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No End Of Frozen Conflict In Moldova's Transdniester

The administrative building on Tiraspol's central square sports a banner reading: "Our strength is in unity with Russia."
The administrative building on Tiraspol's central square sports a banner reading: "Our strength is in unity with Russia."
By Gregory Feifer
TIRASPOL -- Forlorn concrete apartment blocks greet visitors just across the heavily guarded border of this lush sliver of land along the Dniester River. Elderly men push baby carriages through the half-abandoned streets: it's mostly the very young and old who remain in breakaway Transdniester.

This region split from Moldova soon after the Soviet collapse in 1991, following a brutal war that killed around 1,500 people and ended with the intervention of Russian peacekeepers.

It's been locked in a frozen conflict and seemingly stuck in time ever since, but some believe an opposition victory in Moldova earlier this month could provide a chance to finally settle Transdniester's status.

So little has changed in the region, it could be a museum of the Soviet Union, right down to the hammer-and-sickle insignia adorning official buildings.

Near an outdoor market in the border town of Bendery, some new cafes and shops show relative signs of life. But pensioner Larissa Kilmichenka, who sells inexpensive clothes to help make ends meet, says life is indescribably tough.

"I can't support my family on a pension of 400 rubles," she says. "You can't survive on that. It's simply impossible."

Looking To Moscow

Transdniester once produced most of Moldova's industrial output. But now factories stand idle, hit hard by sanctions from Chisinau, which insists Transdniester is part of its sovereign territory. Since last year, the global financial crisis has further wiped out 60 percent of metals and other exports.

A sleepy day on the beach in Tiraspol
Today, only financial aid from Russia props up an economy that would otherwise collapse. Crime may also help: the unregulated region is reputed to be a center for traffickers of drugs, arms, and women forced into prostitution.

The median income is around $150 a month. Asked how life here could possibly improve for Transdniester's 400,000 residents, Kilmichenka cites only one option. She says the region must join Russia.

"There's no alternative," she says, "because we won't survive without Russia."

But even ardent Moscow loyalists admit joining Russia requires a stretch of the imagination: the two allies, which don't share a border, are separated by more than 600 kilometers of Ukrainian territory.

Transdniester used to belong to Ukraine until 1939, when it was merged with part of Romania to create Moldova in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The agreement is 70 years old this week.

No Compromise

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Transdniestrians backed secession for fear Moldova would rejoin Romania.

Vladimir Pasyutin
Local legislator Vladimir Pasyutin, who owns furniture and agriculture businesses, says Moldova is an artificial state that should be allowed to split apart, and blames the Moldovan authorities for Transdniester's problems.

"We've tried to come to an agreement with Moldova from the very beginning, ever since 1989," he says. "We first began talking about a confederation, and we've always tried to compromise."

But that spirit of compromise can be hard to detect. Most people in Transdniester voted to join Russia in a referendum three years ago, and many were heartened when Moscow recognized two Georgian separatist regions last year.

A statue of Lenin still lords over the barren central square of the capital, Tiraspol. Across a shaky bridge over the Dniester River, teenagers jump into pea-green water on a lazy summer day.

They appear no different from their counterparts elsewhere -- except for the fact that they live in a self-proclaimed republic not recognized by any country. Seventeen-year-old Alyona Timurzina says Transdniester will never again be part of Moldova.

"We don't want to have anything to do with Moldova," she says. "We may have been small during the war, but we remember everything that happened. How our fathers died, for example -- including mine."

Caught In A Trap


But a small handful of residents is deeply pained by Transdniester's refusal to engage with Chisinau. Among them are members of the opposition Social Democratic Party, housed in two rooms of a crumbling one-story residential building near Tiraspol's main square.

Aleksandr Radchenko
White-haired and weary-looking, party head Aleksandr Radchenko says President Igor Smirnov and his allies split from Moldova in 1992 not because of their political convictions, but because they refused to give up communist-era control of the region's lucrative industry.

He says the separatist leaders are still holding Transdniester hostage to their desire to enrich themselves.

"Nonrecognition is a golden paradise," Radchenko says. "The longer it goes on, the better it is for them, even though the people suffer because of it."

Russia maintains hundreds of troops in Transdniester. Many here speak Russian, and the Kremlin has issued Russian passports to thousands of residents.

Radchenko says Moscow's main interest in the region is for maintaining influence over Moldova. He says Transdniester is a pawn in a geopolitical competition with the West.

"Whatever anyone tells you here, Transdniester is the front line of Russia's interests [to the West]," he says. "That's why it appears the conflict in Transdniester will remain frozen for a long time."

New Government To Bring Change?


On-again-off-again talks between Transdniester and Moldova, mediated by international organizations, broke down last year. But the opposition victory in Moldova's parliamentary elections this month appears set to end eight years of Communist Party rule. Some believe Transdniester's leaders will be more willing to talk to a new liberal coalition.

But a change of regime in Chisinau also promises to put Moldova on a path toward European integration, and away from Russian influence -- which others believe may harden the Kremlin's support for Transdniester's separatists.

Back in the town of Bendery, human rights activist Grigory Valovoi says President Smirnov welcomes a large governing coalition in Moldova only because it will be easier to manipulate than the current Communist leaders.

Grigory Valovoi
"The situation in Moldova's parliament will allow Transdniester's authorities only to further drag out the negotiation process," he says.

Valovoi publishes an opposition newspaper and runs Transdniester's only independent radio station from a small apartment on the eighth floor of a decrepit building whose elevator broke down years ago.

He says most people in Transdniester are weary of their isolation and impoverishment. But he doesn't believe change is coming for a population that's fallen by half since 1992, chiefly from migration to other former Soviet republics.

"I don't see a future for this strip of land," Valovoi says. "Most young people want to leave and those who remain don't even remember there was a war in 1992. All they know are the official cliches drilled into them."

Transdniester's frozen conflict will end, Valovoi says, only when Moscow wants it to.
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by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 18, 2009 16:48
Just return it to Ukraine for exchange on Moldova's exit to the Black Sea.<br /><br />Let Moldova be another Switzerland for Ukraine and Romania and other neighbors - to build better future for all!<br /><br />Why believe canning-face gigling Russian imperial resurectors above and let their hulligans expand Russian locust...<br /><br />Konstantin.<br />

by: Brazilian Man from: S&#227;o Paulo - SP, Brazil
August 18, 2009 23:31
The problems of Transnistria are a worsened version of the same problems that affect Moldova. And Transnistria itself only exists today because of the presence of Russian troops that support the regime of the president-for-life Igor Smirnov, from the faraway Kamchatka peninsula.<br /><br />And the KGB-orchestrated “pro-Soviet, anti-Fascist ethnic movement” that created Transnistria during the collapse of the Soviet Union was identical to the pro-Soviet movements that existed in the same time in the Baltic republics (Intermovement in Estonia, International Front of the Working People in Latvia and Yedinstvo in Lithuania).<br /><br />The Baltic pro-Soviet movements failed because of the great pressure from Western Europe governments and the George H. Bush administration in favor of the reconstitution of the Baltic countries’ independence (there was the Stimsom Doctrine of non-recognition of Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania); but the pro-Soviet, and later pro-Russian movements in Moldova and Georgia had succeed because there was no Goergia nor Moldova between World War I and World War II, so the United States and the European Union felt they were not obliged to meddle in these former Soviet territories.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
August 19, 2009 07:00
Moldova should not care about the Transdniester conflict. They should rather focus on their own integration with the West. <br /><br />And after they have managed to achieve their main goal (EU membership) their much higher living standard become the most effective tool for persuading the people of Transdniester to return.<br /><br />If you have a look at the Baltic states where also a large Russian minority exists nobody from them want to secede and unite with Russia.<br /><br />Why? Because life is much better in the EU and in the Baltic states than in Russia...<br /><br />So the best way to cope with separatist conflicts are to improve the mainlands' living standards and make a better and more attractive future for the separatist regions. <br /><br />This is the solution for Moldova and Georgia as well.

by: Prince Igor
August 19, 2009 15:53
Like parts of this article, Brazilian Man has reversed reality.<br /><br />If anything, Transdniester (Pridnestrovie by its preferred name) is better off than Moldova. This is one reason why the disputed region doesn't want to be part of Moldova. Transdniester was never part of an independent Moldova.<br /><br />The above article recites some inaccurately outdated claims. Sex trade is much greater in Moldova than Transdniester. The alleged arms smuggling from Transdniester was perhaps an issue in the early 1990s. In recent years, the evidence of such activity is extremely limited, if not nonexistent.<br /><br />Regarding Soviet symbols in Transdniester, in recent years a statue of Suvorov on a horse has gained some popularity over the hammer and sickle. Whereas the Moldovan Communist Party has played a great role in Moldova, Transdniester's Communist Party has had a more limited following in Transdniester.<br /><br />Russia says it wants Moldova and Transdniester to be one with the latter's rights respected. What's so wrong with that policy? Meantime, Moldova insists that Transdniester should be part of Moldova. <br /><br />Wales isn't part of Scotland and vice versa. Both are part of the UK. Moldova and Transdniester should've a similar arrangement.<br /><br />Faulting Russia often reflects the kind of knee jerk and bogus analysis of the commentariot. <br /><br />

by: Prince Igor
August 20, 2009 11:10
One more point: on the post-Soviet migration out of Pridnestrovie, note that many have left Moldova as well.

by: Brazilian Man from: S&#227;o Paulo - SP, Brazil
August 20, 2009 13:45
“Pridnestrovie” (a Russian-language term for a region where around one-third of the population speaks Romanian, the majority of the population is not ethnically Russian and where the use of the Latin Alphabet is “verboten”) is so ”historically Russian” as the Ukrainian region of Poltava.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 20, 2009 19:16
Igor?<br />Well...<br />His position is pro-Russian of the most dangerous kind.<br />Suvorov, supposed conqueror of Moldova, on a horse?<br />Well...<br /><br />Some Moldovans trying, as some &quot;old pals of communist Russia&quot;, hold back Russian invasion (Shevardnadze also tried!) - that mean:<br />- &quot;Lase, Lase - Russia, stay acase!&quot; <br />They probably hope that Zuganov, Putin and Medvedev are not danceling hideously on Bundershaft as did Lenin, Serafimovich and Lacoba when they invaded Sochi, Northern Abkhazia, Osetia and some other parts of Georgia and unleashed genocide against Georgians at the end of Russian Civil War, and than again since 1991... <br />Igor probably knows that!<br />Well...<br /><br />The trick is simple, staffed by Russian occupiers and grabbers, Rusian speaking multitude and slaves of Russia, &quot;Besso-ra-ba-ai&quot; with most of welth of Moldova, linked by Russian army and Russians re-populated Tiraspol zone, can be, using manipulation with nationalities numbers as they doing in Georgian provinces, eventually made part of Russian locust, wile western part, Moldovans, will be still used as slaves of breeding Russia, lill they can be used alive...<br /><br />Konstantin. <br /><br /><br /> <br />

by: Prince Igor
August 21, 2009 12:53
Brazilian Man<br /><br />Pridnestrovie has three official languages unlike Moldova. In Pridnestrovie, the Moldovan langauge with the Cyrillic alphabet is officially used. In Pridnestrovie, it's not &quot;verboten&quot; to learn Moldovan with the Latin script. FYI, in Moldova, the Moldovan language with the Cyrillic alphabet isn't officially used.<br /><br />Of all the disputed former Communist bloc territories, Pridnestrovie has the best record of multi-ethnic harmony. <br /><br />Tiraspol was founded by Suvorov. <br /><br />When Moldova was independent, it didn't include Pridnestrovie. <br /><br />The same is true when Moldova was part of Romania between two world wars.<br /><br />The Dniester River separates much of Pridnestrovie and Moldova from each other. This geography has influenced the different historical experiences of the two.<br /><br />Ukraine as an independent entity is something that developed over time. Pridnestrovie's views of Russia are along the lines of &quot;Blue&quot; Ukraine. As part of the USSR, Pridnestrovie had an &quot;autonomous&quot; status within the Communist created Ukrainian SSR, when that republic was affiliated with Russia as part of the USSR. <br /><br />In comparison to Moldova, Pridnestrovie has had longer periods as part of the Russian Empire and USSR.

by: Johann from: USA
August 21, 2009 14:05
What Prince Igor says is correct. Transnistra is no more part of Moldova, than Greenland is part of Denmark, Catalonia is part of Spain, Western Sahara is part of Kingdom Morocco, or french speaking Quebec is part of Canada.<br />Zoltan from Hungary is also correct.<br />Moldova should let the Slavic Russian speaking part of its country go. Moldova or Serbia, can never join EU or NATO if they do not control their borders. <br />Moldovians should emphasize on their Roman (Latin) heritage and not worry about Turks or other foreign entries (people) living in theirs country.

by: Prince Igor
August 21, 2009 16:43
BTW Brazilian Man, Pridnestrovie is typically referred to as such by many Belarusians Ukrainians and other former Soviet peoples.
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