A time bomb that can explode at any moment. This is how many citizens of Transnistria, an enclave with a pro-Russian majority within the borders of Moldova and bordering Ukraine, describe their lives. But now, after years of being turned into a powder keg that never quite exploded, the part of the population that feels closest to Moscow wants to be a kind of Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 through a referendum not recognized by the international community—Moldova.
“We live as if we were off the map,” confesses Masha, a 35-year-old businesswoman in a genuine bistro located in the medieval fortress of the city of Bender, with a splendid view of the Dniester River, whose narrow strip separates the rebel region from the rest of Moldova. His jovial face shows a state of calm that contrasts with the explosions recorded this week in this former Soviet territory. Despite her apparent calm, Masha, who is dedicated to finding work for her fellow citizens abroad, confesses that fear in the area is on the rise: “We are aware that Ukraine has been at war since 2014, but now there is so much talk about the issue that the fears of losing someone are growing.
The explosions of these days against the Ministry of Security, radio and television antennas and the capital’s airport de facto, Tiraspol, have made it clear that the tension between Russia and the West threatens the security of this territory. Transnistria’s leaders declared independence in 1990 to prevent a possible reunification of Moldova with Romania and named the territory the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Self-styled Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic declared independence in 1990 to prevent a possible reunification of Moldova with Romania after the fall of the Soviet Union. In all this time, its independence has not been recognized by the UN or by Russia itself. But after more than 30 years hibernating as a frozen conflict of the Cold War, this enclave with a size equivalent to the Spanish province of La Rioja could become the playing field where the war in Ukraine is internationalized. The escalation of tension has caused seven countries – the United States, Canada, Bulgaria, France, Israel, the United Kingdom and Germany – to ask their citizens not to enter the region, and even to leave Moldova.
“We Transnistrians hope to join Russia, without armed conflict, in a peaceful way, in the same way as Crimea, where the quality of life has improved substantially since 2014,” emphasizes Igor, a 29-year-old lawyer from Bender with seven years of school. military. Igor does not mention that the annexation of Crimea violated international legality and opened a source of instability in Ukraine. It is understandable this forgotsince Kremlin propaganda reigns in this territory that survives thanks to Russian economic aid.
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“I knew war was going to break out because of the shameless behavior of the West,” says Oleg, owner of a children’s gift shop in Tiraspol. Sowing doubts about Russia’s actions in Transnistria is an almost impossible task. For three decades, there has been no pro-Western movement challenging the Kremlin’s theses. “I am a child of the USSR, I do not understand life without Russia,” Oleg insists.
Despite the declaration of independence in 1990, no one is calling for a new state, but rather a status of autonomy under the tutelage of Moscow. Transnistrians do not believe it is a coincidence that the explosions of these days occurred after a Russian commander declared that the army planned to capture southern Ukraine, and from there open a land corridor to this enclave that officially has half a million inhabitants. , although it is estimated that only about 200,000 people now reside there, since the rest have emigrated to Russia and other surrounding countries.
“Our leaders had to take drastic measures of control since February 24”, when the war began in neighboring Ukraine, Igor points out with a calm face. “Moldova is also in danger, since there may be movement of weapons through Transnistria that can lead to unpredictable actions in the area,” warns the lawyer, who denies that the local authorities have prohibited the men from leaving the territory before a imminent outbreak of war.
At the post on the invisible dividing line between Moldova and Transnistria, with queues longer than usual, they suggest that some residents are leaving. Only men are seen in their cars, perhaps for fear that they will be compulsorily enlisted in the face of a possible conflict. “Some friends have moved to Chisinau [la capital de Moldavia] until the threat subsides”, reveals Igor, who believes that the economic situation in the area, which benefits from the low cost of Russian gas, will suffer another severe setback.
Trade has plummeted 80% due to the suspension of relations with Ukraine. Job hunting is extremely difficult. Only the Sheriff group hires, a conglomerate of companies that groups everything from gas stations to supermarkets, through telecommunications and energy companies. The price of housing is still affordable in a territory where the average salary is around 3,200 Transnistrian rubles (about 177 euros).
After the immediate artificial border crossing, three Russian soldiers, belonging to the self-styled peacekeeping forces, intimidate by displaying their weapons. The rebel authorities this week announced increased supervision of people’s movements, but everything seems to be as before. Only in the afternoons are more Transnistrian soldiers wandering the streets of the cities with a machine gun strapped to their body and accompanied by trained dogs. In this atmosphere, a police state is glimpsed in which many avoid meeting with strangers. “We never talk about work on the phone,” explains Masha. “If you buy a car or a top-of-the-line mobile, they start looking at you,” she continues.
Until 2020, when the pro-European Maia Sandu became the first president of Moldova, the governments of this former Soviet republic of the last two decades acted leniently towards Transnistria, acquiescing (or being directly complicit) in the persistent smuggling of tobacco and even weapons, according to various investigations. This attitude has fueled a greater detachment from Chisinau among its citizens. “Moldova gives in too much, to the point of bending to its knees,” laments Liuba Cornitel, interim director of the Lucian Blaga Institute, the only Romanian-language center in Tiraspol.
“The Transnistrians want the Moldovan authorities to help them financially, but without submitting to their laws,” Cornitel abounds, recalling with pain his experience of sheltering in the forest and in caves out of fear during the 1992 armed conflict. the war in Ukraine, the consequences will be much worse than then”, he adds.
Cornitel, a 52-year-old geography teacher, faces the anguish of parents every day who wonder what could happen as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many fear that their children will be forced to enlist in the Army, as provided for by Transnistrian law, as soon as they turn 18, and be sent to the war they deem unjust and illogical.
In Cioburciu, a town about 50 kilometers south of Tiraspol, calm and tranquility reign among its 5,000 inhabitants, where half the population speaks Russian and the other Romanian. To explain their support for Moscow, they appeal to the minuscule cost of energy, pensions —18 euros higher than Moldovans— and that Russia gave them the opportunity to work in its territory. “I think that kyiv will attack us, as it has done in the Donbas region, where many children have died, because they consider us as separatists,” says Sergiu, a 56-year-old veterinarian, thus repeating the Kremlin’s propaganda. “We just want peace, tranquility and for the roads to Russia to be reopened so that we can sell our agricultural products there,” proclaims Sergiu, who insists that he sees the Russians as incapable of having committed genocide in Ukraine.
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