Keep the red flag flying
When in 2012 a Russian newspaper claimed the Kremlin was planning to install a missile shield in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, James Montague visited this strange and secretive state and asked whether it could become the front line in a new Cold War
18th April 2012 (Taken from: #7)
Under the gaze of Tiraspol’s largest statue of Lenin, a babushka plays her accordion for passing pedestrians. Dressed in the colourful, wispy fabrics of a Soviet-era farm worker, she collects kopeks in a small handkerchief. She’s lost in the nostalgia of her songs, but the moment she spots my camera she stops playing. “Niet!” she shouts, turning her back to me. The USSR may no longer exist, but in Tiraspol, Soviet-style paranoia is a feature of everyday life.
Tiraspol is the capital of Transnistria, a 15 mile-wide, self-declared republic which was formerly part of Moldova. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was rapidly dissolving, the Popular Front party took power in Moldova’s first free elections and started pursuing a policy of alignment with Romania. Russian was dropped as an official language, the alphabet was changed from Cyrillic to Latin, and the possibility of a unification of Moldova and Romania was mooted. But Moldova’s minority Slavic population, based in the area between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border, rebelled against the new direction of the country and on 2nd September 1990 declared an independent state, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, known in the west as Transnistria.
While the rest of Eastern Europe toppled communist statues, Transnistria stuck with the snug blanket of the old certainties”
In March 1992, war broke out between Transnistria and Moldova. It lasted four and a half months, claimed around 600 lives and ended in a stalemate; a ceasefire but no settlement. Transnistria became a de facto independent state, but one unrecognised by most of the international community. It’s a country that doesn’t exist, frozen in a conflict the world has forgotten about.
While the rest of Eastern Europe toppled communist statues, Transnistria stuck with the snug blanket of the old certainties. Separated from its Russian backers thanks to a newly independent Ukraine, Transnistria developed its own currency, security force and constitution – but it never strayed too far from the Soviet model of governance.
Isolation soon brought problems as Transnistria became a haven for smugglers and arms dealers. Frank Jacobs, author of the New York Times’ cartography blog Borderlines, says that “Transnistria has specialised in some of the handful of activities open to rogue statelets: money-laundering, people-smuggling and weapons-manufacturing, among other black-market industries. It remains a black hole of legality on the doorstep of the European Union, and it’s a pressing problem.” It is estimated that as much as 40,000 tonnes of former Soviet weaponry could still be on Transnistrian soil, a huge amount for a territory of just half a million people. With porous borders, smuggling from Ukraine has proliferated in everything from cars and TVs to cigarettes and chicken.
On 18th April 2012 this forgotten land suddenly appeared on the global security agenda. Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta reported that the Russian military was considering building a new missile defence shield in Transnistria. The news was interpreted as a response to the American construction of an anti-ballistic missile site in the Romanian village of Deveselu, notionally created as a barrier to possible attack on Europe from Iran, but considered a threatening move by Russia. Russia denied it was planning a Transnistrian missile site but this didn’t quash speculation that a new standoff between Russia and the West was on the horizon, and that Transnistria might end up on the front line.
Transnistrian loyalty to its benefactor, Moscow, has been unwavering. The country’s first – and until recently only – president, Igor Smirnov, was born in Russia and ruled with an iron fist with Russia’s support. Smirnov was dumped in an election at the end of last year, after the Kremlin tired of his apparent inability to regularise Transnistria’s status and end the stalemate with Moldova. Relations were further strained when Smirnov’s son was accused of having embezzled millions of dollars of Russian aid money, charges he denied.
Under Smirnov’s leadership, limited free market reforms saw one company rise to dominate the private economy. The yellow and black badge of Transnistria’s Sheriff corporation – set up in 1993 by two former KGB agents – is almost as ubiquitous as the hammer and sickle; it can be seen on everything from petrol stations to supermarkets to the shirts of the city’s football team FC Sheriff Tiraspol. Monopolies come naturally to Transnistria, and it’s long been suggested that Sheriff was secretly owned by Smirnov’s family.
The Kremlin backed Anatoly Kaminski in the December 2011 election, but their candidate came in second. The runaway winner was Yevgeni Shevchuk, a young lawyer and self-described reformer whose party’s politicians have English-language pages on Facebook. He has spoken about tackling corruption and nepotism, and has hinted at attempting to improve relations with Moldova. The fact that Transnistria appeared to stage its first free and fair election sent out a positive message. But despite his youthful appearance and apparent willingness to open up to the west, Shevchuk is no adversary of Moscow like Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili. He knows that a place as poor as Transnistria depends on Russia’s continued support. It has few natural resources and relies on cheap Russian gas being piped in. The territory’s gas debt to Russia is larger than its GDP.
The Soviet city
The bus ride from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, to Tiraspol only takes an hour but the journey is like entering into another world. Since Moldova and Transnistria signed a ceasefire in 1992, the bus passes a border. The first line of guns are held by modern troops wearing Russian flags sewn on to their shirts, part of the Russian military presence here that guarantees Transnistria’s partial independence. The second line looks like it hasn’t changed since 1990: Transnistrian guards, wearing wide-brimmed hats with the Transnistrian emblem in the centre, watch suspiciously as we disembark. A visa has to be acquired and checks made. Foreigners have to register with the police 24 hours after entering.
Tiraspol is a classic Soviet city: the architecture is grey and logical and grand boulevards – wide enough for several columns of tanks – cut through the centre of town. In a sop to the modern world, there are billboards in Russian advertising mobile phones. Most billboards, however, commemorate the forthcoming 20-year anniversary of the unresolved war of independence. Along Tiraspol’s scrupulously clean main streets the Transnistrian flag flies; green and red horizontal stripes with a hammer and sickle in the top left corner. But it’s the endless statues of Lenin that really draw you in. Outside one large government building – the House of Soviets – Lenin’s bust still growls over the street, his disapproving gaze fixed on the face of another Vladimir plastered on a billboard opposite: Vladimir Putin.
Few people visit Tiraspol. There’s only one hostel in the city and it’s run by Tim, a 30-something American and the only foreigner permanently based in Transnistria. “The locals joke that I am the unofficial ambassador of the United States,” he says. “I hope they never get rid of this stuff,” he adds, pointing the hammer and sickle (and promise of free vodka) on the advert for his hostel. “They should be making a killing with tourism here.”
Tim dismisses the notion that tourists should be nervous about travelling in the area: “[Despite] all this about weapons and smuggling, it’s totally safe here. Life is good and it’s so cheap. It costs three roubles [about 30p] to take a taxi bus, and beer costs next to nothing. If you get sick they treat you at the hospital for free.” Recently, some limited moves have been made to provide entertainment for visitors, including the development of military tourism – shooting ranges where foreign visitors can go to loose off rounds on AK47s.
Speaking to younger people in Transnistria, there’s a real appetite for change and openness. Dimitry, an artist, meets me at a smart café. “This region is important because it’s between Russia and Europe but we want to walk our own way,” he tells me. “Moldovans and Transnistrians have many things in common. I have nothing against the idea of being a Moldovan citizen, to live in Moldova if I can speak my Russian language and I can work. If I am not discriminated against because of my Russian language I am fine,” he says.
But will Shevchuk find the right balance between loyalty to his Russian benefactors and his commitment to reform and greater openness towards the West? If the report in Nezavisimaia Gazeta turns out to be correct, a Russian missile defence shield could turn the enclave from a financial burden to a useful pawn in the game being played between the West and Russia; a buffer against NATO expansion and the encroachment of the European Union, which has already claimed Bulgaria and Romania. At the same time, the people of Transnistria have voted for change. They no longer want to be a hermit kingdom, riven by corruption and organised crime, unable to leave behind a Soviet mentality.
In September, Tiraspol will put on a grand show to mark twenty years since the end of the Transnistrian war. There will be a military parade and a fireworks display. But the war was unresolved and Transnistria is undergoing a period of evolution. The last nation on earth to fly the hammer and sickle is also one of the most resistant to change. In another twenty years, who knows what the people of Tiraspol will be commemorating.
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