Each evening the sleek commuter trains pulling into Bucharest's Gara de Nord make way for a relative from an earlier era. The Bucharest to Chisinau night train is an iron behemoth; uniformed attendants stand by each doorway scrutinising tickets and passports in the sulphur glare of platform lights. The last time Chris Stowers travelled aboard this train was in the summer of 1992, from Chisinau to Bucharest. Back then, he was leaving behind the final confused remnants of the former Soviet Union. Moldova had just tasted independence from the USSR and victory in a brief but bloody civil war with her secessionist neighbours in Transnistria. He had arrived in Moldova on a Russian transit visa, and departed to Romania, a week later, without a ticket. A $ 5 note slipped to the carriage attendant was enough to assure smooth passage. The train then was packed with Moldovans leaving to try their luck in Romania. He shared a 4-berth compartment with three Moldovan smugglers who hid their stash of illicit electronic components in the ceiling light fixture. In the early hours of the morning the train stopped at the Ungheri-Prut border post where carriages were hoisted up and their Soviet bogies swapped for the narrower European gauge wheels.
Some things never change. The journey still takes 14 hours but gone are the frenzied fellow passengers and sense of frontier hustle. In an almost empty carriage he shares a spacious 4-berth cabin with 22 year-old Artur, a native of Transnistria. Fluent in English and fresh back from a summer in North Dakota, Artur was born in that fateful year of 1992. He is one of a new generation of self-confident young people, untainted by the Soviet past, who are electing to ignore the lure of well-paid but menial jobs overseas. Instead he is returning to Moldova to assume a relatively low-paid position as a technical.
Artur, like many of his fellow citizens, will go to the polls on Sunday, 30 November to decide Moldova's future for the coming years. This election is seen by many as a crucial milestone in the slow emergence of the country from Soviet tutelage. Events in neighbouring Ukraine which, like Moldova, has a sizeable Russian speaking population, offer a cautionary example of the dangers inherent in negotiating a course between Europe and Russia. Though the current ruling coalition has charted a pro-European course over the last parliament pro-Russian feeling among certain parts of the population is pulling the other way.
Russia accounts for 25% of Moldovan exports even after an embargo imposed on Moldovan wine and other goods put a dent in bilateral trade. In addition to this, an estimated 1 million Moldovans live and work in Russia, sending much needed remittances back to family members in Europe's poorest country. Many look across the border to Ukraine and wonder about the wisdom of a break with Russia. Though Transnistria does not share a border with Russia, concerns about Russian mischief-making in the secessionist proto-state remain strong
The political temperature has just risen by a few degrees since the Moldovan government's decision to disqualify the pro-Russian Patria (Homeland) Party, claiming it had used 'foreign funds' to finance its election campaign. A video purporting to show Renato Usatii, the party's founder, admitting that he was controlled by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) surfaced on 26 November. Since it's foundation in September 2014, the party has quickly racked up 12% of the vote.
Moldova's election will be another indicator of how far the relationship between Western governments and Putin's Russia has deteriorated. Moldovan security services recently arrested five individuals belonging to an outlawed pro-Russian organisation whom they accuse of planning post-election violence. According to the police, pistols, grenade launchers and large sums of money were seized in the operation.
After 22 years, Chris Stowers is back in Moldova and reporting on the uneasy situation surrounding the imminent Moldovan election. A full text with interviews is available on request.