About the time I was roaming around Tiraspol’s wide boulevards, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe was speaking in Brussels about the threat of a Russian invasion in Transnistria. Putin could use the same “protection of ethnic Russians” pretext, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told reporters. “There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome.” But things looked calm here on this sleepy Sunday, as the few residents outside on the streets dawdled around.
Perhaps the fact that, according to a 2006 referendum, 97 percent of Transnistrians are in favor of joining the Russian Federation might have contributed to the calm.
Despite the worsening situation in Ukraine, the only visible sign of menace was the occasional baton-carrying, camouflage-clad officer patrolling the city. If the secret service—still called the KGB here—were following my activities, they never let on or tried to stop my interviewing Transnistrians. “Don’t worry, we like foreigners here,” said 19-year-old Andrei, a waiter at a modern-ish looking café in the city center. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
His hands politely behind his back, Andrei explained that he planned to work in Germany, save money, and open up his own café in Tiraspol.
He was wary about closer ties with the European Union and said annexation by Russia was the best outcome. “We have a Russian soul,” he said.
The busiest place on a Sunday in Tiraspol is its flea market, held behind a grand statue of the city's founder, Russian Alexander Suvorov.
Sprawling throughout a grassy park, vendors sell everything from second-hand clothes and pirated CDs to ornamental jewel-encrusted trees, the items spread over blankets on the hard ground. “How is it living here? This is how it is living here” Zinaida Ivanova said wryly, her finger toward her wares—old clothes and a pair of children’s shoes.
The mother of three explains she’d traveled from the nearby city of Bender to sell unwanted goods on the weekend to augment her $200-a-month job as a Romanian language teacher. Behind her a $100,000 Mercedes sits parked in a row of similarly luxurious cars on Karl Marx Street, another particularly ironic reminder that the privatization of Transnistria’s industry in the 1990s benefited some more than others (most notably Transnistria’s first president, Igor Smirnov).
She speaks nostalgically of the Soviet days, when “people had jobs, we had stability, and there were no worries.”
While there’s plenty of pining for the past among Transnistria’s elderly, there are also ethnic, language, and historical divisions that fuel separatist sentiments.
Ethnically speaking, the enclave’s population, officially around 500,000, is mostly split between Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians, with a small Bulgarian minority.
Although Moldova is tied to Romania linguistically and has at times been the same country, it has also spent considerable time during the 19th and 20th centuries under Russian influence, first from the Russian Empire then the Soviet Union, resulting in waves of Russification, particularly in the industrialized east. As Moscow’s grip slackened under Gorbachev, Chisinau’s moves toward stronger ties with Romania, its Latin neighbor to the west, upset Russian-speaking groups in Transnistria, leading it to declare independence.
The volatile issue of language differences remains at the heart of the divide, with Romanian schools in Transnistria suffering forced closures and teachers complaining of discrimination. On top of this, mounds of history and propaganda have piled up. Despite teaching the common language, Ivanova calls the Romanians fascists, a reference to their initial alliance with the Nazis during World War II. “If we reunited with Moldova, the Romanians would come and push us to wash the floors,” she said.
I asked her what she thinks of events in Ukraine. “We feel it’s normal what is happening in Crimea,” she said. “We hope Putin's plan will come to Transnistria, and we will be united again like the Soviet Union.”
Although my time in Tiraspol is brief, it’s hard not to sense a certain perpetual paralysis. A place caught between two sides that can’t really fit into either.
Enthusiasm for joining Russia, although strong, is undoubtedly undermined, or at least stymied, by two decades of being overlooked by Moscow. On the flipside, Russian television accentuates and perhaps exaggerates the problems of the European Union, leaving the West an unknown and largely suspicious model.
The frozen status quo benefits a corrupt elite, while the elderly remain nostalgic, and young people leave in search of opportunity and a future. At least this is the case with Terescenko and Verejan, who hold Moldovan passports and Russian citizenship but have lived most of their life in a place that doesn’t officially exist.
“I think the majority of young people are pro-Russia, but they know there aren’t so many opportunities in Transnistria—the salaries are even less than Moldova,” says Terescenko after we have passed the Transnistrian checkpoint and are safely back in Moldova, leaving behind any fear of being overheard by the wrong people. “Old people stay, people with jobs in the government stay, and their children stay because they arrange them jobs. Everyone else is going to Chisinau to study.”
I ask whether he thinks Russian annexation would improve the region to the point he’d want to stay or if closer ties to the EU might help.
“We don’t see anything changing. Even if we were united with Moldova, I think the language differences would still cause conflict, while we’re too small to be independent. … We don’t think the EU is as democratic as it appears, but we don’t know that much about it, only what we know from TV, which is always showing that it’s in crisis. I haven’t been there to see it with my own eyes,” he said.
The driver abruptly pulls over, and a portly Moldovan border guard climbs on. He begins checking documents while his colleagues search under the bus, another reminder that we’re on a regular smuggling route.
As he finishes inspecting the passports of a group of backpackers, Viorel, my translator, decides to demonstrate his idea of freedom as it exists west of the Dniester by goading the border guard for not saying hello to the passengers.
Visibly frustrated, the officer begrudgingly says a muffled “good day” in English after two minutes of argument. “Can you do this at your border?” says Viorel with a smile.