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Moldova through the eyes of a European immigrant: Marc Pilkington talks about politics, culture and diaspora// INTERVIEW

Marc Pilkington is an Associate Professor of Economics at the COMUE, University of Burgundy Franche Comté, France, where he was appointed in 2012. Between 2015 and 2017, he was on entrepreneurial leave in the Republic of Moldova. His business venture Moldova Tours 2.0 lies at the intersection between tourism growth, poverty alleviation and digital technologies. He has written two books and numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals.

A: Could you tell me more about what brought you here?

M: I’m half French, half British and, before coming to Moldova, I was associate professor of economics at a French public university. A few years ago, I wanted to learn Romanian, for no special reasons: I liked the language and wanted to learn it in Romania, so I went to Brasov and did a summer course there. My first contact with Moldova was 10 years ago. I was teaching in Nice, in the South of France, and I had a few students from Moldova. At the time, I didn’t even know where Moldova was, I was curious. I just went there after my trip to Romania. I tried not to go on Google or get information from other people, I wanted to get my own impressions. Without much research, I must say I heard people say that “Moldova is a very poor country, poorest in the Europe, etc.” My first experience in Chisinau was, actually, kind of a good surprise. I like your country very much. At the time, my Romanian was very bad compared to what it is now, so people tried to help me out. When I first got to Moldova in 2015, your country was voted the least visited country in Europe. It’s rather sad that people don’t visit it, considering the fact that you have a nice country and nice people. I thought, why not go to Moldova, open a little company and try to make something with tourism? I feel like it’s not so explored, although it has a lot of potential. Even if I failed, I would benefit from the experience of living in a different country. Just before leaving, I answered a call for papers to contribute to a book focusing on technology and globalization. In fact, what I did was submit a proposal for what I had in mind back then, the idea that one can only improve tourism in Moldova if one uses technology. It’s because today, we’re living in a kind of platform-based world, with the social media. I think it’s a good idea to try to use technology and promote the country like that.

This was my whole reflection on Tourism 2.0. It’s getting people to interact, to contribute, to generate content, to share photos, ideas and experiences. If you go to travel agency websites, sometimes – you do find nice websites, with nice photos, etc.. But if people don’t know anything about Moldova, even if it looks nice, they will not go there. I remember very well, my feeling when I wanted to go for the first time. I was a bit impressed, because my language skills were not very good. It’s a bit of a mysterious country, it used to be part of the Soviet Union. All these post soviet countries are very interesting. Coming to Eastern Europe is like a discovery, it’s nothing like Austria or Switzerland. I was surprised, because it wasn’t that difficult to be in Moldova. People were nice, I could see that they had problems… I wouldn’t like to talk about all their problems, but life was tough, Moldova has a lot of poverty, a lot of corruption – these are the big issues. But in spite of that, people are trying to do something. Also, when you’re a foreigner, you’re being treated very nicely. I’m sad to say this, but most people in the world do not know where Moldova is. It’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because there isn’t a lot of communication, and this is the big problem with Moldova. Every time there is communication in the media – it is to highlight the problems. If you want me to list all the problems with Moldova, I’ll unfortunately write a very long list.

For us, foreigners being in Moldova is like an adventure. A lot of people who go to Moldova for the first time do it because they have a friend there. I think there could be psychological aspects for Moldovan people to overcome in order to attract tourists to Moldova. You have to show them the good things first; not just the problems, not just the corruption, not just the banking scandals, but also the culture, the traditions, etc.. That’s my general perspective about your country.

A: Can you briefly describe what each of the Moldova Tours 2.0 perspective tours offer within their activities?

M: What I was thinking was that everybody has their own reasons to go to Moldova. For example, the monastery tours would be for people interested in religious tourism. You have very nice monasteries in Moldova. One can take a whole week to just do this. Most people don’t just go to a country in order to visit a monastery. I think it was a good thing to divide tours in such a way, because I knew there would be people interested in them. For example, I was approached by a company in Pakistan. A Christian group of people with a travel agency in Pakistan. They wanted to send me some customers, because they do religious tourism in countries like Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, etc.. Moldova would be a whole new market for them. And then, there are people interested in wine. The French region where I come from, Burgundy, is very famous for wine. I must say I’m very impressed by the quality of the Moldovan wine. Then, you have the corporate tours. That’s for business men, for potential investors and so you need to organize something which is very suitable for them. I like the idea of the social business tours very much. A lot of people want to go to Moldova with some kind of NGO perspective. They know there are a lot of problems and so they want to help.

Most people are not going to be interested in doing one thing for a week, so that’s what the perspective tours offer. You go to Moldova for the first time and then, you could have a mix of everything. It’s funny, 2 days ago I received an E-mail from somebody in Florida, and I thought that was crazy, because they wanted to travel all the way from Florida, just to visit one monastery near Nisporeni. I thought that was crazy! Why would you come all the way up here and only want to see one thing?

Another thing I am exploring right now, and I believe has a lot of potential, is developing Russian teaching combined with tourism. One reason is because Moldova is nice and most people don’t know about it, and the other one is because it is, actually, very cheap. Moldovan people complain that there is no money, that everything is expensive, and it’s true, because the salaries are very low here. Now, if you come from the Netherlands with a very good purchasing power, you’ll find Moldova extremely cheap, compared to other destinations.

Moldova has very good doctors as well. I’ve spoken to people, and I know that the dental care you can get in Moldova would be the same as what you can get in France or Germany, but four times cheaper. It’s another thing you can think about.

A: Could you explain what is the role of Blockchain for Tourism 2.0, in easy terms?

M: That is a very important question. Blockchain is an area of interest, it’s something I have researched and published articles about. It’s really something very large that I’m interested in. At first, it all started with Bitcoin. It’s not just about Bitcoin, it’s about the technology behind Bitcoin. A British guy currently staying in Moldova has a big project here. In fact, he had a very successful experience on a Greek island about 2 years ago. There was a big turmoil in Greece, people were talking about the exit from the European Union. Finally, they saw the problems, but it was a big mess. So what he did, he went to a Greek island and introduced the cryptocurrency based on blockchain through just tourism – as an experiment. This cryptocurrency would be accepted by hotels, restaurants, tourism service providers, and there would be no fee. People would save money thanks to this cryptographic technology… You could transfer money without paying the fee. You pay very high fees when you transfer by credit card, for instance, when you travel abroad. This guy obtained a very good result on this island, where he introduced the blockchain-based currency. You need two things: you need people to work together as a coherent ecosystem, and this is exactly what tourism is about. Nowadays, you just have individual and separated elements. There are hotels, restaurants, guides, travel agencies. Everybody is working separately. If you could introduce a crypto-token – which would be accepted as a parallel currency – this could redefine tourism and, it would bring a lot of media exposure. There would be people that would come to Moldova because they’re curious. For example, a lot of people travelled to the island where the clip ‘Despacito’ was filmed (editor’s note: Porto Rico) – just because of the popularity on the internet. I’m not saying we should be superficial all the time, but sometimes you have to play with the marketing trends, the social media, so that you can create some kind of novelty. I think it would be interesting for people. The only people who go to Moldova nowadays either have a friend there, or are a bit adventurous, curious.

A lot of people interested in History come to Moldova as well. Moldova has a very rich history. There are settlements in the North of Moldova, and these settlements come
from one of the oldest civilizations that has ever existed in Europe, the Cucuteni civilization, around 7000 years ago. This civilization was, in fact, extremely advanced. I know someone who was doing her PhD in archeology, and she excavated some remnants of this ancient civilization. Those were very intelligent people, the most advanced, considering the level of technology they had at the time. The way this civilization disappeared is very mysterious as well. It’s a bit like in the Bible, there could have been a natural disaster, a catarstrophe – it’s very unclear under which circumstances this civilization disappeared.

Source: Transylvaniaworld.com

Click here for more about the Cucuteni civilization.

It’s not just the 20th century and the Soviet Union that attract tourists interested in history. A lot happened in the Middle ages as well, or around the Stefan cel Mare time. It is a very deep belief to me, that a lot of Moldovans are very critical about their own countries because of all the political problems. Most of the time are not aware of their own heritage, their culture. Surprisingly to me, a lot of Moldovans haven’t even visited their own country. On my second day in Moldova, I was in Tipova. Talking to some people later who’ve lived in Moldova forever, and they told me they’d never been to Tipova. And it’s a very nice place in your country. How can you promote your country if you don’t know it too well?

A: I’d like to talk more about poverty and corruption in Moldova. What way do you believe in, that would get Moldova to consolidate the rule of law? What “propels judicial nihilism and corruption in Moldovan society?”

M: May I ask what you’re studing in the Netherlands?

A: It’s called Interactive/Media/Design, a conceptual art-related subject.

M: So you’re not a law student. The question you asked me is very difficult. How could we consolidate, strengthen the rule of law? You said it very well, Moldova is a very young country – 26-27 years old, the problem you have in Moldova is the same problem a lot of transition economies have: high levels of corruption. One could find the same problems in a lot of similar economies. With more economic grouth, with more economic prosperity – there would be less corruption. But this is only in the long term, so the question is, how could we improve the situation in the short term at least, knowing that it’s a difficult problem, because corruption in Moldova is a big problem. You asked a question about Blockchain, and I should’ve added something. Blockchain has some applications for the e-government, and also, more transparency in everything: for public services, in public life etc. What I think Moldova needs is more transparency about politicians. They have vested interests, and it could be that blockchain technologies could help out here. Say, you use blockchain for publicizing information related to politicians, especially politicians involved in previous elections, and see if they have any potential conflict of interest. You could see, for example, if they have a contract with a big company. One could use digital technologies, like blockchain, to generate more transparency. It would be a step in the right direction. I see that a lot of people vote for politicians for very superficial reasons. And this is what happened last year, in 2016 – people being disappointed with the EU movement and decided to look backwards, up to the Russian standards. If people reflected more upon this, they would understand it’s not as simple as it seems. People need to create a more transparent environment and know exactly who they’re voting for – the ideas they are going to present in the parliament. 

A: I’m not sure whether you’ve read “Society of the spectacle” by Guy Debord, but he wrote a lot about the political spectacle, comparing the authorities to some sort of ‘pseudo-stars.’ He said “The spectacle exists in a concentrated form and diffuse form depending on the requirements of the particular stage of poverty it denies and supports.”

Unquestionably, the Moldovan authorities manipulate people in any way they can. If you agree with that, what is the reason this whole spectacle is happening? Why have people become hopeless and inactive in what comes to being part of a community and fighting for a better country?

M: Thank you for this question. One of my best friends who I’m collaborating with for this project, is a journalist here. She told me, many times, that there isn’t really any independent journalism in Moldova. People have tried, and failed – because of the lack of financial resources. The media is politically controlled, and so a lot of people are extremely passive. A thing which is very sad about Moldova is the divide between people who live here and the diaspora. When you go abroad you get to interact with other cultures, other people – it opens your mind. A lot of people in Moldova have a very narrow mindset, and this is very easy to understand. They have a life which is very difficult, they may be making around €250 a month, so when they go back home in the evening – they’re tired, they have to look after their children, their household. They turn on the television – they don’t really have the energy, the strength to go further than that. I know there are some people who are trying to do this – people with a more critical perspective. These people should really be given credit for trying to open minds and eyes of the masses. Poverty turns it into an extremely slow process.

When I came to Moldova, about to establish myself, I’ve arrived on September 4th 2015, and 2 days later you had the biggest demonstration ever in the history of your country. Chisinau had more people on the streets than on Independence Day in 1991. I think it was around 100.000 people, and that was a big movement. Through the winter, there were big protests in front of the government building. I thought that, maybe, there was going to be a similar scenario – like you had in Ukraine, with Maidan. I thought people were going to revolt, rebel against the government. And what happened was… it faded away. Everything went back to normal. People were resigned, I think. People – they can’t just spend 6 months in a tent, in front of the parliament. They need money, they have children… It’s just an economic necessity that brought people back to where they were. In fact, I don’t think anything has really changed, the appearance perhaps – on the surface. And this is sad, people are victims of their own economic conditions. There was a nice window at some stage, for people who want to change society. But this window is not really effective. I’m glad it didn’t turn into a similar movement as in Ukraine, because what happened in Ukraine was very violent. There was bloodshed, and I did not see Moldova as a country like that. It’s a very divided country. You have Russian speaking people, Romanian speaking people… Turkish speaking people (editor’s note: Gagauz), and so on – but it’s not a violent country. I’m glad that in spite of the problems you had, you didn’t take the same route as Ukraine, because the situation hasn’t improved much in there ever since. What Moldovan people need is to get more education. Education is another big problem in Moldova. It needs better education, better paid teachers, so that people have a more constructive criticism about what is going on around them. It’s more of a long term thing.

Getting back to my topic – it’s very important for your country that more foreigners go there. Of course, tourists are going to bring money, but they’re also going to bring in ideas by interacting with the locals. That’s something that could really help your country.

Boulevard Saint Germain, Paris, May 6 1968. Photograph: Bruno Barbey/Magnum

A: What would be an advice you could give to the Moldovan diaspora as well as the people living in Moldova in order for them to contribute to the country they hope for?

M: There are lot of different people in diaspora. It isn’t one whole mindset. There is something I wrote in my papers: it is about the future of Moldova the diaspora has a key role to play in. Diaspora may be the most decisive force for the future of Moldova. We were talking about technologies. What diaspora has to do, is try and be more united, try to be better connected on a platform, and thus, better organized. Diaspora needs to have a voice in the domestic affairs.

Today, the diaspora isn’t very well represented. I don’t think the voice of diaspora is very powerful. Using a platform-based technology would get diaspora to speak with a common voice in a way that is more coherent and powerful. Right now, you have Moldovans living almost everywhere in the world. Every country has a consulate, an embassy, and there is a need of organizing everything at an international level. I like Moldova.org a lot. I think you are doing something in the right direction. The platform you have is, in fact, a very powerful instrument. What you do – you are trying to inform people. My objective is trying to arouse interest about Moldova as a first step and bringing people to Moldova as a second step. It may sound like a foundation, but my project contains a private component, which is business, or profit-oriented. It’s ambitious, because it’s a big project, but I like to be optimistic, regardless of the problems and difficulties.

Access the Moldova Tours 2.0 website here.
Further readings:
Historic protests in Romania: are there any lessons for the Republic of Moldova? By Irina Staver and Marc Pilkington
Can the Blockchain Help Fight off Corruption in Developing Countries? The Case of the Republic of Moldova.
Why Everyone Is Getting Excited About This Underrated Travel Destination

Currently studying Interactive/Media/Design at the Royal Academy of Art. Based in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Diaspora

4th Moldovan-American Convention to take place in Miami on October 14th

The 4th Moldovan-American Convention (“MAC4”) will take place in Miami, Florida, on October 14, 2017 (9 am to 5 pm) at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts; Peacock Foundation Studio.

This edition of the Convention will continue to explore the social issues affecting Moldovan citizens, including culture, economy, and education, and will focus on the civic activism of the Moldovan diaspora and on its potential to impact the political, social, and economic landscape of Moldova.

Moreover, the Convention will include a Social Project Contest for the individuals, NGOs, communities or associations of the Moldovan Diaspora that want to implement a project for the benefit of the Diaspora or the Moldovans back in Moldova.

The winning project of the contest will receive a $500 grant.

Moldovan-American Conventions are annual events, which are hosted in different cities in the North America. Each Convention focuses on themes relevant to the ever-changing needs of the people of the Republic of Moldova.
MAC4 is privately funded through the efforts of the Moldovan diaspora only and is organized by the community volunteers. The organizers are welcoming everyone to come on board as a participant, volunteer, professional service provider, presenter and/or sponsor!

Those who are interested can submit their proposals for agenda, presenters and your personal involvement via email at [email protected] or with the help of the contact page. The Facebook event of the MAC4 can be found here.

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Diaspora

The members of the Moldovan “Adopt a vote” group gathered once more, in Chisinau

Representatives of the diaspora as well as fellow countrymen organized the second edition of the “Adopt a vote” offline event this weekend. This time, the event took place in Chisinau and gathered more than 100 citizens. “Adopt a vote” is a civic movement that emerged during the presidential elections in 2016 when tens of thousands of Moldovans from abroad helped each other to get to the polling stations. In the offline world, the “Adopt a vote” community sets the foundations for projects that contribute to the country’s prosperity.

“The second edition is proof of the fact that we created that collaboration between us, citizens of the Republic of Moldova. We are more consolidated and in partnership with civil society, we want to implement projects at home”

Moreover, the participants were divided into six thematic groups: Economic, Social, Education, Media, Culture and Elections. Within these teams, fellow citizens discussed existing issues and submitted project ideas. The Economic Group decided to create a diaspora investment fund, while the Social will develop a database of all NGOs in the country and outside. “The Media team has developed a project aimed at spreading alternative news for Russian speakers. Another idea is to create online shows for Moldovan citizens living abroad,” said Ana Gherciu, journalist Moldova.org. The Alegeri Group has decided to make a statement on condemning the change of the electoral system.

The first offline gathering took place in February 2017, in Venice, where over 200 Moldovans from 19 countries started their first organized and funded by citizens projects.

The “Adopt a Vote” community currently owns a Facebook group, with over 97,000 citizens, and a website.

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Diaspora

Chișinău Appeal Court: Voting right of Moldovans living abroad was not violated

On December 6th, the Appeal Court of Chișinău maintained the decision of Centru Court from December 2nd to reject the appeal of lawyers of 143 Moldovan citizens who could not exercise their voting rights at the Presidential elections on November 13th due to insufficient number of voting ballots, reports ZdG.md.

The motivated decision will be made public on December 11th.
Eduard Digore, one of the lawyers, declared he would challenge the decision at the Supreme Court of Justice, saying that the judges of the Appeal Court don’t pay attention to people’s rights.

On November 29th, the Centru Court from Chișinău rejected the complaint filed by the lawyers of 143 Moldovans living abroad who could not exercise their voting rights at the Presidential elections on November 13th due to insufficient number of voting ballots. The judge thought the request was unfounded.

Previously, Moldovans living abroad protested in more than 30 cities of Europe, Canada and US against the bad organization of the Presidential elections and for the resignation of the Foreign Minister and all the members of the Electoral Commission.
Over 3000 complaints were sent by the Moldovan diaspora to the Central Electoral Commission.

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