Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 14:02 UK

Moldova lives off foreign earnings

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Carpineni, Moldova

Moldova, Europe's poorest country and one of its smallest, has earned itself a dubious distinction - since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has become the world's most remittance-dependent economy.

A horse and trap in Moldova
The horse and trap is still a common means of transport
It is estimated that about a quarter of Moldova's 4.5 million people have left to work abroad. The money they send back home makes up more than a third of the country's gross domestic product.

But more than half of the migrants to Europe are women, who are often forced to leave their children behind.

The reasons for this unprecedented exodus are easy to find in the Moldovan countryside.

Geese waddle noisily across a dry river bed, with a flock of sheep and a few bay horses grazing contentedly in the distance. On a nearby hillside rises a blue-domed Orthodox church amid small white houses, gardens and vineyards.

In the early autumn sunlight, it looks like a rural idyll. But many here still draw their water from a well and drive around in horse-drawn carts.

Welcome to Carpineni, a village on Moldova's border with Romania and the European Union. Population: 11,000. Or maybe 8,000, or 6,000. No one really knows how many have emigrated from this village.

If we all leave, there will be no Moldova
Alexandru Cercuta

So many have gone that the deputy mayor, Sergiu Mandis, a historian by training, has come up with a very 21st Century idea.

A few months ago, he set up a special website, a sort of "Carpineni Reunited".

Almost 400 former locals have already registered from Italy, Spain, Greece and even the US. It is a way to keep them up to date with what goes on in the village, to exchange gossip and holiday snaps.

Left behind

In the entrance hall of a local school, boisterous children are welcomed by a large map of Moldova with the heading "My Native Land".

But ask how many have their mother or father abroad and lots of hands go up. In one class, I counted nine children out of 22.

Maria, 14, has been left behind in Moldova by her parents
Maria has seen her mother only twice in four years

One of them is 14-year-old Maria, whose parents went to Italy four years ago to earn more money.

She has seen her mother twice since, but not her father. Although her grandmother is looking after her, Maria says life without her parents is sad and hard.

Because of emigration, 100,000 children across Moldova - that is one in three - are growing up without one parent, or even both.

Some are working in Russia, but many have gone to Italy or Spain.

Most Moldovans speak Romanian, but unlike their western neighbours, whose country joined the EU last year, they face EU visa restrictions.

So those working as illegal migrants simply cannot take the risk of visiting their children back home.

"It might be a very grim picture we're looking at," says Tatjana Colin from Unicef Moldova.

"Combined with demographic trends that show the population is getting significantly older and the birth rate is decreasing, we could be looking at a country that has lots of old people and children. And that will most certainly affect the economy and overall growth."

Returning home

For now, it is money from abroad that fuels one-third of Moldova's wealth. In Carpineni, one family has opened a shop selling building materials with the money they made working in Greece.

Alexandru Cercuta, who used to work in Italy, started a double-glazing business employing several people.

"Someone has to give jobs to young men like me," he said, "because if we all leave, there will be no Moldova."

A couple get married in Moldova
Ion and Olesia married in Moldova, but work in Spain

But for now, the country has little to offer - a weak economy, strong corruption and political clashes with Moscow.

Agafia Decuseara is among those who have decided to come back. A teacher in Carpineni, she put her children through university by caring for elderly people in Italy for seven years.

But her daughter has now settled in Italy and has no plans to rejoin her mother. Agafia explained why.

"Because roads are bad, there's no gas, no sewerage, no running water, wages are low," she said.

"My daughter says she'll only come back when these five things are sorted."

The one thing that brought Ion and Olesia back to their village was love. Hand in hand, but visibly nervous, they stood in front of the deputy mayor Sergiu Mandis, who pronounced them man and wife. Then Sergiu used his laptop to play their wedding waltz.

As a group of relatives clapped to the music, the couple turned round and round on the creaking floor-boards - Olesia in her long white dress, Ion in a new dark suit.

Soon they would drive all the way across Europe in their new car. Not on honeymoon, but back to work in Spain.

Ion told me he was sure they would return to Moldova one day. But he could not say when that day would come.

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