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Sunday, July 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Poverty, corruption spark exodus from Moldova

The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova - Andrey and Irina Babii can't wait to leave Moldova.

They love the quiet downtown park where they take their 8-month-old son for daily walks. But they despair of the uncertainty and dismal economy in this former Soviet republic of 4.5 million.

"The economy has been destroyed. The president and lawmakers are bandits and thieves," said Irina, 24, a fluent English speaker who used to work in a foreign advertising company but is now unemployed. Her husband earns $20 a month as a doctor, and the family has applied to emigrate to Canada.

The government estimates some 600,000 Moldovans, many of them between 25 and 45, have left Moldova in recent years, depleting the country of its most dynamic sector of the work force.

Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova's main trading partner is Russia, and when the ruble collapsed in 1998, Moldova's economy went into a tailspin, causing more people to move abroad.

Many left illegally, seeking work in construction, housekeeping or prostitution in Israel, Russia, Greece, Kosovo and Africa. In villages, where some farmers use barter and have never even seen money, children are brought up by grandparents or neighbors, or left in state orphanages. Teachers and pensioners haven't been paid for up to a year.

"The young people should stay here for the moral, economic and spiritual values of the nation," said Tudor Danii, adviser to Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis on social issues. "I don't know whether they will return. It depends on the social and economic future of the country."

Many families are supported by those working abroad.

"My mother works in Greece as a maid," said 27-year-old Artur Bichir, a policeman who has not been paid for six months. Even when he received his salary, it was just $40 a month.

Some private companies complain it is hard to find skilled workers.

"The great drama is that all the smart people left the country," said Catalin Giosan, who employs 60 people at a private television station.

"It is very hard to find qualified people."

Still, for a select few, business is good. Late-model luxury cars purr along the wide avenues of Chisinau, a city of 1 million. Restaurants are full, and there are shops offering the latest electronic equipment and Italian fashion.

About 70 percent of private businesses are not legally registered, to avoid paying taxes to the cash-starved government.

"Moldova is losing taxes on gasoline, sugar and cigarettes," said Anatol Taran, a Liberal Party member.

The International Monetary Fund broke off relations with Moldova after Parliament refused to sell the state-owned wine and tobacco industries to private investors.

"This is my country, and I want to live here," said Diana Sculea, an 18-year-old student. "But if you don't have money, you might as well leave."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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