Chisinau, Moldova – Vlad Petrescu used to be a Soviet patriot. The 59-year-old Moldovan served in the Pacific fleet for three years, and for more than two decades drove trucks loaded with Moldovan fruit and wine – still a backbone of Moldova’s economy – to Moscow, Kiev, and oil boomtowns in Siberia.
“I was raised thinking that I lived in the world’s most advanced and just society,” said Petrescu, balding, wiry and suntanned, with a grimace of disgust and self-pity as he recalled the communist propaganda he had absorbed since his childhood.
“And everybody in the Soviet Union loved Moldova because it made one think of wine and cheerful music.”
Europe does not make my heart sing, but we need them so that one day our politicians can become honest and corruption-free.
After the 1991 Soviet collapse he struggled for years to make ends meet as Moldova underwent a painful economic and political transformation that is far from over.
Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova must, yet again, choose between its pro-Europe and pro-Moscow sympathies.
The nation of three million is one of Europe’s poorest.
Its economy is largely agriculture-based – and dangerously dependent on “the missing generation”, hundreds of thousands of working-age men and women working in Russia and the European Union, often illegally. Some two-fifths of Moldova’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from their remittances, the World Bank said.
It is also a country of quiet paradoxes.
Most Moldovans speak Romanian, a language rooted in Latin, but profess Greek Orthodox Christianity. The southern autonomous region of Gagauzia is dominated by a Turkic-speaking people, but they also are Orthodox Christians.
Moldova’s fiercely pro-Russian Transnistria region broke away more than 20 years ago, yet the borders are not sealed, economic ties have not been severed, and many Moldovans have their cars registered in Transnistria because of lower taxes.
Moldova was the only ex-Soviet nation where Communists returned to power in 2001 – and lost it to pro-European parties eight years later after thousands of youngsters stormed and burned down a parliament building protesting against election fraud.
The new ruling coalition promised an EU membership, and many hailed the prospect – including Petrescu, who considers his and Moldova’s Soviet background a millstone.
“Europe does not make my heart sing, but we need them so that one day our politicians can become honest and corruption-free,” Petrescu, who now owns a small transportation company in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, told Al Jazeera.
“We have a better future living in big Europe, not in a Russian province.”
Burdened by fiscal problems and bloated by its economically unequal 28 nation-members, the EU has for years been lukewarm about Moldova’s pleas to join the bloc.
But in June 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed up separatists in Ukraine’s east last year, the EU signed an association agreement with Moldova – and assured Moldova that it may soon become a suitable candidate.
Moscow responded by banning the export of Moldovan fruit, vegetables, and meat.
The pro-EU parties, however, failed to deliver on their promises. Their rule did not improve economic prospects and brought on a corruption scandal over the theft of $1bn from Moldova’s banking system, an amount equal to one-eighth of its annual GDP.
“Moldova’s European integration has run out of steam. If a year ago discussion in Chisinau centred on Moldova’s possible submission of an EU membership application in 2015, today such perspectives are not even mentioned,” political analysts Stanislav Secrieru and Anita Sobjak wrote in an article published by the Polish Institute for International Affairs in mid-June.
The scandal boosted the popularity of leftist, pro-Moscow parties.
“People want changes, people are very tired, and the parties that are now associated with European integration are also associated with theft, disintegration of the country and corruption,” Yan Feldman, a member of the parliamentary anti-discrimination commission, told Al Jazeera.
At the June 14 municipal vote, several pro-Moscow candidates were elected as councillors and city mayors. Just two days earlier, a pro-EU prime minister had resigned after 100 days in office following an inquiry into the authenticity of his high school and university diplomas.
Russia has been luring Moldovans for a long time to join the Customs Union, a Moscow-dominated bloc supposedly modelled after the European Union. Some ex-Soviet nations fear this as a reincarnation of the Soviet Union.
Yet, some 58 percent of Moldovans are in favour of joining the Customs Union, according to the latest poll conducted in April by the Institute for Public Policy, a local think-tank. A mere 26 percent would vote against it, it said.
To the elderly, this attitude is based on nostalgia or belief in Moscow’s imperial selflessness.
But some younger Moldovans who don’t have illusions about Kremlin’s political games, still choose Moscow as the lesser of the two evils.
“I understand that nobody wants us, but at least Russia can buy what we produce,” Yelena Mogildan, a 34-year-old owner of a fast-food restaurant in Chisinau, told Al Jazeera.
“All European countries have good agriculture, so they all have the vegetables and fruit and wine we offer, and we can’t sell anything else,” Mogildan said.
Since 2006, Russia has imposed a ban on Moldovan wine, vegetables, and fruit which adversely affected Moldova’s economy. Wine exports alone account for at least a fifth of Moldova’s GDP, and the industry employed 27 percent of the country’s workforce.
Russian migration authorities also deported thousands of Moldovan labour migrants for alleged violations, a measure widely seen as yet another method of applying political pressure.
Nostalgia for the past
There is also another vector of development. Moldova was part of Romania between 1918 and 1940, and the idea of reunification was popular in the early 1990s – prompting the Slavic-dominated Transnistria to break away from the central government after a bloody conflict.
Earlier this year, thousands rallied in Chisinau with new demands for reunification. The “unionists” are mostly youngsters and intellectuals who think Russia is a bearish power that prefers brutal pressure.
“Moldova is too small and weak to be independent, and we have been nothing but pawns in imperial games,” a university student and unionist who only identified himself as Ion, told Al Jazeera.
“We need Great Romania to be strong, we can’t go on living like an amputated body part.”
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He proudly said that unity between Moldova and Romania dates back to the 15th century, when Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler – whose brutality turned him into a feared folk hero known as Count Dracula – joined forces with a Moldovan king to fight against Ottoman Turkey.
“We must be as fearless as Dracula,” the lanky 21-year-old said.
The popularity of pro-Romanian groups in Moldova, however, stands at less than 15 percent, and mainstream politicians don’t back their cause.
But most Romanians support the idea, and Romania’s previous president, Traian Basescu, called the reunification his nation’s “next national project”.