War or peace? The future of Transnistria
The war is getting closer to Transnistria every day, but the region – a self-proclaimed republic with Russian backing – is still calm and life goes on as usual. However, several threats are on the horizon. Is Transnistria the first country to which war will spill over? We visited this almost forgotten part of Eastern Europe where the Soviet heritage is still visible and present.
Published: September 7, 2022, 9:48 am
As the conflict continues in Ukraine, more recently eyes have been looking towards a small strip of land located between the east bank of the Dniester River and Moldova’s border with Ukraine. There lies the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), better known in the West as “Transnistria”.
Internationally it’s recognised as part of Moldova but has been independent since 1992 with backing from Russia. Near the monument of Alexander Suvorov in the centre of Tiraspol fly the flags of the three countries that officially recognise the PMR; Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia – all of them also break-away republics without international recognition.
Although this is a self-proclaimed republic, it operates and functions just like any other country. It has its own army, police, fire service and currency. Transnistria has its own central bank, which issues the Transnistrian Ruble (PRB). It is also the only country in the world to use the Transnistrian Ruble coin, which is made of a plastic composite material.
Russia provides the region with free natural gas and at present there are around 1 500 Russian soldiers based here who act as peace-keepers.
With its population of around 475 000, over 30 percent here in Transnistria speak Russian and as I wander the streets, unlike Ukraine, Lenin monuments still stand along with other Soviet monuments. The St. George’s ribbon is displayed on vehicles and virtually everyone that I met speaks Russian. Schools along with many other buildings still have Soviet mosaics proudly displayed on their establishments.
Bars and cafes stay open late into the night, and as children play in fountains near the main square there is a sense of calm here. Soviet taxis are parked on the road against a backdrop of both ultra-modern buildings and traditional Soviet apartment blocks. Because the region benefits from free Russian natural gas, life is good compared to nearby Moldova, which is the poorest country in Europe.
The 90’s war
In 1990 the region declared its independence, as did many other former Soviet republics and regions, but this declaration of freedom was met with dismay from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The situation deteriorated into an armed conflict with Moldova in 1992. Although the war only lasted a few weeks, it is claimed that over 1 000 people were killed and over 3 000 injured in this “short but bloody” conflict. On the 21st of July 1992 a ceasefire was declared which remains to this day with the help of Russian peacekeepers.
In the city of Bender, a monument dedicated to the work of those Russian peacekeepers has been erected in the centre as a way of saying thank you for helping to maintain peace for the past 30 years.
War in Ukraine
Whilst the war in Donbass has raged for over eight years, this region has remained peaceful and played no role in the current operation launched into Ukraine by Russia back in February earlier this year.
Since Russia launched its operation in Ukraine on February 24, Transnistria has constantly stated that they do not pose a threat to anyone and that they are not an enemy of Ukraine. However, as rumours emerge that Ukrainian forces are on the verge of running out of munitions, it has been suggested that Kiev is seriously considering a raid on Russia’s 14th Army munitions storage, located near the village of Cobasna in the north of Transnistria and about 3km from the Ukrainian border.
Russian have kept this huge munitions depot, the largest in Europe, since the region was part of the Soviet Union. The reason is said to be that there was simply too much ammunition to move. According to various estimates, more than 20 000 tons of ammunition has been stored there since the Soviet era.
Shortly after Russia launched their operation, Ukraine closed all their border crossing points along Transnistria’s 400-kilometre border, creating problems for citizens on both sides. Many here believe that this was an unnecessary act which only targeted civilians whom they believe hold “pro-Russian” sympathies.
Although there is peace here, one cannot ignore the geographical importance of this area due to its close proximity to the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa in Ukraine. However, nobody is certain, what, or if, Russia has any plans for this strip of land.
On April 25, three masked men pulled up in a car outside the Ministry for State Security in the centre of Tiraspol and fired a number of RPG grenades at the building. Nobody was injured, and to date, no one has been caught. Then the following evening on April 26, there were reports of a drone attack which caused an explosion. Again, nobody was killed nor caught.
That same morning, the antennas of a powerful transmitter were blown up in the village of Maiac. Then on April 27, there was a shooting near the ammunition storage base outside the village of Cobasna.
Authorities in Transnistria claimed that there was a Ukrainian connection to those attacks and declared the highest level of a terrorist threat. Russia expressed concern, and Ukraine blamed Russian intelligence services for provocations.
Transnistrian President, Vadim Krasnoselsky, was adamant that Ukraine were behind the attacks, stating: “We know where the terrorists came from and where they went afterwards. I assure you, they have nothing to do with the Transnistria issue, as reported by Azerbaijan 24 news channel on May 17.”
Since the attacks, checkpoints have been set up all across Transnistria at the entrance and exit of all major towns and cities in order to increase security and prevent future attacks.
Although there is open support here for Russia, to date there has not been any demonstrations on the street in support of the operation launched into Ukraine by Russia. This has helped to maintain the status quo in what is classed as a peaceful region where Ukrainians, Russians and Moldovans live side by side.
Whilst heading north from Tiraspol on the M4 towards Malaesti, Ukraine, Transnistria and Moldova are separated by just one road which runs between the two borders. The road is in the territory of Transnistria, on the left is Moldova and on the right Ukraine.
I stop to take a look at the Ukrainian side of the road which now takes the form of mined trenches. Locals have expressed concern over the fact that there are no warning signs (which are normally red and have the skull and crossbones symbol). This mined area presents a huge danger for children, farmers and livestock. One resident told me that this was “reckless behaviour and typical of Ukrainian forces trying to provoke trouble in this peaceful region”.
International travel for those living here can be an issue, as holding a Transnistrian passport naturally restricts movement. Many people have chosen to obtain a Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan, Romanian or Bulgarian passport in addition to the Transnistrian one. Many of those I spoke to had a combination of these passports, with some claiming to hold all five.
Banning Soviet Symbols
More recently Moldova has taken the bold decision to ban the screening of Russian and Soviet films about the Great Patriotic War. The St.George’s ribbon along with “Z” and “V” symbols have also been banned in an attempt (like Ukraine) to seek closer ties with the West.
On April 14, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu stated, as quoted by Interfax News Agency: “I have today promulgated a law banning the use of signs symbolising war and aggression. This does not affect our historical memory. On the contrary, we must further honour and respect the memory of those who died in the most dreadful war of the 20th century. At least 100 000 citizens of Moldova perished in that war. For the sake of their memory, we must preserve peace and social harmony.
“Nobody is banned from celebrating May 9. On the contrary, it is our duty to remember the victory of civilization over Fascism and Nazism. We must honour the memory of those who brought peace on earth. Regrettably, war has now returned to Europe. And we all see what signs are being used in Kharkiv or in Mariupol, and in devastated Bucha,” she said.
Anyone violating the ban faces a fine of 4 500 – 9 000 leu ($250-$500) or unpaid community service of 30 – 60 hours for individuals, and a fine of 9 000-18 000 leu ($500 – $1,000) for legal entities and state officials.
Not everybody in Moldova was happy about this new law and on April 15 in the Moldovan city of Balti, a demonstration was organised by socialists and communists. They claimed that the decision to introduce this law was a betrayal of their past and was only created to satisfy the EU.
For many in both Eastern Europe and Russia, the St. George’s ribbon symbolises the Victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) in which 27 000 000 Soviet citizens gave their lives. As expected, the reaction from the Russian embassy in Chisinau was stern with them stating that this decision “complicated movement toward peace and friendship”.
Last week Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky started pushing for the West and Russia to sign a document that would provide security guarantees for the region. He did this whilst attending the “5+2” peace talks, which consisted of Transnistria, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, with the EU and US as observers. And because Moldova has now applied for EU membership, Krasnoselsky added that ”Moldova and the PMR were moving in opposite directions”.
Russian troop rotation in Transnistria has become another issue to contend with. Russian officers who travel to Transnistria via Chisinau Airport every six months have repeatedly been detained without any explanation, thus aggravating an already tense situation. Moldova continues to deny that it is in any way attempting to sabotage the rotation of these troops, many of whom make up the peace-keeping force there. The bulk of the Russian troops not connected with the peace-keeping force are guards for the munitions depot in Cobasna. Until 2014, the troops used the land crossing from Ukraine, but once the conflict started in Donbass back in 2014, this was no longer an option.
Regardless of various rumours, it’s not realistic to think that the 1 500 Russian troops based in Transnistria could be used to enter Ukraine. Nobody here wants to see a repeat of the war in 1992.
Although there have been numerous appeals for calm, only last week whilst discussing the ongoing issue in Moldova, the head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence in Ukraine, Kirill Budanov, stated that Ukrainian forces were ready to “get rid of the occupying forces on its territory” (referring to Transnistria and Russian soldiers).
Many people saw this statement as a deliberate provocation to what has up to now been a relatively peaceful region.
At present, there are only occasional attacks from Russian forces on Odessa and the south west of Ukraine, but as the conflict draws ever closer to the region, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next…
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