A Glimmer of Success in Miserable Moldova

Maia Sandu, Moldova's new president, has cleverly positioned her new government as being in thrall neither to Moscow nor to Brussels.


Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

If you have ever heard of Moldova and you are not Romanian or Russian, chances are near certain that it was as the country of origin of an earwormy 2004 Eurodance global No. 1 song whose Romanian-language chorus, made most famous by a viral, fish-mouthed lip-synching YouTuber, sounded something like "numa numa yay."

If you think you've heard of Moldova, but maybe not quite with that spelling, you might well be remembering the fictional post-communist country of Molvanîa, whose motto in pre-Borat guidebooks and a comical Web 1.0 website was "a land untouched by modern dentistry."

Alas for the really-existing post-Soviet republic, Moldova has been no laughing matter these past three decades. A landlocked clump between troubled Romania and Ukraine, it suffers from the historical subjugations all too common among small East-Central European nations. Independent Moldova was confronted from the get-go with a deadly skirmish over the breakaway pro-Soviet republic of Transnistria, a region that retains some sovereignty to this day.

With a per-capita income of under $5,000 per year, Moldova is the second-poorest country in Europe, behind miserable Belarus and just ahead of war-torn Ukraine. Corruption has been epic even by Balkan levels. Population since the fall of the USSR has shrunk by one-third, to 3.5 million, the worst demographic decline on the continent. Russian meddling in this "near abroad" has been so extensive that the Council of Europe for most of the past decade referred to Moldova as a "captive state."

Yet somehow, miraculously, Moldova might have a shot at being the belle of the ball rather than the butt of the joke.

On July 11, after eight months without a government, Moldovans elected by a landslide (53 percent to 27 percent) a reformist, anti-corruption party headed by 49-year-old Harvard-educated World Bank economist Maia Sandu. The Washington Post editorial page described the vote as "a crushing victory over pro-Russian parties that had dominated Moldova's politics for most of the past 30 years."

Post-communist Europe is littered with premature Western raves for ostensibly reform-minded politicians, so caution is advisable. But Sandu has already been clever in sidestepping incendiary geopolitics by positioning her new government as being in thrall neither to Moscow nor to Brussels (nor to Bucharest, for that matter), without needlessly inflaming any overly interested party.

Moldova, like most theoretically eligible countries, is seeking membership in the European Union. But for the moment, this historically woeful nation is being helmed by someone who at least rhetorically champions liberal democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law instead of oligarchs. If it can happen here, maybe it can happen anywhere.

"I hope that today will be the end of a difficult era for Moldova," Sandu said on election night. "I hope that today will be an end to the rule of thieves."