Menu
Feature

The mayor

How Tatiana Badan attempts to arrest the decline of the Moldovan village Selemet.

2. October 2018
Magazine > Feature > The mayor

Selemet is a village in the Republic of Moldova: abandoned, tumbledown, forgotten – like so many. A quarter of the 5,000-strong population lives abroad, while those who remain attempt to arrest the decline – above all Tatiana Badan, the village mayor.

Early in the morning the air in Selemet is already sweet with the scent of acacia flowers, mixed with the strong perfume of a woman in a black suit, strutting along the bumpy village street in high heels. Her claret-coloured bob matches her lipstick and the nail varnish that decorates her cared-for worker’s hands. Her arms are like those of all the other women here, who work in the fields as well as doing housework. Tatiana Badan is a strong woman in every sense of the word. She proudly wears a flag-shaped badge with the national colours of Moldova pinned to her breast; it bears the word ‘Primarul’, meaning ‘Mayor’.

There’s no one in sight, apart from a few geese cackling as they cross the road – they’re in no danger of being run over. Badan points to a ruined house on the left – the windows are bolted, the weeds are as tall as a man, the padlock on the door is rusty. “A family of four used to live here: now they’re scattered all over Europe in Portugal, Ukraine and Russia”.

A few metres further on she points to a house that has obviously seen better days, a long time ago. “A tragic case,” she says. “The woman went to Italy to work as a cleaner and never came back. Since then, her abandoned husband is drinking himself to death.” Not much further on, there’s a crooked wooden house, with weathered shutters, damaged fence rails and broken windows. There’s a well in front, and you can hear a dog barking. “The grandparents live here alone now. Their five children have been living abroad for years. No one looks after the old people.”

“A family of four used to live here: now they’re scattered all over Europe in Portugal, Ukraine and Russia”.

Tatiana could continue her tales for seven kilometres: that’s the length of the road through Selemet. A quarter of the 1,600 houses are empty. At first sight it’s a place that represents the dying of the countryside, but a second glance shows that it’s actually a sign of the fact that all is not yet lost.

Hope comes from a 53-year-old mayor who is trying to lift the melancholy from the village by making it more worth living in and by awakening the feeling among those who’ve left that it is their home to which they might return one day. Some people call her a visionary, prompting an embarrassed smile: she prefers the term ‘optimist’. The unusual feature of her position is that she’s not allied to any political party. As an independent politician, she avoids internal political wrangling and crazy bureaucracy, but it also means that she has no political backing, and certainly no financial support, even from the regional government. In her naiveté, she started writing begging letters to the Norwegian NGO Norge-Moldova, the Swedish embassy and an American aid organisation. When the first donations arrived, she invested the money in projects to improve Selemet’s education, infrastructure and economy. She’s now been doing this for fifteen years.

Always in touch. Mayor Tatiana Badan visits her parents’ grave. They didn’t even reach the age of seventy. Moldova’s life expectancy is one of the lowest in Europe. Photo: © Martin Zinggl

Five-year-old Eugen and his seventy-year-old great-grandmother Zinaida Coptu emerge from a farmhouse with a cracked façade. The boy lives with her: he has no one else. His mother lives in the capital Chișinău, an hour and a half away; his grandparents are in Italy. They send every cent they can spare to Selemet, yet Eugen and his great-grandmother are wearing worn-out clothes and sandals: the boy has on a baggy pullover and a cap while his grandmother wears a flower-patterned apron and a scarf wrapped round her head. She only has one tooth left, that can be seen every time she repeats the same word: “Bad!”
How’s her health? The family? Money? The weather?
It’s all bad!

Zinaida Coptu wishes it would rain, so that the harvest doesn’t dry up. She wishes that her granddaughter, Eugen’s mother, would visit them more than once a month. And that little Eugen could get to know his grandparents in person, not just from a computer screen. “Only the very young and the very old stay behind in Moldova”, she says. “We have nothing. Can’t you give us anything?” Badan tries to say something comforting: “We have still got some children’s clothes in the office. But we don’t have any money ourselves either.”

“Only the very young and the very old stay behind in Moldova.”

A couple of kilometres further on in the village centre and the heart of Badan’s kingdom, the world looks completely different. The road is being tarmacked, the fences are shiny with green paint, the houses are less than ten years old. This includes the council building where she has her office, the canteen, the kindergarten, the home for orphans and children from problem families, the dental practice, and the fitness room: these form a complex of five modern buildings equipped with computers, children’s beds, hospital beds, toys, and wheelchairs. They are surrounded by a garden with well-kept flower beds, lawns and painted kerbstones, a playground and pergolas to give shade.

“Our kindergarten will soon celebrate its tenth anniversary,” she says. “Other villages concentrated on street lighting, but we focused on educational and social institutions. The infrastructure takes first place, then the economic development will follow.” Everything is done according to a strategic plan that Badan developed with the donors’ help – and she keeps to it strictly.

Happy faces on the children are rare. One of the mayor’s great achievements is the project that includes kindergarten, school and children’s home. About one hundred children in Selemet live without their parents. Photo: © Martin Zinggl

Diagonally opposite the council building, between the bus station and the village pub, a brand-new mirror-glass building is shining in the sun. For years, women sold cucumbers and tomatoes from their garden at the roadside, and the police chased them away. Badan wrote to the aid organisation USAid, and used their donation to build a roofed market hall. Now both the police and the women are happy. The mayor receives congratulations from neighbouring villages, in which envy can also be felt.

Republic of Moldova

The Republic of Moldova was once considered the Soviet Union’s orchard and vegetable garden. It was the most densely populated region of the former world power. Today the country is facing an identity crisis, caught between Russia and the EU.
The Republic of Moldova holds two negative records: Firstly, it is the poorest country in Europe – and probably also the least known. Secondly, emigration rates are higher than in any other European country. Some 40 per cent of its working-age population already lives abroad. Over the past 27 years, the number of residents has decreased by 3.9 per cent. The UN estimates that by 2070, the Moldovan population will shrink by one third. Along with the high emigration rate, this is due to Europe’s lowest life expectancy (70.7 years) and falling birth rates. With 1.2 children per woman, the fertility rate is below the EU average of 1.6.

The next day is 9th May, and Selemet is celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany. Hundreds gather in the main square around the victory monument: the village pastor, the dentist, three men with guns, dozens of older residents and 267 school children from the primary school, that had seven times as many pupils only a few years ago. The mayor shakes hands, distributes kisses, puts her arm around grieving women who lost their husbands and sons in wars – not the Second World War, but the wars in Afghanistan and in the Republic Transnistria, Moldova’s breakaway province.

The Moldovan national anthem is followed by volleys of gunfire, and the pastor and Badan give speeches. “Stay patriotic,” she says. “Together we can achieve things – in school, in kindergarten and for the rest of our lives.” Then the schoolchildren perform plays that recall the end of the Second World War: the victory march of the Red Army, the return of survivors to their families, the funerals of those who fell in the war. Badan laughs and applauds by turns, wiping tears from her eyes before laying a wreath at the monument – this monument that was her very first project in the village after being elected mayor in 2003. In those days, cows and goats grazed around the concrete block with the names of the dead inscribed on it, and children used the area as a playground. Badan had the memorial fenced off, and a park laid out around it.

After the festivities, Badan invites people into the village canteen, another of the ‘Badan brand’ projects. A meal is cooked there every day for old men and women, for orphans and children from poor families. The tiled room has space for forty people; the smell of cleaning fluids mingles with that of chicken soup and sauerkraut strudel. At lunch today, Badan is sitting opposite the village’s council of the wise: the pastor, the dentist and thirteen other men who bombard her with questions, sometimes in loud voices: “When will the road finally be finished?”, “Why have some houses still not got a gas connection?”, “What are we supposed to live off?”. Badan hides her tension behind warm, friendly eyes, before getting out her secret weapon. She takes a deep breath and starts: talking. The words pour out of her, decorated with a smile, backed up by gesticulation.

Basically she keeps repeating the same answer, expressing it differently like a skilled, experienced politician, leaving no gaps for questions, and keeping talking until the men are all silent. That’s the secret of her success. Are those present now silent because her clever arguments are convincing, because she has annoyed them so much, or because their heads are throbbing? Whatever the reason, the method works, and has done so for fifteen years – because Badan doesn’t just talk, she acts; she looks for solutions rather than excuses. And no one starts a discussion with this woman – at least, not if he has any other plans for that day. In brief, her answers are: We’ll finish the road as soon as the next lot of money arrives. One end of the village has no water, but it has gas; at the other end it’s the other way around. We can only progress step by step, using the money that we have. First education and infrastructure, then we’ll tackle incomes. Until then, harvest what you can and sell it in the market hall.

The idyll is only skin-deep. Selemet is a village like many others: abandoned, tumbledown, forgotten. A quarter of the population lives abroad. Photo: © Martin Zinggl

The mayor earns 180 euros a month. The villagers, and the strong links to her home, are her motivation. “I can’t really live a proper modern life on my salary. But I volunteered, and I was elected. I owe it to the men and women of Selemet to stay and do my job.” But she can’t prevent the exodus abroad. The temptation is too strong, and the opportunities in Moldova too limited. Badan carefully keeps a database and invites the emigrants to send their children who live in the diaspora to a summer camp in Selemet. The main aim of this is to drum into them where their roots are.

Badan’s daughter is studying in America; her son works in Chișinău. She lives with her husband in a house that the couple shares with another family. The chicken run in the garden is empty, because she doesn’t have time for animals now. A tractor is parked there instead, that her husband uses regularly for his work in the fields.

At the end of a long day, Tatiana Badan is in her kitchen putting fried potatoes into a bowl. She has taken off the high heels and the suit; the mayor has disappeared, at least externally. Inside she is never free of her job. “90 per cent of me is dedicated to my work.” The fact that she cannot solve all her fellow citizens’ problems costs her a great deal of strength – and above all, time. Her marriage has suffered, as has the relationship to her children. “I would like to spend more time at home again,” she says, “but no one else is willing to take on the job”.

On the go until the end of the working day: Tatiana Badan is also in charge at home, to her husband Valentin’s delight. Photo: © Martin Zinggl

“Margaret Thatcher,” calls Valentin, her husband, from the sitting room, not just to annoy her. He suffers because of his wife’s job. A television can be heard in the background. Badan’s continuing popularity in Selemet is proved by the fact that she has been re-elected as mayor four times. She won each time with almost one hundred percent of the vote. In 2011 she was the only candidate. Her greatest opponent and critic is at home.

“There must be something wrong there,” calls her husband Valentin from the next room, and laughs. “We’d better invite an independent observer committee to the next elections.” At the sink, the mayor gives a brief smile.

Original in German. First published on Reporterreisenmoldau.de, as on 30 June on spiegel.de and on 14 July in Wiener Zeitung.
Translation into English by Bridget Schäfer.

This text is protected by copyright: © Martin Zinggl. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Something to celebrate: among all the appointments she has to attend, the mayor still finds time to visit the head teacher’s birthday party. Photo: © Martin Zinggl.