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About Transnistria

People have long been asking me to tell them more about Transnistria (aka Pridnestrovye or Transdnestr or Transdniester). Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) I don't visit Transnistria often (hardly ever, actually), so there's very little I can tell from personal experience, although many people I know have complained about the stupid border controls and the way they treat people.

Instead of aggregating all the negative stuff, I have decided to put here articles about Transnistria I received in Google News alert, written by Western visitors. It is a good informative read for everyone interested.

  1. Transnistria: Trafficking Arms On Europe's Doorstep - this is not an article but a documentary about Transnistria done by a French team (hence not biased). See if you can find it in a library. I have a copy on my hard drive but it's too big to post/send over the internet.
  2. 'There Is No Europe Here'
  3. Flying the Red-and-Green Flag

'There Is No Europe Here'

February 1, 2006, by Patti McCracken

Article courtesy of TCSDaily.com, published here with kind permission from their Staff. Original article here.

RIBNITSA, Transnistria -- I ask myself what is a nation.

I am traveling in the back seat of a car and Vitalie sits to my right. He has been animated and chatty on this trip, but as we roll toward the border he becomes withdrawn and anxious. He works his hands into fists and shoves them under his legs. His back stiffens and he turns his head away from the window, refusing to look at the policeman who has come around to his side of the car and wants to see his passport.

Vitalie is seething, leaning in closer to me as his resentment repels him, like a natural force, further away from the car window, from the policeman. I am careful to take short breaths so as not to breathe in too much of his loathing.

"There shouldn't be a border here," says Vitalie. "I shouldn't have to go through passport control in my own country."

I am in Moldova, a tiny, wedge nation tucked into the shadows of Ukraine and Romania. Vitalie is my interpreter and together we are crossing the border into Moldova's breakaway region, the self-declared republic of Transnistria.

Moldova is a country the rest of Europe seems to have put in its pocket and forgotten about. It is, by far, the poorest nation in Europe. A quarter of its population of four million has fled the country in search of work, and recent research shows that another quarter would leave if given the chance.

The only freely-elected Communist government in the world is right here in little Moldova, but it nonetheless faces resolutely west, tirelessly resisting the tug from Russia's strong arm, which wants to pull Moldova once again back under its sphere of influence.

And Transnistria is the tool it uses. About the size of Rhode Island, Transnistria is on the left bank of the Dniester River. For the longest time it was part of Ukraine, but then the Germans and Romanians used it as killing fields to purge Europe of about 150,000 Jews during World War II. After the massacres it was known as the Forgotten Cemetery, until the Soviets populated it with Russians, stuck a bunch of military bases there, and began using the region to stockpile vast amounts of weapons. Meanwhile, Stalin took it away from Ukraine and gave it to Moldova.

I give the border guard my passport and watch as he carefully tears off a tiny corner of notebook paper, presses it firmly with a red stamp, and then places the torn bit of stamped paper loose inside the fold of my passport. This is my "visa" and it costs a laughable 30 cents. I do not get a real visa because Transnistria is not recognized by anyone as a real country and is forbidden to actually stamp my passport.

This wannabe nation broke away from Moldova soon after the Soviet Union dissolved. Russia ran quickly to its aid, and after a brief but costly civil war with Moldova--up to 700 dead in a few months--a cease-fire was called. But that was 15 years ago and, to date, nothing has been resolved. Transnistria remains contentedly occupied by Russian forces, while joyously and lavishly celebrating its (unrecognized) independence each year.

We've crossed the border into a Soviet yesteryear and entered the all but emptied city of Ribnitsa, a bleak urban desert. Only a handful of people can be seen on this workday; no packed trams, or even dirty buses, are spotted--just aging, putty-colored Ladas on the roads still named for old communist leaders, and babushkas peddling sunflower seeds on the sidewalk.

In my pocket is money from a country that doesn't exist.

As in much of Eastern Europe, the streets are lined with row after row of communist blocs, the infrastructure so weak the some of the buildings crumble a bit when touched. And this day the sky, in solidarity--or maybe mourning--is the color of cement. A flag, draped across what must be a government building, still sports a hammer and sickle.

There is no Europe here.

This renegade republic is run mafia-style by president Igor Smirnov and his son, Vladimir, who controls a consortium called Sheriff. There are Sheriff gas stations, Sheriff grocery stores even Sheriff cigarettes, at every pass. Profitable enterprises, indeed, but Vladimir also directs customs, the inflow and outflow of goods, which includes a sizable weapons industry.

There are an estimated 50,000 weapons and 40,000 tons of ammunition warehoused in Transnistria, allegedly watched over by 2,500 Russian troops. And the Washington Post reports that several large factories in the region are still covertly manufacturing arms. And this is why Russia cares about Transnistria. Many believe that a good number of those weapons are being passed along to terrorists via Vladimir's porous borders.

For years the international community (including, more recently, the United States) has been trying to broker an agreement on behalf of Moldova, whereupon Russia would withdraw its troops and disarm Transnistria. Talks last week produced zero results again.

Weapons may be free flowing here, but information is most certainly not. Nearly all of the media are state-owned, and the scant independent news outlets that have managed to keep operating face constant lawsuits by authorities, designed to shut them up. The cost in fees is crippling, which is the point.

We are sitting in the office of a leading independent newspaper editor. She sits behind her desk, leaning forward on her elbows, tap-tapping her cigarette into the ashtray. She speed-talks, making it a challenge for Vitalie to keep up. Across from us is a life-size oil painting of Lenin.

The editor says she was sued for printing an article critical of the government's plans for privatization. Even the woman interviewed for the story was sued. According to the editor, the government collected $15,000 from the newspaper, and $5,000 from the woman--hefty sums considering the average monthly income in Transnistria hovers around $100.

"We had a good lawyer this time, quite well known for representing the mafia," she says, "but we still lost."

After photos with Lenin we head to a cafe across the street, where the editor talks about other aspects of her life: How she can't talk to her cousins on the other side of the river (in Moldova) since the government cuts the mobile phone links. And how she can't cross the border to buy a washing machine (better quality, better price), because she has to prove, with photos, that she needs one. "How do I prove I don't have something?" she says to me in Russian, tipping her head up to blow the cigarette smoke away from my face.

We say goodbye back at the newspaper and climb in the car again to head back across the border of the non-state state. Vitalie reminds me to find my little piece of notebook paper.

"It might be 30 cents to get in," he says, "But it's a $70 fine if you don't have it, along with some tough harassment."

The writer is a journalist based in Vienna.

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Flying the Red-and-Green Flag

September 7, 2005, by Shaun Walker

Article courtesy of Russia Profile.Org, published here with kind permission from Maria Polyakova. Original article here.

Transdnestr Celebrates, but a Resolution to the Conflict Seems as Far Away as Ever

The hammer and sickle flutters in the breeze, tanks on parade roll across the square, and the ruling dictator exhorts: "Glory to the workers! Glory to our young, to our pensioners! Glory to our republic! Our wonderful republic will live on!" This is not an extract from a sepia newsreel of the distant Soviet past; this is modern-day Tiraspol, capital of Transdnestr, the self-proclaimed state that declared independence from Moldova in 1990, and won it de facto in 1992 after a brief but bloody war. On Sept. 2, as Beslan was remembering its dead from a year before, a different part of the former Soviet Union played host to a different commemoration - 15 years of unrecognized independence for Transdnestr, or the Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika, as it calls itself.

It is sometimes difficult to take Transdnestr seriously. The only recognition it enjoys comes from other non-recognized states - a mutual defense treaty signed between Tiraspol and the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazian troops marching across Russia and Ukraine to come to the rescue of Transdnestr seems a somewhat unlikely scenario. Although Russia has long supported the republic, even Moscow has stopped short of recognition, not opening a consulate - let alone an embassy - in Tiraspol.

The country is run by President Igor Smirnov. His government controls the media, there is no legal opposition and there are no political parties, while his family members allegedly run the republic's main businesses. The local regime has successfully set up a national currency and national borders, but the former is unconvertible anywhere outside the republic. The republic itself often seems little more than an extortion racket, allegedly porous for the flow of contraband goods and arms, but strict when it comes to dealing with unsuspecting foreigners (the question "How much is an entry permit?" is met with the response "It depends - how much have you got?" by a young soldier dressed in Soviet-era uniform).

The main reason anyone does take this self-declared country, so small that it would fit into Russia nearly 5,000 times over, seriously is the estimated 40,000 tons of Russian military equipment, formerly of the Soviet 14th army, lying on its territory. The Russian military presence is either an "occupation" or a "peacekeeping mission," depending on the nationality of the commentator. Gennady Konenko, an expert on Moldova at the Moscow-based Institute of CIS Countries and former Counselor at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau (the Moldovan capital), said all the talk of the Russian military presence in Transdnestr is exaggerated. There are only 1,500 Russian soldiers there, and they are guarding the huge weapons depositories. The question from the government in Chisinau is why the depositories themselves are not removed by Russia, something it agreed to do so in the so-called Istanbul agreement of 1999. We are simply carrying out our obligations, says Konenko. The Trasndnestrian authorities do not want us to leave. If the Moldovans come back to the negotiating table and a solution is agreed upon, then we can start thinking about the removal of the military caches.

The future is unclear. Even the interested parties - Russia, Ukraine, Romania, the OSCE, the EU and the United States - as well as the authorities in Chisinau and Tiraspol themselves - change their positions frequently. A Russian plan devised by the then-First Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak was initially accepted by all sides, only to be rejected at the last minute by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, a former Communist, first elected on a pro-Russian platform, but who has since reoriented himself towards the West. Tiraspol itself veers from proffering plans for holding a referendum on accession to the Russian Federation, to appearing ready to negotiate with Chisinau.

For some time, it seemed that the accession of Orange forces in Ukraine would not do much to change Kiev's Transdnestr policy, with rumors that influential personnel in the government - holdovers from the Kuchma era - allowed the flow of illegal trade out of Transdnestr and through Odessa, the implication being that certain Ukrainians were taking a cut. However, at the end of August, it was agreed to allow an EU inspection team to operate on the Ukrainian side of the border. Of equal significance, a proposal has been put on the table, thought to have been drawn up by the head of Ukraine's Council for National Security and Defense, Petro Poroshenko, and presented to the interested parties by President Viktor Yushchenko. The plan basically involves setting up Transdnestr as an autonomous republic within Moldova, subject to the holding of elections in Transdnestr, and, in many ways, is similar to the 2003 Kozak plan. Although the proposals probably contain more to please Tiraspol than Chisinau, they have been criticized by both pro-Moldovan Western commentators and pro-Tiraspol Russian experts for being absolutely unfair to the side the respective experts support.

Konenko complains that "the proposals exclude the Transdnestrian authorities themselves to too great a degree." Meanwhile the Moldovan side feels that the proposals go too far in their concessions to Tiraspol, and Romanian President Traian Basescu has responded by saying his country objects to the idea of "a country playing around with its pencil on the map of another country." The problem is that this is exactly what has happened over the past centuries - the land on the left bank of the Dnestr has no less a historical connection to Russia than it does to Moldova.

It seems that the plan is the best that the two sides have to work with right now. The Yushchenko plan is the basis for the process at present, and there is hope that we will be able to reanimate the settlement plans, said Claus Neukirch, official spokesperson for the OSCE in Chisinau. The main problem is that the Yushchenko plan requires free and fair elections in Transdnestr, and it's clear that this will not happen soon.

Back in Tiraspol, residents were ignoring high politics and getting a genuinely good-humored street party into swing. President Smirnov reappeared, sporting a more relaxed look, his head topped with a celebratory paper hat of Transdnestrian red and green. Smirnov handed out trophies to Tiraspol's very own "midnight's children" - those born on the very day that Transdnestr declared independence in 1990. The young Transdnestrians proved to have remarkably well developed political ambitions for 15-year olds, with Sasha saying his aim was to become president of the republic, Vitalik sure that one day he would be mayor of Tiraspol, and young Anna exclaiming: Long live Transdnestr! The young generation says: 'Yes!'. It seems that the Transdnestrian authorities have become worried about "orange fever" infecting its youth, and so, in a move that has some parallels with the creation of the "Nashi" movement in Russia Tiraspol in August saw the opening of the Che Guevara Institute of Political Leadership. The magazine of its offshoot youth movement, "Breakthrough," urges the youth of Transdnestr to "export the ideals of democracy to the neighboring fascist state of Moldova," as well as featuring lurid accounts of HIV-positive Moldovan prostitutes deliberately infecting their clients, the Moldovan minister of culture's penchant for necrophilia, and - last but not least - a recipe for a tasty raspberry dessert.

Despite the absurd rhetoric however, scratch the surface and life in Transnestr is fairly normal. Whatever most of the few Western commentators who make it there would have us believe, Tiraspol far more resembles a quiet Russian provincial town (and a pleasant, leafy one at that) than North Korea. The young people chat on their mobile phones and sit in Internet cafes; the elderly gossip on benches while chomping on sunflower seeds; buses and trains frequently head into Ukraine and Moldova proper. The large number of cars with Transdnestrian plates on the streets of Odessa is testament to the fact that people are able to come and go freely - while their internal Transdnestrian passports are useless for travel, many Transdnestrians have second passports, which, depending on their parentage and birthplace, are Moldovan, Ukrainian or Russian. Konenko estimates that there are around 70,000 Russian citizens among the republic's residents. Boys and girls plaster their walls not with portraits of the president, but pictures of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, and the theaters show the latest Western films (including, rather appropriately, "The Interpreter," a Nicole Kidman vehicle about an imaginary African country). The independence celebrations featured singing, dancing and general good humor across several generations.

True, people almost unanimously complain - with justification - that salaries are inadequate, life is hard, and the coterie of men in power is corrupt to the core, but these are hardly unusual complaints on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The average monthly salary in the breakaway region is $112 per month - higher than that in the rest of Moldova. Although some ordinary residents suggested that this official figure seemed exaggerated to them, the average standard of living seems to be visibly higher in Transdnestr than in the rest of Moldova, helped by the presence of key Soviet-era factories on Transdnestrian soil.

There are all kinds of rumors about traffic in arms, people and contraband goods, abuse of power by Smirnov and his sons, as well as of persecution of Romanian-speaking residents (although Tiraspol is almost entirely Slavic, it is little reported that Transdnestr overall is around 40-percent Moldovan). All of these accusations are entirely plausible, but difficult to verify given the total lack of any independent media, foreign organizations or NGOs on Transdnestr's territory. It seems unlikely that this is about to change any time soon and, as such, a resolution to the conflict seems some way off. If the political will was there, we could come to a conclusion quite soon. There is no real hatred between the populations - this is essentially a conflict of elites, said Neukirch. At the moment, however, the two sides are far apart. I wouldn't say that the immediate prospects are positive.

The celebrations ended with a fireworks display and a free concert by Russian rock group Alisa in Tiraspol's Suvorov Square. By midnight, the crowds had departed and all that was left was an eerie silence and an ocean of empty beer bottles. Shimmering in the moonlight lay a sealed vault with the following inscription: From the workers of Tiraspol, on the great occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. To be opened by the generation that will see in the 100th anniversary of our great revolution, on November 7, 2017. Perhaps Tiraspol itself has not changed that much, but those workers in 1967 could not have imagined the changes that have occurred in the geopolitical situation of late. Where Transdnestr will be when the time capsule is opened in 2017 is anybody's guess.

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