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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Moldova uncorks its secret weapon
Moldovan man greets visitors to factory
Walk this way: Wine could be Moldova's future

Moldovan wine might not be the first you'd reach for on the supermarket shelf.

But if the impoverished former Soviet republic has its way, that might change.

The president of the tiny state, Vladimir Voronin, is trying to boost Moldova's image on the world stage - performing a delicate balancing act between his old allies in Moscow and new friends to the West.

And his country's wine industry could just be its secret weapon.

Wine producer at work
Wine producers say they are modern businesses, not Soviet hangovers
This week Moldova threw open its doors - temporarily lifting its visa fees - to try to attract visitors to a wine festival marking the recently-declared National Wine Day.

The government hopes that any lost revenue during the 10-day free period will be made up by increased tourism.

The country threw its arms wide open to welcome the world's wine connoisseurs.

Shift to west

It was Moldova's second international event in as many weeks - after its successful hosting of a summit for the former Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

President Veronin pledged when he came to power that he would take Moldova back into Russia's fold, but he has recently expressed much more pro-European views.

Carpet stall
Chisinau is a colourful and friendly city
Visiting Chisinau, it is not hard to see why.

The city is a fascinating blend of both its European and Soviet heritage.

Picturesque tree-lined streets link massive multi-storey blocks evoking memories of Stalinist Russia with small pastel-painted buildings reminiscent of Europe's Baroque period.

The town is full of colour. Flower stalls occupy whole streets, and the capital's morning bazaar sells everything from traditional homespun rugs to fresh fruit and vegetables.

Darkness

But the beautiful, friendly city has many problems.

At night it is almost swamped in darkness.

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and electricity and gas are among the commodities it finds hard to afford.

Power is bought at a reduced rate from Russia, but even so, there are very few street lights, windows of homes are not lit up and restaurants take care not to leave toilet lights on unnecessarily.

Unfinished building
Reminders of the Soviet past are never far away
It's also common for the hot water to be turned off across the city for days.

Poverty breeds its own problems, like emigration. Many Moldovans have fled to other European countries in order to find work, sometimes illegally.

All of which could make Moldovan wine the key to the country's future.

Moldova prides itself on its wine and its hospitality, and Chisinau is no exception.

When visiting friends, it's traditional to be greeted with one of Moldova's many wines.

This can also be a custom in some of the city's restaurants - where traditional cuisine mingles with Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian delicacies.


We are looking for new markets - we are not like a former Soviet republic with old equipment

Dmitry Muneanu
Wine marketing manager
Just outside the capital lies the renowned Cricova winery, considered the pearl of Moldovan wine-making.

Its company's slogan is in Latin: "vinum legi artis" - wine made by the old rules.

But the old rules don't apply to its business dreams. It is determined to look west as well as east.

"We are looking for new markets," said marketing manager Dmitry Muneanu, "because we are not like a former Soviet republic with old equipment. We are brand new, with equipment you could find anywhere in the world."

One wine merchant and restaurateur warned that the westward march might get no further than Romania.

"When they say Europe they really mean Romania," he said. "They want us to become a fifth leg for an emaciated cow, which is the Romanian economy. I know, because I'm trying to do business there."

And not everyone is looking to Europe for business prospects.


Western Europe is really problematic - we'd be better off developing what we've got

Arkadi Andronik
Polyproject Exhibitions

"The export of Moldovan wines to Russia is huge - no other wine-producing country can even dream of such volumes," says Arkadi Andronik of Polyproject Exhibitions.

"We're talking hundreds of millions of bottles a year.

"Western Europe is much more problematic. They don't know our wines and don't really need them. There's tough competition from the established producers. We'd be better off developing what we've got."

Either way, it could be a while before Moldovan wine is taken seriously among the kind of Western connoisseurs it was trying to win over this week.

But with its warm, sunny climate, and a wine-making tradition dating back to its ancient Greek and Roman colonisers, wine might just be Moldova's best chance of Western success.

See also:

17 May 02 | Europe
02 Sep 02 | Media reports
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