Transnistria: ‘Hammer and sickle, as long as the people want it’

In November Europe commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), the crumbling away of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But not everyone is partying. ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union is not a holiday’ one sighs in Transnistria (or Trans-Dniester), Moldova’s rebellious republic, where Lenin still stands firmly on his pedestal.
  • Kristof Clerix Tiraspol, parliament building Kristof Clerix
A good hour travelling from the Moldovan capital Chisinau, a border post not recognized by the international community suddenly emerges. A strip of fifty meters no-man’s land in the middle of cow meadows marks the entry to the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, or Transnistria in popular parlance (which means, literally, ‘at the other side of the Dniestr-river’). Firm, but without an inordinate display of power Russian-speaking border guards control the identity papers of everyone who wants to enter or leave the rebellious republic. Backpacks are opened and digital cameras thoroughly inspected—it is strictly forbidden to photograph at this “illegal” border crossing.
After a bloody armed conflict costing about a thousand people their life, Transnistria (a long and small stretch of land of 4000 sq. km, with half a million inhabitants) with the help of Russian military seceded in 1992 from Moldova, itself barely having proclaimed its independence.
It’s a scenario shared by many ex-Soviet republics: the international community only just having recognized a new country, it was torn apart again by separatism, often ethnically inspired. The result two decades later? A series of frozen conflicts at the eastern border of Europe, from Nagorno-Karabach over South-Ossetia and Abchazia to Transnistria.
The road from the border post to the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol is bordered by big billboards advertising cars. It is immediately clear that the cliché of Transnistria as an open-air Soviet museum or a communist hotbed of resistance is not entirely correct. The street scene is dominated by the mark Sheriff: in Transnistria one has Sheriff supermarkets, Sheriff gas stations, and one of the most remarkable buildings is the Sheriff football stadium. It is revealing that FC Sheriff—champion for the ninth time in a row and thus appearing in the Champions League—plays in the Moldovan football competition: there is contact of all forms between the citizens of both sides of the Dniester. Which makes international diplomacy hope that of all the frozen conflicts, Transnistria will be the easiest to solve.
Red Star Tiraspol
As remarkable are the symbols of Soviet times long gone. Everywhere in the centre of Tiraspol shines the national emblem of Transnistria, with hammer and sickle under a red star. The name of the most important street—not only a Mecca for Lada and Volga fans but only perfectly suited for military parades—refers to the Soviet revolution of the 25th of October. At both sides the statues of heroes and historical figures stand out against the blue sky. As icing on the cake: a huge statue of Vladimir Ulyanov, also known as comrade Lenin, right in front of the parliament.
“I am not a supporter of communist ideology, but you have to respect the history of your city and state. In Transnistria you will see both monuments from Czarist Russia as from the modern era. Questions of possible changes of state symbols, particularly the coat-of-arms - are internal issues related to, primarily, how people want to change it. And if such a desire prevails, then, of course, representatives of government, which people have delegated, must make any changes. I know that there’s some debate on the issues that you raised in some circles, but the issue, in my opinion, is not a priority.” Speaking is Yevgeny Chevchuk, president of the Transnistria’s biggest party, Renewal, and until recently president of the Transnistrian parliament.
The young easygoing politician with friendly eyes speaks in the building of the Supreme Soviet to a crowd of journalists from Transnistria and the EU. The press meeting, an initiative from the European Journalism Centre in Brussels, is part of a PR-strategy of more transparency and openness to the West. Journalists’ questions had to be handed in prior to the event. “Our meetings with the mass media in this format are becoming a tradition,” Chevchuk smiles. “I hope they lead to a better understanding of the situation in Transnistria. In Western media, not enough information on this republic is available.”
Though there is no shortage of doom stories on Transnistria as a paradise for criminals and hub for everything afraid of the daylight. “A propaganda campaign was launched against us,” Chevchuk answers, and he passes on a booklet titled Ten Myths about Transnistria. “In order to destroy a state, it is necessary to initially destroy its image. Moldova accused Transnistria publicly to be a place for illegal weapon production and trade, for human trafficking, illegal financial transactions…
Those accusations drew the attention of many countries, especially EU-members interested in a solution to this conflict. In order to make sure whether it’s true or not, the European EUBAM mission was launched on the border between Transnistria and Ukraine, which has been operating for several years. And it can not yet provide any evidence of those charges which were brought forward. We have not seen an organized supply of weapons, organized trafficking of drugs through the territory of Pridnestrovie. Therefore it is obvious that this is fiction.”
From Russia with love
“The collapse of the Soviet Union is not a holiday for me”, Chevchuk says when queried on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “A result of that development was the start of some bloody conflicts. Terrible wars broke out, also on Transnistrian soil. Transnistria was founded and declared as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a response, a mechanism of protection of citizens living here who suddenly woke up in another state against their will.”
At that point Chevchuk refers to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, whereby the secretaries of foreign affairs under Hitler and Stalin divided Eastern Europe into two. “What is now Transnistria got added to Moldova, a decision without the consent of the people here. They want to right that historical wrong.” This is the kernel of the Transnistrian independence struggle: not ethnicity makes Trnansnistria different (you find a mix of Moldovians, Russians, and Ukrainians both in Moldova and in Transnistria), but historical developments. Chevchuk: “Our goal to build an independent country is affirmed by the will of our citizens, and by our constitution. That is the official direction.”
A stone’s throw of the parliament the famed Igor Smyrnov, president of Transnistria since 1991, and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev smilingly shake hands on a gigantic poster. At the other side of the road, at the corner of a popular restaurant, almost the same picture: Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, gazing straight ahead, the background the banner of Russia and the green-red of Transnistria. For those still doubting: Transnistria and Russia are best buddies. Russia does not only contribute in paying the pensions and the energy bill in the rebellious republic, it has also soldiers quartered there.
On the one hand these are Russian peace troops, present since the cease-fire of 1992; on the other hand these are Russian soldiers guarding ammunition depots. That the Russian military presence is a very sensitive subject is apparent when neither Chevchuk, nor the European Union, nor the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe wants to give figures on it. Off the record Western diplomats speak of a thousand to two thousand Russian soldiers. Chevchuk: “The peace operation in Transnistria is one of the most successful in the world. The Russian peace keepers stationed here are one of the biggest factors for stability on our territory.”
Chevchuk himself entertains excellent contacts with Moscow. His party Renewal works closely together with United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev. “United Russia helped us in taking better legislative decisions. In November delegates of our party partake in the congress of United Russia.”
Vlad Lupan points to the crucial geopolitical importance of Transnistria for Russia to understand the frozen conflict. Lupan worked for twelve years as a diplomat for the Foreign Affairs Office of Moldova and as such negotiated with Transnistria for a solution to the conflict. Lupan: “Moldova is unimportant as a country. It is very small and there are no raw materials. But it lies very central on the border of the EU and Nato on the one hand, and the backyard of Russia on the other.
Russia considers it as within her sphere of influence, which for psychological reasons it does not want to give up. But also for geopolitical reasons. Look at Moldova on a map: it is next to the Ukraine, where Russia tries to exert its influence any way. Moldova and Transnistria are means for Russia to negotiate within a geopolitical context with the EU and the US in talks on energy sources and stability in the region. It has a finger in the pie.
Russia says: what do I get when I take my finger out of the pie? That is the kernel.” Lupan claims that the people of Moldova do not lose any sleep over the conflict. “A mere four per cent thinks a solution of the Transnistrian conflict must have priority. Four per cent.” For most of the population, the tackling of the economical malaise is much higher on the agenda.
With its well-kept parks, broad lanes, brand new shopping centres, relaxed sidewalk cafés and upbeat inhabitants, at first sight nothing gives the impression that Chisinau is the capital of the poorest country in Europe. But appearances can deceive. On the human development index of the UN-Development Program, Moldova is ranked 117th, in the company of countries as Mongolia, Vietnam, Equatorial Guinea, and Uzbekistan. Qua size and population Moldova is comparable to Albania, but its GNP is thrice as small as that of the already poor Balkan country. Not unemployment is the problem in Moldova but low wages. A doctor earns a hundred euro per month, a professor eighty euro, a border guard a mere fifty euro. No wonder that the population is running away.
Of its four million inhabitants, no less than one million left Moldova—legally or not. Those left behind—children, pensioners—survive on contributions from abroad, good for thirty to forty per cent of Moldova’s GNP. The country’s dependence on those foreign contributions make it vulnerable, for in an economic crisis, they can quickly shrivel away—last year the contributions shrunk with a third.
“We have to make sure that a well functioning democracy and a higher living standard become part of life at this side of the Dniestr. In that way, Moldova will become attractive for Transnistrians,” says Victor Osipov, deputy prime minister of Moldova and responsible for the Transnistria dossier. Osipov is well aware how big this challenge is. The government of which he is a part came in power at the end of September after a long election year that did little good for the peace negotiations between Tiraspol and Chisinau.
The priority of this government, apart from the economic malaise and the Transnistria dossier, is the integration of Moldova and the European Union. The coalition of four parties under prime minister Vlat Filat calls itself for no uncertain reason the Alliance for Integration in the EU. Membership of the EU sounds logical as a carrot for Transnistria to re-annex itself to Moldova. The problem however is that the EU, since the incorporation of Cyprus, does not even think about admitting in the club other countries with unresolved conflicts.
The future of Transnistria
Since the admission of Moldova’s neighbour Romania to the EU, and certainly since the Six Day War in Georgia (in which South-Ossetia and Abchazia gained de facto independence), the Transnistrian conflict is high on the agenda in Brussels. At each important meeting between the EU and Russia Transnistria is mentioned. Together with the US the EU is, as observer, part of the “5+2” negotiation framework to come to a solution for the frozen conflict in Transnistria (the “5” being Russia, Moldova, Transnistria, the UN, and the OSCE).
“We hope that the EU will play an increasingly important role in the negotiations,” says Marian Lupu, presidential canditate for the Alliance for Integration in the EU. “Besides, peaceful negotiatons are, for us, the only means to come to a solution. We are completely and categorically opposed to a military resolution of the conflict. That’s why I press for a demilitarization of the region. There is no talk of a military threat of Chisinau against Tiraspol or vice versa at all.” Deputy Prime Minister Osipov is a bet sharper: “We firmly ask Russia to keep the commitment it made at the OSCE-meeting in Istanbul (1999), and recall its weapons and troops on our territory.”
Kálmán Mizsei, the special envoy of the EU for Moldova, states that territorial integrity is one of the ground principles for the peace negotiations. The comparisons between Transnistria and Kosovo or South-Ossetia make no sense, according to Mizsei: “Let us not forget that in the case of Kosovo, 800,000 or more people were chased out their own country. It was an extreme process of ethnic cleansing. Such is not the case in Transnistria. As to Abchazia and South-Ossetia, the vast majority of the international community does not recognize the independence of these two separatist regions. We find it regrettable what happened there, it is against all international norms.”
Kosovo was a success for Washington, South-Ossetia and Abchazia one for Moskow. Chances are that the future of Transnistria too will not be decided in Tiraspol or Chisinau.

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