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13th Oct 2019

Transniestrian people stake their future on Russia, not EU

  • Transniestrian supermarket on the road to Tiraspol: Smirnov controls almost all the economic activity in the region (Photo: EUobserver)

The 350,000-or-so people living in political limbo in Transniestria, the private fiefdom of a Russian businessman on the EU's eastern fringe, want to integrate with Russia despite a new wave of euro-optimism on the other side of its unofficial border with Moldova. But their views are shaped by decades of repression.

Ever since it split from Moldova in the early 1990s, the official policy of the "Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic" is that it wants to be recognised as an independent country and then to become part of Russia.

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The revolution in Moldova in April 2009, which paved the way for liberal Prime Minister Vlad Filat and his Alliance for European Integration to later take power from the Communist Party, has boosted the country's prospects of EU integration and released a burst of optimism about Moldova's future among young people, the intellectual elite and entrepreneurs.

The changes in Moldova have had little impact in Transniestria however, with ordinary people in the region as well as its leadership clan still banking on Russia for their well-being.

Speaking to EUobserver in Transniestria's main city, Tiraspol, on Saturday (22 January), Sergey Shirokov, a former official in the Transniestrian "foreign ministry," who now runs a semi-independent NGO, Mediator, said the Russia option is deeply rooted in people's hearts and minds.

"Historical memory somehow has an impact on how the region is developing," he said. "Transniestria has always been under Russia's rule and such a big history has an impact on today's situation."

The panoply of Soviet-era symbols in Tiraspol's main street, including a big statue of Lenin, are not seen as signs of Russian oppression, he added: "I am a child of the Soviet Union, even if it wasn't democratic, I respect its symbols. These are not symbols of Stalinism, they are symbols of a country which existed before Stalin and after Stalin, these symbols represent the life of my parents and my grandparents. For them, this is their whole life."

Transniestria's "President" Igor Smirnov, a Soviet-lieutenant-turned-factory-manager, came to Tiraspol in 1987 and a few years later led the region in a war of separation from Moldova, itself a former Soviet republic.

The Siberian-born 70-year-old now lives behind militarised borders with Moldova and Ukraine. He likes morning swims, hunting and driving fast in his car. He controls Sheriff, a company responsible for almost all the economic activity in Transniestria, including supermarkets, TV and internet cables and the local football club. His intelligence boss, a former Soviet police chief in Latvia, Vladimir Antufeyev, keeps a choke-hold on dissent.

The Transniestrians' attachment to Russia is undampened by the fact the Kremlin refuses to recognise them as a country or to take them in.

The status quo, which includes the presence of some 1,300 Russian soldiers in the region, is a major irritant in Moldova and Ukraine's EU integration efforts. Meanwhile, Russia's state-owned energy firm, Gazprom, feeds Transniestria with millions of euros a year in free gas. The region is even more run-down than Moldova, Europe's poorest country, but people have cheaper heating and better pensions than in Moldova.

The two decades of the Smirnov regime have taken their toll on Transniestrian society. Most people are more interested in getting a job with Sheriff and leading a quiet life than in finding out about the changes in Moldova.

For his part, Gregory Volovey, an independent journalist living in the Transniestrian town of Bender, highlighted the influence of the anti-EU propaganda machine: "Official media portray Transniestria as a kind of fortress: a fortress to protect Russia, even a fortress to protect Moldova from being taken over by Romania. When people think of the West, they think of Romania and the EU's expanding territories as a place where the US can put its rockets."

Asked if there is any chance of a Moldova-type revolution in Transniestria, he said: "No. No ... Smirnov is like Castro. He has outlasted Voronin [Moldova's former Communist leader] and he will probably outlast [Russian Prime Minister] Putin."

He added that the EU and Moldova are not doing enough to increase their visibility.

"The EU is doing nothing to make itself liked here," he said, noting that even a micro-project, such as an EU-funded scheme to take care of the many stray dogs in Bender, could make a difference. "My radio station is the only one that is playing Moldovan songs in Transniestria. Does that mean I care more about creating some kind of understanding than the government in Moldova?" Mr Volovey asked.

Amid fatigue with the stagnant Transniestria conflict resolution process, some Moldovans would be happy enough if the region joined Russia so that both sides could move on.

Window on Smirnov

The former Smirnov official, Mr Shirokov, also gave a rare insight into Tiraspol's thinking on EU relations.

He said he is one of the "five or 10" people in Transniestria who understand how the EU works or who have heard of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton. He noted that Tiraspol wants better economic relations with the Union, but EU policies treat Moldova and Transniestria as one entity, ignoring the reality of the de facto state.

On a darker note, he said Tiraspol sees the EU as a security threat: "People understand that the EU and Russia are competing here, so if you choose Russia as a strategic partner, you perceive the EU as a threat."

On relations with Russia, he said that Transniestria is "small and weak" while Russia is "a big country, with its own problems," which means that Transniestria's interests are a low priority for Moscow.

Asked if Mr Smirnov cares about the welfare of his people, Mr Shirokov said that force alone cannot keep him in power: "He doesn't have a choice. He lives here ... We have a lot of problems - and people understand everything. We need reforms in the political system and in the economic system. Yes, the authorities can build a fence [around themselves]. But if they do, they will fail. If the authorities build a fence, people will get angry and make them leave or people will leave the country themselves."

Correction: this article was amended at 16.30 Moldovan time on 24 January. The headline was changed and some quotes were removed in order not to cause offence. A second change was made to clarify that Igor Smirnov is not the legal owner of Sheriff and that it is unclear precisely how much the Gazprom subsidy is worth each year

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