The main street of Tiraspol Image: Steven MacKenzie
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn condemnation from across the world. While Russian forces continue their bombardment of towns and cities, to the east of Ukraine is a region that could become a significant pawn in the conflict.
Transnistria is a self-declared state, a 3,567 sq km worm-shaped piece of land the size of Cornwall that eats into the border area between Moldova and Ukraine.
Home to half a million predominantly Russian-speaking people, Transnistria has its own government, currency, flag (complete with hammer and sickle), police and armed forces.
It has long been an overlooked and forgotten corner of Europe, often described as the world’s largest open-air museum, a place where the Soviet Union never collapsed.
While we tend to describe politics shifting either right or left, in this part of the world it moves east or west, caught in an ideological tug-of-war between Russia and Europe.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and was carrying out military operations in the west of Ukraine. In early 2015, I visited Transnistria and what I learned at the time seems prescient in light of what has happened over recent days.
Back in the USSR
When my train arrived in the city of Tiraspol, I was met by Andrey Smolenskiy, a musician who also runs transnistria-tour.com — the only Transnistrian-based tour agency I could find — and is on hand to help the few tourists who make it this far register with the authorities, which all foreigners must do on arrival.
Smolenskiy recognised my name as being Scottish. “We have a lot in common,” he said. “You want independence, we want independence.” This was only a few months after the Scottish independence referendum. I remind him that Scotland decided it didn’t actually want it the end.
Transnistria does not really want independence either. It wants to break away from Moldova in order to return to the bosom of Mother Russia.
In a 2006 referendum, 98 per cent voted in favour of “potential future integration” with Russia. After Crimea was effectively absorbed into the motherland in 2014, Transnistria’s government asked Moscow if they could be next.
Officially at least, Tiraspol is still the second largest city in Moldova after the capital Chisinau. To its residents, however, it is the proud capital city of the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica or PMR, though usually referred to as Transnistria for reasons as complicated as the former name’s pronunciation.
The region’s history is turbulent. Ancient tribes gave way to Romans. For a time it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before it became part of the Russian Empire in the 1790s and eventually part of the Soviet Union.
During the Second World War, Axis forces invaded and Romania occupied the area. Three years later the Red Army rolled in and they were back in the USSR.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova declared independence – as did Transnistria. When Moldova tried to remove newly established checkpoints, civil war broke out, with the seemingly outmatched Transnistrian separatists holding their own thanks to the weapons supplied in secret by Russia.
Around 700 people were killed before a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement was signed in July 1992. To enforce it, Russian peacekeepers moved in on a temporary basis. More than two decades later there are still hundreds of troops from the Russian army stationed in the region.
It is these troops in 2022 that are a concern to the region. Transnistria’s position could provide Russia with a base to push into western Ukraine. Or into Moldova. Belarus president Lukashenko was recently photographed next to a map with an arrow that pointed from the Ukrainian city of Odessa into Moldova.
Transnistria is a key pawn in the chessboard of international politics.
The presence of the Russian army has effectively kept Moldova caught in a bear trap, creating constant political instability.
Moldova cannot develop closer economic and political ties with Euro without risking a fresh outbreak in fighting within borders, and the country could never join Nato or the EU as neither organisation is likely to welcome a member while it has the Russian army sitting on its soil.
That situation has just shifted. As Russia invaded Ukraine, Moldova applied to urgently join Nato.
Back to Transnistria before the current crisis. Tiraspol’s streets are laid out in grids, wide and flat and lined by vast apartment blocks, generally muted and grey in colour. The clothes people wear are also generally muted and grey. Suitably, when I visited, the local kino was screening 50 Shades of Grey.
Old Soviet cars such as Ladas scoot around between trolley buses. Public buildings are grand and domineering, most with large marble monuments outside, most of those venerating Lenin. In as many hours I encounter five statues of the Russian revolutionary, the grandest of which stands outside the parliament building.
We passed a checkpoint where a monument to those who died during the 1990s fighting, an eternal flame sitting in front of a Soviet tank-turned memorial. The pinkish apartment blocks nearby still had bullet-pocked facades.
Across the street is another monument, erected in 2012 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russian peacekeepers in the country. It is “a pigeon carrying a rifle”, Smolenskiy explained.
“Ukraine only exists as a state because Russia allowed it,” Smolenskiy said. What he went onto say next feels eerie to read again years on.
“Russia has the same plan for Ukraine as for Transnistria, they just want to keep Ukraine from Nato. It is a proxy war, they make war with hands of other people – I mean Russia and the USA. It is to limit the influence of Russia, to show Russia their place – ‘they are not a superpower, they are not even a regional power, they are nothing’.”
After my visit, I wrote a feature that talked about my trip. It spoke about a doomsday scenario tied to the concept of Novorossiya (New Russia) that Putin’s rhetoric was repeatedly referencing. He was explicitly driven to restore national pride, Novorossiya looking suspiciously like old, pre-1989 Russia.
If Russia decided it wanted to make a push for Odessa in western Ukraine, another location key to the concept of Novorossiya, backed by their heavy troop presence and a sympathetic pro-Russian population, the l00km between Tiraspol and Odessa does not seem very far at all.
If armed conflict closes in on this region, Moldova’s closest ally Romania could come to their aid. Being a Nato member, any military action against them would invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack against any Nato country is an attack upon them all.
Transnistria, this largely forgotten part of the world, could become the fuse that ignites conflict on a catastrophic scale.
My last stop with Smolenskiy was to a l6th-century Turkish fort.
In the ticket office hung a calendar with Vladimir Putin photoshopped to look like Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables. I gave my 60 rubles to Irena, who worked as a waitress on cruise ships before the fort opened its gates to people outside of the military for the first time in 2008.
Inside the fort was a room of a museum that used dummies and dioramas to explain how it has been taken four times, by Romania, Turkey twice and, bizarrely, Sweden — each time being liberated by Russia.
I climbed one of the watchtowers and could see over the Dniester, the river that used to mark the western boundary of the Soviet Union. Nearby, in part of the fort’s grounds still used as an army base, there was a buzz of activity as a military convoy was being prepared for departure.
I wonder about that base now, the people of Transnistria and what part they will play as the Ukrainian conflict develops.
Andrey Smolenskiy still runs his tour company. A page has been added to his website: Help to refugees from Ukraine – where he’s shared information about how to help, how to donate, and accommodation his own family is offering for those fleeing the fighting.