Transnistria In a Haze

25 December 2011, 20:00

Two policemen, standing on Moldavian territory, gaze at our bus as its speeds away. And here we are at a border unrecognized by world diplomacy – the dividing line between Moldova and the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. A barrier blocking the road, several soldiers with submachine guns behind it and an armored personnel vehicle in a wooded area nearby. On the Transdnistrian side a female sergeant in a pea coat tells everyone not registered in Transdnistria to get off the bus. A teenager in uniform – a cadet from the local Felix Dzerzhinsky Military Boarding School – keeps watch of the passengers.


We stop near a border checkup point. Border clerks have questions: Where are you going? What’s the purpose of your visit? How long are you going to stay? Are you aware of the requirement to get registered? Where will you be staying? And so on.

After we cross the border, we see a Bender suburb, Solnechny District, to our right. We pass by the famous Bender Fortress where Hetman Ivan Mazepa camped together with King Charles XII of Sweden after the Battle of Poltava. I get off at the bus station and inquire about hotels. There are several of them along the Dniester. The Nistru Hotel is standing empty. Window panes are broken in another building which looks like a resort center – probably the consequences of the 1992 war.

The Prietenia Hotel is operational; two soldiers in Russian uniforms are on duty. The administrator assures me that these are peacekeepers and that hotel clients do not need additional registration – even in the USSR staying at a hotel was equal to temporary registration.

There are a lot of people in military uniforms in the streets of Bender. Glued to streetlamp posts are ads on obtaining Russian and Ukrainian citizenship. One of the biggest income articles for Transdnistria is remittances from migrant workers who have Ukrainian, Moldovan or Russian passports and go abroad to find jobs. However, on December 11 the Transdnistrian passports will have the highest value: the unrecognized republic will vote in a presidential election. Announcements in the three official languages – Ukrainian, Moldavan and Russian – are out everywhere to remind people of the coming event.

I exchange Ukrainian money for Transdnistrian currency near a bazaar. I hear a voice from behind my back: “Sell!” The moneychanger puts my hryvnias away and barks: “I’ve got none.” Our currency is valued in Transdnistria even more than in Belarus. I take a closer look at their money. A 50-ruble bill features Taras Shevchenko and a 25-ruble bill the Bender Fortress. Some others have a portrait of Generalissimo Aleksander Suvorov whom Transdnistrian authorities consider to be their patron.

I enter the company store of the Tighina shoe factory. (Tighina is another name for Bender since the times when it was under Romania.) The leather shoes and boots here are of excellent quality but expensive, and they have foreign labels. The factory was privatized and Western technology was implemented. The new owners are Russian.

Despite communist slogans, Transdnistria has seen a lot of activity in privatization. A cement factory in Ribnita was purchased by the Russian holding Metalloinvest. The Russians also own a wine-producing facility that sells the well-known Bouquet of Moldavia dessert wine, the Elektronmash plant where the current president was once the director, and a poultry farm in Grigoriopol. The Dnestrovsk GRES is now property of Inter RAO UES, a Russian business group. The Moldovan metallurgical plant in Ribnita – it maintained its brand even during a period when “Moldovan-Romanian fascism” was denounced – was bought by two oligarchs, Russian Alisher Usmanov and Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov.

The modern-looking Sheriff supermarket offers many food products made in Ukraine. A number of local products have nostalgically Ukrainian names, such as Darnytsky bread. The multi-industry Sheriff concern belongs to Smirnov’s son Oleg and accounts for around 13% of Transdnistria’s GDP. It leads the way in retail, has a network of gas stations, a vodka distillery, a TV channel, two bread-baking complexes and more. Oleg’s brother Vladimir is in charge of the customs service, while Igor Smirnov’s daughter-in-law Marina is the CEO of Transdnistria’s Gasprombank.

So it appears that Transdnistria’s economy is controlled by either Russians or the Smirnov clan. The difference is not that great, because the president’s children also have Russian passports. Moldova does not recognize privatization in Transdnistria, so investors’ rights are not guaranteed here on the international level.


In Dubasari, children gave President Smirnov a toy rabbit as a gift. The president handed out awards to teachers and boasted of national economic growth, which allegedly reached 11% in 2011 compared to 2010. He often visits schools and civic centers in villages these days. Smirnov, 70, decided to run for his fifth consecutive presidential term in the unrecognized state he has led since it was formed in 1990, before the breakup of the USSR.

Across the street from the presidential palace in Tiraspol is a gallery with an exhibit showing photos of the president by Vladimir Ivanov. It is done in a classical servile style: the president with children, with workers in a workshop, with peasants among sunflowers, in a hospital and, of course, with VIP figures, some of whom are of dubious legitimacy: the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russian princess Maria.

This photo exhibit comes across as naïve in view of the dirty publicity campaign against Smirnov launched by Moscow. The Transdnistrian president was the object of a character assassination attempt by odious TV persona Mikhail Leontiev: “Russia cannot cover the Smirnov clan of thieves under its wing.” Russian programs can be watched here without any problem. After this broadcast the pro-Kremlin mass media opened a series of investigations. Russia opened a criminal case against Smirnov’s son Oleg for allegedly embezzling Russian humanitarian aid (160 million rubles) and against Marina Smirnova on charges of misusing money that was supposed to be paid for Russian natural gas. According to Russian investigators, Oleg Smirnov has several apartments in Moscow and a villa in a Moscow suburb, while his wife has three passports, including a Ukrainian one.

The authoritarian ruler of the breakaway republic had a hard time politically in the fall of 2011. He says in his defense that Russia wants to hand Transdnistria over to Moldova and he is the only obstacle. Not so long ago, Smirnov tried to expand his already substantial authority through an act of parliament. He failed. The Supreme Council, on the contrary, made amendments to the Constitution to limit a president to two terms. Smirnov believes that the law has no retroactive force, and so his four past terms do not count.

Minister of the Economy Elena Chernenko has announced that Transdnistria has $2.3 billion in foreign debt. Transdnistria’s 2012 budget is based on higher energy prices and hence various socially important tariffs will also go up by 15-39%. It is hard to win a presidential race with this kind of outlook.

Pensions were increased in anticipation of the election. The minimum pension is 489 Transdnistrian rubles (UAH 376) since November 1, 2011. Moscow used to pay an additional $15 to every pensioner who has Russian citizenship by shelling out several million Russian rubles to Transdnistria every quarter. However, it recently discontinued these payments over allegations against the Smirnov family.

The cooling of the Kremlin’s attitude to President Smirnov and other “old” representatives of the Transdnistrian government is largely due to the fact that they are excessively “rooted” in their republic, control its economy (including the shadow economy) and thus are a factor to be considered whenever Moscow wants to carry out any policies in this region. This burden will no longer be tolerated by Moscow, so Tiraspol has become a testing ground for ways to replace traditional leaders in Moscow’s satellite states with completely Kremlin-controlled henchmen far removed from the local “elites.” Evidently, if this experiment proves to be a success, it can be extended to other Russia’s current (Belarus) and potential (Ukraine) vassal states.


“So who do we vote for? Well, the situation with Smirnov is clear – remove him from office and put him in prison, together with his son,” people say at a trolleybus stop. In Transdnistria, they voice their views on authorities freely. The press, with its fittingly small print runs, lashes out against all candidates. The Chelovek i yego prava (Man and His Rights) newspaper is in opposition to the president but can be purchased in any newspaper kiosk. This freedom of thought is hard to imagine in Belarus. Transdnistrian television is, of course, Smirnov’s mouthpiece, but his opponents launched an Internet Channel called Dnestr TV.

Six candidates have already joined the presidential race. Maria Melnyk, secretary of the Central Election Commission, said that each of them will be given 120 minutes on state television, free of charge, and will be permitted to have their promo videos broadcast.

All presidential candidates are in a rhetoric war to express their love for Russia. On some billboards Smirnov is shown shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. This may, however, be too late, because Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian Presidential Administration, recently said he “did not recommend” Smirnov to run for a new term.

Symbols of the Harmony party, which supports Anatoliy Kaminski, leader of the parliamentary majority, for president, immediately catches your eye in cities. Kaminski is said to be backed by Russia: a congress of the Harmony party was personally greeted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Less conspicuous candidates include political scientist Andrey Safonov and ex-Supreme Council Speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk. The most active are the leader of the Breakthrough party Dmitry Soin and communist Oleg Khorzhan. Their supporters hand out fliers and newspapers, speak to people at bus stops and kick up rows online.

The Breakthrough party is mimicking the symbols of the Ukrainian “yellow” Pora party at the time of the Orange Revolution, but with a significant difference: their flags feature Putin and “United Russia.” The Breakthrough party wants “further rapprochement with Russia.” Soin is a former lieutenant colonel of the Transdnistrian security service and now director of the Che Guevara School of Political Leadership.

Khorzhan, the Communist, naturally appeals to pensioners but he also uses the “Ukrainian card” in his campaigning – his promotional materials show him shaking hands with Ukrainian left-wing politicians like Petro Symonenko, Adam Martyniuk and Natalia Vitrenko.

Kaminski’s supporters warn that a dictator “may cause a true massacre – and, like Gaddafi, die in office.” However, Smirnov hardly commands the support of the military and police and the population that he would need for anything like this to happen.

The Ukrainian factor

Compared to, say, the Kuban, the Ukrainian element is more distinct in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Tiraspol University is named after Taras Shevchenko, just like its Ukrainian Philology Department. The Transdnistrian branch of the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, a Ukrainian university, teaches 60% of subjects in Ukraine. There is also the Ukrainian Dzherela lyceum.

A Ukrainian-language TV program, called Promin, is broadcast from Tiraspol. Ukrainian-language radio broadcasts are available, as well as a school textbook entitled Istoriya ridnoho kraiu (A History of Our Native Land) which is a complement of sorts to the Russian-language Istoriya Rossii (A History of Russia).

The Ukrainian-language newspaper Homin is published in Ribnita with a print run of 2,350 copies. One of its recent issues includes a large article by Smirnov in which he extends his greetings to the Union of Ukrainians of Transdnistria on the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Among other things, he writes: “For 16 years Transdnistria was an autonomy within Ukraine, so the values and ideas of Ukrainians have a sure place in the worldview of Transdnistrians.” The president points out that 130,000 Transdnistrians, roughly a third of the total population, have acquired Ukrainian citizenship. Smirnov is also utilizing the “Ukrainian factor.”


An autumn haze is hanging over Dniester. A barrier blocking the road again emerges from the mist. Apparently, leaving the mini-state is also a challenge. A Transdnistrian border officer checks my passport, asks me to get out of the car and reprimands me: “You should have registered.” I show him my receipt from the hotel controlled by peacekeepers. Not enough, he says. “Pay a fine.” I have no Transdnistrian currency left on me. He agrees to take Romanian leus, giving me no receipt, of course. This is a graphic example of “racketeering in law,” which Transdnistria has been infamous for in the past 20 years.

What will change after December 11? There seems to be an intrigue around who will be the next president. All politicians, both pro-government and opposition members, are voicing the ritual slogans about “fighting corruption” and “reform.” However, one thing is clear: Russia is calling the shots here, and the presidential race looks like a puppet show orchestrated by Moscow. Before the Transdnistrian presidential election takes place, the citizens who have Russian passports will also vote in the Russian parliamentary election. These 137,000 ballots are an additional resource for Putin. This will likely be the peak of the local political race. But still, it is a day-long trip from here to Russia, three hours to get to Europe, and Ukraine is just across the border. Nevertheless, Kyiv has traditionally shunned exerting any influence on this territory where at least 160,000 Ukrainians live.

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