Moldovans are taking to the streets to protest against corruption and a controversial new government, but a potential driver of much needed change is noticeable largely by its absence – the youth of Europe's poorest country.
Migration experts believe that about one-quarter of all Moldovans now live abroad, predominantly in Russia and the European Union, and that most schoolchildren and almost all university students expect to leave the country to find work.
Moldova’s small and fragile economy has long been blighted by graft, but the theft in 2014 of $1 billion (€920 million) from its banking system – about one-eighth of gross domestic product – sent it into a tailspin.
The scandal also galvanised Moldovans to launch the biggest protests in the country’s history last year, uniting supporters of pro-EU and pro-Russian political movements in rallies that are expected to continue in the coming days.
There were relatively few young Moldovans among thousands of demonstrators who marched through the capital Chisinau this week, however, highlighting that generation's lack of hope for their own country.
"This is the worst thing that a government can do – to make young people see no future for themselves, and make them want to leave," said Dinu Plingau (21), a law student and activist who on Facebook was one of the first to issue calls for street protests a year ago.
Moldovans were reluctant to protest, Plingau said, because a young man had been killed during post-election clashes in Chisinau in 2009, and neighbouring Ukraine was plunged into turmoil by a 2014 revolution and Russia's furious response to it.
Only about 200 people answered Plingau's call one year ago for protests over the "missing billion", but they became part of a rising wave of public outrage against rampant corruption that is strangling Moldova.
In September, more than 50,000 people rallied in Chisinau, and at least 15,000 marched through the city in freezing weather last Sunday to protest against a new cabinet that had been hastily approved and secretly sworn in four days earlier.
Dignity and Truth
Plingau is now a member of the pro-EU Dignity and Truth movement, which has joined forces with pro-Russian groups to denounce a government that they claim is covertly controlled by Moldova’s richest “oligarch”,
The protest leaders demanded that the government resign and call snap elections by Thursday afternoon, or face bigger demonstrations that could seek to block major roads, railway lines and even Chisinau’s airport.
“This protest is not about certain politicians in our movement. It’s about democratic values,” said Plingau. “We expect the government to answer our demands on Thursday. Then we will hold a meeting on Friday to decide what to do next. If the government does not accept our demands, after a year of protests, maybe it will be time to move to civil disobedience.”
Plingau is convinced the protesters will ultimately oust the government by peaceful means, but he does not expect his peers to play a leading role.
“It’s painful,” he says of young Moldovans’ disillusionment with their country. “This is mostly a protest not of the young, but of the poor. Those who are coming out to demonstrate are mostly older people, who know full well how hard it is to live on tiny salaries and pensions, and with prices going up all the time.”
Antonio Polosa, head of mission for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Moldova, says it may be "the most migration-affected country in the world", with some 2.9 million residents and about 850,000 citizens living abroad.
“Moldova has been a country of emigration for decades. It has very limited resources, mostly agriculture, and its main natural resource is human beings – a labour force that is going abroad to find better opportunities,” Polosa said.
“The birth rate here is one of the lowest in the region, and lots of working-age people leave the country, so the tax base is dwindling. In many villages, only the elderly remain. You are basically seeing a country that is undergoing de-population.”
Battered by theft
Deepening economic problems in Russia – home to an estimated 500,000 Moldovans – reduce remittances and compound the woes of a Moldovan economy that has been battered by the still-unexplained theft of $1 billion, and a state bailout of three stricken banks.
“People here have lost half their salary in the last two years. We’re now back to the bad old times of the average monthly salary being about €160,” said Ghenadie Cretu, migration and development programme co-ordinator for the IOM in Moldova.
“This scale of emigration brings the depletion of intellectual capital in the country and decreased pressure for change. People go abroad instead of pressing for their rights or demanding better services. When so many citizens are not participating in political life, you get a government that is not really accountable.”
The EU and the United States have backed Moldova's new government – knowing that elections now would probably bring pro-Russian parties to power – but Plingau believes the protesters will triumph, despite lacking the energy of youth.
“Sooner or later, all dictatorships fall,” he said. “What’s happening here is shameful – all Moldovans with a drop of pride must put a stop to it.”