A Perception of Danger

A Perception of Danger

I was watching the news this morning and saw that protestors had infiltrated the Macedonian Parliament, bloodying the face of the leader of the Social Democrats. The protests followed the appointment of an ethnic Albanian as Speaker, and shows that the tensions in the region continue to bubble under the surface. I had the pleasure to visit Skopje last October on business and it will not surprise you to learn that I was greeted with a rare kind of hospitality both by work colleagues and in the restaurants and bars at night. These are special, warm people and many lived through years of conflict.

It neither unsettled nor worried me that the (excellent) Serbian folk band that payed in the restaurant on my last evening were playing nationalistic songs. I have experienced that in many parts of the world, including many times in Ireland. At that level it is not so much threatening as a statement of national identity, and we all have that in our blood to a greater or lesser extent. But when national identity spills over into even a mild form of racism, then there is cause for concern, because of what it could lead to. So hopefully the hotheads will see themselves on TV, realise they have made their point and retreat to a position from where reasonable discussions can develop.

I am writing this in a Chisinau hotel as I wait for a driver to collect me for my flight home. Although to a large extent I have been isolated from life in this city during my week of work here, it feels safe and I am assured it is. My hotel is a short drive from the business centre where I have been training, but the traffic here is exceptionally bad at the moment following a freak weather incident on the day before I arrived. A sudden, unseasonal, heavy snowfall took many of the city’s trees down, blocking roads and requiring the military to spend several days clearing up. So the short drive actually takes as long as the fifteen minute walk.

On my second day I chose to walk back, but failed to listen carefully the important bit about turning right once I had crossed the main road. I walked on absorbing the atmosphere of the place. Chisinau is developing, but slowly. A lot of construction is needed to bring the facilities in the city to a standard that we are accustomed to throughout the Europe Union, and a lot of construction is taking place amid the clearing up after the snowfall. As you drive out of the working heart of the city you see more of the newer developments, but the centre is populated by concrete buildings that have a Soviet feel about them, some grand historic buildings that are a little down at heel, and the opulence of the occasional church.

The myriad street traders selling anything they can to earn the smallest amounts of cash are a visible indication of how far the city still has to go, but as I walked in my Western business suit along the main streets, the back streets, or in the subways, I felt absolutely no threat and was not hussled as I might have been in other cities. I probably stood out like a sore thumb but either people did not bother to notice, and smiled and gave me respect. Yet that evening from my hotel room I could clearly hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire, and the following morning the Police sirens filled the air.

The latter was apparently a crackdown on government and city officials that had been going on for some time, and is a result of Moldova signing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU, one requirement of which is a clamp down on corrupt practises. The former appeared to surprise my colleagues who explained the shots away as fire crackers, but I know what both fire crackers and guns sound like so I left the conversation there. The reality is that there is still gangster activity in the city. So my three days of training consultants here on how to formulate an export plan are also part of the process of integrating Moldovan business into the ‘European way’. Evidence that there is business to be done here was never better illustrated than by an invitation being extended to me to attend a twice yearly wine tasting event. 147 independent Moldovan wine producers all showed off their excellent products under one very large marquee roof, and while I was able to sample only a fraction of what was on offer, it felt like I was experiencing how Chisinau was going to be in future years.

Then I remembered the Macedonia parliament incident, and I recalled my visit to Ukraine last month when a Russian opposition politician was shot dead in a hotel less than a mile from mine, and the under-reported destruction by a drone bomb of an arms depot in the troubled east of the country that led to the immediate imposition of a 20 kilometre exclusion zone. I remembered how I was in Kosovo in June last year and how this year a train carrying Serbian nationalist slogans was halted at the Kosovan border. It reminds you that a simmering pot can easily overboil if you don’t look after it, and it demonstrated once again that on these business trips you largely live in a cocoon.

Article written by John Reed – Associate of Strong & Herd LLP



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