Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region longs for recognition

Anna says she is tired of living “in a country that does not exist for the rest of the world”.

Like many in Transdniestr, a pro-Russian breakaway region in Moldova, the 28-year-old PR consultant longs for international recognition to end two decades of uncertainty about the region’s status.

Now the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine has sparked fears that violence is returning to this divided corner of southeastern Europe.

NATO and the pro-Western government in Moldova have both voiced concerns that this strip of land could be the next target in Moscow’s sights after its annexation of Crimea last month.

Transdniestr, with a population of 500,000, already contains 1,500 Russian soldiers — the legacy of a short, bitter civil war in the early 1990s that has lived on as one of Europe’s last “frozen conflicts”.

In Tiraspol, the self-proclaimed “capital” of Transdniestr, symbols of age-old ties to Russia are everywhere, from the Soviet monuments that line its main avenue to the ubiquitous national emblem: a hammer and sickle surrounded by wheat and grapes.

An imposing statue of Lenin guards the local parliament, called the Supreme Soviet, and a very active security service still uses a familiar name: the KGB.

The semi-independent statelet — which is not recognised by any other country — is not completely lost in a time-warp. Shiny new supermarkets packed with the latest consumer goods have popped up in every district. Jeans-clad young couples stroll on the streets lined with blossoming cherry-trees.

But beneath the calm surface, there is anxiety, as AFP found on a rare visit to the enclave where access for the foreign press is tightly restricted.

Although the region has essentially cut itself off from the rest of Moldova, a complex population mix — split in roughly equal measure between Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans — struggles to know where its allegiances lie.

– ‘Afraid of war’ –

“We are all afraid of a war,” said Olga Zagujelscaia, a 49-year teacher just back from Ukraine.

She recalled Transdniestr’s bid for secession in 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union led locals to fear domination by the Romanian-speaking majority in the rest of Moldova.

“We know what a war means. I had to flee to Odessa. It’s very sad today to see brothers fighting each other in Ukraine,” Zagujelscaia said.

Conflict in Ukraine could trigger immediate difficulties here. Locals say Kiev is already tightening check points amid fears of infiltration by pro-Russian militants.

Leaders say they will not interfere in events across the border.

“Transdniestr as a state will not meddle in Ukrainian internal affairs,” the president of the separatist entity Yevgeny Shevchuk told AFP.

But the citizens are worried about what comes next.

“We are very worried as many of us have relatives there”, said Elena Rotari, a 45-year old woman selling vegetables in Tiraspol’s central market. “We are also very dependent on Ukraine for food and other things.”

Tiraspol dreams of a customs union with Russia, but across the dividing line of the Dniestr river, Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, recently signed an association agreement with the EU.

Nostalgia for the stability of the Soviet Union runs high, with thousands on both sides of the river holding on to their Soviet passports, still technically valid in some parts of the region, alongside their Moldovan and Ukrainian passports.

And for all the separatist rhetoric in Transdniestr, its football clubs still play in the Moldovan league, while businesses continue to register themselves in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau in order to export to the EU.

– Russia is the future –

As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, hopes of union with Russia have been reawakened.

Last week, its parliament passed a resolution asking for international recognition of its status as an “independent state” — a possible prelude to seeking Moscow rule.

But its leaders have had to tread carefully, perhaps under instructions to avoid statements that might provoke a reaction from the West.

Sat in his office under a picture of Vladimir Putin, Shevchuk refused to speculate on the future, despite explicitly calling for a union with Russia in the past.

“At the moment, we plead for the recognition of our republic. What happens in the next steps must be determined by the citizens. I will not discuss hypothetical suppositions at this stage,” he told AFP.

Putin last week said that “Transdniestr people should be able to decide their fate” but stopped short of recognising their independence.

But for many in Tiraspol, “Russia is the future”.

“The Russians have always helped us and they always will”, said Rotari.

Moscow’s support has been estimated at around one billion US dollars a year by parliament speaker Mikhail Burla, including aid and gas subsidies.

The Kremlin gives every pensioner an extra $15 (11 euros) per month, making retirement benefits higher than in Moldova.

“All the media we receive here are Russian or pro-Russian, so of course this also has an impact on public opinion,” a young resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Moscow’s largesse is not enough for many younger people. Thousands have migrated out of the region, looking for jobs that pay better than Transdniestr’s average $200 (145 euros)-a-month salary. Pensioners now exceed the number of working age people in the region.

For those that remain, the key is to clear up the region’s status once and for all.

“What is really important is for our country to be recognised,” said Galina Mikhailova, a young legal councillor.

“I don’t know exactly how — as an independent state, with Moldova or with Russia — but we have to get certainty.

“If we don’t, people will go on leaving.”