When Liliana reached Moscow after travelling overnight by train from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, she was overwhelmed by the chill of fear. It was five o’clock in the morning, on a summer’s day, and she found herself alone on the platform. “I was 44 years old and it was the first time I had gone to work abroad,” recalls the Moldovan teacher.
“I was afraid of leaving, I was already missing my country and I knew I was going to be faced with enormous difficulties.”
Stories like that of Liliana are, unfortunately, run-of-the-mill in Moldova. Since this former Soviet republic became independent in 1991, stories of exile have shaped Moldovan society. For some researchers, migration is a phenomenon of exceptional proportions in this country with a population of 2.9 million people, nestled between Romania and Ukraine.
The figures are far from exact, but the estimates are staggering. Like Liliana, around 350,000 people (according to the Moldovan border guard service) travel back and forth between Moldova and other countries for work. Added to this figure are the 585,000 Moldovans, 16 per cent of the population, that have been residing abroad for over a year, half of them in Russia and the other half in European Union member states.
On arriving in Russia, Liliana was quick to find work as a nanny in a private nursery school. She received board and lodging and a wage of €1000 a month, a substantial improvement on the €160 she used to earn as a teacher in her village school.
It is the inadequate wages and the poverty that is driving Moldovans to leave their country. In 2014, Moldova’s per capita GDP was just US$2239, which places it at the same level as Laos or Honduras.
Deindustrialisation and the difficult transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy led to a collapse in living standards after the fall of the Soviet Union. The country began to rally again as of the year 2000, thanks to the remittances received from abroad, but not enough for people to contemplate staying.
Like many Moldovans, Liliana has been forced to make sacrifices, such as having to work undeclared. And despite the money she has managed to make, her experience has deeply marked her. “Having to take work as a nanny when you have 25 years’ experience as a teacher isn’t easy. I had to adapt,” she explains.
“I felt humiliated, belittled by no longer being able to be the creative teacher I used to be. On top of that, working undeclared is no fun. I would rather have stayed here, because I love my country. But it wasn’t able to satisfy my material needs.”
The situation also drove her to take risks. After a year, on returning to her country, she was banned from re-entering Russia. Determined to work, she managed to make her way back into Russia by crossing the border through Belarus, where there was less surveillance at the time.
During her second year in Russia, she worked as a nanny in a gated community set up by wealthy Muscovites. She did not step foot out of it during the entire school year for fear of being sent back to Moldova.
The main avenue of Chisinau is dotted with money exchange kiosks, scattered between casinos and gold buyers. They buy dollars, roubles and euros at rates that have never been so high. The Moldovan economy is totally dependent on remittances from abroad. Every month, the diaspora transfers up to €100 million to bank accounts in Moldova. In 2014, these remittances amounted to 26 per cent of the country’s GDP.
This is, in general terms, one of the positive aspects of migration, contributing to the country’s socioeconomic development, increased purchasing power and poverty reduction. This migration, however, also has its downsides and can make life difficult for the Moldovans left behind.
Lilia Nenescu has been left with no choice but to take on the role of a mother. At age 22, the eldest of five siblings, she has been placed in charge of looking after her younger brothers. Her father travels back and forth between Italy and Moldova and her mother left for Israel seven years ago.
“I’ve got used to it but it’s by no means easy, as other young people of my age don’t have three kids to look after,” explains the young woman with an air of maturity. “It’s an unfair situation, because it influences the choices I have to make all the time. But I can’t blame my parents for it, because I know it can’t be avoided.”
“The social cost of migration is enormous,” confirms Olga Gagauz, director of the Demographic Research Centre in Chisinau.
“Many children find themselves growing up without parents or being brought up by their grandparents, which is a source of stress. We have also seen an increase in the divorce rate, especially when one of the two parents has left. All of this brings about changes in family models, and it is difficult to tell what the long-term effects will be.”
The demographic impact is equally worrying. Moldova is losing 30,000 inhabitants a year on average, and this could be the case for 40 per cent of the population by 2050. “The country is being emptied of its active population,” warns Olga Gagauz.
“The ratio of working-age people to retired people is being inverted as the active population is in constant decline. The number of families is falling and this is pushing down the birth rate too.”
This migratory flow is not likely to abate, given the new wave of emigration seen in recent years. Whilst in the 1990s it was largely limited to agricultural workers and unskilled labour, the profile is now very different. The Moldovan “brain drain” is a cause for concern amongst many researchers.
Viorel Girbu works as an economics consultant for Moldovan NGOs. He is 41 years old, has a good wage and a good position, but it is not enough for him. He is planning to go back to Germany, where he did his studies, with his wife and children. “I was really hoping to be able to stay here, but I recently had a change of mind,” he explains.
“My country is faced with very serious domestic problems and I cannot see how they can be resolved. No matter how rich they are, people need an institutional framework that supports them and that can offer them a degree of social protection.”
Moldova is in the midst of an unprecedented political and economic crisis. The exposure, in May 2015, of the massive bank fraud scandal, dubbed “the robbery of the century”, gave rise to three major anti-corruption demonstrations.
This mass movement led to the election of pro-Russian Igor Dodon, on Sunday 13 November. As well as trying to put a brake on migration, the new president will also have to tackle the problem of corruption and the takeover of state institutions by oligarchic clans.
This article has been translated from French.