CHISINAU, MOLDOVA - Corruption scandals have tainted Moldova's pro-European leadership and boosted support for pro-Russia parties that argue for closer ties with its Soviet-era ally, Moscow.
Moldova's pro-Russia parties say the West for years supported corrupt Europe-leaning politicians running the country, and therefore, they argue, a re-alignment with Moscow is the way forward.
Igor Dodon, a protest leader with Moldova’s Socialist Party, has a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin on his office wall and makes no secret about which direction he wants to see his country take.
“The strategic interest of Moldova is [solving] the economic problems and the country's integrity,” he told VOA. “This objective can be achieved only in strategic partnership with the Russian Federation.”
At an outdoor market in central Chisinau, vendors sell Russian nesting dolls as well as T-shirts with images of President Putin appearing tough and chastising European leaders and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Moldova's prime minister, Pavel Filip, in an exclusive interview with VOA, acknowledges corrupt politicians have tainted his country's EU integration,.
“Unfortunately, the European path was exploited by some politicians in Moldova, which is why today we are in the situation to regain the trust of our external partners through actions,” he said.
The European Union froze budget funds to Moldova after a billion dollars disappeared from banks. Some officials have been replaced or arrested, including a former prime minister, but the money has yet to be found.
Meanwhile, protest groups have been calling for new elections and systemic reforms to remove EU-leaning, but oligarch-backed political elite who have been ruling the country since the communists lost power in 2009.
Filip disagrees that Russia offers a better path.
“Moldova has made its choice with the signing of the EU Association Agreement. We believe that Moldova's path to economic development is better to coincide with the European path,” he said.
Many in Moldova criticize both the former and current governments as harboring corruption; but, even some political parties that agree Moldova's system is broken say Europe is still the country's future.
Andrei Nastase, a protest leader with the Dignity and Truth Party, argues many politicians leaning to either side of the debate are opportunists rather than principled believers.
“From the political point of view, the so-called "pro-Russia parties" benefited from the discrediting of the EU integration idea by the current so-called "pro-European parties," he said.
While public support for a European path remains high, a demographic crisis is on the horizon as many Moldovan youth take advantage of EU visa-free travel to leave for better opportunities.
At a young entrepreneurs seminar in Chisinau about business with Europe, participants and organizers admit the temptation is there to escape Moldova’s problems.
“Because we are still in the process of development and we are still in the process of building our democracy and our free market and everything,” said Alexandrina Robu with the Youth European Business Association Moldova. “So, it is difficult, but nobody will build our country except us."
Some at the seminar still see opportunity at home in a Moldova that remains on the European path.
Varlam Cristina is developing a crowdfunding platform for Moldovan start-ups and charity projects.
“I believe that Moldova's future is in the EU, but there is a long process before we can join. The government is resisting it, there is an administrative side to it. But, we see development, innovation and democracy in the EU, so this is the direction we have to follow,” she said.
Moldova's young entrepreneurs say enforcing European laws and standards would help reverse the flow, but a changing of the old guard may first be needed.