CHISINAU – The television station controlled by the de facto authorities in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region has broadcast a report showing a former "deserter" from the region's paramilitary force back with his unit and claiming that he had been an unwitting tool in a "disinformation war" against the Russia-backed region.
A human rights lawyer whose advocacy group has aided Alexandru Rjavitin, however, voiced doubt about the report and said the 25-year-old might have been coerced into making new statements about his ordeal.
The February 4 report on the First Transdniester Channel showed Rjavitin, 25, in a paramilitary uniform and participating in exercises with other uniformed young men.
"What happened to him was far from ordinary," the narrator of the report says. "He committed a crime and then became a pawn in Moldova's information games."
The report claims that Rjavitin was impressed with how the republic's so-called "army" had been reformed since he ran away and how hazing had been "practically eliminated."
It asserts that he became a "pawn" in an information campaign against Transdniester and that reports in the Moldovan media were "signed with his name."
"[Journalists] came to me the first night and they already knew everything about how I ran away," Rjavitin says in the report. "They explained everything in detail. They asked me questions and I answered them. Of course, all of that was rewritten and a lot was falsely presented. The first story I did in the Moldovan media only gave isolated facts, but did not convey the general picture."
Rjavitin ran away from the unit into which he'd been conscripted in 2015 and made his way to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. There he told media and human rights activists of widespread hazing, extortion, torture, and other abuse in the paramilitary formation of the unrecognized Transdniester republic. The de facto authorities in the region opened a criminal case of "desertion" against Rjavitin, a charge that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
In 2017, he was featured in a documentary report by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service in which he detailed his allegations, which apparently confirmed numerous other, similar reports that have emerged from Transdniester in recent years.
In December, for unknown reasons, Rjavitin returned to his family in Transdniester. On December 18, he was abducted by the de facto security forces of the region. He was held incommunicado for nearly a month as right activists in Moldova raised international alarms over fears that he might be experiencing torture or intimidation.
"The appearance of this [Transdniester television] report raises more questions, first among them is why the authorities waited more than a month and a half to publish a video showing Alexandru Rjavitin," said Alexandru Postica, director of the human rights program of the Chisinau-based Promo-Lex Association, which has provided legal assistance to Rjavitin.
"If this had been shown at the beginning of January when we initially requested information about him, then it might have been possible to believe that legal procedures had been followed without violations," Postica added.
'Nothing Has Changed'
Postica noted that Rjavitin remains in the custody of the same paramilitary authorities from whom he escaped in 2015, which means it is impossible to determine whether he spoke under compulsion.
"If the military authorities of the so-called Transdniester Republic allow [Rjavitin] to meet with a doctor and his lawyer, then perhaps we will agree that we no longer represent him," he said. "But so far, nothing has changed with the appearance of this report."
RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, which reported about the Rjavitin case numerous times and produced the 2017 documentary film that detailed his allegations, stands by the accuracy of its reporting.
"Soldiers are very often beaten up, humiliated, and blackmailed for money," Rjavitin said in the RFE/RL documentary. "Newcomers are first broken and mocked and forced to pay. The amount varies -- 20 rubles [$1.25 according to the official exchange rate the de facto authorities have established for the nonconvertible currency] and up. Some boys even had to pay $100 to $150. [The officers] don't care where or how you got the money. But if you come up empty, you are guaranteed a beating."
Rjavitin detailed the many ways fellow soldiers had devised to beat and torture conscripts without leaving telltale marks.
Pro-Russian separatists in Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 amid concerns that officials in Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The separatists fought a war against government forces two years later in which about 1,000 people were killed.
The conflict has been frozen since Soviet troops stationed in Transdniester intervened on the side of the separatists. Since then, Russia continues to provide military, economic, and political support to the unrecognized de facto administration.
Moscow maintains troops in the region, despite Chisinau's repeated requests for them to be withdrawn and replaced by international peacekeepers.
Young men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to completed one year of service in the region's illegal paramilitary organization.
Promo-Lex's Postica says his organization will continue to push for access to Rjavitin despite the Transdniester media report.
"I remember a statement by [parliament deputy and political analyst] Oazu Nantoi during a press conference here on January 20 in which he said that he expects the appearance of a video in which Rjavitin says he was manipulated," Postica told RFE/RL. "This is exactly what has happened."