In Tiraspol (Transnistria).
Moldovan soldiers carrying the first checkpoint. Car acceleration. The Moldavians let her pass. The second barrier is held by the Russians. More numerous and better armed. But, again, the car passes without slowing down. At the Transnistrian border, at the checkpoint manned by Transnistrian soldiers, everything stops. Armed men and a tank behind sandbags. Eyes and guns directed at Moldova.
No wind, not even a breeze. The gray sun crushes everything with its moist heat. A suspicious officer asks questions: “What are you doing there? What are you coming to see? Are you a journalist?” At first glance, you think you are entering a war zone. However, in the same place, at the same time, the men return on foot from hunting.
An old woman walks with the errands she does every day in Transnistria. “Everything is cheaper there… while prices are going up in Moldova”, muttered. Even before bystanders were asked about the worn-out, hand-broken passports of these soldiers, who no longer looked at them. The frozen war between Moldova and Transnistria is as natural a sight as anywhere else. East of the Dniester, nothing new.
Located between Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistria is a narrow strip of land in which 470,000 inhabitants live. His story is a classic story of the former USSR. Inhabited by Russian speakers, Transnistria originated in 1991 when Moldova, with a majority Romanian-speaking population, wanted to impose Romanian as an official language.
The following appears to be a different kind of Donbass in Ukraine: Moscow arms and supports the separatists. Yesterday’s brothers and comrades are killing each other. And when the war ended on July 21, 1992, the international community did not recognize the “independence” of Transnistria, a region that henceforth lost to Moldova.
In 2006, 97.1% of its population voted to join Russia. If Vladimir Putin was careful not to formalize this association, or even recognize the independence of Transdniestria, he made this region a forward post: almost 1,400 Russian soldiers are stationed there, and 22,000 tons of ammunition are stored. On the streets of Tiraspol, the fashion for military clothing. When a passerby is asked why, he answers: “No, I am not a soldier, or even a veteran. It is just a fashion today.”
Control of Transnistria also means control of Moldova. The only factory in Moldova is in Transnistria. This Moldovan dependence is increased by natural gas that Russia buys exclusively. Transnistria transported gas, exclusively. Moscow is especially generous with the separatist enclave: the majority of Transnistrian cars today operate thanks to gas purchased at a low price. Converting gas to electricity is so inexpensive that bitcoin farms – which consume especially large energy – are now spread all over Transnistria.
In addition to the energy issue, Moldova remains paralyzed internationally due to the underlying conflict with separatists. While Finland and Sweden have requested to join NATO, Moldova cannot protect itself from possible Russian aggression because the volatility of the situation frightens different organizations, European or Atlantic.
Russian influence in Transnistria can be transformed into a conventional and direct action. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the scenario of Ukraine falling into the grip of a pincer movement between Transnistria and Russia has been referred to – no doubt exaggerated. As it stands, Transnistria is unlikely to be able to withstand an attack on neighboring Ukraine. However, in the coming months, if southern Ukraine – especially Odessa – passes to the Russians, then Transnistria will be territorially connected to Russia. Then her ultimate connection to the latter will only be a matter of time.
To understand Transnistria’s endorsement of Russia, just walk the streets of Tiraspol. The Soviet past was uniquely present there: the state emblem with a hammer and sickle, the most massive statues of Lenin, and, of course, the omnipresent references to World War II. However, if this Soviet heritage remained in vogue, then it became obsolete.
What is new is what is older. The Tsarina Catherine the Great Garden (1729-1796) is the new center of the capital. Not far away, statues of Russian heroes from the 19th centurye Horn is brand new. In the end, memories converge: one Russian state. A patriotic story told in every roundabout carried by Russian or Transnistrian soldiers. A story punctuated by bullet holes on the facades of buildings. A story that begins as it ends, in the rupture with Moldova: if Russian history is Genesis, then the 1992 war is the Big Bang.
Bust of Lenin erected in front of Tiraspol Town Hall. May 23, 2022. | Pierre Pollard
Amidst a memorial to the martyrs of past wars, colossal statues shatter, surrounded by the languid silhouette of a young woman. Maria’s eyes are faint blue and her smile is shy. She trusts: “For me, this memory means nothing to me. I feel nothing for it. But I always live with it.”
Like most Transnistrian youth, Maria tells her life more easily, even in its most private detail, than the news of her country. She studied languages at Tiraspol University. I was suffering from anorexia at the time, it was very difficult. But I’m done valedictorian, gained some weight and now speak English fluently.” Maria catches her breath. “And if I learn this language, I will obviously leave! But my grandmother is over a hundred years old, I can’t leave her here alone. In addition, I helped during the Great Patriotic War … » Memory docked up to the wreck.
Alexei, a friend of hers, leans on the hood of his car. The young man, dressed as Paris Saint-Germain, explains why he took the plunge: Covid was tough, but the war in Ukraine was the last straw. In a month I’m leaving for Holland, driving trucks. I’ve never touched 35 tons before! I’m 31, I have a Juris Doctor, but I’d still rather start over in the West than stay here.
With a touch of melancholy humor, Maria abounds: “We broke up with Moldova in everything … except for poverty.” Alexei Weasley laughs his friend, moving on to something else, his romantic or football adventures: “The Sherif of Tiraspol once beat Real Madrid! Maybe in the end I should stay…” Maria laughs. For a moment, a few quotes from the present carry a past and a future that says only war.
stay in the dark
To the bleak economic outlook has been added the creeping specter of war. At the beginning of May, a series of attacks panicked Transnistria. Plastic radio tower. Targeting the headquarters of the Ministry of Public Security with rocket launchers. Then nothing. Not only did the attacks stop, but the perpetrators kept tracking.
And the beneficiaries of the crime are many: according to Moscow and Tiraspol, it will be Ukraine that will seek a pretext to attack Transnistria before the presence of the Russians; According to Kev and Chisinau, it is the Russians who prepare the inhabitants of Transdniestria for the possibility of conflict …
A portrait of Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly into space, adorns the facade of a building in Tiraspol. It personifies a certain Soviet golden era. The photo was taken on May 23, 2022. | Pierre Pollard
Destabilization also occurs through provocation. Transnistrian recently received this message: “Hello bastards […] I am a patriot of Moldova, I have planted bombs under your schools and I will send some to you as well. Glory to the Moldavians and death to the Russians. Again, it is impossible to determine who is behind this threat. The fog of war fell over Transnistria and Moldova.
In the central square of Tiraspol, the Russian and Transnistrian flags are raised at the same height. Their plates were frozen, as if they were dead. Still not the slightest breeze. Moist heat increased. On the sidewalk pedestrians advance painfully, in a stifling gray. Suddenly, a storm. Transnistrians remain as resilient as Lenin’s statues. The banners suddenly came back to life. The wave of Russia and Transnistria in the wind. From afar, a storm is rising.