Articles - September October 2019


Moldova's Alphabetical Story
Roland Flamini

Diplomatic Connections talks to departing Moldovan Ambassador Cristina Balan

When Moldova was absorbed into the Soviet Union in the lead-up to World War II its alphabet was forcefully switched from Latin to Cyrillic, and Moldovan school kids got a free course in Russian literature and culture in place of the Romanian culture they had shared for centuries with their larger neighbor as descendants from the same Dacian/Roman origins. Then, in 1992, following the Soviet collapse, Moldova was formally recognized as an independent country by the international community and its Latin alphabet restored.

However, in many ways Moldova, like the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, is still nursing the political and security hangover caused by the demise of the Soviet empire. In Moldova’s case, for example, there’s separatist Transnistria, a thin slice of the country running along its border with Ukraine which the Russians contrived to retain and which proclaimed itself an independent country. It is, however, unrecognized as such by the U.N. and the rest of the world, and not even fully accepted as a sovereign state by Russia, its protector. 

Ambassador Balan told Diplomatic Connections in a recent interview just prior to the conclusion of her Washington assignment, that unsettling political shifts still beset her country even after nearly three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. Moldova was the first post-Soviet state where, after gaining its independence in 1992, a communist party returned to power in 2001 – and held it for two four-year terms. But in 2010, mass protests led to new elections in which the conservative and Western oriented Democratic Party emerged victorious.

In February of this year, new parliamentary elections triggered a major political crisis. No party won a working majority, which led to months of dangerous uncertainty while the parties squabbled over forming a viable government partnership. The final outcome: an unlikely coalition of the Socialist Party, that favors closer ties with Moscow, and the ACUM bloc, fervently pro-European Union. ACUM’s leader, Mala Sandu, a Harvard-educated former adviser to the World Bank, was named prime minister. The Democratic Party was shut out altogether. 

Russia, the U.S., and the European Union have expressed satisfaction with this political pairing of opposites, but observers tend to be skeptical about how long the arrangement can last.

Moldova’s economy is showing promise, with a four percent growth rate. The European Union is its leading trading partner and wines from Moldova’s undulating hills have penetrated European and U.S. markets. But some nasty Russian habits have crept into the system to undermine the country’s good reputation. In 2018, the European Parliament declared Moldova a “state captured by oligarch interests.” This happened in part because between 2012 and 2014, three banks were involved in embezzling $1 billion, around 12 percent of Moldova’s GDP, out of the national budget.

Washington was Ambassador Balan’s first diplomatic assignment. Before coming to D.C., she had been a business executive for multi-national corporations. A decade ago, she was the on-site manager of a USAID-funded agri-business program; and most recently, she held office as the vice-president of the Democratic Party, which spring-boarded her to Washington as ambassador. Recalled following the Democratic Party’s loss of the government, she paused in winding up her tenure to reflect on her diplomatic experience, her small country’s complicated relationship with Russia, and Moscow’s anxieties over the EU’s advance into the old Soviet bloc.

Diplomatic Connections:  This is a two-part question. The first part is what is it like for you being a diplomat, and the second part is, what is it like to be a diplomat serving in Washington? 

Ambassador Balan:  To be a modern diplomat, especially in the United States, you need good orientation skills, to understand who’s who from the start.  It’s very difficult to put a small country like mine on the radar - I have more than once been told, of course in a joking manner, that unless you have, like a nuclear bomb, or an open conflict in your country, nobody wants to hear about it. Fortunately, we’ve got neither, but this means that I have had to be very creative and persuasive in my actions - especially when I go to the Hill. They are very busy, so you can’t speak for hours as diplomats used to in the past. Now, all you get is 15 minutes, and a successful meeting is when someone says in the end: “OK, what can I do for you?"

Diplomatic Connections:  Have you enjoyed it?

Ambassador Balan:  More than anything I’ve ever done.  In my party I used to be known as a crisis manager; therefore, I am well equipped for complexity.

Diplomatic Connections:  I’m sure you’re asked all the time whether being a woman in what is essentially still a male environment works to your advantage or not?

Ambassador Balan:  I’ve been confronting this problem since I was in my early twenties. I dealt with rooms full of men and I’ve never felt intimidated. If you are a professional, and you really want to deliver, and you have something to contribute, I believe you can overcome any difficulties. Here in Washington, I see much more tolerance towards women compared to the Eastern Europe, where the situation is much worse.

Diplomatic Connections:  There are currently 27 female ambassadors here, and apparently they form an unofficial support group. 

Ambassador Balan:  Yes, we support and engage each other as well as exchange information; I can tell you the women ambassadors in Washington are very focused. Shortly after I arrived, my first experience with them was an invitation to lunch. We started chatting, they were asking if I had settled in, had I found a hairdresser, the normal stuff. I was confused – ‘oh, my gosh, is this what we’re going to talk about?’ All of a sudden they all laughed, and the discussion switched to Iran, Syria, and all the issues. I’ve seen tough women ambassadors here, and I’ve seen weak male ambassadors.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your country seems to me to be both a dangerous neighborhood, and a complicated one as a result of its history. For example, what’s the correct name of your country, Maldavia or Moldova? 

Ambassador Balan:  When we became a part of the Soviet Union, the name of the country was changed, and became Maldavia, in Russian. Our alphabet was changed from Latin to Cyrillic. So imagine, our language is identical to the Romanian language, and that was changed as well. The Russians invented some new words, which don’t exist in Romanian, and we had this funny Russian accent.

Diplomatic Connections:  But that belongs to an earlier generation. What about the younger generation – the post-Soviet generation – has that generation returned to the original Romanian linguistic roots? 

Ambassador Balan:  Yes. My children, for example, speak beautiful Romanian. They chose not to speak Russian. I did not force them.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you speak Russian? 

Ambassador Balan:  Yes. It was actually my first language, because there were no Romanian-language junior schools in my area, I had to go to a Russian one. There was no access to Romanian literature; everything that I was reading was Russian.

Diplomatic Connections:  So, what happened in Moldova following the collapse of the Soviet Empire? 

Ambassador Balan:  There was a huge wave of nationalism. People were on the street promoting their cultural values. It was a very beautiful awakening for our people. Unfortunately, it has slowed down – I say unfortunately because I think we need that still.

Diplomatic Connections:  The transition from communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe was quite subdued. The only Communist leader to have a violent end was Nicolae Ceaucescu. Otherwise, Todor Zhivkov (Bulgaria) died in his bed. Gen. Jaruzelski (Poland) passed relatively recently after years of house arrest, writing detective novels -- 

Ambassador Balan:  There was no internal revolution in Moldova. What happened to the (pro-Soviet) leadership? Some of them converted and became politicians dedicated to Moldova and its re-birth, even though many people of my generation think they didn’t change their methods, and that they were still working according to the old system. With time, we had new generations of politicians, but there was no post-Soviet revolution, nobody was killed, there was no blood. Moldovans are very tolerant as a nation. On the other hand, Transnistria’s separatism triggered a bloody armed conflict in 1992. And another violent manifestation happened in April 2009, when the young people went to the central square and demonstrated against the communist party. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had a nationalist movement, and then the communists took over. They had two terms for eight years, and then there was this small-scale revolution and the situation changed. In the recent parliamentary elections, the communists didn’t even reach the threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation.

Diplomatic Connections:  But your socialists, including the president, are in favor of an alignment with Moscow? 

Ambassador Balan:  Yes. The current president, and the current chairperson of the socialist party both come from the communist party.

Diplomatic Connections:  And in the February elections, the socialists won more seats than the government. Doesn’t this suggest that the population is divided? 

Ambassador Balan:  Most definitely. There are several reasons why some people still look towards the East. Firstly, we have multiple ethnic minorities, including a Russian-speaking minority. Secondly, we used to have 26 television channels broadcasting directly from Russia. Concurrently, social problems still persist, despite the country’s significant economic development, and retired people who have to make a living on their small pensions are nostalgic for the old days under the Soviets. Under the Soviets everybody was equal – equally poor. Now there are differences, we’re still in the process of building our economy, and still building a middle class.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your country has been described in a recent article as – and I quote – “the last stage for rivalry between Russia and the West.” Do you agree with that?  

Ambassador Balan:  It’s hardly the last, unfortunately. Thankfully, we now have an Association Agreement with the European Union and are building a strong partnership with the U.S. Both partners play a key role in the strengthening of our institutions and building our resilience, thus supporting the independence of the Republic of Moldova. In 2014, Russia imposed sanctions on Moldovan products following that agreement. Many companies suffered. But it was a blessing in disguise because now about 76 percent of our exports go to the European Union, which is great for us. We are still reliant on Russia for natural gas, but the situation is no longer that critical.

Diplomatic Connections:  If Moldova should hold a referendum on whether or not to join the European Union, what do you think would be the result? 

Ambassador Balan:  We are polling all the time to measure the public preference. Right now, the polls show that 60 percent of the population thinks Moldova’s future is in Europe.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the Moldovans’ greatest fear? 

Ambassador Balan:  According to what I see in regular polling, and avoiding the word “fear,” which I really don’t like, people are very much concerned with economic problems – with their wages, their salaries, and the future. They are tired of politics. The polls show they want their standard of living to increase.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is your economic growth rate? 

Ambassador Balan:  Good. It’s about four percent every year. In 2015, it was minus 0.5 percent, but now it’s a stable, annual four percent, which is pretty significant for the region. One of the ways to achieve economic success was by cutting costs initially.

Diplomatic Connections:  In other words, you introduced an austerity program, and it’s working.  

Ambassador Balan:  Not austerity. The government just changed the management in the customs service and in the tax service, and the state revenues went up 30 percent. It was a case of improved collection of taxes. Imagine 30 percent of our state revenues were going into someone’s pockets. The government introduced measures to cut corruption at the highest level. Then the administrative costs were cut, after the government decided to reduce the size of its own apparatus - from 16 government ministries in a country of 4 million, to nine. With this money saved, the government could afford to increase the salaries of public sector employees, and therefore increase the quality of the public services.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you have a big migration? 

Ambassador Balan:  Yes, we do, as does most of Eastern Europe.

Diplomatic Connections:  To where, Germany? Not Russia? 

Ambassador Balan:  Out of 4 million people, roughly 800,000 work abroad, and they send remittances home. Half of these people are in Russia, half are in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where they can learn the language fast. They go to Russia because they speak the language, and work in construction sites because construction is booming, especially in Moscow.

Diplomatic Connections:  So despite improvements in the economy, Moldovans haven’t yet started to return home? 

Ambassador Balan:  The returnee factor hasn’t started to kick in yet. We have a very good IT school – a technical university in Moldova. We are known for good mathematicians, scientists, and now good IT engineers. So now we have Moldovans who graduate and leave for jobs in Western Europe and the United States. San Francisco and Silicon Valley have a huge Moldovan population. In attempts to keep these people at home, we created a fiscal package for IT graduates: they pay a flat seven percent tax. We have no natural resources, only human resources, and we cannot afford to do nothing about the brain drain phenomenon.

Diplomatic Connections:  So would joining the European Union be a solution to your problems? 

Ambassador Balan:  In the long run this is the only solution. We’re a small country; it’s the only way that we can survive.

Diplomatic Connections:  What about NATO? 

Ambassador Balan:  Only 16 percent of the population is in favor of joining NATO.

Diplomatic Connections:  In terms of bi-lateral relations with the United States, what doesn’t the U.S. do that you would like it to do? 

Ambassador Balan:  There is a lot of help and mutual support in many areas. There is some work to be done in increasing the economic cooperation – more investment in both directions. A strategic dialogue is continuously maintained with the United States, and we made an inventory of all the opportunities and all the problems that we have to solve, and a great deal of work is being done in this area. I organized the business community. There are many U.S. companies that are present in the region, and are present in Moldova, and they came and said, “How can we support you because doing business in Moldova is good.”  So, we organized the American-Moldovan Business Council to raise Moldova’s profile in Washington. I come from a business background, and I understand that business is the engine.

Diplomatic Connections:  What about tourism? 

Ambassador Balan:  Moldova is beautiful, we have fresh air, we have beautiful people, and everyone who comes to Moldova falls in love with it. But if you want to attract tourists, for example, from the United States, you have to provide good infrastructure, so that’s what we are working on.

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