Moldova, a tiny state bordering Ukraine, is crippled by corruption and emigration. Some have even suggested that its weaknesses leave it exposed to a possible annexation by Russia, as Vladimir Putin consolidates control over nearby Crimea. The breakaway Moldovan state of Transnistria has already called on Moscow to annex it. NATO’s supreme allied commander General Philip Breedlove said last week that Russian troops were ready to “run” to Transnistria should the call be made.
But inside Moldova, revolutionary forms of e-governance are helping its government push for economic stability and strength, which may just turn its fortunes around.
Moldova is one of Europe’s poorest nations. Its average salary hovers around $300 per month, and it has a net migration rate of -9.92, which puts it 210th of 222 recorded territories on Earth according to the CIA World Factbook. Almost 55% of Moldova’s people still live in the countryside, a hangover from its days as the Soviet Union’s main exporter of fruits and vegetables.
Nicu Calcea is a Chisinau-born philosophy student and local journalist. He takes a deep pull on his bootleg Marlboro cigarette (most Moldovan brand cigarettes are fakes) and stares into a pint of the local brew. “I’m the only one of my family left,” he says. “The rest are in France. I don’t want to go there, but,” he pauses, “I can’t stay here. There’s nothing.”
He’s not alone. Experts believe that a quarter of the working-age population has fled to destinations like Russia, Turkey and the EU. Over three-quarters of them are aged between 18 and 30, many of whom are educated but undervalued.
However mobile penetration in Moldova is high at 127%, and the rate of mobile Internet is creeping past 30%. Over half of all Moldovans have access to the web, and it is one of the top 20 countries worldwide in terms of Internet speed.
Nowhere are these numbers clearer than in Chisinau’s Stefan cel Mare Park, a tree-lined idyll named after the 15th century king who thwarted repeated Ottoman invasions. In the park old men play chess, families eat popcorn and teenagers breakdance upon makeshift cardboard stages. Most youngsters, however, are glued to their handsets, making use of the free WiFi common to many other public spaces in town. Orange, which dominates the market, offers similar deals across the country – including the breakaway region of Gagauzia. Moldova is poor, but it’s connected.
Chisinau has realized the potential in this mobile saturation, and has made the use of mobile digital signatures (MDSs) one of the foundations of its 2020 strategy. An MDS allows users to authenticate themselves online by receiving a confirmation message to be validated with a PIN code.
Many businesses use MDS, but public services such as e-licensing have also begun to employ it. Citizens can now even file taxes using MDS. By 2016, at least one-quarter of citizens are expected to access public services online or through mobile devices, thanks to GeT-supported programs.
Moldova’s breakthrough Governance e-Transformation (GeT) project hopes to “modernize and improve public sector governance in Moldova, give citizens access to government documents and data for effective public use, improve the investment climate, and increase global competitiveness,” according to a World Bank statement. GeT’s colorful website is modern and easy to use. It’s part of a pledge by the government to have all public services digitized and put online by 2020.
That drive was helped last Friday by a pledge of $30 million by the World Bank, which country manager Abdoulaye Seck claims will help push Moldova’s private sector, and its GDP. “Our support is fully aligned with the country’s national development priorities and aims to address key reforms that can contribute to spurring private-sector led growth, whilst making public investments work better and more equitably to reduce poverty and boost shared prosperity for all Moldovan citizens.”
Speaking at the Presidential Palace in Chisinau, a chasmic former Soviet bureau, Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca admits that there is still a long way before Moldova can move away from its troubling trends of corruption and emigration. But the centre-right leader, who faces election this November, claims that e-governance is a vital pillar in Moldova’s development.
“Today over 80 services out of over 500 services we offer to our citizens and companies are from e-governance,” he tells Red Herring. “The instances of corruption have diminished, the time in front accruing in front of the bureaucracy has diminished. But today we have a mixture of positive developments, with a good impact on our economic development. But there are still existing areas where we need to improve dramatically. Then we will be able to make our economic growth more sustainable.
Moldova is a small country, and a small size,” adds Leanca. “Maybe we have too many formidable challenges. But I do believe that Moldova can become a success story. And if you look beyond the Baltic states there are not many success stories in the former Soviet space. It will be the result of good investment of our own efforts, but also the result of good investments from the U.S., from Washington. If it works we want to spread the same values east, to Ukraine and other countries who want to embrace these values.”