Suspecting provocation but unsure from what side, four young Moldovan women expressed anger, sadness and resignation akin to apathy over the recent blasts in Transnistria. For some it was expected, for others terrifying but now par for the course in a war that many never expected would last so long.
The explosions in Transnistria, a sliver of land running north to south along a section of Moldova’s eastern border, raised fears that the separatist republic could get dragged into the war in neighbouring Ukraine.
Separated from the rest of Moldova by the Dniester River, a cold conflict has remained dormant in Transnistria since a flare of fighting in the early nineties. Approximately 470,000 people live in the breakaway region, where ethnic Russians and Ukrainians outnumber Moldovans and Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan are all official languages. No country recognises the region as independent, although Russian 'peacekeeping troops' (now an estimated 1,500) have remained in the autonomous region since 1992 and Moldova’s national government has no control over the territory. Transnistria is functionally a separate state.
A ‘modern Soviet Union’
The summer of 2018, I joined an English-language lesson at the State University of Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria. One rather impish but sincere student told me her home was a ‘modern Soviet Union’, as though the system had never collapsed. Tiraspol’s Soviet-style architecture, copious Lenin statues and a tank parked in the Memorial Complex of Glory in the centre of the city — “for the motherland!” scrawled in white paint on one side — stand in testament.
This week, however, some physical vestiges of the Soviet period collapsed, likely in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. On April 26, two Soviet-era radio towers, which broadcast Russian radio, were bombed in the village of Maiac. The day before, Transnistrian officials announced that the Tiraspol state security building had been hit, potentially with grenade launchers. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The Transnistrian Ministry of Internal Affairs later released a statement that on the evening of April 26, several drones were spotted above the village of Kolbasna; on the morning of April 27, shots were fired close to the settlement’s weapons depot from the Ukrainian side of Transnistria, reported Moldovan independent media NewsMaker.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu called an emergency meeting of the country’s security council on April 26. Following the meeting, she announced that the committee’s analysis demonstrates “tensions between different forces within the area interested in destabilising the situation. This makes the region vulnerable and poses risks to the Republic of Moldova”. In response, the Moldovan government intends to increase patrols on the border and traffic checks near the security zone, and raise alerts for critical infrastructure and public security institutions.
Overwhelmed by information
Livia, a 27-year-old schoolteacher from Cantemir, said that many Moldovans are “fed up” with the overwhelm of information since the beginning of the war.
“In general, people did not especially react to [the blasts],” Livia said. “I don’t know why — to be honest, even I didn’t especially react to it.” In part, she said, it must be too painful. People are done reading about the war, she said, done trying to analyse what is happening.
Livia, black hair high in pigtails ruffled from a recent night’s rest, called via Viber. She requested that her last name not be published. While Livia was first frightened when she heard of the explosions, she looked to the news and the statements made by Sandu to clarify what was happening. “I calmed down because I didn’t see anything too horrifying,” she said.
“I think that it might be just a provocation from the side of some pro-Russians [separatists inside Transnistria] who are too radical.” People in general, she said, seem to believe the attacks are provocations.
While she views Russia as the aggressor state, Livia has “mixed feelings about everything”. It is difficult to know what to think about the recent blasts in Transnistria, she said, let alone the conflict in Ukraine. Many Moldovans do not know what to believe “because no one knows what information they can trust… because there are many fakes, and there is much provocation, much propaganda,” she said.
Livia gave the example of “disgusting” rumours she has heard about the Ukrainian refugees who have come to Moldova. Everyone knows Moldova is a “poor country”, Livia explained, but some “arrogant” refugees allegedly insulted Moldova and claimed they wanted to move on to another country immediately. Others supposedly complained about Moldovan hotels, calling their rooms a “mess” and demanding other accommodation.
“But from another side, I think it’s Russian propaganda because, you know, it [created a lot of noise] on the internet,” Livia said. “And I never heard a Moldovan who is a [Moldovan]-speaking person who [talks] about this.”
The uncertainty has left Livia with lasting feelings of stress, but it also leaves room for optimism.
“I still hope [the explosions are] not related to war,” she said, “that it’s just a provocation where people are getting crazy. [That whoever is responsible] just wants to provoke people so they worry.”
Transnistrians don’t want Russian ‘liberation’
29-year-old Sasha (not her real name) is currently working in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, in the nonprofit sector and describes herself as politically progressive and pro-European. Communicating via Facebook Messenger, she requested anonymity for professional reasons.
Sasha, who is a native Russian speaker but is also fluent in Moldovan, is disgusted with the war and believes that Russia has no justification for its aggression. “I strongly oppose [the war] and moreover, my Transnistrian friends are not welcoming the Russian ‘liberation’ either,” she said. “They have seen Bucha, they have seen Mariupol. They don’t want Russians to ‘liberate’ them this way.”
More angry than sad, Sasha in part blames her own government for the current escalation in Transnistria. They “have not put [in] enough effort to solve the Transnistrian conflict for three decades,” she explained, “and now it can become another playground for Russia with a potential danger for Moldova’s security and sovereignty.”
She was unsure what to think when she first heard that someone had bombed Transnistria. “I [thought] they were local extremists who were either supported by Russia or Ukraine. But as the first blast was followed by a few more ([the] Russian radio station Mayak, for instance), it became more evident that this is not random and most likely Russia is behind it after stating earlier that they ‘have plans’ for Transnistria,” she said. “The fact that they have attacked their own radio station is just a tactic to stir the rumours in the information war.”
Elena (not her real name), who is from Tiraspol, requested to speak anonymously because people in Transnistria can be jailed, the 25-year-old wrote via WhatsApp, for “aggressive political expression” and extremism.
According to the Freedom House 2019 Freedom in the World Index, “legal restrictions on certain kinds of speech [in Transnistria] discourages [sic] free discussion. The Penal Code contains penalties for the public expression of disrespect for the Russian peacekeeping mission.”
Elena, whose family speaks Ukrainian, travels to Ukraine every year and feels bonded to the country. “It is a second home: the language, traditions, folklore, cuisine — everything [is] familiar,” she said. She believes the war is a “tremendous mistake” waged for “no logical reason”, but clarified that many people she knows do not agree: she has family in Russia who think the war is a “special operation”.
Abroad in Europe for nearly a year, Elena is terrified for her friends and family back home. She was not surprised, however, to learn of the recent explosions in Tiraspol. Rather, she “expected it from the day war started in Ukraine,” she said. She is unsure of who might now be responsible but has seen much speculation that it is Russian provocation.
No future together
Elena does not believe that Moldova and Transnistria have any future together. “For the past 30 years, Moldova did not proceed with any steps toward a united territory,” Elena said. Now, the “local [Transnistrian] civilians' mindset [is that there is] nothing common between the two regions except the Soviet past.”
Her family and friends in Transnistria are now avoiding the news “to feel safer”.
Anastasiya (not her real name), who called via WhatsApp as she traipsed beneath a sunny spring sky on her way home from work in finance, is from Tiraspol. Like Elena, she also requested anonymity for reasons of personal safety.
The 24-year-old, who claims to have a “calm constitution”, is not especially ruffled by the explosions in Transnistria. She was at first terrified, but did not panic, because she knows she could “leave at any moment”. Her friends and especially her parents, however, are worried.
Anastasiya tends to avoid talking about the conflict with others, she said, because she does not hold the same opinion as many of her acquaintances and hedging into politics today is skirting dangerous territory. “I perceive this solely as a war, and somewhere I understood what this war is for, most likely to bring back the times of the USSR or something like that,” she said. “But [what is happening in Ukraine] is clearly not liberation.”
She thinks the recent explosions in Transnistria were “provocation”. She does not see why Ukraine, and even more so Moldova, would instigate something like this. She does not believe Transnistrian separatists were responsible, either — only Russia has such reasons to act.
“But especially on the territory of our country, they don’t discuss [the possibility of Russia building a land corridor from Donbas to Transnistria], because until [the explosions] even our president tried to maintain neutrality. He didn’t speak negatively in any way … towards Ukraine, even despite the fact that our land is somehow sponsored by Russia.”
It is not just Transnistria’s president who has been hesitant to take a firm position on the war. “A lot of people are afraid and do not want to discuss this topic, in general even on the phone. On WhatsApp, on Telegram. That is, there are a lot of people who do not want to discuss it at all. Because everyone is afraid, well, there were cases when people were locked away [in Transnistria] for one word, for [holding up] a blank piece of paper.”
Regardless of the explosions, Anastasiya said, she has noticed no changes in the streets of Tiraspol — no increase in police presence, no troops mobilising. “There’s good weather, there’s the sun, everything is wonderful,” she said.