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Why has it taken Moldova so long to shake off its Soviet legacy?

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By Madalin Necsutu
A crowd of about 200,000 people demonstrates in Chișinău on Tuesday, August 27, 1991 after Moldavia proclaimed its independence from Moscow
A crowd of about 200,000 people demonstrates in Chișinău on Tuesday, August 27, 1991 after Moldavia proclaimed its independence from Moscow   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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Fresh out of university and starting a career in teaching, Alina had good reason to be optimistic back in August 1991.

But it wasn’t just the 25-year-old’s new job fuelling the hope.

Her country, Moldova, had just done the unthinkable and voted to leave the Soviet Union.

“My generation had many dreams back then,” the now 55-year-old told Euronews. “We thought that we will soon be united with Romania and live as Europeans.”

Yet despite that surge of optimism, for most of Alina’s career in the classroom, Russia hasn’t really gone away.

In 1992, fighting intensified in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria, which wanted to remain under Russian control.

After a few months of heavy fighting between the Moldovan army and pro-Russian rebels backed by the ex-14th Soviet Army, a peace treaty was signed between Moldova and Russian Federation in July 1992.

Since then, the region has become one of Europe's frozen conflicts. Russia de facto controls the political secessionist regime in Tiraspol, although Moscow acts like a mediator in the international 5+2 format for negotiations.

Meanwhile, in wider Moldova, Russian influence came in the form of pro-Russian parties dominating the political scene.

It's only in recent months, with a pro-European president (Maia Sandu) and prime minister (Natalia Gavrilița) in place for the first time, that Moldova set firmly on a path away from Moscow. Standing on an anti-corruption ticket, their Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) won 63 out of 101 seats in the Moldovan parliament following elections in July.

'The empire was still inside us'

Sandu, in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe, blamed Moldova's stalled transition away from Russian influence on politicians from the 1990s. She said they opposed Moldova's transition to a free-market economy and tried to take advantage of the weak state to accumulate capital when there was no one to enforce the laws.

"While we were in this transition, 'smart guys' took over state's assets, after which they understood that they have to protect their interests and came into politics," she said. "We have had decades of such governments which trigger corruption, poor governance and poor living standards for citizens," she concluded.

One of those best placed to judge Moldova's slow move tack towards Europe is Vasile Soimaru, the only MP from the 1991 parliament still in his role.

"We did not escape, because the 'Empire' was still inside us," he explained. "It should have been an uplifting moment [declaring independence].

He said Moldova's long transition period had made the country poorer. The cause, he added, was in the kleptocratic system forged over the past three decades and Russia's involvement in the political game in Chisinau.

Moldova has been hit by waves of emigration over the last 30 years. Its population in 1990 was 2.97 million, falling to 2.66 million today, according to World Bank statistics.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Moldovans most keen to leave permanently are generally men under the age of 30.

About one million Moldovans currently live, study and work abroad. They are split more or less equally between the Russian Federation and the West. Those still in the country are primarily children and older people.

'I see a brighter future'

Cornelia Cozonac was one of those who decided to stay in the early 1990s, keen to consolidate a new beginning for Moldova.

Cornelia, the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Moldova, told Euronews: "I have often said that, since 1992, I have been able to do real, independent and honest journalism. However, maybe we should have been more [Moldovans] to change things in the country faster. But I do not regret for a second that I stayed in Moldova."

Her optimism is shared by teacher Alina, who, despite being frustrated at the slow pace of change, is still hopeful.

"I teach children every day to believe in their strength. No matter what, I tell them always to walk forward.

"However, I see a brighter future for them and much more opportunities than we had back then.

"Even it may sound hilarious, I never lost hope. I still want to see Moldova joining the European Union someday."

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