What role does Russia play in Transnistria?
Transnistria is no place for young people. An economy in crisis. Few job prospects. An aging population. This sliver of land is effectively stuck in Soviet times, no matter how hard it tried to progress. The newest generations dream of leaving – and leaving for Russia.
Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and has only continued to exist since then because of Russian money andpeace-keeping forces. It was thanks to soldiers from the Russian 14th Army regiment, stationed in Transnistria, that pro-Transnistrian forces managed to repel Moldovan troops in the 1990–1992 war. Since then, Russia has been considered the guarantor of Transnistria’s security and its economic lifeline.
This idea has been deeply entrenched in the population’s collective mindset thanks to Russian propaganda and a Soviet education system. A new generation has grown up on the ideals and standards of the Soviet Union, quaintly irrelevant in the modern world. The fighting in Ukraine and frustration at Moldova’s pro-European government have only confirmed the notion of Russia as the guarantor of peace in Transnistria.
Transnistria remains internationally unrecognised – except by other unrecognised republics such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These three breakaway regions established a “union of unrecognised states” in 1992, which is also referred to as the “second CIS”, and exists more on paper than in reality. This means that in Tiraspol there are now official representations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Attempts to establish economic cooperation between the members have not been particularly successful, largely for geographic reasons, but also because economic cooperation embarked upon for political reasons, and irrespective of interest, will rarely amount to much.
Transnistria’s security guarantor
As for Russia’s 14th Army regiment, most of the personnel and equipment have been withdrawn from Transnistria now, in accordance with agreements between Moldova and Russia signed more than ten years ago. Now there is one operational group of Russian troops stationed in Transnistria with two main tasks. The first is to protect local military warehouses, which store explosives from Soviet times that are too dangerous to move or destroy. The second task is the peacekeeping operation. The peacekeepers are made up of four infantry battalions split between Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistrian soldiers. Currently, the joint peacekeeping forces include about 1,200 troops – 402 Russian, 492 Transnistrian, and 355 Moldovan, with 10 Ukrainian military observers. The peacekeepers are stationed at 15 checkpoints in key areas of the security zone – a 12–24 kilometre wide borderland that stretches 225 kilometres along the Dniester River. Because of the Ukraine crisis, the Russian officers who were previously able to get to Transnistria by transiting through the Ukrainian city of Odesa now have to fly to Moldova directly.
In recent times, the Moldovan authorities have proven reluctant to allow them to do even that. Some have been deported back to Russia upon arrival. Moscow sent a note of protest through the Foreign Ministry, but nothing more than that. Instead, it began to import more agricultural produce from Gagauzia – a historically Russian but autonomous territory in southern Moldova. This was to show the Moldovan government that political loyalty can bring economic benefits. Therefore, it is thought that approximately 90 percent of operational Russian troops are actually Transnistrians who also have Russian citizenship.
Moscow used to provide its military units in Transnistria with all the necessary goods and supplies, but these days it is forced to send funds instead. It is not possible, however, for Russia to ensure that the funds are spent properly because of the inability of high-ranking Russian troops to transit through Moldova. At best, Moscow is kept informed of cases of corruption occurring locally.
The media landscape
Officially, Russia still positions itself as Transnistria’s main strategic partner in all spheres – political, humanitarian, economic, cultural, and educational. This image of a “big brother” doling out practical advice and recommendations is faithfully relayed by Transnistria’s local media, which is 70 percent state-owned. These state-owned media have been effectively governed by one person – Yevgeny Shevchuk – the leader of the region, ever since he came to power in 2011.
Moscow is not particularly well disposed to Shevchuk these days. Even the special envoy to Transnistria, Dmitry Rogozin, who was once an enthusiastic supporter of his, is in no hurry to make statements that would help lift Shevchuk’s dwindling popularity. However, the visit of Kazbek Taysaev – a State Duma deputy from the Communist faction – suggests that Shevchuk is desperately seeking support from Russia, even among relatively unpopular political forces.
Almost a third of the media market (28 percent) belongs to the Sheriff company, which funds the main parliamentary faction, the Renewal party. Two percent of Transnistria’s media is independent thanks to Western grants. Despite the increasing confrontation between the legislative branch of government (supported by Sheriff) and the executive (Shevchuk), they have agreed on one main point: Russia is the only possible guarantor of peace on the Dniester and there can be only one political aim – closer ties with Russia. As for TV, Transnistria is dominated by Russian state channels that are included in the basic Sheriff cable TV package. Several Ukrainian and Romanian channels, plus a Moldovan one, are included in other cable TV packages.
Economy in crisis
Transnistria’s economy is in deep crisis and its banking system is poorly integrated into the international economy, making it difficult to complete international payments. So-called state and commercial banks are merely branches of Russian financial institutions. The local currency is the Transnistrian rouble, artificially pegged at 11.3 roubles to the dollar. Since mid-March, money-change offices here have stopped selling any foreign currency, making it difficult, if not impossible, to travel outside Transnistria.
Economically speaking, Transnistria is more connected with the EU than it is Russia. In January–February 2016, Transnistria exported products worth $30 million to Europe, Asia, and America, while only $3 million worth of goods were sent to Russia. However, when it comes to imports, Russia is the partner of choice, being the destination of $88 million of goods, while Europe, Asia, and America accounted for just $25 million.
The demographic shift
According to official data, the republic's population is just under half a million people. However, nobody is quite sure who to trust because the 2014 census is top secret and unofficial estimates place the figure closer to 300,000, of whom 135,000 are pensioners. In early 2015, the government encouraged Transnistrian pensioners who have Russian citizenship to claim a Russian pension in order to reduce the burden on the Transnistrian budget. Those who followed this advice later found out that Russian pensions are paid late in Transnistria. Moreover, when their pensions are converted into Transnistrian roubles, the bank takes a large chunk as commission.
Russian subsidises every pensioner in Transnistria, regardless of their nationality by paying a monthly supplement of $10. Since 2012, Russia has been financing the construction of 14 schools and hospitals through the NGO Eurasian Integration, established by State Duma member Alexei Zhuravlyov, who is also a member of the the Russian’s State Military-Industrial Committee. In 2015, Russia paid 150 million roubles to equip Russian-language schools in Transnistria with more than 600,000 Russian state-approved textbooks.
In Transnistria, there are roughly 180,000 Russian citizens and there is a Russian Consulate in Tiraspol where you can apply for a Russian passport. Russian passports allow Transnistrians to travel overseas and also denote that the bearer is on the consulate list of the Russian Embassy in Moldova. In 2012, political representatives were appointed, which meant that Russian citizens living in Moldova can now get a Schengen visa in the visa centre in Chisinau. However, over time it has emerged that there has clearly been a selective approach to who gets a visa and who doesn’t, based on unknown and subjective criteria.
As a tourist region, Transnistria is more interesting for Westerners, who come to see a “remnant of the Soviet Union”, than it is for Russians. There are very few Russian tourists, not counting those who left for Moscow or Saint Petersburg to work and who periodically return to visit their parents or relatives.
Stemming the exodus
The main challenge for the Transnistria of today is to stop the brain drain and the flow of labour migrants to Russia. Students do not hide the fact that, after graduating, they dream of leaving Transnistria for Russia, where they would be happy to have any low-skilled job. There are many such stories. Two out of three students want to leave right after graduation for Russia, because there is no work here. Even if they manage to secure a job in Transnistria – a civil service job, for example, through family connections – then the proposed salary would still be impossible to live on.
Transnistria is turning into a republic of pensioners and children whose parents are often working overseas. Every year, the level of depression increases as the working-age population dwindles. People are losing faith that one day the republic may be recognised and able to survive independently, without relying on Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.