The people and the landscape
look much the same…
Three armed guards motion our bus to the side of the road and another steps on board to check documents. On seeing my British passport he orders me to a portakabin at the roadside, where two military officials fire questions at me in Russian. Once satisfied, they direct me to a building where another soldier copies details from my passport and charges me money for a stamped slip of paper. I return to the bus where the other passengers grumble about the delay and we continue on our journey.
So far, so typical of any border control. Except that if you look at the map, you will see no border here: we have passed from one part of Moldova into another. This, of course, is the “border” with the self-declared republic of Transdniestria: Moldova may be among the smallest independent states in the world, but like a Russian doll, look inside and you’ll find another.
Or so it would like to claim. The Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic, to use its full title, has its own border controls, its own currency – the Transdniestrian rouble – its own state languages, a president and a parliament, a judicial system, an army, a police force, a security service, a constitution, a coat of arms, a national flag and a national anthem. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, this effectively self-governing enclave is a part of Moldova; as far as the border guards are concerned, Moldovans have to show their passports and stump up an entry fee to be allowed to visit.
Transdniestrians have lived in this curious limbo, under a government unrecognized by the community of nations, for over a decade. But what does it mean in practice for people to live under a government that has control of their lives but the rest of the world doesn’t deal with?
For a start, it demands creativity in finding a way to travel. The 600,000-odd inhabitants of Transdniestria have Transdniestrian passports, but they can’t travel on them because no other country recognizes Transdniestria as a state. Instead, Transdniestrians must get additional passports from Moldova, Ukraine or Russia, anywhere that will consider them eligible. Without another national passport, they are effectively stranded.
It means that people feel cut off from life. A typical example of this sense that Transdniestria is bypassed by the world is a teacher I spoke to in Tiraspol, who envied the easy access her colleagues in Chisinau have to news about international competitions: she would like to enter her pupils, too, but she finds it hard to get the information she needs.
This feeling of isolation isn’t helped by the telephone system. Although they share the same dialing code, 373, you must pay international rates to call between Transdniestria and the rest of Moldova and last autumn it became impossible to call from Moldova to Transdniestria at all. The mobile network not only doesn’t support roaming with Moldova’s two networks but is incompatible with the European GSM standard: anyone who travels regularly across the Dniester and wants a mobile phone doesn’t need two sim cards but two different handsets.
It means people are nervous of crossing the authorities. Transdniestria has a feared security service, and throughout my trip I encountered people who were happy to talk to me but reluctant to be quoted in an article. A school I’d planned to meet cancelled the appointment because the security service had visited them recently and they felt it would be unwise to raise questions by meeting with a foreigner.
There is uncertainty about what is permissible and what is frowned upon. I learned from a Tiraspol charity worker that while there is no proscribed list of organizations to work with, there is an impression that the Transdniestrian authorities do not encourage project funding to be sought from sources such as the American Embassy or the Soros Foundation. The absence in Tiraspol of embassies or offices of international organizations makes it more difficult for charities and non-governmental organizations to operate.
There is a lot of bureaucracy. Foreign journalists are supposed to register with the First Deputy Minister on the issues of Mass Media and Propaganda on Pravda Street, but Transdniestrians I spoke to cautioned that this process might be long and difficult and advised me to visit simply as a “tourist” rather than a “journalist”. As it happened, none of the men in uniforms I passed on the street ever stopped me.
And while I made a point of asking at the “border” if there was any extra paperwork I needed to complete because I intended to stay the night in Tiraspol, nothing was mentioned; but when I tried to book a room in a hotel, the receptionist rattled off the names of two state agencies I was apparently supposed to have registered with first.
The big difference between Transdniestria and the rest of Moldova is linguistic. While the right bank of the Dniester has strong cultural links with Romania, the left bank has more historical connections with Russia, and there are problems for parents in Transdniestria who would like their children to be able to learn Romanian in the Latin script, the state language of Moldova since its independence. The Transdniestrian government insists on the old Soviet policy of teaching Romanian in the Cyrillic alphabet, which doesn’t equip pupils to study at universities anywhere else in Moldova. Schools have faced harassment for offering Romanian in Latin script even as an extra-curricular option – an issue which attracted the censure of the office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.
Transdniestria may be as close as exists now to life in the former Soviet Union, with statues of Lenin proudly displayed outside government buildings. But private enterprise exists, and in a big way. The Sheriff company, with its red and blue star logo like a sheriff’s badge, is ubiquitous: it owns supermarkets, petrol stations, the mobile phone network, the internet provider and even the local football team, Sheriff Tiraspol. They play in a modern stadium on the edge of the city, part of a complex including a luxury hotel and a Mercedes showroom, the opulence of which is in startling contrast with the poverty all around. It’s little wonder I heard Transdniestria referred to as “the Republic of Sheriff”.
Inevitably there are questions about the relationship between the Sheriff company and the region’s president, Igor Smirnov, but nobody I asked was able to shed more light on this than a shrug and a weary-looking smile. Political parties are not illegal in Transdniestria, but they find it difficult to operate in practice, and freedom of the press is strictly limited – facts which may help to explain the overwhelming majority with which President Smirnov won re-election in 2001.
But it would be wrong to pretend that all of Transdniestria’s problems stem from its unrecognized government. The grinding poverty that marks rural Transdniestria is shared with the rest of Moldova. By some estimates a quarter of the Transdniestrian population has migrated in search of work, many ending up victims of human traffickers, and villages are noticeably populated mostly by pensioners and their grandchildren. Official statistics put the average annual income in Transdniestria only slightly below the US$448 of Moldova as a whole, and I found widespread skepticism among Transdniestrians that the quality of governance on offer from Chisinau would offer any significant improvement on the devil they know.
Commentators recognize this as a fundamental aspect of the problem: the International Crisis Group’s report on the conflict notes that “economic transformation, democratization, rule of law, freedom of the media and human rights are also deficient on the other side of the river”, and Moldova must be made “more attractive for the Transdniestrians in order to provide incentives for them to support an agreement.”
The international community is stepping up its interest in Transdniestria, prompted by Romania’s looming accession to the European Union in 2007 and Transdniestria’s reputation as the organized crime capital of Eastern Europe. It is widely said that drugs, arms and humans as well as contraband such as petrol, cigarettes and alcohol are routinely trafficked through Transdniestria, which also has stockpiles of Soviet munitions and several weapons factories. The government in Chisinau has no control over Transdniestria’s long and porous borders: it has its own customs service, headed by Vladimir Smirnov, the son of the president.
How big a problem is organized crime? Claus Neukirch, spokesman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission to Moldova, says the problem is it’s impossible to tell: “Transdniestria operates with absolutely no international oversight. There’s no transparency. Interpol don’t work there. It may be that people who’d fear arrest in Chisinau or Kiev feel comfortable doing business in Tiraspol, and this isn’t a situation the EU wants on its back doorstep.”
Talks between the Moldovan and Transdniestrian leaderships have been going on for years, and the OSCE is tasked with facilitating a negotiated settlement. There are few signs of an imminent breakthrough. But the problem isn’t at the level of the general public: while some Russian-speaking Transdniestrians fear marginalisation in a unified Moldova, and some Romanian-speakers in Moldova resent their compatriots who will communicate only in Russian, there is no hostility between the ordinary people. As Claus Neukirch says, “this isn’t Kosovo or Bosnia. There’s no ethnic hatred. With political will, there’s no reason a solution shouldn’t be found.”
Neukirch describes the Transdniestrian situation as a “hurting stalemate, but people don’t realize how much it’s hurting” – the bifurcated economies of Moldova and Transdniestria lead to the loss of opportunities for development that are not readily apparent. Moldovans grumble about the economic aid from Russia that has kept Transdniestria afloat, while across the river they complain that the debts Moldova has run up with the World Bank and IMF since independence haven’t benefited them. But these are not the hardest problems to overcome. As the International Crisis Group puts it, “the vested interests on either side of the river do not necessarily correspond to the interests of the broader population.”
When I leave Transdniestria, I find that crossing the border back into Moldova is easier than going the other way: Transdniestrian border guards seem less concerned about who leaves their territory than who enters. With a cursory glance at my passport the soldier waves me though, and I’m back in a country that’s recognized by the international community, that has its borders shown on maps and that issues passports to people can travel on. The people and the landscape look much the same.
By Andrew Right