Bălţi is the third-largest city of the Republic of Moldova, and the main city of its north. The town is situated on the small river Răut (sometimes incorrectly spelled Reut, an affluent of Nistru Dniester), among a hilly landscape that in the middle ages was covered with forest, but has since been almost entirely cut down.
The exact population of the city is hard to estimate. The official 2005 census indicated 126 728 inhabitants, but its accuracy is highly questionable, as the census officials, possibly motivated by financial shortages or political considerations, filled in approximate data rather than questioning large portions of population. The last census, during the Soviet period (1989), came up with approx. 159 000. An exodus has occurred since 1992 due to the economic situation in Moldova (worsening until 2001-2002 and stagnant after 2001-2002).
Many emigrant workers from the city are temporarily (legally or illegally) working in Russia and Greece, as well as western Europe including Italy, Portugal and Ireland, as it is very difficult to earn a living in Moldova. Often, elderly relatives and children of these workers are left to live in Bălţi. It is not unheard of for children to be left with minimal to no supervision for months or more.
Other former inhabitants of Bălţi moved (often permanently) during the same period to work or study in Romania, Russia, or the rest of Europe.
In 1930, by the Romanian census, Balti had a population of 35 000, of which 20 000 were Jews, 10 000 Romanians, and 5 000 Ukrainians and Russians. The surrounding Bălţi county was by the same census almost entirely Romanian, and it remains so nowadays. After World War II, during the period when the city was part of the former Soviet Union, there was significant immigration from all over the USSR, in a move to establish a local Soviet and party apparatus, to develop the industry, and to create a Russian-speaking majority. In the same period many Moldavians/Romanians from the countryside of Moldova moved to the cities, including Bălţi. By the end of 1980s the Jews had migrated en masse to Israel. The Russian-speaking portion of the population (identifying themselves ethnically as Russians, Ukrainians, but also as over 30 other ethnicities of the former Soviet empire) had by then reached almost 50%, with Romanian-speaking Moldavians representing the other 50%.
Today, official figures put Moldavians/Romanians at 54%, Russians at 19% and Ukrainians at 24%, although Ukrainians often speak Russian, or a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian as their native tongue.
The majority of population is bilingual, although both groups often speak the other language reluctantly. Some older Russians, especially those who came to Moldova as adults and had a career in the Soviet system, can speak only Russian, though they often understand some Romanian. Younger Moldavians, educated after 1989, speak mainly Romanian while understanding some Russian.
Geography, territory, and administrative composition
Bălţi is situated on the top and slopes of hills, and partially in a valley. The land in the north of Moldova is very fertile, with black-earth dominating in quasi-totality. The agricultural potential represents practically the only natural resource of Moldova. Some excavation of materials for the construction industry is also employed at several sites around Bălţi.
The river Raut, which is the size of a creek when it passes Bălţi, is polluted in a village upstream by a Soviet-style animal farm. Using its water is therefore quite hazardous, but for the most part the banks are fenced or otherwise unaccessible to the population.
The municipality covers an area of 78.0 km˛, of which the city proper 41.42 km˛, the village Elisabeta (an eastern suburb) 9.81 km˛, and the village Sadovoe (a north-western suburb) 26.77 km˛. Of these, an important portion (20.11 km˛) is actually agricultural land.
Some city neighborhoods bear the names of the former 19th century suburbs: Pamanteni, Slobozia, Molodova, Baltul Nou, Podul Chisinaului; some are known by their Soviet-era names: 8th district, 9th district; or other names: Autogara (which in Romanian means the inter-city coach station), Dacia, also colloquially named Bam (the Soviet-era name October, from the October Revolution of 1917, was never used colloquially during that period).
The main points of attraction in the city are:
- the "Vasile Alecsandri" theatre in the downtown
- the St Nicolas church (1795), orthodox.
The building has a degree of catholic
influence from Galicia (western Ukraine)
brought in by the architect
the St Constantine and Elena Cathedral (1933), orthodox, Romanian neo-Byzantine style (the building). At its official opening the whole Romanian royal family were present. The building survived almost without visible effects the harsh treatment during the Soviet era, when it was for most of the time a depot, later to be turned into the municipal museum.
- the Bishopric palace and the surrounding park, which during the Soviet time was the main office of the agricultural enterprise-institute "Selectia", and the nearby small church
- the Armenian church downtown
- the oldest surviving building, a two-stories boyar house, presently right in the centre of the downtown area, dates back to 1609, but it has been re-constructed and re-modeled many times with total disregard to conservation to the extent that now it simply looks like an odd two-storey building.
- others (see down through the text)
Economy, transportation, and utilities
The city was an important economic center during the Soviet era, with manufacturing playing an important role. Although the latter was mostly related to processing of farm products (such as wine making, sugar, meat processing, flour milling), there was also manufacturing of agricultural machinery, of various construction materials or fur clothing. A mammoth Soviet-type 8000-workers factory (called "Lenin" before 1989 and "Raut" afterwards) produced a large variety of machine building products for consumer or industry use, from irons and telephone sets to sonar equipment for Soviet Military submarines.
However due to swift changes in the economic environment after the breakdown of the Soviet planned economy system to which the local management, accustomed to rely only on directives from above, could not adapt, the manufacturing base of the city has all but stalled, hence now outdated, if not sold for pennies.
The service sector has developed after 1989 only to the extent to cover the basic needs of the population. A variety of small private stores and supermarkets opened. Also, there are 4 center mall 6 public-owned and 4 private-owned markets, these are places where small-scale businessmen or mostly -women can for a tax trade different goods: imported or local-made clothing or agricultural products from farms in the villages neighboring Bălţi.
The main energy supply of the city comes from the local thermo-electric plant CET Nord , which uses a variety of imported carbon-based fuel (easier to obtain and cheaper than oil). The city is well-connected by high-voltage lines, and there are recent plans for the construction of a new line.
Russian-imported natural gas is distributed to households, generally for cooking, not for heating. But this commodity has recently become a political hazard. Winter heating is distributed in a centralized fashion throughout the city by pipelines.
Although the city was often without electricity and heating during the political hassles of 1994-2001, it has experienced no shortages or interruptions ever since.
The drinking water is supplied into the pipes from a network of local artesian wells (which are insufficient) and from the river Nistru (Dnister) by a 60 km long pipeline connecting Balti to Soroca (which is not economically feasible).
Bălţi was and is an important transportation hub of Moldova, though the quality of the paved roads and railroads is very poor due to the lack of regular maintainance. The best inter-city transportation is coach or van (privately or publicly owned). 135 km of highway (portions in good or fair condition) connect the city to the capital Chisinau. By road one can also reach Ukraine (in about 2-3 hours to the north or to the east) and Romania (1 hour to the south-west) by the Sculeni-Sculeni crossing point which leads to the important Romanian city of Iasi (104 km from Balti), or (less frequented) by the Stanca-Costesti crossing directly to the west.
Regular railroad connection to Ocnita (north), Rezina (east) and Ungheni (south-east), as well as to Chisinau exists but it is extremely slow (it takes 6 hours to cover 200 km to Chisinau). The policy of the Soviet administration was to never build electric railroad lines on the right bank of the river Nistru (Dnister) and to build only a single lane between stations.
There are two railroad stations: Bălţi-oras (Bălţi-city) and Bălţi-Slobozia (the name of a city neighborhood), and an inter-city coach station (autogara).
The city also has an operational airport a few km to the north (near the village of Corlateni), quite modern by Soviet standards, built in 1980s, where large-scale aircraft can land. No information on its activity nowadays is available. A second airport, for small scale aircraft lies in the fringes of the city in the east. It was one of the most important airports in the whole region during the World War II.
The city has a big municipal hospital, a childrens hospital, and a range of other medical facilities (smaller clinics and hospitals, as well as buildings, named poly-clinics, gathering doctors offices).
1st Motorized Infantry Brigade "Moldova" of the Moldavian army (out of a total of 6 brigades - three infantry, one artillery, one aircraft and one anti-aircraft) is located in Bălţi. A unit of Soviet "Tochka-M" short-range rockets, each carrying 500 kg of conventional explosive, was known to be based in the city. No updated information is available.
The University of Bălţi, named after the 19th century Moldavian/Romanian illuminist and ethnologist Alecu Russo, has a couple of thousand students. The original complex of buildings (1930s) housed the financial administration, as well as three high-schools (two of which were girls-only) and has the characteristic architecture of the time. The university was founded in 1940 (or 1946 ?). Languages (Romanian, English, French, German, Russian), mathematics, physics, some engineering, law, economics, music education, education training, sociology and psychology are taught at Bachelor and Master levels. Many of its buildings have been added or re-furbished more recently. The main language of education is Romanian, but there are also some courses and specialities offered in Russian.
There is a school of nursing, several professional (technical) schools and 23 other schools (high-school only, high-school and middle school combined, middle- and elementary school combined, or only elementary school - mirroring the dingy structure of the Moldavian educational system).
11 of these 23 schools are in the Russian language, 5 are in the Romanian and the rest are mixed, a situation inherited from the Soviet system which discouraged education in any language but Russian, or would create mixed schools where the administration would be hold automatically in Russian, the official language of the Soviet Union. The resistance of the Moldavian population to the policy of Russification was the main local driving force of the political changes that occurred in 1988-1991, which ended in the breakdown of the Soviet Union (for economic and political reasons) and the independence of the territory that formed at the time the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic under the name of Republic of Moldova, with Romanian/Moldavian as official language. Source : wikipedia.org