This is the last of a five-part series looking at the issues facing Ukraine and Moldova as they prepare to sign major agreements with the EU next month.
CHISINAU, Moldova — Their governments may be steaming ahead in negotiations with the European Union, but ordinary citizens here and in neighboring Ukraine are still attempting to come to terms with their seemingly inevitable drift toward Europe.
People in both former Soviet republics straddle the usual divides: liberal and conservative, urban and rural, rich and poor. But the one on everyone’s mind at the moment is the gulf between orientations to the proverbial East and West.
“Everyone wants it both ways: to travel to Europe and make money but also remain friendly with Russia,” says Sergiu Descan, a 44-year-old former police officer in Chisinau. “But we all know that’s impossible — you need to choose one way or the other, which is why we’re still swimming in place today.”
The governments in Chisinau and Kyiv have kicked their pro-European drive into top gear ahead of a November summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where they hope to cement their countries’ paths toward Europe by signing landmark trade and association agreements with the EU.
High-profile disputes over trade with Russia, a separatist territory in Moldova and a jailed opposition leader in Ukraine have dominated local headlines, reminding Moldovans and Ukrainians of the imminent choice they face between the liberalizing West and the autocratic East.
But opinion polls in Moldova show people are split almost evenly between those who support European integration and those who favor closer ties with Russia by way of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that the Kremlin is presenting as a better alternative.
The numbers are similar in Ukraine, although some surveys have reported that Ukrainians prefer the European Union over a Moscow-led bloc by a margin of around 10 percent at most.
Russia — the erstwhile ruler and overbearing neighbor to the north — has loomed over the debate as its most visible factor, influencing political, social and economic orientation in Moldova and Ukraine. Both countries have significant ethnic Russian minorities that heavily influence public opinion.
Some find Russia’s economic pressure and warnings against moving toward Europe simply too much.
“Foolish is the man who thinks Russia is an enemy, but even more foolish is one who thinks it’s our friend,” says Gennady Stepanov, a 53-year-old business manager in Kyiv.
He says he’s fed up with Ukraine’s perceived role as a political pawn between Brussels and Moscow, arguing that the country should remain strategically non-aligned.
Others see Russia as a savior.
That’s very much the case in Moldova’s predominantly Slavic breakaway territory of Transnistria, which has long depended on Moscow for support.
“Everyone chooses his own garden,” says Yevgeny Ivanov, a 58-year-old pensioner in Tiraspol, the unrecognized republic’s capital. “We’ve been with Russia for centuries — in the Russian Empire, during the Soviet Union and now — so for us it’s natural.”
But there are deeper-seated factors complicating Transnistria’s relationship with Chisinau.
Memories of the brief but brutal war between Moldovan forces and the Russian-backed separatists play a central role in the Transnistrian collective conscience.
“No one will forget what the Moldovans did here in 1992, when they came in with tanks and rifles to ‘restore order,’” Ivanov says. “That’s why it’s better to remain the way we are than join them.”
Elsewhere in Moldova and Ukraine, relations with Russia aren’t the only issue. Many are struggling to understand just what it means to be “European.”
As the authorities proudly boast of improving ties with Europe, many here say the rampant corruption and political instability that still permeates post-Soviet society belies the rhetoric.
“If we talk about the economic situation, I think integration is impossible right now because there are a lot of problems with corruption, the courts, our budget system and banks,” says Andriy Manilich, a 21-year-old university student in Kyiv.
However, that doesn’t mean Ukrainians aren’t ready to take that eventual step toward Europe, he adds.
“We shouldn’t think that we’ll only become European after we integrate, because we’re already European,” he says.
In downtown Chisinau and Kyiv, the clash between East and West — often reflected in the contrast between old and new — is readily apparent. Posh boutique stores line wide, Soviet-era boulevards, where beggars are lost in crowds of women in miniskirts and five-inch heels.
On side streets, brand new, foreign cars are parked haphazardly in front of rundown apartment buildings.
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Sitting in a downtown Chisinau park, Descan, the former police officer, weighs the pros and cons of European integration. Europe isn't perfect, he decides, but it offers better quality of life and open politics.
But not all his compatriots are as decisive, he adds.
“That’s why the quality of life and social relations here remain stagnant,” he said. “One person wants it this way, another wants it the other way — and you end up with something entirely different.”