Transnistria dreams of a Russian future. The region broke away form Moldova in the early 1990s and, legally at least, remains part of it. De facto, it is a self-governing separate entity, though unrecognised by any UN member state.
Most of its half million inhabitants yearn to become part of the Russian Federation. Many, like Sergey, whom euronews spoke to in a park in the capital Tiraspol, have Russian passports: “Personally I prefer to be with Russia, because I feel close to Russia, I was born in Russia, I speak the Russian language.”
It is a sentiment shared by others on the streets of the city: “The best solution is to unite with the Russian Federation, and that’s not only my personal opinion but all people in Tiraspol and all over Transnistria think like that,” said one woman.
“Of course, I want Transnistria to join the Russian Federation. because many Transnistrians go to Russia for work so they can make a living and feed their families. Moldova gave us nothing,” another woman told our reporter.
Hundreds were killed in a brief but bloody separatist war in 1992 before Moscow intervened. Some 1,200 Russian troops remain there.
Today it is a frozen conflict and its impact is far-reaching. In Grigoriopol we met retired engineer Alexey Mocreac who showed us around a closed food canning factory. It used to employ up to 3,000 people. But breaking away from Moldova took an economic toll on Transnistria, the factory failed and people left.
“Many of the jobless went abroad: to Italy, Romania, some even to the USA, to Portugal. But most of them went to Russia, or to Ukraine because many people have relatives and family there,” Alexey explained.
Some 50,000 exiled Transnistrians send money home from abroad. It helps keep the economy afloat. The region urgently needs investors – but who wants to put money into an unrecognised breakaway state?
At the parliament in Tiraspol, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, as the assembly is called, has just pushed through a resolution calling on Russia and the UN to recognise Transnistria. Next on the wish list; annexation by Russia, which would require changing existing borders.
“We believe that the will of the people is the supreme factor,” Chairman Mikhail Burla says.
“The people’s will prevails over the principle of the integrity of borders, as was proclaimed in Helsinki in 1975. But I insist our goal should only be reached peacefully, by peaceful means. We don’t want any violence.”
A major question in the debate is to what extent is there a Transnistrian identity? To find out we dropped into a rehearsal of the Viorika ensemble. For years they have been collecting traditional folk songs and dances in villages across the region.
We asked the conductor, Alexandru Galatsan, about the roots of Transnistrian folk music.
“The main essence of the music, the essence of the melodies and also the harmonic structure of the songs are really very close to Moldovan sounds,” he said.
“No, there is no border,” adds Boris Rosneritsa, the group’s choreographer. “They constructed some artificial borders, but we are one people, really: one people. We share the same dances here, all around in Transnistria and all over Moldova, and also in Romania; the dances are the same.”
Big business also looks eastward.The Sheriff conglomerate, which is said to have links to Russian political and security interests, covers much of Transnistria’s private sector, from petrol stations to supermarkets and even a football club. It bought players from Brazil and elsewhere.
Its homegrown goalkeeper,Dmitri Stazhila, says the ultimate goal is to join the Russian league: “We would have excellent prospects in the Russian league. Probably not in the first year, because you need some time to adjust to the level of the league, but in time FC Sheriff could become serious competition for the top teams in Russia.”
Euronews accepted an invitation to the Foreign Ministry in Tiraspol, where the OSCE has relaunched talks in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
The foreign minister of this unrecognised state, Nina Shtanski, makes her policy objectives crystal-clear; Transnistria will adopt Russian laws and join the Eurasian Customs Union. A European free trade agreement, she stresses, would be harmful: “The signing of this free trade agreement between the European Union and Moldova will lead in the short term to a downturn of our industrial production of about 60 percent.”
That may not be the case if Transnestria itself joined the EU deal. Despite the anti-western rhetoric from officials, three quarters of Transnistrian exports go west. But the benefits are lost on huge public spending deficits.
“Basically, it’s about $1 billion, the trade deficit of Transnistria, and this $1 billion deficit is financed through financial support from the Russian Federation. A subsidised economy is not sustainable by definition,” says Adrian Lupusor, executive director of think-tank Expert-Grup.
Education is another delicate issue. Moldovan language schools are caught in the crossfire. In February, Transnistrian authorities seized salaries paid to teachers by the Moldovan government. The money was given back three months later.
In the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, the Eriomenco family is desperately seeking help. We met them at a human rights lawyers’ office. Vitalie Eriomenco, is serving 12 years in a Transnistrian jail after being convicted of fraud by separatist authorities. His sister, Ala Gherman, tells us he was forced to sign a confession. His lawyers say they know of several hundred similar cases and have filed complaints at the European Court of Human Rights.
“He was threatened to be killed: they set up a mock-up execution,” Ala says. “He was brought outside the police office, to the side of the Dniestr River. He was given a shovel and was told to dig his own grave. They even fired gunshots towards his legs and above his head to scare him to death while he dug his grave.”
From the police to the judiciary and the economy and trade in many areas Transnistria urgently needs deep and comprehensive reforms, either as part of the Russian Federation or not.
Interview (Russian language) with the Chairman of the Transnistrian Parliament, Mikhail Burla. Euronews met him in Tiraspol, capital of the unrecognised breakaway state. Transnistria wants to become part of Russia.
Бонус: Михаил Бурла
Here you can listen to the full interview with the Transnistrian foreign minister, Nina Shtanski (Russian language). Euronews met her in Tiraspol. Transnistria wants to become part of the Russian Federation.
Бонус: Нина Штански
In the capital of Moldova Euronews spoke with Adrian Lupusor, Executive Director of the think-tank ‘Expert-Grup’. Lupusor analyses the economic problems of Transnistria (English language).
Bonus interview: Adrian Lupusor