Radka Bzonkova: Transdniester: Chinks in the Fortress, TOL, 2009

05/08/2013 11:38

In a time of political stasis and economic stress, Transdniestrians may start to feel less trapped.

The Transdniester republic – a separate and internationally unrecognized part of Moldova – is enclosed by three security zones. Each passenger on the bus from the Moldovan side must first go through a passport check carried out by Moldovan customs officers. Then they must pass the Russian military checkpoints, complete with tank guns aimed at the windows of the bus. Finally, the foreigners could easily be held up for another several hours by Transdniestrian customs officers with deadly serious expressions.

A poster of youthmovement "Proryv!", Tiraspol

more photos from Transnistria - here.

From the outside, Transdniester evokes a fortress guarded by police or military forces, but this fortress is starting to show cracks.

Since the military conflict with Moldova in 1992, Transdniester has based its existence on the concept of a 'besieged fortress.' From a geopolitical vantage point, Transdniester is a small strip of land along the Dniester River that is fully under the influence of Russian politics and culture. Its closest neighbor to the west is Moldova proper, which itself is balanced between the promise of the European Union and the patronage of Russia. Its neighbor to the east is Ukraine, which has been repeatedly knocking on the door of NATO. As a semilegal entity, Transdniester represents a convenient ally for Russia, lying just 100 kilometers from the EU’s borders, and Moscow is not particularly pushing for the region to be recognized as independent. This was confirmed in the Russian-Georgian war in August, when Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but overlooked Transdniester.

According to the state ideology created by the Transdniestrian political leadership, at the head of which stands President Igor Smirnov, the territory is threatened both 'externally' and 'internally.' It’s a concept that recalls the Soviet ideology of the Cold War, when Soviet media proclaimed the existence of an external threat and the need for armaments. While Transdniester does not have the economic might to get involved in an arms race, in 1992 it did inherit the arsenal of Soviet weapons stationed on its territory. But the arsenal was gradually sold off, and today this military scarecrow has all but vanished – international weapons inspectors say the armories are almost empty.


But the anti-Western rhetoric in the Transdniestrian media aimed especially at the EU and the United States has been all the more intense. In Transdniestrian ideology, these countries represent something like the dark side of the moon, marking a sharp contrast to the shining 'Russian path to democracy' and Russian culture. This rhetoric does not, however, apply to the economy and trade relations, since the two largest Transdniestrian enterprises (a cement plant and a steel works) export more than half of their production to the EU and the United States. Nevertheless, good words about European or American culture are inadmissible in Transdniestrian media and society.

Oxana, who heads a small nonprofit organization that built a clubhouse and a small gym for children, has had her own experience with the country that the domestic media describe as 'hostile America.' In the hallway of the clubhouse sits a pile of flyers offering advice on how to avoid contracting HIV. Picking one up, Oxana says she had planned to hand them out at local high schools. 'Do you know how many people have HIV here? But I came up against a brick wall. An American donor paid the printer for me. The condition for the grant was to include their logo on the back page.' Oxana sadly tosses the flyer back onto the pile. 'The first school I went into, the principal confiscated the flyers and took them to the police. A few days later, they called me in for an interrogation and told me to stop spreading American propaganda, or else they’d close down my organization.' And so the flyers have stayed locked up in the narrow hallway of this building that seems on the verge of collapse.

Moldova is also designated as an external enemy. Squabbles over language with Moldova escalated in 1992 into a bloody conflict on the border. 'They wanted to turn us into Moldovans. They wanted the Russian language to disappear completely from here,' says Dina, a high school teacher who still sounds upset about it years later. At the beginning of the 1990s, Moldova, including Transdniester, experienced a wave of nationalism, not unlike other post-Soviet states. Today, however, the language issue plays a much smaller role in daily life. More Russian speakers live in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau than in all of Transdniester. At the same time, Moldovans are the largest minority group in Transdniester, making up 32 percent of the population. In Moldova, just as in Transdniester, you can order your taxi or lunch in Russian, and people switch easily from Romanian to Russian and back.


Nevertheless, Moldovans still see a 'nationality danger' in the state rhetoric of Transdniester. A 100 percent customs duty has been imposed on the import of Moldovan goods into Transdniester, for more than 10 years it has been impossible to make a cell phone call from Moldova to Transdniester, and rail links between the two lands have been severed since 1992.

Maria, a teacher at one of the four Moldovan schools on the territory of Transdniester, describes running such a school as a daily struggle. 'In 2004, they confiscated our building. For three months, we held classes in the park, and the first week, before the police expelled us, we held them on the steps of the town hall.' Maria went to court and managed to get a new building for the school, far away from town and in a state of disrepair. Initially, the teachers and parents worked on refurbishing the building together. She managed to find funds for roof and floor repairs by tapping foreign donors. 'We’re living as if in prison here. They would be happiest if they could expel us, and then Transdniester could finally be 'clean.’ And yet, Moldovan is one of the official state languages of Transdniester! The Transdniestrian constitution and our daily lives are two different worlds,' she says.

In the Soviet Union, dissidents were identified as internal enemies. There are no dissidents, alternative culture, or so-called underground scene in Transdniester. In part, that is because Transdniester has open borders, and tens of thousands have left since the breakaway republic announced its existence. Most of the able-bodied people preferred to work as unskilled laborers in Europe or Russia rather than live in Transdniestrian poverty under the authoritarian regime of Smirnov’s family. Those in their productive years who remained in Transdniester work mainly in the army, police, or other state bodies.

There are no free elections in Transdniester. Instead, the presidential clan divvies up the high-ranking positions and efforts by citizens to engage in their own political initiatives are punished. 'As the principal of our school, I founded an initiative group in 2005 and we registered a candidate for the position of village mayor,' Irina says. 'The current mayor threatened me and the members of our initiative group, and later the local population as well.' Irina ignored the threats and sued the mayor for falsifying the election results. Her group won the case and the elections had to be repeated. But the same person won again, and Irina received one more warning. Then, one evening, as she was returning home, 'somebody hit me hard on the head. I woke up tied up and with a bag over my head. I felt a sharp pain in my hip; somebody was kicking me. It lasted a long time. I lost consciousness. But then the pain came back again. Then, they must have thought that I was done for. They tied the bag over my head with a rope to suffocate me. There was a small hole in it, and that’s what saved me.'

Irina’s assailants took neither her money nor her cell phone. She managed to roll herself down a hill while tied up, and with her last bit of strength, kicked into a fence surrounding one of the village buildings. This saved her life. She spent months in the hospital, during which she lost her position as director of the local nursery school. About a half year after the assault, she found work as a cleaner for about $50 per month.

Outwardly, the Transdniestrian regime behaves like a parody of the Soviet Union, but it is uncompromising toward its 'internal enemies.' Any interference with the system of corruption and personnel policies of the presidential clan is brutally punished. The only exception to this rule was carved out by Smirnov’s opponent in the 2007 elections, Andrei Safonov, who founded an opposition newspaper and a legal center that focuses on human rights violations in Transdniester. He has, to a limited extent, tried to draw attention to the most flagrant cases of abuse, and the newspaper mainly criticizes the economic policies of the presidential clan.


The standoff between Moldova and Transdniester has lasted 17 years. This spring, those who wished for the reintegration of Transdniester with Moldova had set their hopes on the Moldovan parliamentary elections that took place this past weekend (and delivered a surprising victory for President Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party, bringing thousands of opposition supporters out on the streets in demonstrations that turned violent). Even if the Communists won, the thinking went, their pro-European campaign and the country’s participation in the EU’s action plan for some degree of cooperation would force the authorities to work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, and the United States to solve the Transdniester conflict once and for all. However, Voronin’s recent visit to Russia dashed those hopes.

Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and prime minister, Vladimir Putin, remain among Moldovans’ favorite politicians, and aiming to improve the pre-election chances of his Communist Party, Voronin accepted an invitation to Medvedev’s residence. There, he signed an agreement with Smirnov that essentially recognizes the continuing presence of the Russian army as 'peacekeepers' in Transdniester and ignores the issue of reintegrating the territory into Moldova. Voronin thus sacrificed the pro-European policy of the Moldovan Foreign Ministry (whose representatives were not invited to the meeting) in favor of his party and a photo opportunity with Medvedev. Transdniester will remain, as a result, under the influence of Russia.

Under the surface, however, certain social processes have been set in motion by the economic crisis, and the Transdniestrian authorities are taking note. In a recent television broadcast aimed at demonstrating the military strength of Transdniester, Smirnov was shown sitting on a hill in camouflage fatigues watching a group of police and secret service officers going through training on how to disperse a crowd. As the announcer praised the fighting power of the police, some viewers must have seen the broadcast as a warning to anyone who might be thinking of organizing a demonstration or a protest march. The fears of the Transdniestrian politicians appear to be justified when one considers the fact that the breakaway republic’s ally, Russia, has been dealing with precisely such demonstrations in recent months. The full force of the global economic crisis hit the Russian citizenry only in November and December, and the frustrated clients of struggling financial institutions who lost their deposits have taken to directly attacking local bank branches.

Likewise, in Transdniester, the ranks of the unemployed are growing. Two of the largest Transdniestrian companies – the steel and cement works – have sent half of their employees on unpaid leave. Those people have been joined by migrant workers who lost their jobs and returned home. It is mainly these former 'gastarbeiters' who are able to compare conditions in Western Europe and at home. In the first few months of 2009, however, many have tried their best to stay on in Europe, and only a few have come back.


more photos from Transdniester here.

Nevertheless, foreign donors’ heightened interest these days in Transdniester, the returning foreign workers, and well-traveled young people could bring changes to Transdniester. Three years ago, I asked a group of students at a Transdniestrian law school whether they felt as if they were living in a 'besieged fortress.' Out of the group of 30, 28 of them were convinced that Transdniester was facing huge pressure from abroad and that this state concept was the right one. By the fall of 2008, only 10 of them remained convinced of this.

Radka Bzonkova is the head of Eastern European projects at the Center for Human Rights and Democracy at People in Need, a Czech humanitarian organization.

Translated by Victor Gomez.