Moldova's Latin roots go back to the Roman occupation of Dacia which led to the formation of the Romanian people. Moldova was a zone of passage for the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Slavs, the Bulgars, the Avars, the Magyars, the Pechnegs and the Mongols who all dominated it in their times..
A first independent principality, established by prince Bogdan in the mid 14th century, stretched from the Carpathians in the west to the Nistru river in the east and from the Black Sea to Bukovina in the north. Bogdania later became Moldavia after the Moldova River in Romania.
Moldavia offered strong resistance to the Ottoman expansion, particularly under its heroic Stefan cel Mare, but it fell under Turkish suzerainty in the 16th century. Part of northern Moldavia was added to the Austrian Empire in the 18th century.
In 1792 the Ottoman Empire ceded all of its holdings east of the Nistru River to the Russian Empire. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12, the territory between the Nistru and Prut rivers (called Bessarabia after the Walachian king Basarab I) was annexed by the Russian Empire. After Bessarabia was returned to Moldavia in 1856, Moldavia and Walachia were united to form the Kingdom of Romania in 1861.
In 1878 Russia annexed Bessarabia again and it remained part of the Russian Empire until 1917. In March 1918 the Bessarabian legislature voted in favour of unification with Romania, and the union was recognised by Western Powers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1920. In 1924 a Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was established on the eastern side of the Dniestr which then formed the border of Romania.
In 1939 Bessarabia was granted to the USSR in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Eastern Europe. Soviet forces occupied the region in 1940 and a Moldavian SSR was proclaimed. The former Moldavian ASSR was abolished, the Trans-Dniestr region (Transnistria) was transferred to the new republic and the remainder returned to Ukraine. Romania joined the Axis in WW II and occupied the Moldavian SSR from 1941 until 1944 when Soviet forces retook the territory. Moldavia was integrated into the USSR and was subjected to intense Russification until the collapse of Communism in 1991, when an independent Moldovan republic was established.
Moldova joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the same year and became a member of the United Nations (UN) in 1992. When a law was passed in 1989 making Romanian the official language, separatist movements appeared in Transnistria where Russians and Ukrainians form the majority and in the south where the Turkish speaking Christian Gagauz reside. In 1991 the name of the country was changed to "The Republic of Moldova", the "Supreme Soviet" became "The Moldovan Parliament" and Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union. The Slavs of Transnistria proclaimed an independent "Dnestr Moldavian Republic" with its capital at Tiraspol.
Fighting broke out between Moldovan volunteer forces and Transnistrian rebels backed by the Russian 14th Army. Naturally the rebels prevailed and a cease fire was negotiated with important concessions made to Russian influence in Transnistria.
In 1994 a new constitution provided substantial autonomy to Transnistria and Gagauzia and Russia agreed to remove its troops but tensions remained high and the Russian troops had not left when I tried to get a visa in Odessa in 1997. Tourism was not encouraged at that time. I did not get a visa at that time so I just had to try again. I had no difficulty getting one in Bucharest this year so I took the overnight train for Chisinau.
I admit I did feel a bit apprehensive since my preparatory research indicated a high level of criminal activity in Chisinau.
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Once more I had a stroke of good luck, that of sharing a train compartment with Victor Trifon, a Romanian speaking Moldovan who was returning home from a business trip to Bucharest.
I learned a lot from him. When I told him at what hotel I had planned to stay, he told me to avoid that place for it was frequented by unsavoury Mafia types. That confirmed that my apprehension about my personal safety was well founded.
We chatted about the difficult times Moldova was traversing, about my travels and about his military service in Chechnia with the Russian army. By the time I got to sleep, I was fully convinced of how lucky I was to have been born in a peaceful place like Canada! The next morning, as we were approaching Chisinau, Victor invited me to stay with him, his wife and daughter and I gladly accepted.
There are very few old buildings in Chisinau because most of it had been destroyed
during WW II. This is Bulevardul Moskva in a new suburb where Victor lives.
This typical Soviet architecture is found all over Russia and its ex-empire. These large buildings hold a surprising number of small, one or two bedroom apartments. This one has more than five floors so it must have elevators.
Here is Victor in front of his apartment block. It had only five floors so, no elevators.
Victor, his wife Angelica and daughter Caty. They were very proud of owning their apartment for which they had worked so hard. It had a living room where I slept, one bedroom, a very small kitchen with a minuscule balcony, a minimally sized bathroom and a separate toilet. As usual it was heated by steam from a central regional boiler plant and all the piping was welded instead of screwed like in the rest of the world.
The heart of Chisinau had to be rebuilt after WW II. This big building on Bulevardul Stefan cel Mare is the Presidential Palace.
The modern Opera and Ballet House is just short ways down the street.
These sculptures in front of the Opera and Ballet House, were inspired by Dacian motifs found in ancient archaeological sites. Moldovans are just as proud of their Latin roots as are the Romanians.
Across the street from the Opera and Ballet House is a large park named after the national hero Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), who brilliantly repulsed invasions by Turkish, Polish and Tatar forces in the 15th century.
A little further on the same side is the Moldovan Government House.
Directly across is Cathedral Park with its Orthodox "Catedrala Nasterea Domnului" (Birth of Christ Cathedral) and an "Arcul de Triumf" built in 1841 to commemorate the Russian victory over the Turks.
Below, views of the cathedral and arch.
Still further down the street we come to the "Sala cu Orga" (Organ Hall) which is a concert hall.
Moving now to Bulevardul Renasterii, we come to the inevitable Russian style circus that no ex-soviet city could be without.
Chisinau, like most soviet cities had an excellent public sports infrastructure. Now that everything is being privatised, Victor and his associates rent space in this university sports complex for one of their two fitness gyms.
Life has been difficult in the 15 ex-soviet countries since the fall of the USSR.
The transition from communism to capitalism was brutal. There was no safety net for those who lost their jobs and those whose fixed pensions were suddenly worth nothing as inflation soared. The ideology had changed but the exercise of power har remained largely in the hands of the same corrupt polititians and bureaucrats whose primary concern was the protection of their privileges.
The sudden abolition of market controls exposed the inefficient government owned industries to competition they could not sustain causing widespread closures and loss of jobs. The fire-sale privatisation of what survived provided golden opportunities for large scale corruption. The distinction between legitimate and illegal activities became blurred. Mafias flourished as bribery and coercion became part of doing business. Out of this caos, arose overnight in all ex-soviet countries a new class of super rich elites lauded in the western media as "successful businessmen". Still today, widespread corruption and the very real power of the mafia are the major obstacles to foreign investment and economic development in the ex-soviet empire.
In Moldova, the ongoing conflicts with Transnistria and Gagauzia have had a higher priority for the Moldovan government than reducing corruption, controling the mafias and enforcing public law and order. In 2002, Moldova rated a score of only 2.1 out of 10 on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International. That places it in the 93 position out of the 102 that were surveyed. It is difficult to imagine the climate of insecurity to which people have to adapt to in such circumstances.
The police are both inefficient and corrupt so those who can afford it hire bodyguards
and pay private security firms to protect them and their belongings. Victor explained
that the only other way to avoid paying protection to one of the mafia groups was to
form a defense group of your own strong enough to command respect. Victor called on
buddies with whom he had formed strong bonds of trust in the army to manage fitness
gyms and sell body building supplements in Chisinau. I did not ask too many questions
but it was obvious that many of his customers were mafia bodyguards and enforcers.