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Before you start all this reading, you may want to get your Romania and Moldova travel itch going by checking out the slide show I posted on the Get Inspired page.
Introduction to Moldova
Barely known by Europeans (and even then, only used as a one word punchline) and anonymous to the rest of the world, Moldova is one of the last true, off the beaten path destinations around. Travelers seem to agree: Lonely Planet’s 2013 “Traveller’s Choice” survey voted Moldova #2 in the “Off the Beaten Path” category, which inspired me to write an article for Lonely Planet about Moldova embracing its status as Europe’s least visited country.
The country’s amazingly tasty and cheap wine industry is what draws most visitors, but there’s far more on offer here, including cave monasteries, fortresses and nightlife that will challenge the heartiest of revelers.
For history and sociological enthusiasts, it really doesn’t get any better. Since its 1991 independence, the country has suffered through civil wars, ethnic friction, Transdniestr’s (unofficial) breakaway, damning allegations of arms dealing, organized crime, human trafficking and a curious return to Communism.
As with so many Eastern European countries, Moldova’s history is long, action-packed and nutty, being sliced, diced and tossed from one owner to another. Indeed it’s still being tugged in several directions today.
Moldova straddles two different historic regions divided by the Dniestr (Nistru) River. Historic Romanian Bessarabia covers the region west of the Dniestr, while tsarist Russia took hold of the territory east of the river (today’s Transdniestr) after driving out the Turks in 1792.
Bessarabia, also part of today’s Romanian principality of Moldavia, was annexed in 1812 by the Russian empire. In 1918, after the October revolution, Bessarabia declared its independence. Two months later it decided to unite with Romania, which irritated the always sensitive Moscow. Acting rather swiftly the Soviet Union created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian ASSR) in 1924 on the eastern banks of the Dniestr and later moved the capital from Balta (in present-day Ukraine) to Tiraspol.
The Soviets snatched back the Bessarabia region during WWII and united it with the southern part of the Moldavian ASSR (Transdniestr) and renamed it Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian SSR). Not wasting a moment, allied Romanian and German troops attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Bessarabia and Transdniestr fell into Romanian hands and thousands of Bessarabian Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. The Soviet army reoccupied Transdniestr and Bessarabia in 1944 and handed out payback in the form of deporting 25,000 ethnic Moldovans (Romanians) to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1949, followed by some 250,000 from 1950 to 1952.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies began in 1986, which eventually led to the forming of the nationalist Moldovan Popular Front in 1989, who reintroduced the Latin alphabet, declared Moldovan the official state language and unfurled the Moldovan national flag again (the Romanian tricolour with the Moldavian coat of arms in its center). Transdniestr of course stuck with good ol’ Mother Russia.
The Moldovan Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty in June 1990 and declared its full independence in 1991.
Sensing opportunity, both Transdniestr and Turkic-speaking Gagauzia region in southern Moldova launched their respective bids to divorce themselves from Moldova. Gagauzia merely wanted autonomy within Moldova, but Transdniestr would settled for nothing less than outright independence. In May of 1992 full-scale civil war broke out in Transdniestr when Moldovan police clashed with Transdniestran militia in Bendery, who were duly backed by troops from Russia. An estimated 500 to 700 people were killed and thousands wounded.
Moldova didn’t have the resources to whip TransD into line, especially with Russia behind it, so a cease-fire was signed in July 1992 and reluctant provisions were made for a Russian-led, three-way peacekeeping force (Russian, Moldovan and Transdniestran) in the region. The arrangement continues today, with all the drama and antagonizing you’d expect from this bunch.
Moldova proper has made recent moves to improve its international image, in the face of being labeled as the poorest nation in Europe and one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In late 2005, the country signed agreements committing itself to combat corruption and lock down people trafficking. Average household income remains low, with roughly one-third of the country’s fragile GDP comprised of monies sent home from emigrants working abroad.
In yet another bizarre twist, in 2001, Moldova became the first former Soviet state to elect a communist as its president. This went about as poorly as any communist ruling regime since the dawn of time and in the 2009 elections a democratic, West-leaning coalition government took power. The new prime minister, Vlad Filat, promised that integration with Europe was “an absolute priority”.
My Top Five for Moldova are:
• Wallowing in the unexpected dining joys in Chisinau, before diving into its kick-ass nightlife
• Staggering through organized or improvised wine tours at the country’s world-famous vineyards
• Contemplate the lifestyles of 13th-century monks in the fantastic cave monasteries at Orheiul Vechi and Tipova
• Tempt bribery fate at the sometimes dodgy border and make a discreet visit to the living Soviet museum that is Transdniestr and its capital Tiraspol
• Relax with other Moldovans at the rural escape of Vadu lui Voda.