Tiraspol - As the political crisis in Crimea deepens amid the prospect of the region joining Russia after the looming referendum, it is easy to overlook another post-Soviet republic's gestures to the West and the potential flashpoint coming from its own restive Russophile region.
Compared to Ukraine, Moldova got away lightly following its departure from Moscow's patronage. When deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign the EU Association Agreement in November 2013, deadly riots erupted on the streets of Kiev. Reacting to the newly installed pro-European government in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the Russian army to annex Crimea. Moldova, however, did not see Russian troops enter its territory; they had been already there for over 20 years.
Despite attempts to attract some of their former satellite states like Belarus and Kazakhstan into an "Eurasian Union", Moldova, whose economy depends heavily on agriculture and remittances from expatriates, paved the way for strengthened ties with Brussels. Russia duly suspended Moldovan wine imports (allegedly on grounds of poor quality), and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin warned officials: "I hope you won't freeze," darkly implying that the country's dependence on Russian gas may be in jeopardy.
Such a bold move by Moldova's governing Pro-European coalition may be seen as progress for the tiny nation of 3.5 million, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, which in 2001 became famous for being the first post-Soviet state to re-elect a Communist government. Moldova, however, faces a simmering territorial dispute which accentuated following Crimea's planned succession from Ukraine.
Only 60km east of Moldova's capital Chisinau and reachable by a bumpy ride in a marshrutka (shared taxi) accompanied by blaring Russian pop music, the haphazard border controls emblazoned with the red and green stripes of the Transnistrian flag come into view. The only place in Europe where grimacing guards in camouflage uniform wear badges with the hammer and sickle insignia of the Soviet Union.
Transnistria has its own currency, passports and number plates which aren't recognised by the vast majority of the world's countries. Moldova considers Transnistria to be occupied territory, a gangster state cultivated by Russia which poses a risk to their national security.
But residents in the capital Tiraspol, like shop assistant Nadya, disagree. "Life here is better than Moldova. Russia invests a lot of money in hospitals, kindergartens and other infrastructure. It would be nice to be independent but if we were reunited with Russia then that would be even better, like the Crimea."
Nadya stands proudly in front of rows of gleaming bottles of Transnistrian cognac, highly regarded around the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and beyond. Brewed by the gargantuan Kvint factory in Tiraspol since 1897, it is a sizeable source of employment and a singular antidote to critics who decry the region as merely a nexus for contraband. Though hailing from an unrecognised state, it is widely exported around Europe and the combination of its potency and price (a litre bought locally costs around $5) arouses cheerful spirits, though Nadya is less than merry when speaking of deeper links with the West. When asked whether she can think of any benefits that the EU may bring, the answer is an emphatic "nyet".
An icy wind whips up clouds of dust along streets named in honour of various factory workers of Socialist production. The Transnistrian authorities do not welcome journalists so would-be reporters need to duck into the courtyards between the crumbling Soviet-era housing blocks to avoid the attention of the omnipresent KGB, an intelligence service which never bothered to change its name following the collapse of the USSR.
'Peace and stability'
Walking their dog around a dilapidated basketball court overgrown by weeds, pensioners Vasile and Elena are less doctrinaire. Sent to Transnistria from Russia during Soviet times as railroad workers, they have lived most of their lives here.
"How can we be part of Russia when we don't even share a border with them? At least Crimea is next door to them so it's easier, like for Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Vasile said of the two breakaway regions of northern Georgia, similarly bankrolled by Russia. Both entities maintain a quasi-embassy in Tiraspol, presumably out of solidarity rather than any practical purpose.
We have an uncertain political status so we should join the customs union to get a better deal, especially considering that we have more in common with Russia.
"We want to join any system that can give us peace and stability, even with Romania, though all we ask is that the rights of minorities, like us Russian speakers, be respected," said Vasile.
Moldovans were once united and have traditionally identified with Romania due to linguistic ties. Following World War II, many Russians and Ukrainians were resettled in the industrialised eastern regions by the Soviet Union and hence Russian-speaking communities became widespread.
Following the breakup of the USSR, Transnistria, spooked by growing nationalism by the Romanian-speaking majority, declared independence, sparking a bloody civil war as Chisinau tried to retain control of the territory. During the conflict, Transnistria was heavily supported by Russia and to this day, an estimated 1,500 soldiers remain in place, allegedly as peacekeepers and to safeguard Soviet weapons stockpiles.
With the imminent prospect of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation in a controversial upcoming referendum, there are heightened concerns that Transnistria may be used by Russia in a similar way to crystallise their influence in Europe.
"If Moldova signs the agreement this year, we can expect destabilisation here," an EU diplomat warily noted in Chisinau.
Serhii Pyrozhkov, Ukraine's ambassador to Moldova, is keeping a watchful eye on neighbouring Transnistria. The stakes are high. A move by the renegade state to join the Russian Federation would see Ukraine further geographically isolated from Europe.
"According to our data, we suspect that on the territory of the Transnistrian region, Russian military troops have been recruiting activists to be sent to Odessa to participate in riots and destabilise the region," Pyrozhkov told Al Jazeera. "This sets a worrying precedent."
Back in Tiraspol, Christina, a sociology teacher, sees a brighter future in the East.
"We have an uncertain political status so we should join the customs union to get a better deal, especially considering that we have more blood links and much more in common with Russia," she said. "Moldova has a village mentality and they don't know who they want to be, at least Transnistrians have a clear identity."
The curated Soviet memorabilia and pseudo-state trinkets should not distract from the fact that for many, like student Feodor now based in Chisinau, life as a Transnistrian is a struggle. Though salaries are fractionally more than in Moldova and Russia subsidises the bills, opportunities for young people are slim. The region is hemorrhaging young people, leaving behind an ageing population often nostalgic for the past that Transnistria embodies.
"If you go to university in Tiraspol, your diploma will not be recognised by any country other than Russia so how can you get a job anywhere else?" he said. "Sometimes Moldovans criticise me and call me a separatist but I had nothing to do with any of this, it was my government's actions. This obsession with independence is our main problem. My country is not independent, if it was, I wouldn't be forced to come here."
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