Moldova, Putin's Next Target?

Sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, the tiny unrecognized state of Transnistria may be more than a quaint relic of the Soviet past: It could be a foothold for another Russian takeover.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Moldovan youngsters, backdropped by European Union and Moldovan flags, burn portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, April 6, 2014.
Moldovan youngsters, backdropped by European Union and Moldovan flags, burn portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, April 6, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Half an hour's drive from Cisinau (Kishinev), capital of Moldova, on the main road, there's a roadblock and large checkpoint in red-green colors. Above the barrier there's an emblem that combines the old Soviet symbols – hammer, sickle, red star and an abundance of agricultural produce. The inspection doesn’t take long and beyond the checkpoint, there's no border fence snaking through the green fields. Neither are the guards holding any weapons. The only ones with rifles are a few Russian soldiers. But once past, still on sovereign Moldovan soil, The sign-posts in Romanian are immediately replaced by Cyrillic Russian. It seems not only like another country, but another era: Welcome to Transnistria, or as it's called by the local government, The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.

Many in Moldova and the West now fear that this is the next target of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Senior Moldovan representatives have been on journeys to the capitals of Europe and the United States in an attempt to drum up support for their small state. After Sunday's presidential elections in Ukraine, they warn, Russia could apply pressure on them, the weakest link in the pro-Western front. On the record they are careful and don't mention Russia specifically. "We are on alert and working hard to secure the border and contend with separatist movements in Moldova" says the country's interior minister, Dorin Recean. "Moldova has always lived in an uncertain region where the rules of the game are constantly redefined" says Vladislav Kulminski, a political adviser to Prime Minister Iurie Leanca. "As any state, we are focused on our survival in this uncertain environment, and this surely makes us worried about gross violations of international law."

'It's like going back in time'

The old Soviet iconography has been preserved in Transnistria in a fashion that is hard to find even in Moscow. The parliament in Tiraspol with its Lenin statue outside is still called a "Soviet." Moldova gained independence in 1991 with the disintegration of USSR, but the separatists there had already declared the independence of the Transnistrian region, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, in 1990, when they embarked on a war with the backing of Russian "volunteers," actually Red Army units, against the Moldovan nationalists who were demanding autonomy from the Soviet Union. Since then, the region has been diplomatically isolated with open borders. In the capital of Tiraspol, monuments to the "Transnistrian War" are designed exactly like those of the Second World War. Even the local flag is nothing more than an old Soviet red flag with a green horizontal stripe in the middle. Yosef Umedman, who was born in Kiev and emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s and has lived in Transnistria for the last five ye
ars says "that coming to live here was like going back twenty years in time. Even the television channels here show mainly old Russian movies."

Transnistria's population numbers barely half a million, but the impoverished region boasts three Russian-language television stations, financed by Moscow, in addition to dozens of Russian channels. They all stream Kremlin propaganda blaming the pro-western governments in Kiev and Cisinau of persecuting their Russian-speaking citizens. Moldovan channels are blocked.

Transnistria has remained isolated for 24 years, with the entire international community regarding it as a part of Moldova. Transnistria is separated from Mother Russia, with Moldova and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics afraid of Moscow and eager to join Europe, surrounding it. It is in isolation, but it is also a key strategic stronghold for Russia which continues to maintain a military presence there. Russian soldiers walk through Tiraspol unarmed as if their at home – on their uniforms the Russian flag and a patch identifying them "peace-keeping" forces. The size of the Russian contingent is not clear; in the past it was assumed to be 1,200 man strong. In recent months, since the military tension between Russia and Ukraine began, rumors have been circulating in Tiraspol of Russian planes secretly landing more forces. Some are said to have sneaked into Ukraine, others remaining in Transnistria on standby.

Two months ago, the military commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, said that "there is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that. That is very worrisome." If Russia continues to try and undermine Kiev's control of the Black Sea coast and eastern Ukraine, Transnistria which is only an hour and half's drive from the strategic port of Odessa could serve as a backdoor.

So far, Russia, which financially supports the region, selling it gas at a discount and supplementing the old-age pensions, has not officially recognized its independence. No country has, and its only diplomatic relations are with the two breakaway regions of Georgia, which sought Russian protection six years ago (Tiraspol is the only city in the world which hosts an Ossetian and Abkhazian embassy – the only embassy there). This hasn't prevented Transnistria from acting like a sovereign state with all the trappings; parliamentary elections, its own "Ruble" and vehicle license plates. The only thing it still shares with Moldova is soccer – the local teams play in the Moldovan league and the national team has hosted matches at Tiraspol's Sherrif Stadium.

The regional tension has been hurting the local economy. On the streets of Tiraspol you can see mainly women. The large factories that used to operate in the region have nearly all closed down for lack of investment in new infrastructure. The economy is based mainly on the export of wine and meat to Russia and Ukraine (Moscow imposed sanctions on wine and meat imports from other parts of Moldova) and smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes to Odessa Port. Beyond that there isn't much work. "Everyone I know is trying to leave and find work in construction in Russia or Europe" says one unemployed man in Tiraspol who asked not be quoted. "Now it's got even worse since Ukraine closed its borders to any man over seventeen with a Russian passport." The Ukrainian border restrictions emphasize Transnistria's isolation as its residents have to choose between a Moldovan and a Russian passport since Tiraspol cannot issue passports that will be recognized at any border.

Russian state visit

Next month, Moldova is scheduled to sign a new association agreement upgrading its ties with the European Union. In retaliation, Russia is threatening to add new sanctions, on top of the damaging wine and meat embargo and block all imports of fruit and vegetables. At the same time, local pro-Russian groups in Transnistria began signing tens of thousands of residents on a petition to President Putin, asking him to formally annex the region, in the same way Crimea was annexed from Ukraine two months ago. Officially, Russia has not responded to the request, beyond saying it will be taken under consideration, but the Kremlin released a threatening signal by sending one of its most senior representatives to collect the signatures.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is in charge in the Kremlin of the Russian defense industry and his arrival in Transnistria two weeks ago for the May 9 celebrations of the victory over Nazi Germany, caused a stir. For the event, massive electronic billboards were built around the town and large parade with Russian armored vehicles took place. Rogozin didn't arrive empty-handed. He brought as a gift four shiny new trolley buses, painted with the Russian flag and the slogan "to the future with Russia." It's still not clear how the buses reached Tiraspol, but one local muttered "if he can bring buses, he can bring tanks as well." During the visit, local militia-men were filmed saying on television that they are prepared to go and fight in Ukraine for Russia. Rogozin is on the list of senior Russian figures whose assets have been frozen by the west and he cannot travel to the European Union. His arrival in the separatist region was a clear provocation and when he took off to fly back to Russia, Romania and Ukraine forbade his plane from going through their airspace. He tweeted in response that next time he would arrive on a Tupolev 160 strategic bomber.

It's hard to find someone on the streets of Tiraspol who will say anything positive about the Cisinau government or that they would prefer to belong to Moldova. But the politicians in Cisinau still hope that the agreements with the European Union that open up new export markets and allow their citizens to travel freely throughout the Union will convince also those in Transnistria that a European future is better than what Russia has to offer. "Our EU course is about a positive development agenda, where human rights are fully protected" says Kulminski. "This is all very relevant for the Transnistrian region. Things are not going well and it needs investments and positive programs." At the same time, in an effort to reduce Russian fears of NATO spreading eastwards, he emphasizes that Moldova has no plans to join any military alliances, though its express policy is to gradually become a full member of the EU.

For now, these assurances don't seem to mollify Moscow which continues to threaten sanctions and support the separatists in Transnistria. Senior politicians in Cisinau claim that Russia is also supporting with funds the Communist, radical socialist and even far-right nationalist movements in Moldova, in an attempt to sway the parliamentary elections due in six months. "They are doing everything to undermine us here," says one of them. "They are using so-called democratic means to change the government to a pro-Russian one."

Flag of Transnistrian Republic.Credit: Wikicommons
Transnistrian region of Moldova, landlocked along the border with Ukraine.Credit: Wikicommons

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