Is Moldova’s diaspora ready to return home?

In an era of global mobility, every fourth Moldova lives abroad. While some have returned and others are thinking of doing so, others appear gone for good. What can be done to encourage them to think again?

Dana Muntean, a Moldovan living in the Netherlands, senses more hope every time she goes back to her homeland—four times just last year. She sees young people challenging the status quo, embracing critical thinking, and wishing to join the European Union. 

“There is something special going on in Moldova now, and I feel like whoever returns now can feel as if they are part of the big transformation,” Dana says. They would leave a legacy behind, she believes.

Muntean isn’t alone in sensing the momentum. Conversations in the Moldovan capital Chișinău’s central park echo sentiments similar to those of Dimitri Malinowski, who now lives in the Netherlands. He’s optimistic about Moldova’s shift toward the European Union. He sees corruption as the main obstacle for his homeland. Dimitri thinks that honest and talented Moldovans abroad could bring the change and replace the old, dishonest mentality.

But is moving back on the table? “There is a slight chance. It’s our country; we are culturally addicted to it. We love the food, wine, people,” says Malinowski, but he is uncertain. 

Muntean would like to return one day, but not permanently. “I think having a husband who’s not originally from your country makes things a bit more difficult because we need to find a formula that works for both of us,” says Muntean, who is married to a Portuguese. But she will carry on contributing from abroad. Her NGO offers global mentorship programmes for Moldovans to guide them through challenges.

“I do want to see Moldova as a united nation, embracing its multicultural population and being a hero of our story rather than a victim. I see a prosperous future because I know we are working hard for it,” says Muntean.

No sign of a trend. Yet 

Moldovan demographers seem almost ready to give up on the idea of the diaspora ever permanently returning in large numbers. 

“We have lost them,” says Tatiana Tabac, a sociologist and demographer at the Centre for Demographic Research of Moldova. For ten years, she has been focusing on research about the diaspora. This word is ingrained in the hearts of every Moldovan, while in many other countries, it’s rarely heard in everyday life.

Tatiana Tabac explains that from 1998 to 2020, over 940,000 people left Moldova. According to World Bank estimates from 2017, there are approximately 1.025 million Moldovan migrants.

“Moldova’s population has decreased by 20-25 per cent due to international migration over the last 30 years,” she says.

There is no indication of a trend towards returning, primarily due to inadequate data.

“People are not required to declare their departure or return,” Tabac explains. The volume of departures can be estimated, however, based on data from destination countries.

What data there is data suggests that each year, around 1000-2000 returning migrants register as unemployed, primarily pensioners or pre-pensioners. Tabac has noticed the return of mainly female migrant workers from Italy, and mainly male migrant workers from Russia and Poland, who have reached an older age.

Drive to make a change

But there are also some exceptions—young, educated individuals returning with a drive to make a difference.

Elena Druță is one of them. “When I returned, nobody understood why,” she remembers well. 

Druță moved to Italy to study political science in 2005. The decision to leave was quite easy since her mother already lived there, so she joined her. Her father, sister, and her family followed suit, and suddenly, this whole Moldovan family was living in Italy.

“When we left, we initially planned to stay for a certain period, but that planned duration extended longer than expected. However, the idea of returning home never left us,” Druță says. 

In 2013, after graduating from university in Parma, she was the first in her family to return to Moldova. It was a much darker place back then. Corrupt politicians orchestrated the theft of one billion US dollars from the country’s banks in the following years. Starting a new life back in her homeland was difficult at first. Besides, returning is also often viewed as a failure amongst Moldovans, Elena explains.

She spent two more years in Italy and permanently moved back to Moldova in 2018 with her family, being a young mother herself. Her parents followed in 2021. Last year her sister’s family returned, bringing everyone from Italy back to Moldova. Druță, a political science alumna, is now an advisor on the diaspora to the Moldovan president.

“When I came back, it was very clear to me that I would be an active citizen. I wanted Moldova to be a European country. I wanted Moldova to be a democratic country,” she explains.

Two weeks turned into months

Now, with the diaspora the field in which she works, Druță has discovered that many Moldovans living abroad have limited information about their home country, which hinders their decision to return.

“They don’t know about the good salaries available in Moldova, especially in areas where professionals are needed, like IT and public institutions,” Druță explains. 

She still notices many people returning. “I see a lot of good examples in the public institutions and also in the business sector of professionals that come back.”

Natalia Bejan is one example. “Moldova is a big enough challenge. We can do so many things differently here, so much to change. This is what excites me,” says Bejan, who first worked as the executive director of the Startup Moldova Foundation but has now moved on to lead the Invest Moldova Agency.

She’s back in Moldova, after living in 15 different countries, mostly China and Czechia, consulting companies and corporations.

Natalia Bejan

She first moved to Prague to study. “I was sure that I want to be back when I am finished with my masters,” Bejan acknowledges. She moved back after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. 

“In Moldova, the rules weren’t so strict. Restaurants were open. In Prague, everything was closed,” she remembers. So, her two-week visit turned into four months. “Then I felt for the first time that I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go back for the first time in years.”

Tatiana Tabac also notices that some Moldovan migrants return home with fresh ideas and skills gained abroad. ”Although relatively rare, there are still remarkable examples of young, active, and enthusiastic migrants returning to Moldova,” sociologist and demographer adds.

They are driven by patriotism or a strong connection to their country. 

Forecasts of decline

For all this, forecasts suggest that the population of Moldova will likely decrease even further. Soon, just two million people—or even fewer—will be living in the country, indicating another decrease of half a million.

The Centre for Demographic Research made a forecast for Moldova’s population from 2019 to 2040. It shows that it’s necessary to reduce the number of people leaving the country significantly.

In one, median, scenario, Moldova’s population is expected to drop to 1.9 million by 2040. However, in a more optimistic scenario, the population is estimated to be a little over two million.

Everything depends on whether Moldova continues on a progressive path; the possibility of becoming an appealing home to raise children is not ruled out. Of course, the outcome of the Russian war on Ukraine will play a crucial role in determining Moldova’s future.

Roman Sorocan is one of those who has made peace with never returning permanently to  Moldova.

He was only 16 when he first got the opportunity to study in Colorado. After high school, he moved to Bulgaria to study and has visited over 50 countries since. “The key reason I left was my intention to get international exposure and education.”

Sorocan lives in London with his wife, who is also Moldovan, and newborn baby. There is a Moldovan shop not far from their house in London, so they can have a taste of home anytime of the day. “This will be the city I will spend the rest of my life in,” he says. 

Hubbing it up

He has had some thoughts of returning. At one point, he really wanted to come back.

“However, since I had my first child, my world has shifted massively, and I think I’ve made my peace with the fact that I will never go back,” he admits. He feels more like a tourist in the country where his parents live.

“The only reason I would go back is for a few years in case there is a massive business opportunity,” says Sorocan, who fears that Moldova is still far from offering opportunities in his field—artificial intelligence. 

“Western European cities are the main hubs for advanced tech and have a massive network effect when it comes to my industry. Hence, a lot of people who are in banking, technology, advertising, and other well-paid global roles would not consider going back.”

As his story illustrates, the global trend of professionals seeking opportunities abroad, and perhaps ignoring what might be possible as home, is clear. It would be in Moldova’s best interest to start to position itself as one of those hubs in order to retain its talent and foster growth—and to encourage more of its skilled diaspora to return.

Top photo: Dana Muntean at a Moldovan wedding: always a good reason to return.

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