Special Dossier EUBAM Moldova-Ukraine Mission
Report from Transnistria: A forgotten conflict at the borders of Ukraine and Moldova
By Nicolas Gros-Verheyde in Tiraspol | Tuesday 22 April 2008
was able to make a discreet and anonymous visit to one of the last regions of Europe that is practically sealed off from the rest of the world. An exclusive report follows.
Take a look at a map of Europe. Between Moldova and Ukraine is a shaded area, a narrow stretch of territory along the Dniestr River. Its name is worthy of a Tintin comic strip: Transnistria (also spelled Transdniestria). The state put in place here after a 'war of independence' has not been recognised by any other country in the world. It is nevertheless protected by highly visible Russian 'peacekeeping' troops. The situation is absurd, because while Transnistria appears to be a puppet state, its border is not, at least on the face of it. Nor is the separation lacking in economic implications. Eastern Transnistria is traditionally industrial while western Moldova is more agricultural.
A REAL BORDER
Even as the Schengen area continues to expand, the official 'non-border' between Transnistria and Moldova is equipped with a genuine border post, including a no-man’s land, barbed wire, concrete bars and ins-and-outs, along with the discreet but real presence of Russian 'peacekeeping' troops.
Just across the border, in a ditch to the left, an armoured vehicle is manned by a few Russian soldiers, wearing chapkas in spite of the heat. They stand and watch discreetly. But there are no watchtowers or weapons pointed at the people arriving. The time it takes to cross the border is a question of luck, determination and the custom officials' mood. It can take from 15 minutes to several hours to obtain a small piece of poorly photocopied paper that serves as a visa, for an unpredictable fee (the transit visa is free) that often ends up in the custom official's pocket, say those who make the crossing regularly. But apart from the minibuses that provide a shuttle service from Chisinau to Tiraspol several times an hour, there are few individual passenger cars and even fewer trucks, as these tend to be particularly 'pampered' by the Transnistrian border guards.
Once past Bendery, the first town on the other side of the border, the road leads quickly to Tiraspol. A few kilometres outside the 'capital', vehicles are forced to slow down by another set of ins-and-outs, with a tank and armed troops keeping watch nearby. While there is no formal barrier, everything is ready to put one in place in a matter of seconds.
PARADOX ON EVERY STREET CORNER
In this strange 'country', the flag and coat of arms still display the hammer and sickle. Slogans to the glory of the state are displayed atop factories and on billboards. It is still prohibited to take photos of any official building – even the parliament – or of soldiers in the street. Paradoxically, though, soldiers and police officers are fairly rare. In the official buildings, like the 'Soviet' house or parliament, there is not even a symbolic honour guard. This is a peculiarity of Tiraspol, the 'capital' of this puppet state. Only the Russian barracks on the outskirts of the city are obviously guarded.
Tiraspol looks pretty much like any other city of the former Soviet Union of the 1980s. But it also has its modern side that any European city would envy. On the one hand, gleaming, brand new bank buildings, whose reason for being there does not seem obvious; billboards announcing the start-up of new construction projects; shops selling the very latest fashions by the best known designers, at prices closer to those seen in Brussels, Berlin or Paris than to the local standard of living, and with few customers. On the other, the traditional market, where prices are more reasonable and where buyers can find almost anything: from chicken and potatoes to furniture, clothes, gas cookers, bicycle parts, cigarettes and newspapers. The country dwellers come here to sell their goods and buy what they need.
There is no need for a long sociological study to see that the population, particularly from the rural areas, is poor. Ten Transnistrian roubles – the 'republic' has its own rouble exchanged at the rate of 14 roubles to the euro – are counted carefully before being spent here. The people's faces are worn out, tired. A few new and some older vehicles circulate in town, but most people use the wheezing and ramshackle trolleybuses to get around in town, or the more modern minibuses – that cost more but are faster and go all over the area, from the outskirts of Tiraspol to the countryside and even Chisinau (Moldova) and Odessa (Ukraine).
CHECKS WITHOUT RHYME OR REASON
The trip back across the border is more bizarre. An assortment of passports appears as soon as the customs official arrives. Apparently almost anything will do here to prove one's identity: a Russian passport, Moldovan identity card, a Transnistrian piece of paper. Even an old, tattered Soviet passport gets the OK of the customs agent. Westerners are entitled to special treatment: passport confiscated, questioning, search of their bags... The young English-speaking – which is rare – agent, apparently professionally trained, asks the routine questions: reason for the visit, time of arrival, "do you have any drugs in your possession," etc. But he lingers on certain less usual questions: type of photos taken (especially of soldiers), amount of cash (foreign currencies and Transnistrian roubles). An old hand, speaking only Russian, is seated nonchalantly in a corner of the room. He seems to be there for a clear reason: to cut the questioning short, the 'client' has to pay. The interrogation remains polite and respectful nonetheless. By following the valuable advice of another traveller, "don't pay," and with a bit of persistence and patience, one gets through the last questions.
After a 40-minute halt, the bus can get going again, this time to cross a checkpoint run by the Moldavian police. Although there is in principle no border control for Moldavians, this appears to be just that. The police officer makes a quick check of the minibus to see whether there are any goods being smuggled in and inspects the baggage hold. He doesn't find anything. The minibus can continue on its way, for good this time, headed to Chisinau. A few tens of metres down the road, all the passengers relax noisily and take out of the strongbox in the baggage hold, amidst general mirth, the more 'personal' packages containing cartons of cigarettes or other goods. The 'border' seems more a waste of time – "red tape, that's all," says one passenger, and a source of baksish (bribes) – than a real power of an 'independent state'. Today, in any case... As one European diplomat confided, this region is a bit like "a personal company draped in independence and propaganda".
This region is like "a personal company draped in independence and propaganda"
Transnistria: a fictitious state?
The fictitious nature of the state comes to the fore in the economic realm. To export to Europe, Transnistrian companies must be registered in Chisinau. Nearly 300 companies have met this requirement. "Moldova is given preferential treatment for products, which is a serious incentive for companies from Transnistria to register," notes the European Commission. Indeed, firms export a great deal to Europe, in particular steel and textiles.
CFE Treaty and foreign troops
In June 2007, the NATO countries demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria – as well as Abkhazia and Georgia – as a prerequisite to ratification of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), which sets ceilings on conventional military equipment. Taking advantage of this non-ratification – and also in reaction to American plans to strengthen the anti-missile shield in Europe – the Russians chose, on 12 December, to denounce the CFE Treaty as a whole. The Americans had also proposed at the time to replace Russian troops with a multinational peacekeeping force. That proposal has remained a dead letter so far...