Transnistria: Russia’s shadow, Moldova’s quandary
3 months ago
I’ve started my reporting on so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, looking for lessons for Ukraine as it deals with a Russia-backed insurgency in its east. The first in a series of articles sponsored by Press Start donors will appear in Ukrainian Journal and on the Unrecognized Stories blog, created for this project.
In May and June, I traveled to Transnistria, a region of Moldova that broke away in the early 1990s. I talked with locals to get their views of the territory’s current status. and asked whether they harbor hopes of reintegration and how they see their future.
Russia plays a central role in Transnistria’s political and cultural life. It underwrites pensions and public sector pay, and provides essentially free energy. It also has troops stationed there, and Russian channels are all over Transnistrian TV. Local stations are under control of the de facto government and parrot rhetoric from Moscow.
Although Transnistria has three official languages – Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan (in Cyrillic) – and street signs in two or three of them, most communication happens in Russian, including in schools. Most students leave for Russia to study and then work. In an effort to stem the brain drain, Transnistria’s de facto government has announced Soviet-style programs of cheap housing for young families, but that does nothing to address the region’s high unemployment. Many factories have closed, leaving places like Rybnitsa, a former industrial city in the region’s north, now quiet.
Turning back to the language issue, I visited the only Romanian-language school in the city of Bender. Transnistria’s authorities had tried to shut it down in 2004, but the OSCE intervened to save it, and it now belongs to the school system of Moldova proper.
A teacher there, who was critical of Russia, said parents and children choose to study in Romanian to be able to enter Moldovan or Romanian universities and later go elsewhere in Europe.
Bender’s Ukrainian-language school received aid from Petro Poroshenko, including a computer lab and a bus, before he became president of Ukraine in 2014. But in the subsequent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Transnistria hews to the Russian side, and the school has since rejected any help from him.
Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital, is home to a large Ukrainian population and a university named for Taras Shevchenko, a giant of Ukrainian literature. Apart from local students, the school enrolls students from Gagauzia, a rural region of Moldova that tried to secede in the early 1990s but eventually was reintegrated. Although Gagauzia’s independence was not a priority for Moscow, Russia still holds great sway in the region’s, and therefore in Moldova’s, politics.
Igor Dodon, Moldova’s new president, has made overtures to Transnistria, including calling for the region to elect members to Moldova’s parliament and advocating a federal structure that would give a reintegrated Transnistria autonomy within Moldova. His warm relations with Russia could give him added credibility in Russian-speaking Transnistria, but the breakaway region has politely rebuffed him.
Transnistria is one massive trading territory for a holding company called Sherif, which is the region’s primary employer. Owners of small and medium-size businesses accuse Sherif of anti-competitive practices, including raiding and taking over other businesses, and blame the government for not reining in, and sometimes for benefiting from, such practices. Some entrepreneurs find ways around this, for example by giving tours of Soviet sites or renting out flats.
I was in Transnistria during the 9 May Victory Day parade and returned in mid-June, when a group of NGOs hosted a week of events dedicated to freedom of speech. The parade itself was a pompous affair, with Russian and Transnistrian soldiers marching down the main boulevard, past the government building and its statue of a defiant Lenin. A flood of people, many in soldiers’ uniforms, carried portraits of relatives who fought in World War II or Transnistria’s secessionist conflict. These moments are meant reinforce the notion that the region’s people have protected their identity from Moldovan nationalists who wanted to drag the Russian-language territory into Romania.
In June, I met with members of a small Transnistrian NGO, Club 19. They are young people, born after Transnistria became a “republic.” Unlike their parents, who are disappointed in Transnistria’s government but still want to be part of the Russian world, they embrace the values and aspire to the freedoms of a larger international community. While most Transnistrians are busy surviving or looking to Russia, Club19 brings the world to Transnistria – with festivals, concerts, discussions, and other projects.
They are not many though. And they find it tough to cooperate with the officials.
Twenty-five years after its unilateral declaration of independence, Transnistria seems outdated, with its Soviet-era monuments, soda-water machines, trolley-buses, semi-working factories, and secondhand slogans. The only new and up-to-date thing here is a gleaming Sherif football team stadium.