The Great Moldovan Bank Robbery

I’m in Moldova for a few days. It’s Saturday evening and it’s dark and wet, and the road from the capital, Chisinau, to the southern regional town of Cahul is shrouded in fog, and often more pothole than road. It’s not the best time of year to visit this small landlocked country on the eastern edge of Europe, but needs must. Even if it’s the poorest country in Europe it’s not the most unfriendly or unwelcoming. Far from it. The greatest danger to life and limb lies is the abundance of tuica, the local spirit.

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Moldova possesses few natural resources other than its rich agricultural land and a reputation for fine wines. Tourist attractions are sadly thin on the ground (two rock monasteries and a small waterfall), and its topography, though pleasant, is unspectacular. Road and rail networks are poor, so it’s not easy to get around the country.

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Though unassertive, the country has endured the misfortune of lying in the path of greater powers; it’s been a trampling ground for centuries. In more recent years it has become a pawn in the geopolitical games of East and West, its sizeable Russian-speaking minority tugging generally eastwards (with encouragement from the Kremlin), and its Romanian majority generally westwards (with encouragement from Brussels). A sizeable eastern chunk of the country, Transnistria, has already seceded and hosts a small number of Russian troops.

Although a country of fewer than three million it’s a patchwork of ethnicities, Romanian, Russian, Gagauz (Christian Turkic), Bulgarian and others, each with different natural loyalties, traditions and sometimes languages. Populations have been forcibly imposed and removed over the last century, at the whim of foreign dictators such as Stalin.

But not content with rape and pillage by others, Moldova also consumes itself. Economic progress has been considerable in the last ten years but has recently been derailed by one huge high-level bank robbery. It’s alleged that former Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, and businessman Ilan Shor, together with other bureaucrats and politicians, recently stole nearly one billion USD from the country’s banking sector through carefully misplaced loans. This amounts to 12.5 percent of the country’s GDP. So it’s no wonder the mood is depressed. And although these villains may yet get their comeuppance, their prosecution is probably politically motivated, instigated by the next set of gangsters.

If you talk to Moldovans of a certain age you will hear repeatedly that things were better in Soviet days, declining only after Gorbachev initiated his ‘disastrous’ reforms. For once, and for the moment, I am inclined to agree. There was corruption of a kind in the old days, and abuse of power, but on an altogether different scale.

It is hard to understand how anyone in power or otherwise, and especially those elected to further the good of a needy people, can steal so much from a population that can barely get by. Sadly, at the moment, this is a country where you simply do what you can get away with, where morality in public life is of no consequence at all.

Many Moldovans have left the country. As much as 25 per cent of the country’s GDP is made up of remittances from abroad. And yet, there is a ray of hope. Many of the young educated professional people I have spoken to here still believe that the gangster culture of the country will eventually give way to a more benign culture, and that democratic, responsible ideals will yet triumph. After all, most of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe emerged eventually from just such moral and economic chaos.

 

 

Cabbage

I spent fourteen of the first twenty-one years of my life in institutions. These were neither protective nor penal, but, rather, expensive educational institutions my parents spent good money to send me to. Private education in Britain, however uncomfortable it may be, is a great privilege and an almost certain route to Empire building.

British institutions have one thing in common (or had, since I haven’t sniffed my way around one recently) – the smell of boiled cabbage, often also laced with a whiff of Jeyes Fluid (a floor disinfectant slopped about with a bucket and mop). They say that smell and taste are senses that are rooted more deeply in our memory and unconscious than sight and sound. Certainly the smell of cabbage stirs profound memories in me, usually recalling bleak Winter afternoons on the football or rugby field, where we played brutal games whatever the weather.

All over Britain cabbage is being boiled, and it’s prepared in a very special way. Chop it up, leaving the hard white stalks and spines intact, and boil for a couple of hours in very lightly salted water. The result is a disintegrating mess of watery mush with hard white bits that won’t soften however long you cook them. Boiled cabbage has taught me to eat almost anything at all in adulthood.

But there’s more than one way to cook a cabbage.

sarmale

I’m in Bucharest this week, visiting the new office of our Romanian subsidiary (LLP Group). Ioana and my other four colleagues took me out to lunch and I ate sarmale. These are stuffed cabbage leaves. They’re much better than those awful stuffed vine leaves they make in Greece and export in tins. Stuffed vine leaves are watery, slightly acidic parcels, made with what feels like thick green paper. The cabbage leaf, by contrast, is perfect for the job of enclosing a mix of spiced minced pork and/or beef, rice, and dill. The cabbage adds a little flavour, but not too much, and its texture, soft and yielding where the vine leaf is hard, is ideal.

It’s also a wonderful picnic food since you can eat each parcel with your fingers. The best sarmale I ever ate were made by Svetlana Culin and we ate them at the back of a tiny hotel in Comrat (capital of the Turkish-speaking Gagauz region of Moldova), albeit without the sour cream that makes them even more delicious and more deadly. Those sarmale set my ‘gold standard’ forever.

I suppose that Europe can be divided into four different cabbage zones. There are those of us in the rugged north who boil our cabbage until it has neither texture nor flavour; there are those in middle Europe who ferment it and serve it as sauerkraut in a variety of different colours (both red and white in Prague, and no doubt soon blue, the third colour of the Czech flag); there are those in Turkish influenced Hungary and the Balkans who stuff it with spiced meat (sarmale in Romania, toltott kaposzta in Hungary), and wisest of all, there are those in southern Europe who give it to their animals.