prague, or Italy, or Greece, or Germany, or Israel, where he inevitably works illegally as a fruit picker, a construction worker, or another type of manual laborer.
village home As I continued to visit Drochia in 1997 and 1998, I saw a Turkish-Moldovan cookie factory/store being built, using local labor. Two new stores cropped up, and a large modern supermarket was nearly completed. Since the sad events of September 1998, however, these large unfinished projects remained untouched, and now many towns such as Drochia contain half-built stores and factories--signs of a promising economic future left sitting "under construction", never to be built. It's depressing when nothing grows at home--and painfully ironic for the Moldovan people, who live on fertile, black land so rich in nutrients that one old saying goes, "Thrust a stick into Moldovan ground and it will grow into a tree."
Moldovan life is indeed harsh, and since the devaluation, some aspects have become unquestionably harsher for all Moldovans. A declining human rights record and a police force not averse to racketeering and corruption have led to the widespread understanding that rule of law does not apply equally to all citizens in Moldova. Massive upsurges in crime, bureaucratic corruption and the authority of the (mainly Russian) Mafia have forced the citizens of an entire country to live in wariness of one another. The die-hard optimism of the early- to mid-1990s has given way to general cynicism, even among Moldova's younger generations. The most embittered people I noticed in 1995 seemed to me to be those over 40 (at the time); now I have heard, more and more often, children and teenagers repeating the unhappy slogans of their older parents and grandparents, phrases such as: "Why should I vote? There's no difference anyway..." This shift has recently been seen tangibly in new outbreaks of civil disobedience such as teachers' strikes and, student protests over the establishment of new taxes on public transport.
an expressive villager The difficulties of everyday life in Moldova have been increasingly covered in the international press as well. The Economist, for example, seems to cover Moldova more often recently because the country fits squarely at the bottom of many a graph. AP wire coverage frequently centers on the bizarre: a group of Moldovan villagers driven by poverty into selling their kidneys for paltry sums, or an elderly woman so desparately poor that she attacks a group of thieves robbing her house, forcing them at gunpoint to march through the village to the police station. I have come across more than one article this year at the end of which various western experts claim that the real question today is whether Moldova can remain a viable country at all.
Nevertheless, the Moldovan people remain very open and still take a deep pride in their tradition of hospitality, which has moved many a foreign visitor. Their curiosity and enthusiasm for the United States and all things American, too, permeates many aspects of everyday life, and is noticeable to an amazing degree. One acquaintance of mine boasts a baseball card collection and a knowledge of Major League stats that boggles me, particularly since he's been able to watch no more than a handful of baseball games on television in his lifetime.
Drochia's cathedral: a work finished in early 1998Positive change has indeed come to the people of Moldovan towns and villages--though not, perhaps, in the economic form once predicted by optimistic economists. One of the most consistently positive forces of change, particularly from the point of view of schoolchildren and their parents, is Peace Corps Volunteers. Though in Moldova since only 1993, PCVs have wrought some strangely positive change. As a whole, the English capability of Moldovan children has shot up. PCVs in Moldova have also sparked a wealth of summertime and extracurricular youth-oriented activities: an area sorely neglected. In the years following independence, the local disco became entrenched as the only organized activity for young people. PCVs have started nationwide networks of debating clubs, Little League baseball teams, English clubs, summer camps devoted to learning and leadership, and countless other activities designed to help the youth of Moldova become responsible and multi-faceted adults who can function to build up their homeland and believe in its future again.
It would be premature to ask whether or not Moldova, in light of its recent past, can be viewed as a burgeoning democracy. Certainly, at the state level, changes are occurring that may aid Moldova out of its period of transition: legislation was recently passed (in October of 2000) that may pave the way for large World Bank and IMF loan tranches. A democracy is eventually judged by its fruits, however--by the possibilities it offers its citizens. By this measure, Moldova is not yet mature enough to be considered on equal footing with other young democracies--not even with its closest Central and Eastern European neighbors.