Brezhnev-era apartment blocks featuring giant Coca-Cola and McDonald’s posters are the first thing that catches one’s eye on entering Chisinau. In some ways, time has stopped in the city, parts of which feel like the set of a Soviet film. This inertia appears to have also permeated the political sphere.
This is my second trip to Moldova in the last two months and the outlook – much like the weather – is gloomy. The Moldovans held their parliamentary elections on 30th November 2014. At that time most of the locals were hopeful that a new government would usher in much-needed reforms. Now, six weeks later, it is clear that not much progress has been made. However, one thing has definitely changed: the exchange rate of the leu has dropped significantly. Although it suits me just fine, as I get more lei for my pounds, the locals are visibly less enthusiastic. Speaking to a young local civil servant I ask him whether he has any holiday plans. He smiles and says that if before Christmas his monthly salary was the equivalent of €190, today he earns €160.
If local politicians are to be believed, the dire state of the Moldovan economy is entirely due to external factors. They keep repeating that migrant workers stopped sending remittances from Russia and that the Eurozone is in recession. “They forgot to mention that someone recently siphoned off one billion dollars from the local banks, causing a panic on the market”, a young Moldovan journalist tells me with a stoic cynicism that is characteristic of many locals I meet. We are chatting over dinner at Propaganda, a quirky restaurant in central Chisinau, which is lively and a welcome refuge from the cold. Browsing through the wine list, I’m intrigued by the Freedom Blend, made from the three finest grapes grown in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. All three countries are banned from exporting their wine to Russia and so local producers have joined forces to target customers in the EU. We decide to give it a go and I’m glad we do – the wine is pleasant, with hints of cherries and redcurrants, characteristic of the regional grape varieties.
As the wine flows, our spirits rise, but optimism about the political quagmire does not. There is still little consensus in the government on how to move forward: some politicians call for restoring positive relations with Russia in a bid to boost exports; others argue for further association with the European Union and less dependence on the Kremlin. There also does not appear to be any third alternative: the only options on the table are cooperation with the European Union or the Moscow-led Customs Union.
Three months after the elections, the Moldovan government still does not have a clear trajectory and the prospect of reforms seems even more remote. The wine is gone and it’s time to go out into the cold.