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THE TINY STATE WHERE THE HAMMER
AND SICKLE STILL FLY
It looks like a Soviet state, but what is the real Transdniester?
by CHRISTOPHER JAMES
Morning Star: December 6, 2005

FOR a small place Transdniester has made a relatively big name for itself since this internationally unrecognised state declared independence from the then Soviet republic of Moldova some 15 years ago.

Many a foreign visitor has since been lured to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), to give Transdniester its full official title, by the promise of witnessing a "living museum" of life in the USSR.

On the surface this description appears accurate. Soviet hammer and sickle insignia feature prominently on the Transdniester coat of arms, on its currency – roubles and kopeks that are worthless elsewhere – on uniforms, buildings, and monuments as an official state symbol.

An imposing statue of Lenin dominates outside Transdniester’s parliament, still known as the Supreme Soviet, and street names such as Marx, Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Gagarin, Sovetskaya, Liebknecht and October 25 remain unchanged since the demise of the USSR.

Soviet-style military parades are common – most recently in September for celebrations commemorating the 15th anniversary of the territory’s self-proclaimed independence of 1990.

"We are building our state because we were thrown out of the great Soviet Union," Transdniester’s President Igor Smirnov told September’s parade. "We live as our grandfathers lived without betraying them."

But paradoxically the Transdniester state, its authorities and its constitution claim neither to be socialist or communist.

Every official I met explained that the territory was merely paying homage to its Soviet past – a history of which it was unashamed and one that it would not surrender.

Indeed, more than 50 per cent of Transdniestrian industry has been privatised in recent years, largely sold to Russian, German and Italian investors, although energy and other key sectors remain state owned and protected by law.

Cynics might suggest that, with the collapse of Soviet socialism, Transdniester’s ready-made communist symbolism provided a convenient local brand, the function of which was simply to stress its separateness from Western-oriented Moldova.

The territory, a sliver of land lying between the Dniester river in eastern Moldova and the nearby Ukraine border, is home to some 700,000 people, 60 per cent of whom are Slavic – Russian and Ukrainian – with the remainder ethnic Moldovans.

It is also home to Europe’s largest arms dump, comprised of ageing Soviet weapons and thousands of Russian troops who have served as peacekeepers since a bloody war in 1992 when Moldova tried to wrest back the territory. The continuing presence of these troops has proved a stumbling block in peace talks.

Likewise, almost every power station in Moldova can be found here – as well as the bulk of its industry – allowing Transdniester to switch off energy supplies across the west bank of the Dniester, something it does whenever a political point needs making.

In the dying days of the USSR, the Transdniestrians believed that Moldova was preparing to reunify with Romania (Moldova was part of Romania until 1940 and its non-Slavic majority speak a near-identical language).

The Romanian and post-Soviet Moldovan flags are likewise very similar and the promotion of the Latin over Cyrillic alphabets in Moldova also sparked alarm east of the Dniester, fuelling Transdniester’s succession.

Yet, Moldovans decisively rejected reunification with Romania soon after the Soviet collapse while Romanians are often guilty of snobbishness toward their Moldovan cousins with little to gain by taking on the economic problems of Europe’s poorest country. Such factors appear to undermine Transdniester’s fears on the "Romania question."

Even the 2001 election victory of the Communist Party in Moldova, after a decade of right-wing government, failed to improve relations across the Dniester, although talks between the sides recently resumed after a long lull.

These centre around a Ukrainian-sponsored peace plan that would see Transdniester gain autonomous status within a reunified Moldova.

Despite such initiatives, the conflict remains essentially frozen. Transdniester appears ready to accept nothing short of full independence.

Moldova’s communist President Vladimir Voronin has accused unrecognised Transdniester of being the "black hole of Europe," a haven for arms and people smuggling, money laundering and other criminality.

Western governments make similar claims and accuse Mr Smirnov, and his son Vladimir, of making vast fortunes through their association with the territory’s Sheriff Corporation, whose ubiquitous logo dominates economic life here.

I put these claims to Oleg Elkov, chief editor at the Transdniester state information agency, Olvia Press.

Mr Elkov insisted that such accusations were groundless, comparing them to the discredited Anglo-US claims of Iraq holding weapons of mass destruction.

He also welcomed the establishment last month of a European Union mission on the borders of Ukraine and Moldova to improve border and customs services and monitor any illegal activities. This will help disprove the smuggling allegations against Transdniester, said Mr Elkov.

Yet wild, laughable claims continue to surround the territory. One Westerner, based in Moldova, warned me, in all seriousness, of reports that al-Qaida has training bases in Transdniester.

And the current Lonely Planet guidebook claims that pro-government youth organisations on the territory are made up of "disenchanted skinheads…indoctrinated with xenophobia and military games."

I met with members of one such organisation, energetic young men and women – without a skinhead in sight – who had named their campaigning group after the legendary Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

"The spirit of Che Guevara is alive today and speaking to our people here," group co-ordinator Dmitrii Soen told me. "We admire the Cuban people as people of struggle," he added.

"That’s why we use his name because we want to teach young people to struggle for freedom, equality and social justice."

A haven for smuggling or a misunderstood people striving for nationhood? A Soviet throwback or a state just proud of its history? Separatists and terrorists or a bulwark against imperial NATO penetration up to Russia’s borders? You decide.

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