Poor Moldovans envy EU neighboursPublish date: 24-01-2007
Romania has joined the European Union amid great fanfare, but farmer Toader Nuca who lives just over the border in former Soviet Moldova only shrugs his shoulders in derision when he thinks about it.
Nuca, 62, and his wife Eugenia get monthly pensions totalling 600 Moldovan lei (about $50) in what statistics show is Europe's poorest country. Their house in Leuseni, a village criss-crossed by muddy, rutted streets, has no running water.
Nuca's income goes towards firewood to keep warm, gas canisters for cooking and feed for chickens, geese and sheep scuttling across a cluttered farmyard, plus a horse to draw a mud-spattered "caruta", his only form of transport.
"I can't tell you anything about the European Union, but I doubt things will be better," Nuca, his coat smudged and torn, said, gesturing across fields to the border 3 km away and offering guests a glass of home-made wine.
"They have the same pensions, go around in the same carts, work the fields with the same ploughs."
But 15 years after independence, average monthly incomes in the country of 4 million stand at $100, against $320 in Romania.
Officials say up to 1 million Moldovans have left in search of work-in Russia, where Moldovan workers renovating homes seem ubiquitous-or Italy, Spain and Portugal.
That outflow accounts for one in three able-bodied citizens.
At least 500,000 are seeking Romanian-and EU-citizenship.
In Chisinau, Moldova's bustling capital of just under a million, young people are optimistic about the EU's proximity.
"It's an advantage for me and Moldova. I believe life can change but only over a long period. There are so many problems to solve," said Tatiana Dorfman, 19, an interior design student.
COMMON CULTURE, LANGUAGE
Moldovans share a culture and language with their western neighbours and most of the country was once part of Romania.
Separated by the Nazi-Soviet carve-up of eastern Europe, residents on either side of the Prut River had little contact until the border opened as communism crumbled in the late 1980s.
But years of separate development undermined any notion of reunification. That was further complicated by a 1992 war which left newly independent Moldova split, with separatists creating their own state in the Russian-speaking Transdniestria region.
EU officials say proximity can benefit a country which says it wants to leave the shadow of regional power Russia and join what is now a 27-nation group reluctant to expand further.
"Even in Romania living conditions were quite difficult a few years ago and they have improved ... Of course, Romania had prospects for accession and ... the EU has not promised anything to Moldova," said Paolo Berizzi, a top EU diplomat in Moldova.
"What they always tell Moldovans is that irrespective of promises it is good to go towards the EU, to approximate legislation, to adopt EU standards."
Moldova's pro-Western policy has tipped the balance in favour of links with Bucharest. Romanian, linked with the rest of Europe, is now heard as often as Russian in Chisinau streets.
That policy-and accusations that Moscow backs separatists in Transdniestria-has also caused friction with the Kremlin which for a time banned exports of wine, the country's main export, and imposed big increases in the price of gas imports.
Romanian EU entry has had negative effects-on Moldovans now needing a visa to cross the border. A flood of applications and confusion over procedures led to crowds of travellers massing outside a Romanian consulate issuing only 200 visas per day-with a million border crossings recorded in 2006 alone.
Many were trying to get to Bucharest for the sole purpose of securing visas to countries with no embassy in Chisinau.
"We have an interview with the Italian embassy in Bucharest to get our visa, but we can't get a Romanian visa to get to Bucharest," said Victor Danaila. "So, we sit around here wasting our time. No one is explaining anything to us."
Romanian President Traian Basescu, long at odds with his own government, denounced the fuss as "a major handicap for the rural population in Moldova". He agreed during a lightning visit to Chisinau to open two consulates outside the capital.
Moldova's Deputy Foreign Minister Valeriu Ostalep said that despite the problems there were grounds for optimism, citing discussions with the EU on a preferential trade regime.
"We just became neighbours. You can't say in a couple of months that things will move or change immediately," he said. It's no secret Moldova has aspirations to join the EU. We're not saying when exactly but are working hard to achieve that goal."
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