“Do not lose your entry visa, or else you’ll have to pay a €750 bribe to get back into Moldova” said Jacek and Miriam, my new Polish colleagues who accompanied me to the land-locked breakaway state of Transdniestria. The three of us met in Chisinau a few days earlier while participating in the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to Moldova for the November 30 parliamentary elections.
Officially, Transdniestria is known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR). It is a thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine located on the eastern banks of the Dniester River. Despite having its own military, constitution and currency, no UN member recognizes Transdniestria as a sovereign independent state, including Russia despite the aspirations of the Transdniestrian people to formally become part of the Russian Federation. The only enclaves lending illusory legitimacy are Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, who are all members of the post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict’ zone club.
From 1990-1992, fighting between Moldovan national authorities and the PMR intensified into a war, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 1,000 people. Peacekeeping forces, composed mainly of Russian troops, remain to this day.
Although the conflict has remained ‘frozen’ for more than twenty years, these “peacekeepers” have nonetheless helped maintain the status quo of a divided Moldova while preventing the re-integration of the self-proclaimed PMR into the Moldovan state.
Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestria, is full of Soviet symbolism and nostalgia. From Stalin memorabilia to Putin portraits hanging in the souvenir shops, citizens seemingly yearn for the Soviet past. Even the Transdniestrian flag resembles the red Soviet Union banner with the hammer and sickle – the only difference is a green horizontal stripe in the middle. Outside the Transdniestrian parliament, a gigantic statue of Lenin dominates the square.
Despite the feeling of being in a Soviet time capsule, Tiraspol appeared clean and the streets are in relatively decent shape – perhaps due to their emptiness. Buildings are freshly painted and the boulevards are well-manicured. But don’t let this façade fool you.
Restriction of human rights and suppression of free media is commonplace. The Canadian government advises against all travel to the region due to its reputation of being a hub for the global arms trade, drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and transnational organized crime syndicates.
Due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing war against Ukraine, many are wondering whether Transdniestrians will reassert, perhaps forcefully, their secessionist inclinations with Russian backing. One needs only to look at the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics to get a sense of what falls within the realm of possible scenarios.
While exploring Tiraspol, I kept asking myself – is Transdniestria next?
Following Moldova’s parliamentary elections, pro-European parties combined won a greater number of seats than the pro-Russian Socialist and Communist parties. They are now in the process of forming a coalition government inclined to deepening trade and economic ties with the European Union, as evidenced by the signing of the EU-Moldova Association Agreement back in June.
For its European integration aspirations, Russian officials have repeatedly threatened “serious consequences” while enacting trade bans against Moldova. Russia has also recently sent “humanitarian convoys” to Transdniestria, which should be setting off alarm bells in Western capitals given that Russia continues to send military equipment and personnel across the Ukrainian border under the guise of humanitarianism to fuel war in the Donbas.
Just north of Tiraspol, the remnants of one of the Soviet Union’s largest weapons and ammunitions caches in Europe are situated in the town of Cobasna (Kolbasna). Thousands of arms have gone “missing” from this depot over the years, to mysteriously turn up in many conflict zones around the world. According to OSCE estimates, 20-25,000 tons of various military equipment remains under the guard of Russian troops. It is not difficult to imagine how and into which hands these weapons may fall in the event of an outbreak of violence.
Given the unpredictability of Russian foreign policy within the region, Ukraine fears the opening of a second front as it has set up defensive positions and has deployed extra military personnel to the Odesa region along the Transdniestrian border. If this scenario becomes real, the seemingly forgotten land of Transdniestria may once again gain greater attention from the international community for the most unfortunate reasons.