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28 November, 2013  ▪  Sébastien Gobert,  

Transnistria – Moldova: Along a Non-Existing Border

Russian support is to become more crucial than ever for Transnistria in case Moldova establishes a free-trade zone with the EU

Last summer, the future seemed bright for Vera Semionova. Her agricultural cooperative had been handicapped by its archaic equipment for many years. Its members had finally put together the means to purchase a new tractor. “Banks in Chisinau had approved the loan. We had chosen the tractor and we were about to sign”. And then? Nothing. What is the point of investing in an expensive machine if cabbage and potatoes cannot be moved from fields to market places? Vera lives in Dorotcaia, a town of 3,700 people in mid-west Moldova. “91% of our land is on the other side of the road,” she sighs. The road is the border with Transnistria. Since its secession 22 years ago, the tiny strip of land escapes all control from Chisinau.

Along the borderline

“We repeatedly need to come up with new documents. If we want to carry more than a given quantity, we have to pay tariffs to move our products from our country to our country! And don't forget the multiple fines, for that or that reason,” Vera complains. At least now, she is able to go and work on her fields. “From 2004 until 2006, this so-called government in Tiraspol prohibited farmers to go there,” Grigore Polichinski recalls. A former Primar or Mayor of Dorotcaia, he is the current head of Dubăsari Raion. “Since then, it is possible to take the products back. Yet they have to obtain a special authorization from Yevhen Shevchuk (President of Transnistria – Ed.)”. Since December 2011, the 45-year-old Shevchuk is the new strong man ruling over the self-declared Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR). “No one recognizes this pseudo-state, not even Russia. Yet Shevchuk decides on life and death there,” Grigore Polichinksi adds. The agricultural exploitation contracts he delivers have to be renewed every year. This makes it impossible to expect successful outcome of any investment.

Although no one seems to have forgotten the violent fights that occurred here in 1992, the situation seems peaceful along the borderline. Temporary border posts have been in place for a while. Peacekeepers, that is to say mostly Russian soldiers, attentively monitor each crossing. Most of the 500,000 Transnistrian citizens hold Moldovan, Russian or Ukrainian passports to compensate for the uselessness of the Transnistrian one. Hundreds cross daily, as they study, work and live on both sides of the borderline. “Officially, we do not recognize the border. So our policy is to ensure the free movement of people on our territory”, Eugen Karpov, Moldova's Vice-Prime Minister in charge of reintegration, explains with confidence. Yet, when it comes to solving the issues of Dorotcaia's farmers, his government proves powerless.

The borderline affects not only farmers. “Every morning, the local school is used by Dorotcaia's pupils. In the afternoon, the premises are reserved for some 170 pupils who travel from Grigoriopol which is 20 kilometers away, on the other side,” school director Eleanora Cercavschi says. “The Romanian-language school in Grigoriopol was closed down back in 2002. Tiraspol does not want anyone to learn Romanian in Transnistria. Our pupils want to study in their native language. So they have to cross the border every day, together with their teachers.” In October 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found Russia, in place of non-acknowledged Transnistria, guilty of the violation of Eleanora Cercavschi’s and many others plaintiffs' rights to education. They still wait the EUR 1mn compensation Russia has to pay them.

There are only eight Romanian-language schools left in Transnistria. Chisinau's government supplies them with textbooks and pays the exorbitant rents Tiraspol asks for. As for Grigoriopol's pupils, the only solution has been to pay for four buses driving back and forth, every day for about 12 years now. “It is a long way. In winter, the road is dangerous. Plus, we come back home late. Extra-curricular activities, it's not for us,” 16 year-old Vasile complains. Many of his schoolmates gave up already. The exiled school has lost more than 300 pupils since 2002. Vasile is determined to keep up with this exhausting daily routine. His future is at stake: he wishes to become a surgeon but Transnistrian diplomas are worthless but in Moscow. Each border crossing is a necessary step towards university. Given the local circumstances, he sees his future in Romania, if not beyond.

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Moldova confirmed its choice for enhanced European integration by initialing the ambitious Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit. Encouraged to secure the country's borders in order to achieve a visa-free regime with the EU, the Parliament decided in early October to install six Migration Offices along the internal borderline. Tiraspol sees it as a threat to the free movement of its citizens. “This is only for foreigners. Nothing changes for inhabitants of Transnistria. They will be able to travel as freely as before,” Vice-Prime Minister Eugen Karpov reassures. Yet, the move might stir up tensions. As Russian Vice-Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin warned in September, Chisinau's pro-European policy might lead to Moldova definitely losing its chance to regain control over its separatist province. As a side effect, he indicated, it might also initiate problems with the supply of Russian gas to Moldova. “I hope you won't freeze,” he warned.

Such declarations are merely the continuation of tensions that have been fuelled over the past few months. “In late April, a few dozen Transnistrian separatists tried to install four new border posts at the exit of the village,” Varniţa Mayor Alexandr Nichitenko recounts. His Moldovan village lays about 15 kilometers from Tiraspol. “Our citizens have reacted promptly and everything was solved quickly when security forces arrived. We cannot accept more checkpoints. Crossing would become even more difficult, and we have to work on erasing the division, not marking it.”

A June decree by Transnistria’s President Shevchuk stipulated a clear marking of the borderline, covering several Moldovan-ruled villages, including Varniţa. “Just another provocation,” Alexandr Nichitenko tells, seemingly jaded. “As long as we keep contact with the other side, it is ok. What we try to do is to make our side as attractive as possible. So the people there would actually want to reintegrate. That's the way the Berlin Wall fell down.” Outside the recently-renovated city hall, a green garden and nicely covered streets try to produce a fresh impression of prosperity.

Yet, once the crumbling border post is passed, the arrival to the city of Bender, a port town in Transnistria, is impressive, as imposing monuments line up along neat streets and well-kept buildings. “First, there is no reason for Transnistrians to want to join Moldova. Second, plenty of Moldovans move to this side!” Transnistrian journalist and one of Shevchuk's supporters, Grigori Volovoi, concludes. “This is no secret. We live better on this side. Gas and heating, rent and food: everything is cheaper.” The explanation is quite simple: Russia sends quantities of so-called humanitarian help and offers extra USD 15 to each pensioner on a monthly basis. As the average salary is below USD 250, USD 15 makes a difference. Most importantly, Gazprom ships gas for free to Transnistria yet sends the bill to Moldova. “Were Moscow to give up on Tiraspol, this puppet state would not last two months,” says Oazu Nantoi, Program Director at the Institute of Public Policy in Chisinau.

Russian support is to become more crucial than ever in case Moldova establishes a free-trade zone with the EU. Many Transnistrian businesses, many of which are controlled by oligarchs from Russia, are registered in Chisinau and export about 40% of their output to the EU, thanks to a preferential trade system. Transnistrian businesses may lose out because of the implementation of new rules. “Never forget that Russia still deploys over 1,000 'peacekeepers' and keeps a large ammunition warehouse there”, Oazu Nantoi warns. “One should not exclude military provocations in the wake of the economic unrest that is to come.”

Within Transnistria itself, secret services, which name did not upgrade from Soviet-time KGB, are also here to ensure the survival of the authoritarian regime. “People are afraid. There is much less protest than before,” Mihai Dirul from a village called Lunga warns. This retired truck driver used to be one of the fiercest opponents of Transnistrian secession. His wife and son live in Chisinau. He visits them often thanks to his Moldovan passport. Yet he considers the border as “the wall of the Warsaw ghetto. I fought for the integrity of Moldova. And the worst now is that Chisinau refuses to pay me a pension, because I live on this side. There, they talk about reintegration. But I see that have already abandoned us.”

Moldova’s GDP is USD 2,038, according to the World Bank (2012)

25% of Moldova’s GDP comes from remittances from its citizens working abroad

17.5% of Moldovans live below poverty line

Transnistria’s population is 509,000 people (2013)

Russia allocates nearly USD 1bn or USD 32.2bn to the unrecognized republic annually as “humanitarian aid”

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