Near Ukraine, a Breakaway Russian Republic Plows On

Transnistria holds on to the Soviet era just miles away from where war rages

Near Ukraine, a Breakaway Russian Republic Plows On
Transnistrian honor guard soldiers perform during the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Day in the town of Bender on September 12, 2021 / Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images

The blue canopies in front of the Chisinau Gara Centrala, a busy bus station, open up behind the largest market in the Moldovan capital. A constant stream of people, their hands full with bags of cheeses, meats, vegetables and the unfailing placinte — the typically Moldovan bread-and-cheese flan — flows among the different sectors of the station as they wait to board one of the “maršrutke,” the minivans that represent the main means of public transportation in Eastern Europe. Up to 15 passengers can travel on these small battered buses, which shuttle back and forth between Chisinau and the rest of the country.

Each day, hundreds of people rely on the maršrutke to return to the separatist enclave of Transnistria. They are mainly commuters who work in Moldova and elderly people who come to shop in the capital, which is richer in alternatives. The journey from Chisinau to the city of Tiraspol, the heart of the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, takes about an hour and a half. The route stretches 45 miles along the R2 regional road — a four-lane asphalt avenue that, traveling east from Chisinau’s international airport, squeezes between the metal and earthen houses of the Moldovan suburbs, all the way up to two military checkpoints in the city of Bender. A first check takes place without verifying any documents: As the bus slows down near a reinforced concrete barricade, two young soldiers take a quick look in from outside.

A little further on, however, a recruit of the armed forces of Transnistria, who wears a Soviet-style uniform complete with Cold War-era firearms — standard issue from the Russian-backed local government — commands the driver to halt before getting into the van. Moldovan citizens are ordered to show ID without having to disembark, while foreigners are invited into a building marked by peeling white paint to explain the reason for their trip. Once the duration and reasons for entering Transnistria are established, authorities issue a hastily handwritten permit, which must be returned upon exit. “It is a way of imposing our presence,” explains Artem, a 24-year-old student from Tiraspol who is studying at the engineering university in Chisinau. “It is a way to physically expose the existence of a separation between Moldova and Transnistria, something which is immediately made explicit with the exclusive use of Russian. It is almost impossible for a soldier to speak to you in Moldovan. It is not a question of nationality but of territory. I feel Moldovan, as a culture, but also independent. We have our own constitution, our own government, passport and currency. We really are a country.”

Yet even today Transnistria — a region that includes 12% of Moldovan territory and traces the border with Ukraine for 250 miles — remains for many “the nation that does not exist.” No member of the United Nations, not even Russia, recognizes the sovereignty of Transnistria; only Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in 2008, and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory straddling Armenia and Azerbaijan, recognize its self-proclaimed status.

Transnistrians preferred to remain part of the Soviet bloc and declared independence in 1990 when Moldova broke away from the Soviet Union. A war ensued between separatist pro-Transnistria forces (including Russian 14th Guard Army and volunteer foreign soldiers from both Russia and Ukraine) and Moldovan troops until a cease-fire was agreed upon in 1992. There were over a thousand deaths. The conflict was never completely resolved, but over time Transnistria has been granted some autonomy.

“I feel Russian,” says Andreyi, who has been traveling every day for 15 years on his minibus along the road that connects Tiraspol and Chisinau, “and so do my family, my friends. But it’s not the same for everyone. The younger ones, they don’t have great political ideals, they just want to earn more money, and so they prefer to go abroad.” Without international recognition, the government-issued Transnistrian passport is essentially useless, so a large portion of the population have dual or triple nationality and carry a Russian, Moldovan or Ukrainian passport; only 10% of the approximately 450,000 people who live in Transnistria have no other passport or ID than the one issued by the local Pridnestrovie authority. Travel is therefore straightforward, and since independence, many have left these landlocked territories, which are home to abandoned Soviet factories and sprawling vineyards. In less than 30 years, the number of inhabitants of Tiraspol has decreased by over a third, with most of those leaving headed for Russia or Ukraine. Wages in Transnistria are lower than in Moldova, which is one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Almost everywhere in the capital of Transnistria, from monuments to street names, there are references to its Soviet past. The lengthy Avenue of 25 October, named after the Bolsheviks’ celebrated date of victory in 1917, bisects the city from east to west; on each side symbols of that past loom large: the House of the Soviet, the monument of General Suvorov on horseback, a huge statue of Lenin in front of a government building, itself adorned with Soviet brutalist architecture, and the tank celebrating the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution. From Lunaciarski Street to Boulevard Gagarin, Sverdlov Avenue and Gorki Alley, Soviet personalities, including lesser-known ones, are not forgotten. Tiraspol is like an open-air museum; relics from the Soviet era are showcased, creating an atmosphere of a different time and place.

On the other hand, Russia is the absolute and fundamental point of reference for this territory. Schools, hospitals and roads are built with money from Russian companies. Gas is provided at bargain prices, and Transnistria’s complete dependence on Russia for energy consequently brings political dependence as well. This is further reinforced by the fact that Russia pays the pensions of the citizens of Transnistria through a subsidy system, covering for almost the entire adult population’s welfare. The devaluation of the Russian ruble following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has affected numerous local retirees — with the allowance going from about $155 to $95 per month.

The local flag, adorned with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet era, flies everywhere alongside the Russian one. It is showcased in front of all the institutional buildings of Tiraspol — a constant reminder of how Transnistria continues to consider itself part of the Russian cultural and political space. “I know some people, over 70 [years of age], who have never left Transnistria, who speak only Russian and who still keep their old Soviet passport,” a local journalist told New Lines on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. “But the reality is not only the folkloric one, often represented in the foreign newspapers. Total economic, social, political and military dependence on Russia makes us slaves. We have a Parliament called the Supreme Soviet, we live in a place where homosexual relations are prohibited, where it is not possible to write or talk about anything freely, with endemic corruption at every level. Independent journalists, lawyers and human rights associations who want to try to challenge a government measure simply do not exist; it is all a great silence. With the invasion in Ukraine, the situation has become more difficult. Many here have relatives, friends, on the other side. But we remain isolated, in an absolute limbo.”

Everyone in the area responds feebly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vadim Krasnoselsky, president of the self-proclaimed Transnistria — who has repeatedly declared himself a supporter of Russian imperialism — has defined the war as “unpleasant” and “tragic,” without ever mentioning Russia as responsible. This caution is tied, in part, to the economic interests of Sheriff, a group of commercial companies founded by Ilya Kazmali and Victor Gusan — both former Soviet-era KGB officials — that includes clothing stores, gas stations and even a soccer team, FC Sheriff, which gained fame for having won against perennial powerhouse Real Madrid in the group stage of the Champions League. Supporting the Russian intervention in Ukraine would destabilize an already fragile and weak economy, and cause Sheriff to lose a lot of money. Russia’s artillery fire reverberates in Tiraspol, which sits just a few miles from the Ukrainian border and little more than an hour’s drive from the port city of Odesa. And yet everything continues to flow as if nothing has happened.

While Moldova flounders on the verge of humanitarian collapse, desperately seeking housing and resources to manage the arrival of refugees, the majority of the hotels within Tiraspol remain vacant. According to the little official data available, there are currently around 9,500 refugees in Transnistria from Ukraine — a ridiculously low number when compared with the more than 400,000 Ukrainians who have fled the conflict through Moldova.

At one refugee camp set up by Moldovan authorities in the Manej sports hall on the northeastern outskirts of Chisinau, dozens of camp beds are arranged in the middle of a field surrounded by an athletics track. Part of the bleachers is now a laundry room, while the kitchens and the infirmary are located in what was once the changing rooms. Most of the people here are families with small children who didn’t have anyplace else to shelter.

“I left my husband and my son in Ukraine, fighting in the Donbas. Can you imagine what it means, leaving everything, abandoning your loved ones without knowing if you will see them again, where you will end up?” asks Olesja, who escaped from Kharkiv with her 77-year-old mother and 11-year-old daughter without a final destination in mind. “We were in Tiraspol for a few days before, but we decided to leave. … The situation there is surreal. Every time we talked of the war, of what is happening in Ukraine, we received, at most, nods of approval, but also a lot of circumspection. The newspapers, the local televisions, do not tell anything about what is happening. I decided to leave after a discussion with a [local woman] in a bakery, who believed that the Russian army is liberating Ukraine from the Nazis and that they should attack us with a nuclear bomb — this is the atmosphere about the war you get in Transnistria.”

Anton, a musician who organizes tours for those brave enough to go as far as Transnistria, says: “It’s not that we don’t care about war, it’s just that we have grown up here, in the last 30 years, with the idea that it is always better not to express ourselves. In Tiraspol you always need a permit to receive foreign guests at home, to give an interview, to leave and reenter the country. It is not us who do not want Ukrainian refugees, it’s they who don’t want to come here. And I understand them. Everyone in Tiraspol thinks that the conflict from Ukraine could spread. Maybe it’s just a matter of weeks, or it could take years, but the fact remains that sooner or later the Russian army may want to use the region to move up toward the Ukrainian north through Transnistria, also militarily encroaching on Moldova.”

There has been talk of Tiraspol’s possible involvement in the war for weeks, especially after rumors — fueled by statements made by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — that Putin intends to target Chisinau. There are almost 2,000 soldiers of the Russian army, spread over the 1,377 square miles of Transnistria, who are officially stationed in the area on a peace mission. In addition, the Kremlin can count on having access to the military airport of Tiraspol. Landing on Moldovan territory would have a highly strategic value for the Russian army, allowing it to connect the Donbas region through Kherson with Mykolaiv, Odesa and Transnistria with one large land bridge. No less significant, one of the largest weapons depots in Europe is located in the Transnistrian village of Cobasna. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, more than 20,000 tons of weapons and ammunition are stored in the depot. “We have no signs that Transnistria, its security forces or Russian soldiers present there are preparing to attack Ukraine,” said Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu at a briefing for foreign press in March. Nonetheless, Ukrainian troops stationed in the Odesa region have blown up the railway bridge over the Kuchurhan River, the main route between Transnistria and Ukraine.

Wandering the streets of Tiraspol, glancing at local Russian-language newspapers, there is no sense that war is happening nearby — it’s a mere 20-minute car journey to the Ukrainian border. The Stolovaya, the typical bars offering traditional Soviet cuisine, continue to serve salads of beets and breaded chicken, just the same as 40 years ago, for about $3. Life here, in one of the poorest countries in Europe, goes on as it always has.

“This is why one can still find such unconditional support for ‘mother Russia’ in Transnistria. Moscow, for many here, is a dream of freedom and wealth, a mythical and wonderful place,” a local woman says to me on condition of anonymity. She added that Russia has “always defined us as ‘the country that does not exist,’ and with this war, Transnistria is taking another step toward definitive isolation.”

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