CHISINAU, Moldova — If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova. Wobbly politicians from Europe and America should come here to get spinal transplants.
Think of Moldova as “the next Ukraine,” for Russia may be about to take a bite out of this little country, nestled beside Ukraine and Romania and often said to be the poorest country in Europe. Russia already has bullied Moldova mercilessly for trying to join the European Union, imposing sanctions, such as a block on Moldova’s crucial wine exports. Russia is even threatening to cut off the natural gas on which Moldovans depend.
“We hope that you will not freeze,” one senior Russian official publicly warned Moldovans.
Yet the valiant Moldovan government refuses to buckle, determined to join the European Union and forge bonds with the West.
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“There is no alternative for us, but to pursue European integration,” Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, a former diplomat, told me in perfect English in his office here in the capital, Chisinau. “We are European! No one should contest this.”
Moldova’s love for the West is unrequited. Washington barely notices it. Moldova has a population of less than 4 million and no obvious strategic significance.
With a few modest gestures, President Obama could reward Moldova’s grit. Instead, in the face of American obliviousness, President Vladimir Putin of Russia may formally annex part of Moldova, Transnistria, in the coming weeks.
Transnistria is a Russian-speaking enclave within Moldova, armed by Moscow and protected by Russian troops. Transnistria claims to have seceded and established an independent country, and, in a troubling omen, its government (which Moscow controls) appealed this month for Russia to annex it.
So Russia could soon swallow both Transnistria and a chunk of southern Ukraine, including Odessa, to access it.
Transnistria remains a police state, so I slipped across the border as a tourist, and the area feels just as the old Soviet Union did. The propaganda department is in overdrive, with countless billboards celebrating patriotism and past Russian triumphs.
“You must be proud of your country!” one billboard declared.
Transnistria’s military memorials — complete with a tank or armored personnel carrier — praise the heroism of local people and denounce those killed “by fascists” in fighting with Moldova’s military in the early 1990s. One giant collection of posters celebrated Russian and local heroes and praised “those great men who contributed to our culture.”
Transnistria’s apartment complexes are dilapidated and identical, and, despite large Russian subsidies, the economy is a mess. But a vast modern sports complex is the pride of the region. The atmosphere was such that I expected to run into the crusty old Soviet leader of the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev.
“For people here, Putin is a hero,” one young woman told me.
It’s true that the Moldovan government in the past was sometimes heavy-handed or threatening to Russian speakers, and, just as Moldovans had the right to leave the Soviet Union, people in Transnistria should have the right to secede from Moldova. But that should happen when Russian troops are gone and people have the right to speak freely.
Moldova, which is Romanian-speaking, is rural, relaxed and green, but the economy crashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and perhaps 1 million people fled the country to find work. In some Moldovan villages, it is difficult to find young women because so many left for jobs abroad. According to human rights monitors and U.N. officials, these women were tricked, raped and trafficked by organized crime into brothels across western Europe.
In recent years, the government has tried to build a pro-Western market economy, and the country is rebounding, but still fragile. Many fear that Putin will now direct his “masked warfare” of infiltrators and provocateurs to turn Moldova into the next Ukraine.
It may be too late to deter Putin in Moldova, but, whatever happens, we should back Moldova’s plucky government. The United States can help by supporting infrastructure for Moldova to import natural gas and electricity from Romania, making it harder for Putin to freeze Moldovans into submission. We can nudge the European Union to embrace Moldova’s desire to join.
And if Obama could visit this gutsy country for a few hours, people would cheer him as he’s never been cheered — and he would see an example of gold medal grit that we can all learn from.
© , New York Times News Service
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.