KISHENEV, MOLDOVA -- Just before reaching the mud-drenched village of Getlova, my Moldovan interpreter asked me in which language I planned to interview Iurie Rosca (pronounced "Yuri Roshka"), the pro-Western opposition candidate in Moldova's upcoming March 6 elections.
I'll interview Rosca in Russian, of course," I answered. I'd hired the translator not for my interview with Rosca, but to help me in the villages, where I knew Rosca speak only Rumanian.
The young interpreter had a worried look on his face. "I don't know if Mr. Rosca will agree to speak Russian to you," he said. Rosca was his hero -- he was nervous about meeting him, and certainly didn't want to offend him.
"But Rosca knows how to speak Russian," I objected.
The interpreter sighed, shook his head sadly and dutifully informed me: "It is possible he will refuse to speak in Russian."
I snapped and started swearing. "That's just fucking ridiculous! You can't be serious!" But it was certainly possible: Rosca, whose Christian Democratic People's Party has adopted the "orange" colors of the Ukrainian revolution, got his start as a fiery nationalist in the Moldovan People's Front, which helped ignite the civil war with the breakaway Slavic-dominated Transdniestr region in Moldova's east in 1992.
I'd only been in Moldova for two days and I was already reaching the end of my rope. Getting a visa was a hellish waste of time, and I'd been crudely followed by two feckless cops since landing in the capital, Kishenev. My distinctly Soviet hotel was a circus of phone-in whores, dweebish Peace Corps missionaries and aging American perverts cashing their Social Security checks on desperate Moldovan ladies before Bush kills the program off for good, leaving them stuck forever in the sexual desert of America.
After a bad night's sleep and an early wake-up call, it took us nearly two hours to drive just 40 kilometers from Kishenev to Getlova. The roads were flooded with mud, pocked with holes and designed to take the most roundabout possible route between two points. Geometry apparently is not one of Moldova's strengths. The fog was thick over the hilly countryside, a brown, terminal landscape of lifeless grapevines and mud.
I was ready for confrontation with Rosca, feeling some kind of Russophile pride welling up.
But to no avail. When Rosca, 42, short and full of energy, finally arrived at Getlova's mayoral building for his speech -- late, like us, by over 30 minutes -- he cheerfully answered my first queries in Russian, and agreed to be interviewed on the road to Vaeshcauzi, the next stop in his brutal campaign tour.
"We can speak in my car. You can spend as much time as you want!" he cheerfully told me, while shaking the hands of the peasants gathered outside in the cold rain. Rosca was wearing a bright orange scarf around his neck -- overstock from Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" merchandise.
I was almost disappointed at Rosca's warm, cheerful Russian -- I was gearing up for a language battle. "It's okay to interview you in Russian?" I tried to provoke him. "I'm sorry, I don't speak Moldovan." I still hadn't found out which was the politically correct term, "Moldovan" or "Rumanian."
Rosca laughed. "No problem at all. I still speak Russian fine." He turned to the unhealthy-looking villagers, who had gathered in a circle around him. "This is an American journalist who has come to report on me," he told them, gesturing my way. "I love America and I love Americans!"
* * *
Moldova is holding parliamentary elections on March 6th. The last elections, in early 2001, brought the unreformed Communist Party to power -- the last Communist Party still going by that name to win an election in the CIS. They won by a landslide, earning 71 seats in the 101-seat parliament.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Throughout the 1990s, Moldova was one of the CIS darlings of international lending institutions like the IMF and World Bank, rewarded for pretending to follow correct macroeconomic policies -- meaning, of course, privatization, strict budgets and lowered trade barriers. The IMF lauded Moldova for slashing credits to state enterprises and for stabilizing its currency.
Between 1992 and 1997 alone, Moldova received over a half billion dollars in aid from the IMF and World Bank, a massive sum for a tiny country with a GDP less than Ksenia Sobchak's annual wardrobe expenditure.
Town Hall Meeting in Getlova: friendly local villagers listen intently to Rosca's speech
The results were predictable: Moldova is now the poorest nation in Europe, its industry totally destroyed, its population in catastrophic decline, its bureaucracy riddled with corruption. Its only function is to make other poor European countries feel good about themselves. Moldovans are at the bottom of the East European heap. Ukrainians laugh at them in order to feel better about their own wretchedness, like crackers picking on niggers (see "Hohlushka vs. Moldova" this issue). Even Albanians are grateful that they aren't Moldovans.
Moldova is not only the poorest nation in Europe--it is the most miserable place I have ever visited. The country survives on remittance, corruption, and the sale of human flesh. 1 million of Moldova's roughly 4 million citizens live abroad to earn money. Entire villages are emptied of 16-to-35 year-olds. The women are famous for stocking the West's and Russia's brothels and highway tochkas, as well as the striptease bars and "adult entertainment centers" in Turkey and Cyprus. Moldovan men provide cheap manual labor in Portugal, Spain and Italy, competing with Albanians and North Africans.
In Moscow, Moldovans under-bid even Ukrainian gasterbeiter slaves. We've had a few Moldovans working remont around our office building on behalf of one of the large tenants. They tend to do an awful job, but you can get away with paying them just a fraction of the pittance that was promised, or not paying them at all, because Moldovans are used to not getting paid. Their government made a habit of not paying workers and pensioners throughout the 1990s.
Moldova's doom is largely due to its miserable, bloodsoaked history. Historically, the territory between the left bank of the Dniestr river and the Rumanian border was called "Bessarabia," and was alternately controlled by Rumania, the Ottomans, and the Russians, who annexed it in 1812, losing it back to Romania between WWI and WWII. The right bank of the Dniestr was taken by Suvorov in 1792 and has been essentially Russian territory up through today, in the form of the breakaway Transdniestr Republic. The area on the left bank is overwhelmingly ethnic Rumanian, while the Transdniestr region is a mix of Ukrainians, Russians, Rumanians and others.
Sadly for the Moldovans, Transdniestr is the only area with some viable industrial muscle. Moldova itself has no resources except enormous amounts of mud and desperate people -- who have resorted to some gruesome strategies to earn a buck. In many villages, a significant number of Moldovan men have taken up offers to sell one of their kidneys for roughly 2,000 dollars. The kidney traders fly their Moldovan podlings into Istanbul, put them up in a nice hotel, slice their kidneys out, then throw them out on the streets with two grand in their pockets, leaving them to fend for themselves. These one-kidneyed Moldovans return to their villages, blow the two grand on home electronics or a used Lada, then quickly wither away, aging faster than a fruit fly, complaining that they had no idea they needed two kidneys to stay healthy.
* * *
In this context it's not hard to see why the Communist Party won by a landslide in the 2001 elections, defeating several "centrist" parties composed of ex-Communist bureaucrats and siloviki-turned-oligarchs. The unreformed Communists promised to move away from the corrupt, failed IMF model to a more socialistic one, and to repair ties with Russia, perhaps joining the mighty Russia-Belarus "Union."
Since their victory, the Moldovan Communists have behaved pretty much like one would expect provincial Communists to behave: like idiots, repressive in a crude, petty way. State television is crudely controlled; opposition candidates are crudely threatened with arrest, while opposition NGOs are crudely harassed by police and tax officials. They've managed to alienate everybody: Putin's Russia is openly hostile, while the EU and the Bushites are conniving to overthrow them via an NGO coalition called "Coalition 2005."
In spite of this, the Communists aren't behaving like cornered beasts. Instead, they're playing both sides of the fence -- and trying to burn it down at the same time. On the one hand, Communist President Vladimir Voronin lauds Ukraine's Orange Revolution. On the other hand, he publicly denounces the idea of an Orange Revolution in Moldova, and has already accused the American ambassador of trying to foment one.
The Communists are doing some old-fashioned low-rent harassment as well. Dorin Chirtoaca, who runs a project monitoring election violations, told me that the authorities are claiming that American money is being illegally laundered through their accounts. The police have visited Chirtoaca's project twice, threatened to shut it down, and threatened one of their workers.
"In the area of social human rights, you can say that the Communists are at least doing better than their predecessors because they are paying their wages and pensions on time," Chirtoaca told me. "But in the area of political human rights, they are behaving like Communists. It is much worse now since they came to power, though nothing as bad as the Soviet times of course."
* * *
"I've had my immunity stripped by the Communist parliament nine times already," Rosca told me, laughing light-heartedly, as he drove his VW hatchback to Vaeshcauzi.
It was another one of those 10 kilometer, 90 minute rides. The roads looked like they'd been bombed. Mud washed over everything like cold lava, but that didn't make Rosca cautious. We barreled along at top speed, avoiding potholes and gliding over the muddiest slicks. He crossed himself at each church we passed -- and there were a surprising number of Orthodox churches.
"Horrible roads," Rosca conceded, laughing and swerving. "They've ruined everything. The Communists, the crypto-Communists before them."
Caution is not a word in Rosca's vocabulary. My driver, who was loaned to me by a gracious ex-girlfriend of mine, fearfully tried keeping up behind us in his old Opel.
"Aren't you scared at all?" I asked. "After all, in Ukraine they poisoned Yuschenko and arranged a car accident for Timoshenko."
Always smiling, Rosca said, "You know Mark, I'm not afraid at all. They've been threatening me since the perestroika days, when the KGB called me in for the first time to inform me that they were planning to charge me with treason. I was just becoming politically active for Moldovan independence. They detained me for fraternizing with foreign diplomats and foreign journalists. The KGB officer told me, 'You know Iurie, there are two sentences for treason: the harsh sentence, a bullet in the back of the head; and the more humane sentence, 25 years of hard labor. I think I can arrange the lighter sentence of 25 years for you, but it won't be easy. What I really worry about is your family, how everything will change after 25 years.'"
"How did you react?"
"I laughed! I told him, 'Comrade, haven't you heard about perestroika? The days of doing these things are over.' They were slow to adapt in Moldova, but they were too timid to take any initiative on their own. So they just threatened me and did nothing."
He had many stories to tell of intimidation, threats and phone calls. "There's only one threat that really bothers me, to be honest with you, Mark," Rosca said, his voice and expression suddenly turning grim and serious. "It's when they threaten my family. That's something I haven't been able to overcome. They've done it, and my family is strong, but I never get over it."
Rosca's energy and political courage came from his grandmother, he said. She raised him on stories about Stalinist and Communist evil: Moldovan families deported to Siberia, the local culture destroyed.
It is his energy and optimism, even after 15 years of unsuccessful campaigning, that is most attractive about Rosca. "We have steadily increased our representation in parliament in each of the last three elections," he said.
This time around, Rosca's party hopes to gain roughly 15 seats in the 101-seat chamber, up from the current 11.But his plan for taking power is not exactly democratic. The Communists lead in most polls with about 45-50 percent of the potential vote, while the Christian Democrats and the Centrists each have only 15-20 percent. But Rosca and the opposition are compiling evidence of electoral fraud and violations so they can declare the March 6th elections invalid, no matter what the outcome -- a claim they hope will be backed by the Coalition-2005 grouping of Western- and American-backed NGOs, many of which are dedicated solely to collecting instances of electoral violations with the explicit purpose of, yes, declaring the elections invalid. It is the same script used in Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia. If a Communist-dominated parliament convenes, Rosca hopes to unite with the "crypto-Communists" in the centrist bloc to prevent a quorum in the new parliament, thus forcing new elections within 45 days. By that time, mobilizing his 20,000 strong "New Generation" youth movement -- modeled on Otpor, Pora and Kmera youth movements in other successful pro-Western putches -- Rosca hopes that the Communists will crack both internally and in the eyes of the electorate. But he has a long way to go to convince the voters.
* * *
"Moldova today is a tiny red stain in an ocean of orange," Iurie Rosca told his audience in the mayor's office. The half-full room was raw and freezing; not a single place we visited had functioning heat, not even the school, where all the kids were dressed in parkas and ski caps. As in his other campaign stops, by the time Rosca is half-way through his speech, the hall is standing-room-only, with more villagers listening outside the door.
"We can't follow this path. Ukraine and Romania just had their Orange revolutions. They threw out the corrupt old order. The whole of Europe is marching towards the West, and we are the only backwards nation remaining. It's simply not possible to continue like this."
It's one of his most convincing arguments--but Rosca is selling it to a people already ruined by the first pro-Western revolution of the 1990s. Rosca spoke without notes for nearly an hour, then opened the discussion up for questions.
The first would have tested my patience: a crusty old peasant asked, "Why are there so many gas stations in Moldova now? We used to have a normal amount. Now there are gas stations on every street corner. Sometimes two or three."
After all of the talk of integration with the West, of poverty, ideology and with so much at stake, the villager thought he had really struck to the heart of the matter.
Fearless in Moldova: Rosca speaks to Ames while speeding through the mud.
Rosca didn't wince. "Well, I believe that the more gas stations, the better, because the competition will lower prices. However, what concerns me is the potential ecological impact on the wells of all these gas stations. That is a good point."
Another villager, a middle-aged woman with a fat face and metal teeth, wanted to know why she should take a risk on another free-market Westernizer when now, at least, she was getting her pension.
"True, the Communists are paying now," Rosca said. "But you're only getting 300 lei (about $25) per month. The living wage in Moldova is 1400 lei (about $120) per month. You should not be satisfied with so little. You should demand more."
"But how can we get this if you're advocating nothing but tax cuts and free markets? How can you decrease the budget revenues and increase our pensions? It doesn't make sense!"
Using supply-side theory, Rosca told her that a combination of free market miracles and an Orange Revolution would bring Western sympathy -- and capital -- into Moldova, raising everyone's standard of living.
If courage is Rosca's strength, then his free-market cargo-cult ideology is his weakness. The woman was right: Rosca called for massively slashing taxes, customs revenues and the bureaucracy, while at the same time promising farming subsidies, health care subsidies, and a massive increase in salaries and pensions to his peasant audience. It doesn't make sense.
Unless you're a fan of George W. Bush. Which Rosca clearly is. "I see myself as closest to the Republican Party," he told me. And of the war in Iraq: "What could America do? They had to get rid of a dictator. And besides, I know that Primakov and his chekists were working with Hussein to develop nuclear weapons. I have personal information on that. They simply cleaned up their tracks when the left on the eve of the invasion. The Russians were helping Hussein develop nuclear weapons. America did the right thing -- they had to protect themselves."
Russia as the source of evil; America, particularly right-wing America, all-infallible. This pretty much sums up the beliefs of most non-Russian East Europeans I've known. Even my Czech ex-girlfriend was a hardcore Thatcherite. It's flip-flop ideology. And paradoxically, while Rosca rightfully feels that he's closer to his time than ever, in reality, his ideology makes less sense than ever. But with enemies as stupid as Moldova's cop/communist rulers, Rosca may not need much.
* * *
On our way to Vaeshcauzi, a uniformed cop standing at a bus stop pulled over my Opel, while I rode in the VW. Rosca joked that the KGB was going to detain my driver, and in Moldova's own pathetic way, he wasn't far from the truth. The cop told my driver that he was tasked with monitoring Rosca's speech in the mayor's building "for security purposes."
"I felt sorry for him. He had such a weak, pathetic face," my young driver told me.
The cop attended the campaign rally, then waited outside in the raw wet cold while we warmed ourselves up by a stove in the mayor's office, eating a Moldovan peasant feast of triangle-shaped stuffed cabbage rolls, sliced sausage meat, bread and marinated peppers, washed down with fresh wine and hot coffee.
Then the cop got into my driver's car, as I got into Rosca's, and we drove to the last stop, 7 hours later, in the village of Susleni.
But I'd had enough of stump speeches delivered in freezing cold, damp village hallways. When my driver finally appeared in Susleni with his timid cop, I told him I was ready to return to my hotel in Kishenev. The cop, hearing this, simply walked away down the muddy village road.
My translator said, "If he was brought here to monitor Rosca, why is he leaving only when Mark is leaving?"
"That's a good point," the driver said, laughing. "He was probably here to watch you. But really, he was harmless. I feel sorry for him."
It was my second encounter with the Moldovan police. The first came a day earlier, in downtown Kishenev, when I went to change money. It was late at night, and Kishenev is extremely dark -- wiring is primitive and even light bulbs are scarce.
As I walked out of the exchange, a clean-cut young man in a cap and coat said, "Good evening."
I assumed he was a petty thief, so I walked past. He followed me, so I moved into a more crowded sidewalk, and he started to nudge against me, like a car trying to run another car off the road.
"I said 'Good evening,'" he said in English, looking a little more menacing.
I was sure he was setting me up for a scam. Another guy appeared behind me.
"Nu chto," I said in Russia.
He too switched to Russian. "I'm from the police." He pulled out some kind of badge, and said he was from the central police precinct.
I figured he was showing me a fake and wanted to take my cash. "Ya znau chto ti pizdish!" I barked. Translated: "I know you're fucking (cunting) with me!"
He was stunned. In a hurt tone, he replied, "I'm not fucking with you. I really am a cop."
I snorted angrily (I was genuinely furious) and stompted out into the street and flagged down a taxi. It took about 3 long minutes, but when I finally got into the car, I turned to see if they had fled.
Instead, he and hbis dark-skinned sidekick stood up on a ledge, staring at me in disbelief.
Later, my Moldovan friends told me that they were indeed undercover cops.
"You probably just stunned them with your reply," Helsinki Committee's Chirtoaca told me, laughing.
But it wasn't an entirely laughing matter. Between February 12 and 22nd, at least 82 Russians were detained by Moldovan cops, charged with various crimes tied to the elections.
* * *
"You know Mark, I drank wine in France, in Italy, Spain, all over, but there's no wine like Moldovan wine," Rosca proudly told me.
As village wine goes, it wasn't bad, but as comparisons go, it sounded a little too much like the whore from Severodonetsk who told me she preferred southern Ukrainian wine to French wine.
And speaking of whores...my first night in the National Hotel, I got a phone call in my room at about 9pm. "Khello," the woman's voice said. "Vood you like to spend time vis a pretty girl?"
I was too busy and too exhausted, so she kindly asked if it was okay for her to call me the next evening.
"Sure," I said.
Out of curiosity, I asked her how much her whores cost.
"Fifty dollars for one hour, 100 dollars for entire night," she said. I let out a sigh that may have been interpreted as dissatisfaction, so she added, "Of course, we can discuss this price."
The next day, after returning from Rosca's grueling campaign (and believe me, sludging through rural Moldova and speaking to crowds of peasants about politics makes rugby look like footsies), I crashed on the bedspread for five minutes before getting another call.
But it was too early -- so I went downstairs to the 24-hour internet cafe. There, I sat next to a gray-haired American in a suit and overcoat. Next to him was a Moldovan woman in her late 20s with badly-dyed blond hair and a somewhat attractive face with a pained expression.
The American man was typing emails to friends, speaking each word out loud as he typed. "Hello. I'm in Moldova now with Irena. The women here are amazingly beautiful, but the place is so poor and depressing it really makes me appreciate what I have in America. I miss you all."
And then, he asked his Irena how to spell out "do svidanie." It took him literally 10 minutes to spell out the letters. He couldn't understand her when she dictated it letter-by-letter, so he finally took a booklet and typed it out. She looked over to me several times with a distressed expression -- sort of like, "Yes, this is what I've been reduced to. Thanks, God!"
The man signed his name "Nordy."
Later, in the lobby, while waiting for a friend, I sat behind another American -- a withered old pensioner with thin gray hair and thick glasses. "I want to thank you for everything," he said into his cell phone. "You're a wonderful family, and I had a wonderful time with your daughter." The old lecher had a thick, beige foam hearing aid hooked behind his earlobe as he spoke to his girlfriend's mother. He tried using a few Rumanian words, but kept switching back to English. It didn't matter if he knew Rumanian. They would come, even to him, no matter what he spoke.
* * *
In a country as congenitally adrift as Moldova, everything is explained in analogies: comparisons to their neighbors, comparisons to the Soviet Union, and how Moldova either cannot live up to them, or is persecuted by them.
My taxi driver from the airport claimed that during Soviet times, Moldova was "paradise." He said that people flocked there from all over the Soviet Union due to the weather.
It was cold, raw and rainy that day, as it has been every day I've ever spent in Moldova.
My young translator, who had spent a year in a South Dakota high school, agreed. "We lived better than the Rumanians," he said. "Now look at them. They're going to join the EU. They have everything -- in fact, the EU needs Rumania more than they need the EU."
The Communists promise a return to the "paradise" of the Soviet days, which is why they are still so popular.
This is why Rosca, the pro-Western option, has to resort to the Orange-revolution model. While the Kyrgyz opposition is choosing yellow, and the Kazakhs blue, Rosca hasn't even bothered trying to be original. In 2002, he led student protests against the Communists modeled on Ukraine's student-led protests against the beheading of Ukraninian journalist Georgi Gongadze. Rosca's deputy Vlad Cubreacov had gone missing in the spring of 2002 and was presumed to have been "disappeared" by the Communists.
But in Moldova, everything is borrowed, petty, fake. Cubreacov was found, two months after he had disappeared, in a village called Ustia. To many people's disappointment, he was alive and well. He either staged his disappearance as a publicity stunt -- or he was punished in a shady business dispute.
In spite of all this farce and misery, Rosca is optimistic. He feels that his moment has finally come, and even conceded to me that having the Communists back in power is probably a good thing for his movement. Having unreformed Communists in power will attract the attention of Rosca's potential backers: America, Russia, the EU, and Soros. Now all Rosca has to do is convince his own people.