A War of Letters

Mumin Shakirov / For MT

Russian peacekeepers are a familiar sight in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic, and given the region's overwhelmingly ethnic Russian population, they feel right at home. The peacekeepers first arrived in 1992.

On the eve of the Dec. 9 presidential election in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic, the Moldovan government in Chisinau unleashed a propaganda war against the separatist regime in Tiraspol. The goal was simple -- to undermine Transdnestr President Igor Smirnov.

"I will never sit at the negotiating table with Igor Smirnov, head of the criminal Transdnestr regime," Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin told The Moscow Times. "The government on the left bank of the Dnestr River is illegitimate. Everything done by Tiraspol runs counter to the Moldovan constitution."

As a result, Smirnov, the front-runner in the presidential race, found himself fighting not with the other candidates, but with an external enemy. And that made his job a lot easier. Compared to the uncompromising Voronin, Smirnov looked like a regular statesman.

Smirnov repeats his willingness to enter negotiations with Chisinau on every possible occasion. In an interview with The Moscow Times he declared: "I am the president of the Transdnestr Moldovan republic, and I am bound to [remain open to discussions]. I have received instructions to this effect from the Supreme Council."

The Russian mass media also contributed to Smirnov's success at the polls, especially the state-owned RTR television network. Two weeks before election day, RTR -- which reaches all of Moldova -- aired a special report on the Transdnestr republic. Well-known journalist Eduard Petrov reported that the local authorities were involved in an illicit arms trade, and had hired hitmen to dispense with their enemies. Corruption, Petrov said, was rife in the government.

There is no way to say for sure what impact the report had on the election campaign. In Moscow, the common view was that Smirnov had piqued the Kremlin with his extreme independence. "A report like that couldn't have been shown on RTR without approval from the top," said Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute and an expert on the Transdnestr republic. "In Tiraspol, the belief is that news about the region is controlled personally by the head of the Russian presidential administration, Alexander Voloshin."

Tiraspol saw the hand of Chisinau in the preparation of the report, and took retaliatory action. Well-informed bureaucrats learned of the upcoming broadcast and replaced it with an episode of the American melodrama "Twin Peaks." A scandal broke out. The Transdnestr regime was accused of violating the rights of its own citizens.

Smirnov's supporters subsequently broadcast the Petrov report on local television, but added their own spin. The Transdnestr authorities next aired an attack piece of their own on state television. Petrov was accused of libel and collusion with the Moldovan intelligence service.

This information war left the region's voters with very little choice on election day. On one hand was Igor Smirnov, founder of the self-proclaimed republic; on the other, potential or imagined enemies of Transndestr sovereignty. Given this polarization, the incumbent had little trouble winning over the voters.

"Moldova stripped and gutted its own factories. Now it wants to get its hands on ours. But we know that our Smirnov won't allow that! That's why I'm going to vote for our president for a third time," said Nina Sitchikhina, a pensioner in Tiraspol.

"We have bread, heat and light," said Vera Smorotskaya, a Tiraspol schoolteacher and Smirnov voter. "Smirnov has promised to turn this place into Switzerland, and he'll do it!"

Smirnov had two opponents: Communist Alexander Radchenko and Tom Zenovich, the former mayor of Bendery (now sometimes called Tighina), Transdnestr's second city. He dispatched them with brutal efficiency. Smirnov declared that both of his adversaries were in league with Chisinau. Despite a total lack of proof to back up this charge, more than 80 percent of the voters bought into Smirnov's version of events, and handed him another term. Radchenko and Zenovich together garnered just over 10 percent of the vote.

Russia does not recognize the newly elected Transdnestr leader, however. "From the point of view of international law, the elections have no legitimacy," said Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov.

Even worse for Tiraspol, the Kremlin of late has been courting Moldova, signing a friendship and cooperation agreement.

Bendery's covered market is the busiest, most picturesque spot in town. It is surrounded by the typical drab, shabby buildings of a provincial industrial city. But inside, the market is a different world -- an explosion of colors and smells, foods for every taste.

The vendors here are keen psychologists. They immediately recognize outsiders by their appearance and idle curiosity. They single out visitors from Russia as shoppers with a little jingle in their pockets, and turn on their peddling prowess.

Prices at the market are about half those in Moscow. But for people who earn $50 a month -- the average wage in the Transdnestr region -- they are still prohibitive. The people here don't live on their official salary alone, of course. Some work as shuttle traders, others work the land. The Moldovan climate is temperate. Fruits and vegetables are available to most people; wine and spirits abound, from homemade wine to the famous brandies produced by the Kvint winery. A bottle of local vodka goes for $1.

Taxis lie in wait around the market day and night. Chisinau is 80 kilometers to the west, and Odessa 100 kilometers to the south. Shuttle traders from across the region truck their goods into Bendery for sale at the market.

But after dark, the streets of Bendery empty quickly.

"It's not that every second person here gets murdered or robbed," said Sergeant-Major Sergei Rusnak, head of the Bendery police department's sentry division. "We won't allow that, even though guns and explosives remained in the hands of the populace after the war. Psychological healing will take time."

Bendery, along with several minor towns situated on the right bank of the Dnestr, became part of the Transdnestr Moldovan republic after independence was declared in 1990.

Alla Melnichuk, director of the Tiraspol regional museum, believes this was the right thing to do. "The percentage of ethnic Moldovans was always higher in the villages than in the cities," she said. "Russians and Ukrainians built the industrial and administrative infrastructure of the Transdnestr region. This area always had a lot of Russian military bases. Bendery was no exception. From 1812-1918 this was part of Russia, and part of the Orthodox world, except for the period 1918-1940, when we were part of Romania."

In Bendery these days they speak Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian, and write in Cyrillic. In Chisinau they speak the same languages, but write in Roman script. And it was a dispute over alphabets that led to the current schism in Moldova.

Mumin Shakirov / For MT

Transdnestr President Igor Smirnov talks diplomacy but keeps the powder dry.

Tensions first flared in Moldova -- then the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic of the U.S.S.R. -- in 1989, when the Supreme Council passed a new law on the official language of the republic. Under pressure from the Moldavian National Front, the legislature replaced Cyrillic with Roman script, dividing the country into two camps, natives and outsiders. The nationalists talked of unification with Romania.

But this left the country's Russians, Ukrainians, Gagauzi, Bulgarians and other minorities feeling like second-class citizens. In many areas, Russian speakers rose up against the government. The Transdnestr region was hit with strikes and demonstrations, while the National Front stepped up its activities elsewhere. The most radical nationalists, students and rural youth ran amok in the streets, even trying at one point to seize the Interior Ministry.

On Sept. 2, 1990, the Transdnestr Moldovan republic proclaimed itself a constitutent republic of the Soviet Union. Thus the separatists beat Moldova itself to the punch. Moldova would only become a sovereign country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The Transdnestr region was under Chisinau's control for half a century, from 1940 to 1990. Before that time, this narrow strip of land belonged to Ukraine and was called the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. But the empire expanded to the west. In 1940, Stalin's troops seized a part of Romania, then known as Bessarabia. On June 28, 1940, the left and right banks of the Dnestr were united as the Moldavian S.S.R., with Chisinau as its capital.

First blood in the Transdnestr region was spilled in March 1992. A local police chief, who had gone over to the Russian separatists, was shot in Dubossary. It was here that Transdnestr defense forces first clashed with Moldovan police. Three local residents died.

War might have been averted in those early days. A cease-fire was even reached in Dubossary, but not for long. Volunteer fighters from Russia came to join the separatists. When fighting resumed, the dam at the Dubossary Hydroelectric Station was shelled. The two sides clashed in the streets. Blood flowed, and the city buried its dead. The skirmishes lasted three months.

The war began in earnest when Moldovan police units entered Bendery. Oazu Nantoi, an adviser to former Moldovan president Mircea Snegur, called this a provocation. "The Moldovan police headquarters in Bendery was attacked by Igor Smirnov's presidential guard. To save the policemen inside, Chisinau sent in a detachment of police special forces. When that detachment took back the building without losses, the Moldovan leadership decided that it should build on its initial success and liberate the entire town. This was a mistake."

The battle that ensued consumed every street and every building in the city. Hundreds died on both sides. The separatists appealed for help to General Alexander Lebed, commander of the Russian 14th Army. Lebed responded with armor, ammunition and personnel. The Moldovan forces stood no chance.

Negotiations began July 3, 1992, in Moscow between then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Snegur. The two agreed to halt all military action, separate the troops and send Russian and Ukrainian peacekeepers into the Transdnestr region.

"Moscow always had the resources to stop the conflict, but it only did so after Moldova had suffered a military defeat," said Oazu Nantoi. "Chisinau didn't lose a war with Tiraspol, it lost a war with the Russian 14th Army."

Paradoxically, the war did not divide people along religious or ethnic lines, as happened in Nagorny Karabakh and Abkhazia. Russians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Gagauzi and others fought on both sides. Grigory Volovoi, editor of Bendery's opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, said the war was a conflict of interests.

"At first the war was about human rights, but it turned into a fight for property. Chisinau lost control of some of the biggest industrial installations built during the Soviet era," Volovoi said.

Today, the economic situation in Transdnestr is far brighter than in the rest of Moldova. This owes largely to the presence of a huge metal works in Rybnits -- which accounts for up to 80 percent of the regional budget -- and several electrical manufacturing facilities and textile plants that export their wares beyond Transdnestr's borders. These crucial assets are entirely controlled by the local political elite. The rest of Moldova, where industrial activity has all but stopped, has turned into an underdeveloped agricultural country mired in debt and corruption.

Mumin Shakirov / For MT

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin refuses to negotiate with the separatists.

During the years of its self-proclaimed independence, the Transdnester republic has acquired many of the trappings of state: a seal, hymn, flag and currency. It has created the requisite administrative bodies: a foreign ministry, customs agencies, and special forces.

But there's a little problem with the passports. More than 500,000 residents of the Transdnestr region -- some 90 percent of its total population -- are citizens of a country that no other country in the world recognizes. Their official travel documents are left over from the Soviet era, updated with a special attachment. These jerry-rigged passports allowed them to travel in Moldova, Ukraine and Russia only.

But as of Jan. 1, 2002, Moscow and Kiev will require citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States to present their zagranpasporta, or passports issued for travel abroad, at the border. Half a million people in Transdnestr will no longer be able to get out.

The other 10 percent of Transdnestr's people have already obtained citizenship elsewhere -- in Russia, Ukraine, even in Moldova.

Not surprisingly, nearly all of the members of Transdnestr's political elite, including President Igor Smirnov, are Russian citizens.

Smirnov has held on to power for more than a decade by following a very simple formula for success: quashing all opposition, and protecting the business interests and job security of his cronies. For all intents and purposes, Transdnestr is a closed country. Its leaders answer to no one.

The region has hot water, heat, electricity and natural gas. The pensioners regularly receive their $20 a month. Bread, vodka and tobacco are cheap and plentiful. And there are no signs of a popular uprising on the horizon. This gives the locals a sense of superiority over the rest of Moldova.

To ensure Transdnestr's social stability, its leaders have simply opted not to pay their bills. The republic owes Gazprom more than $500 million. But even a figure of this magnitude doesn't appear cause for concern, so long as the region has its Soviet-era arsenal.

Under the terms of its commitment to the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, Russia is removing the troops and equipment of the 14th Army from Transdnestr.

And Tiraspol is happily writing off its debt to Russia.

"In 1991 we privatized half of the Soviet 14th Army arsenal. Now we're paying off our debts by selling it back," said Valery Litsai, Transdnestr's foreign minister. "Unlike poor Moldova, we have something to sell."

But even if Russia completes its military pull out from Moldova, Transdnestr's defense capacity is unlikely to diminish. The republic has long been producing its own arms at a mammoth machinery construction plant in Bendery that was once the pride of the Soviet military-industrial complex.

"We produce howitzers, mortars and firearms," Litsai said proudly. "With the manufacturing capacity that we have, it would be a sin not to produce arms. We have no intention of going hungry."

According to some, Transdnestr has been illegally exporting arms as well. Local authorities deny this charge. But no one denies that the region is a haven for contraband goods. The appointment of Smirnov's son, Vladimir, to head the custom's committee only added fuel to the fire. In Chisinau, the breakaway republic is known as a corridor through which hundreds of millions of dollars have been laundered.

Some 200,000 people have chosen to leave Transdnestr in search of a better life in recent years. But the possibility of unification with Moldova remains a contentious issue.

"If we don't force things, intergration could happen much more quickly," said Andrei Safonov, a journalist with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Bendery. "We have no other choice."

Even the Transdnestr political elite stopped talking about full independence long ago. Everyone understands that Moscow, Kiev and the OSCE -- major players in any future negotiations -- will never allow it.

Tiraspol insists on being an equal partner in negotiations. Chisinau excludes this possibility, and insists on four-party talks with Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. Nonetheless, politicians on both sides of the conflict are talking more and more about unification, perhaps as a confederation.

Nationalists of all stripes in Moldova are receding into the past. Their places are being taken by more pragmatic leaders. And the question of Moldova's national language will likely soon become one of private choice, not a call to arms.

Mumin Shakirov is a reporter for Radio Liberty in Moscow.