Moldova: Transnistria, a powder keg anchored in the Soviet era | International

Tension is running high in the ex-Soviet enclave of Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova with a pro-Russian majority. Embedded between a narrow strip along the Dniester River and the Ukraine, it officially calls itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, and its independence has not been recognized by the UN or by Russia itself. This Cold War powder keg is now close to imploding due to the war in the neighboring country, after hibernating for more than 30 years. The explosions on Tuesday in a building of the Security Ministry, in a military unit near Parcani and in the radio and television towers in Grigoriopol, as well as in the airfield of the capital Tiraspol, have caused a sudden escalation of insecurity in Transnistria.

The size of the Spanish province of La Rioja, the autonomous rebel territory officially has half a million inhabitants, although it is estimated that only about 200,000 people currently reside there, since a large majority have emigrated to Russia and other surrounding countries. . In Transnistria they live under the siege of Russian propaganda. Moldovan television broadcasts and radio waves seem to hit a wall on the invisible dividing line of the Dniester without being able to penetrate beyond. “Transnistrians believe that there is no war and that Vladimir Putin will save them from possible invaders of their territory,” says Vera, a pensioner who was born just under seven kilometers from Tiraspol. “Moscow has bought retirees; They have been receiving 20 dollars (18.8 euros) more in their pensions than Moldovans for decades,” continues Vera. Only in the capital are some young people left for job opportunities, while the rest of the region is depopulated with few hospitals and few schools.

Transnistria keeps intact its past linked to the Soviet empire. It has a Government, its own flag, the hammer and sickle appear on its shield, and it has Armed Forces. The main avenue of the capital is called October 25, the date of the Bolshevik revolution. And you can only pay in Transnistrian ruble.

The conglomerate of Sheriff companies (gas stations, supermarkets, telecommunications, energy, alcohol and steel, in addition to the soccer club) supports the political and economic life of this rebel enclave that declared itself independent de facto in 1990 to prevent a possible unification of Moldova with Romania.

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In recent years, the oligarchs who own the Sheriff have increased their trade relations with Moldova, Ukraine and the European Union as a sign of stabilization. They even advocate for peace: the Sheriff Tiraspol players surprised the world by posing in mid-March with a banner with the slogan “StopWar” before a Moldovan league match.

The main source of income in Transnistria is due to the negligible price paid to Gazprom for Russian gas. According to an investigation of the portal, the metallurgical plant in the Transnistrian municipality of Rabnita, located about 120 kilometers from Tiraspol, close to the Ukrainian border, accounted for almost half of the budget of the separatist authorities. Their profits come from the low cost of production due to the minuscule price they pay for gas, plus they do not pay taxes to the Moldovan authorities, a tax exemption Chisinau intends to remove any additional tension, according to analysts.

Military backing from Moscow

Since 1992, when the war against Moldova broke out in 1992, which caused more than a thousand deaths in the four months it lasted, Transnistria has survived as an independent republic thanks to economic, but also military, support from Moscow. Russia maintains 500 soldiers deployed in the different checkpoints as peacekeepers and another 1,500 belonging to the Operational Group of Russian Troops (GOTR), heir to the XIV Soviet Army. This special regiment landed in this enclave during the collapse of the USSR with the mission of guaranteeing the security of an arsenal of more than 40,000 tons of weapons and ammunition (including howitzers and mines), which were stored in a warehouse of the small town of Cobasna.

Only half of the arsenal remains, as the rest were destroyed or removed between 2000 and 2004 due to worsening relations between the Transnistrian authorities and Chisinau. “If there was an explosion it would be devastating for both Ukraine and Moldova. That detonation could be equivalent to the Hiroshima atomic bomb,” says Ion Leahu, a former member of the Unified Control Commission, a body in charge of the security zone in the Dniester.

The president of Moldova, Maia Sandu, has demanded that the Russian troops be replaced by a group of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a request that Russia rejects, while the Transnistrian authorities allege reasons of security while the conflict is not resolved.

Moldova's President Maia Sandu at the Chisnau presidential palace during her appearance before the press on April 26, 2022.
Moldova’s President Maia Sandu at the Chisnau presidential palace during her appearance before the press on April 26, 2022. DUMITRU DORU (EFE)

“The XIV Army (current GOTR) is preparing to fight. Their soldiers are digging trenches and they only have permits of two hours a week to see their families,” a source close to a member of this detachment tells EL PAÍS. “They have orders to be ready at any moment for war and they have old ammunition, but a lot of it. They even have a large underground airport”, the same source abounds.

Tiraspol has an army of around 10,000 soldiers, to which must be added some 15,000 reservists —compared to 7,000 Moldovan soldiers— and it has at least 18 relatively modern T-55 and T-72 tanks.

To calm the situation, the Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky announced on Tuesday that the traditional May 9 parade, in honor of the victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War, is canceled on the grounds that the security of a crowd of people after the explosions.

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