Undercover in Transnistria, Russia’s next potential flashpoint
Moldova is Europe’s poorest country - and it shows. For 20 years its people have lived in limbo, between east and west. Now it sits on a geopolitical fault line.
After events in the Ukraine, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, on Moldova’s eastern border, is home to 2,000 Russian troops. Last week Nato‘s European commander-in-chief named Transnistria as the next potential flashpoint with Vladimir Putin.
I crossed into Transnistria pretending to be a tourist. This country, a major centre for organised crime, does not welcome journalists - and has no official status under international law.
At the border you pass Moldovan guards, Russian peacekeepers - there since a civil war split the country in 1992 – and then Transnistrian border force.
Russian troops here have been on high alert since the Crimean takeover. There are 2,000 stationed here, plus an arms dump with enough ammunition to supply a whole army.
This is a world of Soviet imagery: the USSR’s emblem greets you as you drive into the capital, Tiraspol. The signs are in cyrillic. Lenin overlooks the main square. The streets are clean and there is evidently more money here than in the poor Moldovan villages I’ve just left.
One spark for the conflict could be ethnic tension. Though controlled by Russia, only 30 per cent of the population speak Russian. 32 per cent speak Romanian (the same language as Moldova) and another 29 per cent Ukrainian.
‘They hate Romanians’
At a Romanian language school in Transnistria, funded by Moldova, I met teachers under stress: the Russians confiscated their wages after intercepting the headteacher’s car in February. One teenage pupil told me: “If I speak Romanian in public people look at me disgustedly. They hate Romanians - I don’t know why.”
Amid international tension, these teenagers fear what happened in Crimea could happen to them.
The school roll is falling. It’s been raided twice by police; they’ve lost their permit to serve school meals. Amid the tension Raisa Pădurean, the deputy head, told me the Russians were now training paramilitaries.
“I’ve seen tough men driving around in expensive cars with Russian number plates. They’re training at military bases. After what happened in Crimea we’ve absolutely no security here at all.”
Like many Romanian speakers here, she believes the Russians will stage a provocation, mobilise their reserve forces in Transnistria, and this will give the Russian army an excuse to go into Ukraine. If it sounds paranoid, it’s more or less exactly what Nato’s European commander warned of last week.
I couldn’t verify claims of paramilitary training: the Russian bases were strictly off limits. I did see heavy military security around the bridges inside Transnistria: BTR armoured vehicles at each end, dug in with camouflage and active patrols.
What I did see was FC Sheriff. This is a football club that regularly gets into the Champions League. It was founded by two former KGB men and now sits at the heart of a business empire that includes supermarkets, private security and petrol stations. A majority Transnistria’s supreme soviet are loyal to a party that Sheriff’s bosses helped set up.
It has facilities that would put even a club like Chelsea to shame. Two outdoor stadiums, a full-size indoor pitch, eight training pitches, a medical centre and a Mercedes showroom. Yet the ticket prices are only half a euro – low even for here.
On the day I was there, the ground was hosting a match between two smaller first division teams. These were professionals. It was televised. But supporters were thin on the ground: about 12 from the visitors and exactly nine people in the colours the home team, Tiraspol FC. I bought a scarf and made it 10.
The longer you’re in Transnistria, the more you realise that, like Russia itself, there’s a lot of wealth here whose sources are not immediately clear.
It was hard to speak to people in public. In a graveyard I found a family from the Ukrainian minority in Transnistria. They were worried about what’s happening Ukraine and told me bluntly it would be better if Transnistria joined Russia.
They told me pensions were higher here, unemployment lower and gas cheaper. They were sick of living in a state with no status.
Living in fear
But there’s another side to the Transnistria story. Alexandru Ursu is a Moldovan policeman. When things were calmer, bought a flat in Transnistria. Then one day the Transnistrian police arrested him and seized his home.
“They beat me so badly that on the third day they had to hospitalise me. They punched me, kicked me, hit me with truncheons and then suffocated me with a gas mask. Then the policeman who arrested me move into my flat.
I ask what would Alexandru say to people in Moldova who say they’d rather live in Transnistria? “They are gravely mistaken,” he replies.
In the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, I saw a new batch of officers graduating. But the Moldovan military is no match for the military hardware the Russians have just across the river. Moldovan security experts are very nervous.
Viorel Ciboratu, who runs the European Institute for Political Studies Of Moldova, believes a conflict is likely. He fears either a blow up inside Transnistria, or pro-Russian forces inside Moldova starting a civil disobedience campaign.
“The EU needs act fast to give Moldova a security guarantee and a clear roadmap to EU membership. This has to be a strategic decision, not economic or political.”
‘Losers and drunks’
But economics and geopolitics are inextricable. In the villages close to the river they know how poor they are compared to those on the Russian side.
Last week the village of Dorotcaia, just inside Moldova, saw a demonstration in favour of joining the Russian side. Though the local mayor told us they were just “losers and drunks”, time and again people on the streets of Moldovan villages told me: “Europe doesn’t care about us, and on the other side life is better.”
Everywhere you go along the Dniester you are haunted by history. Dorotcaia’s second world war memorial alone holds nearly 900 names - this for a tiny village.
As I stood on the bank of the river, I thought of the 150,000 lives it cost the Red Army to cross it in April 1944. For Vladimir Putin, quitting this region would be unthinkable.
Regularising the situation - on both sides - would be a clear route to de-escalating the tension. It would allow those whose rights are under threat inside Transnistra access to international justice.
But for the villages of Moldova it would hardly touch the problems that dominate their lives. If the west wants to guarantee anything to Moldova, an end to grinding poverty would be a start.
Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter