Matthew Luxmoore

Breakaway Transnistria region could become next flashpoint with Russia

Moscow-allied de facto state between Moldova and Ukraine threatens to destabilize region

This is part 3 in an occasional series about tensions between Moscow and the West in key flashpoints along Russia's borders and in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

TIRASPOL, Transnistria — Viktor Dobrov remembers the bullets. On June 19, 1992, receiving news of unrest at home while away on business in Russia, he flew back to Moldova’s capital Chisinau and spent three days making his way east through the epicenter of the country’s civil war, finally reaching the city of Tiraspol to rejoin his wife and 10-year-old son five days later on June 24.

“We walked across holding white flags. There were snipers sitting on the roofs, and shooting from all sides,” he recalled, pointing at a bridge across the Dniester River, which today demarcates Moldova’s border with the pseudo-state that emerged in the conflict’s wake.

By the time the Moldovan army’s efforts to reclaim the region were repelled by Russian-backed separatists, the military conflict had claimed some 600 lives. A ceasefire signed that July left a narrow strip of land running from the Ukrainian border to the Dniester’s right bank as part of a new, breakaway republic called Transnistria.

Despite being recognized by no official government, Transnistria has survived 25 years since declaring independence in 1990. Moldova has learned to live alongside its Moscow-backed separatist region, continuing to update contingency plans in the hopes of future re-integration. Meanwhile, Russia bases over 1,000 regular troops as part of its Operational Group on the territory, while an international peacekeeping force and a mediated program of negotiations help maintain calm.

Yet a sense of unrest is returning to Transnistria. Regional developments connected to the ongoing crisis between Russia and neighboring Ukraine are sparking fears of renewed conflict, with local media and incendiary official statements adding to a sense of rising tensions. Some observers fear Russia may try to use its powerful leverage over Transnistria to force concessions in Ukraine, stoking a crisis there as an excuse to threaten military intervention or actually carry one out. In the meantime, trade restrictions linked to the conflict in Ukraine are bringing the region closer to economic collapse.

In May, Ukraine’s parliament voted to end military cooperation with Moscow, scrapping a 1998 agreement granting Russia permission to transit Ukrainian territory en route to bases in Transnistria. Though in practice this merely formalized an existing state of affairs — Kiev’s war against the Kremlin-backed insurgency in its east long ago severed bilateral ties — the news nevertheless struck a nerve. Chisinau airport, Russia’s sole remaining access point 30 miles from the Transnistrian border, is unreliable. Since Moldova has no legal requirement to permit members of the Operational Group onto its territory, Russian soldiers are regularly turned back.

Memorial to those who died fighting for Transnistria's independence in a two-year conflict between secessionist and Moldovan forces that ended in 1992.
Matthew Luxmoore

On the streets of Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital, emotions have also been riled by a more symbolic development. The May 30 appointment of Georgian ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa oblast has given an adjacent region to a man Russia blames for provoking its 2008 war with Georgia, when Moscow invaded to secure control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. A bête noire in pro-Russian regions, the newly minted Ukrainian citizen has provoked opprobrium in some quarters through his reemergence on the political scene.

State-controlled TV reports in Russia and Transnistria have seized upon the news to warn of a Kiev-led campaign to reignite Moldova’s frozen conflict. Trumpeting unsubstantiated rumors of a military build-up on Ukraine’s side of the border, they’ve alleged the placement of S-300 air defense systems waiting to down Russian aircraft should they intervene. In one recent news item from June 27, the Russian Defense Ministry’s official TV channel, Zvezda, reported the presence of artillery and over 3,000 Ukrainian troops on the border. It cited as its sole source the unrecognized Transnistrian state’s deputy foreign minister, Vitaly Ignatyev, shown in the video warning of imminent war.

Other Transnistrian leaders are equally forthright in their statements, despite a lack of evidence to back up their assertions.

“Everyone is scared of war, and everyone is talking about war. People are leaving,” said Galina Antyufeyeva, a lawmaker in the regional parliament and wife of Transnistria’s long-time security chief, Vladimir Antyufeyev, who assumed leadership of east Ukraine’s pro-Russian insurgency last July.

A building in the border city of Bender, in which weekly talks mediated by the OSCE are held, has been decorated to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WWII.
Matthew Luxmoore

A letter signed by 137 organizations from across the region — requesting Vladimir Putin’s intervention should armed conflict break out — was delivered on May 28 to Transnistria’s president Evgeny Shevchuk. He pledged to forward the appeal to Putin, according to a statement on his website. In another open letter, dated June 27, Transnistria’s foreign minister Nina Shtanski warned of retaliatory measures against the “destructive actions” of Moldova and Ukraine, threatening to cut all contacts with Chisinau and introduce a visa regime for its residents.

Chisinau had not received Shtanski’s letter, according to Viktor Osipov, Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister and its chief negotiator on issues relating to Transnistria. On June 24 in Moscow, Osipov held a meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Rogozin, during which the issue of Transnistria featured heavily alongside questions of bilateral trade. Osipov said the Russian leadership stressed the need to decrease tensions and prevent the situation from escalating. In an interview with Al Jazeera upon his return to Chisinau, Osipov said the Russian leadership stressed the need to decrease tensions and prevent the situation from escalating. He also drew a distinction between Russian media reports and Moscow’s official line.

“What we see in the press is one thing. For certain media outlets, this is a traditional approach to covering the situation in Transnistria — there’s a certain inertia to it,” Osipov said. “The way we discussed the issue with the Russian leadership and the experts who were present is very different.”

Yet Rogozin himself isn’t a stranger to controversy, and his recent comments on Transnistria are no exception. Responding to a question about the situation on July 10, the Russian deputy prime minister called Saakashvili an “obvious psychopath” and said Transnistria’s inhabitants “will feel Russia’s powerful shoulder,” Russian daily Kommersant reported.

Transnistria certainly needs a shoulder to lean on. A clampdown on the transit of excisable goods, launched last March by Ukraine and enthusiastically taken up by Saakashvili, is severely restricting a trade on which its economy has long relied.

Moreover, the authorities cut pensions by 30 percent in February, promising to return what’s owed once the economic crisis abates. That has led to a daily crowd of mostly elderly people gathering outside the city’s Russian consulate, hoping to access higher pensions under a newly expedited procedure for Russian citizenship.

In the line are also some working-age people looking to leave. Among them is Andrian Braga, who at 23 decided to move to Moscow with his wife and two-year-old daughter. “Things are bad, but they always have been. The fact that everyone’s leaving is nothing new,” he said, standing outside the consulate clutching his daughter’s new Russian passport.

Locals queue up outside the Russian consulate in Tiraspol, Transnistria's capital.
Matthew Luxmoore

The region has always struggled. Since separating from Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, it’s also been dependent on Moscow’s aid. Heavily subsidized Russian gas has provided a lifeline, saddling Transnistria with a $5 billion debt that would fall on Chisinau if the territory were reabsorbed. Trolleybuses course through central Tiraspol, decorated with pictures of beaming pensioners and the words “Into the future together with Russia!” Like dozens of big-ticket items dotted throughout the region — from modern hospitals to construction cranes — the vehicles bear the logo of their sponsor: Moscow-based non-profit “Eurasian Integration,” founded in 2012 by Russian MP and leader of nationalist party Rodina, Alexey Zhuravlev.

Locals praise Moscow’s projects for providing much-needed jobs, while many young men see conscription into the Russian Army’s regional force as the only chance for a secure job at home. Uniformed soldiers are a common sight in Tiraspol, congregating outside army bases or along the vast perimeter of the former Soviet aerodrome that now lies decaying on its outskirts.

Those not involved in the military-industrial complex dream of landing a job at Sheriff, a conglomerate that employs almost a fifth of the workforce. Established in 1993 by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, two former security servicemen, Sheriff is a chain of petrol stations, the local supermarket, a TV and radio station, a construction company, the sole Transnistrian telecommunications network and Moldova’s most successful football team, whose home is a $200 million state-of-the-art sports complex on Tiraspol’s outskirts.

A portrait of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev hangs inside Viktor Dobrov's auto-repair shop on Tiraspol's outskirts.
Matthew Luxmoore

A 2004 report funded by the British Department for International Development called Transnistria “a smuggling company masquerading as a state,” reflecting a popular suspicion among Tiraspol’s residents that Sheriff is a Mafia-style syndicate secretly owned by Igor Smirnov, a former businessman who led the secessionist state for two decades before his 2011 replacement by Shevchuk. Nonetheless, with the average monthly salary in Transnistria a mere $200, working for a company that reportedly pays double that is a tempting prospect.

Yet Sheriff’s expansion has come at the expense of the public sector, and Transnistria today finds itself in dire straits. Officials in Moldova are worried. Some see Tiraspol’s rhetoric as a desperate plea for help in hard times — with parliamentary elections in Transnistria set for late November, they say the threats and accusations are a way for the incumbent leadership to pin problems on foreign enemies and rally public support.

“We’re keen to negotiate, but [they] don’t want to negotiate on terms that will bring them closer or cede any control to Chisinau. That's why talks are in stagnation,” said a source in Moldova’s Foreign Ministry, who asked that his name be withheld, as he was not authorized to make statements to the press.

With Russia’s own economy in recession, the situation for Transnistria is only set to deteriorate. Its Ministry of Economic Development and Trade forecasts a 4 percent drop in GDP next year and a 12.4 percent fall in industrial output. In her June 27 letter, Shtanski noted a 23.4 percent decrease in exports in the first half of 2015 that has cut state budget revenue by 45 percent. The outlook, she concludes, is “extremely dark.” In the meantime, authorities are mulling the introduction of so-called “emergency economic measures” of the type Shtanski proposed, a move critics warn could lead to a suppression of residents’ rights. Officials in Chisinau are preparing for the worst.

“There have been troubling waves in the past, but this is the most intense. Moldova has enough issues, Ukraine’s already at war, and we get the same signals from Russia’s leadership,” said the foreign ministry source. “For us, an economic crisis in Transnistria equals instability.”

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