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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moldovans Governed by Despair

APA protester holding a poster of Cubreacov at a silent march in Chisinau last month.
CHISINAU, Moldova -- Mealtimes at the Zoti home are governed by a simple rule: If there's money, there's food. Most often, there's little of either.

"When there's something to eat, I call our son to the table, and when there isn't I don't," said Tatjana Zoti, her face dominated by spirited blue eyes and cheekbones chiseled by hunger. "Rare are the times when we feel we have eaten enough."

The Zotis don't complain. Misery loves company in Moldova, Europe's poorest country. With the average income less than 450 Moldovan lei ($30) a month, most people share the same lot: cold apartments, empty refrigerators, hand-me-down clothing, and a hope that things just have to get better.

Yet worse may be ahead. There is unrest over the Communist government's attempt to wrest the country back toward Moscow after more than a decade by previous administrations of courting Romania, Moldova's western neighbor.

More than 65 percent of Moldovans speak a Romanian dialect; the rest speak Russian or Ukrainian.

Frictions over language and education ostensibly led to 80,000 protesters confronting machine-gun toting police in the capital Chisinau in late March. But the real dispute is whether the country should be looking east or west.

"I came here because I do not want to go back into the Soviet slammer," said one demonstrator, Ion Rosca, suggesting that his country's eastward turn is shutting the door to hopes for Western-style prosperity and democracy.

Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova has long been torn between east and west.

Annexed from Russia by Romania during World War I, it then became part of the Soviet Union, reverted to Romania during World War II and was reclaimed by Moscow after that conflict. It gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991.

High hopes that accompanied the communist collapse were soon lost to deepening gloom as a series of governments became mired in corruption and infighting.

Anti-Romanian Slavs revolted in 1992, carving out the self-proclaimed republic of Trans Dniester, a strip of territory along the Ukrainian border that bleeds Moldova's economy through arms smuggling and non-taxed trade worth billions of dollars a year.

Crime is rampant. Austrian police confiscated the Moldovan interior minister's car a few years ago in Vienna after a computer check revealed it stolen. Misery leads to gruesome acts: Two women were arrested last year for selling human remains from a state cancer ward as food.

Fueling the recent unrest is the disappearance of leading anti-communist Vlad Cubreacov in late March. Anti-communists blame the government. The communists say the kidnapping was an attempt to build resentment against them and feed the demonstrations that started early this year.

Critics of the government say a human exodus helped the Moscow-leaning communists win election last year, because Moldovans frustrated at the growing misery voted with their feet years ago. Some 500,000 citizens -- more than 10 percent of the population -- are estimated to have left.

Reflecting the depth of frustration, even government members are blunt about the misery. "Nobody is seriously interested in our country," said Deputy Economics Minister Marian Lupu.

But the real problem is confusion and inertia at home, said Lupu, 35, who started running the ministry after President Vladimir Voronin fired his boss for alleged shady dealings with the Trans Dniester separatists.

"We have one group interested in establishing a centrally planned system, a second group is pushing for a free economy, and a third group has no plans at all," Lupu said.

Only a few thousand feel they have a stake in the country -- many of them former communist insiders who profited from Moldova's disintegration by snapping up the bargains in halfhearted campaigns to sell state industry.

They are found at restaurants like the Barracuda, where a jazz quartet plays cool jazz and guests wash down cockscomb salad, tripe soup and other local delicacies with satiny Moldovan wine. A bargain by Western standards, the bill for three on a recent visit came to a month's average pay.

In another part of the city, the Zotis count their blessings.

Andrei, 44, an electrical engineer, earns 150 lei (just over $10) a month at state radio and television. In a good month, he makes 200 lei more repairing television and radio sets. Rent and utilities alone consume more than a third of their monthly income.

Unemployed, Tatjana, a biologist, is taking accounting classes. Patting her husband's knee, the 39-year-old makes light of their plight, as she shares with visitors what's in their refrigerator: two tiny sausages and a half-bottle of vodka.

"When he has food, he feels lazy," she said, smiling at Andrei, whose lumpy sweater hangs much too loosely on his frame.

Grinning at his guests, Andrei raises a glass for a toast: "May we live long and flourish!"