Turmoil in Transnistria

Friday, July 30, 2004

CHISINAU, MOLDOVA—At the checkpoint where my car is stopped, it is pretty clear from those in attendance—in assorted military garb or the ill-fitting suits that remain the uniform of the lower ranks of the successor organizations to the KGB—that there is a list inside the guardhouse with my name on it. So I will not, after all, be visiting Transnistria, the region of the former Soviet republic of Moldova that saw the worst violence in the breakup of the USSR and remains under the control of a local strongman, Igor Smirnov, who maintains his Stalinist grip thanks to an extensive security apparatus and a 1,300-strong contingent of Russian “peacekeeping” troops.

What goes on in Transnistria, and who benefits from it? No one on the outside really seems to know. Corrupt industrial activity and the manufacture and shipment of weapons, that’s for sure. But in truth, Transnistria is a black hole—a part of Moldova over which Moldovan authorities exercise no control. It is a large “offshore” zone whose activities are set according to the ambitions and ruthlessness of those doing business there.

Moscow friends have been providing Transnistria, whose population is estimated at 425,000, with about $50 million a year in energy subsidies, which have now totaled $1 billion including interest. This part of the world is not, in general, known for the altruism of its businesspeople. What did the billion buy? Certainly, continued Russian influence, something some in Moscow clearly prize. But somehow, one doubts that’s the end of it, and who knows what riches have been reaped in money laundering, arms trafficking, sex-slavery and prostitution trafficking, the drug trade—and at what price in human misery in the region and beyond?

Transnistria is one of a number of persistent thorns in the side of the international community that have come to be known collectively as the “frozen conflicts” of the wider Black Sea region. Similar troubles involving local strongmen, breakaway “republics,” and/or Russian “peacekeepers” persist in Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has a mission in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, dedicated to the pursuit of a negotiated settlement there, but this process, too, is fraught with peril. A situation in which Moldova and the Transnistrian “authorities” come to an agreement that does essentially nothing to resolve the biggest problem, namely, the opacity of what goes on in Transnistria, is entirely plausible. In fact, late last year, such a Moscow-brokered deal, one that would have legitimized a Russian military presence there through 2020, came within a hairbreadth of completion. Russian president Vladimir Putin was reportedly ready to board a plane for a signing ceremony with Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin when the latter, despite having initialed all the provisions of the agreement, suddenly and unexpectedly backed out.

Voronin himself is a figure of no great charm. A democratically elected Communist, he has since presided over a major erosion of democratic standards in Moldova, the aim of which is clearly his return to power in elections scheduled for early 2005. His bag of tricks is a familiar one: state control over national television, election laws designed to prevent opposition parties from organizing and raising money, high thresholds for turning the popular vote into seats in parliament, a vague air of menace directed toward reformers and those assisting them. Meanwhile, his country remains stuck in neutral, with opportunities for the well connected (such as Voronin’s family, much like Smirnov’s) to get very rich and policy choices that have kept the population at large the poorest in Europe.

In fact, Moldova keeps afloat largely through remittances to those back home from Moldovans who have left to find work elsewhere. The country had a population of 4.28 million in 1989 and is now down by perhaps a fourth. If there are better measures of political failure, Moldova would likely rank just as badly. The country was not even in the running this year for U.S. assistance under the Millennium Challenge Account program, which ties funding to progress on reform.

The democratic opposition in Moldova is organizing to put up a fight against Voronin in the coming elections. It won’t be easy, given government restrictions, but Moldovan civil society is robust. A victory by democratic reformers would surely spell some relief.

But in a larger sense, this “frozen conflict” over Transnistria, like others elsewhere, has frozen Moldova as well. In its own right, the conflict diminishes the prospect of integration with European and transatlantic institutions, and it also serves as an all-purpose excuse for the failure to produce results that serve the interests of the Moldovan people, not just an elite.

This is, of course, just the way some people like it—in Russia, in neighboring Ukraine, and in Moldova itself, and not just along the banks of the Dniester River. What goes on in Transnistria is none of your damn business. It’s theirs.