Saturday, July 29, 2006

Moldova is Coming Closer to EU: Is It For Real?!

On February 22, 2005, the Moldovan Government signed the EU-Moldova Action Plan (AP), and commited to implement all its provisions in three years. The AP, along with the Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EGPRS), has become a major instrument which governs various types of reforms in the political, social and economic life in Moldova.

To my delight, my own observations allow me to conclude that these two documentents are more than wasted paper. On one hand, implementation of EGPRS is expected to bring Moldova out of poverty by stimulating economic activity. On the other hand, implementation of the AP is intended to bring Moldovan institutions, legislation and the entire society closer to European values, practices and markets. Obviously, there is a loooong way until these objectives are achieved, but as the saying goes, the intention is what really counts.

It's been a pleasant surprise for me to witness that the central government is indeed set on achieving the goals stipulated in these two strategic documents. This is the right starting point. It will take some time until all public officials and employees begin taking this process seriously, but given the unyielding pressure from European Commission and Council of Europe, the bureaucratic cart will ultimately move in the right direction. This, in of itself, is very good news. At least for optimistic people like me.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

More about Education: To Banish Others or Reform Yourself?

On Thursdays, Moldovan national radio broadcasts live Parliamentary sessions. Today the topic of hot debates was education. More specifically, something should be done regarding an continuously increasing number of private institutions providing educational services of low quality in unacceptable conditions (e.g. overcrowded classrooms, basement location, unsanitary conditions, lack of teaching materials, etc) One proposed way to solve this problem, which materialized in a draft law, is to banish all private educational institutions.

At least for me, this is an unacceptable policy solution. Banishing private service providers is a "traditional" way of removing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the true causes! The reason why we have so many institutions that provide unsatisfactory services is because the government fails to enforce its own laws and regulations. Instead, the government should raise standards, improve its monitoring and enforcement functions, punish its own employees who engage in corrupt practices (like issuing licenses to ineligible or poorly performing institutions), and raise public awareness regarding the quality and importance of education. On the other end, the employers will make their own decision regarding the preferred schooling of their workforce. The ultimate consequence of such actions is that poorly performing providers of educational services will vanish in a democratic, market-driven way. The government will have done its job, and the market, too.

Probably I'm not the only one who thinks that this is a much more challenging solution to the problem, since it involves various individual interests. Once the issue has been raised, here is an opportunity for the Moldovan government to implement a truly democratic, Western-type reform. However, all it takes is that ever-missing political will.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Who has the right to education in Moldova?

In the higly centralized educational system in Moldova, the Ministry of Education establishes the numbers of students that may enroll in higher education institutions. Particularly, this is a problem for students that want to pursue undegraduate studies in popular areas such as Law, Economics, etc, since the demand for educational services in these areas is greater than universitities are allowed to supply. This policy extends beyond the continuously decreasing number of state scholarships. Now, even students who are capable and willing to pay for an education, often find their freedom of choice limited by Government regulations. It is not clear why a high-school graduate who wants to study economics, is not allowed to. Is it because other, let's say 2,000, high-school graduates also want to study economics this year? Is it because the Government can only guarantee jobs to 2,000 to-be-economists 4-5 years from now? Obviously, none of these reasons is valid. In a democracy, people should be able to freely exercise their right to education, and freedom of choice. The Government should oversee and regulate the quality of educational services, as well as maintain affordable education for poor students, rather than interfere with the market-driven quantity and cost of services.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Vacation- and Lunchtime in Moldova

Life slows down in Chisinau in the summer. Everyone seems to be on vacation. Even my favorite weekly, Economic Overview, has been on vacation for three weeks. There are many differences between life in Moldova and the US, but the way Moldovan organizations approach lunchtime and vacation is most striking to me.

I’m sure the saying ‘time is money’ is well-known in Moldova. However, Moldovan banks, administrative offices, government offices and agencies, post offices, libraries, shops, accounting offices, etc. usually close down for an hour for lunch. The entire office or organization may close, or most frequently, the office that deals with clients/customers. If you need to do business during lunchtime, you have to wait. However, if you are willing to pay ‘extra’ for the lunchtime service, the doors miraculously open. Therefore, the “business” continues during lunchtime. Time really becomes money. I am guessing that lunchtime is most conducive for corrupt activities, and it would not be surprising if lunchtime were the time with the highest number of corrupt transactions and deals.

Service providing organizations closing their doors for lunch or vacation is something unheard of in American cities. Closing down the entire organization for lunch is a practice inherited from the Soviet times, and seems wasteful and inefficient. Why would a bank want all its employees to take lunch at the same time?! Wouldn’t an additional hour of operation bring more business, and revenue?! How does a popular newspaper benefit from not publishing for three weeks? I just cannot imagine New York Times taking a break, not even for a couple of days. If it did, it would mean bad news. The same logic applies to governmental agencies: the employees can take turns in taking their lunchtime; the entire office does not need to close down.

Probably I wouldn’t have written this article today if I a copy of Economic Overview had been available, and I had not spent one hour outside the bank to make a deposit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tourism in Moldova: A Comparative Perspective

I have just returned from a vacation in Europe. I was a tourist in Italy and France for about two weeks. In Italy I traveled in Tuscany and Umbria, and in France I discovered Paris and Brittany (the Crozon Peninsula). Tourism is well-developed in both countries, and supported by both national and European governments. Overall, my traveling experience was very satisfying, regardless of annoying details like luggage lost in the airports, language barriers, unexpected changes in weather, time and budget constraints.

Throughout my vacation, I could not stop wondering why a similar experience is still not possible in Moldova. Why is tourism in Moldova still such a foreign concept? The main tourists attractions of Tuscany are its landscapes, wines and well-preserved medieval towns. Moldova abounds in beautiful landscapes, boasts a large wine-making industry, and inherited a number of medieval fortresses and many old churches and monasteries. Why hasn’t Moldova started marketing these assets in order to attract the tourists from all over the world? Why is the Moldovan government still so passive when it comes to tourism? Moldova needs to strive to become a competitive tourist destitation, and it has no time to waste.

The first place where a tourist learns about a country is in its airports and airplanes. For example, Romania is advertising its beautiful tourist attractions via short documentary films with English subtitles on Tarom aircrafts. It is noteworthy that the films are targeted for both national and international travelers. Special magazines published by Alitalia, Air France and Tarom are another tool of marketing the countries’ attractions through exciting articles and photographs. Air Moldova offers the Open Skies magazine, which has a pretty good balance of articles on Moldovan topics.

There is plenty of all kind of tourist information in the French and Italian airports, as well as in all the towns and tourists destinations in these two countries. In Moldova, however, the airport offers very little materials and information of what to do in Moldova. In Chisinau, such information is limited and difficult to access. No information for tourists exists beyond the limits of its capital, Chisinau.

What is there to do in Moldova? What is worth visiting in this country? Where to start? Where to stay overnight? Who to call? When can one rent a car or a bicycle? For tourists intending to travel to France and Italy similar questions can be easily answered after a 2-3 hour research in Internet. As a Moldovan, I find very limited useful information on tourism in Moldova in Internet. Try to do such a research, and please let me know what you find!

I like traveling, and I’d gladly spend my weekends ‘consuming’ tourist services in Moldova. I’d like to cycle through Moldovan countryside, I’d like to be able to rent a car and stay overnight somewhere nice. However, this is wishful thinking. And it will remain a dream until I, as a tourist, can benefit from three essential things: security, information, and all types of infrastructure.