Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crime and Poverty Haunt Disputed Lands

Life is difficult for the people of Moldova and Transdniester, and confusion over the unofficial border that divides them only adds to the misery.
By Corneliu Rusnac

Sergiu Nirca worked hard all year to grow barley for the farmer’s association he runs in Cocieri, some 50 kilometres northeast of the Moldovan capital Chisinau. But when he tried to shift the crop to market, he was penalised by the Russian-speaking troops who police the neighbouring breakaway republic of Transdniester.


“At the end of August, Transdniestrian custom officials confiscated a truck full of barley from me, and they took another one a week later, claiming I was breaking their custom rules,” said Nirca, unshaven and bleary-eyed after weeks of stress. “Now I have been forced to leave my entire crop there.”


The farmer added that well over 200 people in this impoverished part of Moldova have had similar trouble along the porous border with the breakaway republic of Transdniester. Jurisdiction here is blurred and the Moldovan authorities are rarely able to intervene to help those caught in the middle.


The village of Cocieri is one of five settlements situated on the right, western bank of the river Dniester, in an area formally under the jurisdiction of Moldovan authorities, but effectively controlled by the self-proclaimed Transdniestrian Republic. Chisinau’s writ does not run to this area, which is policed by Russian soldiers.


Transdniester, where the majority is of Russian or Ukrainian origin, declared independence from Moldova in 1990 over fears that the central authorities would seek unification with Romania. The breakaway entity was tacitly supported by Russia, which sees the area as its gateway to the Balkans and south-eastern Europe.


The rebel area’s capital Tiraspol has changed little since Soviet times and remains defiantly Russian-leaning. Downtown, a granite statue of Lenin looms over a tank which symbolises Moscow’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War.


The breakaway republic uses its own ruble currency, and the remnants of the old 14th Soviet Army acts as its defence force. The links to Moscow stretch to its president Igor Smirnov, a Russian Federation citizen who has adopted a Soviet style of rule.


As Transdniester has not been recognised by any government, its citizens face difficulties if they want to travel abroad, as their passports are not internationally recognised. As a result, some 90 per cent of the population holds dual citizenship. Tiraspol estimates that 100,000 people use Moldovan passports and 80,000 people travel on Russian passports, while 20,000 rely on Ukrainian papers or documents from other former Soviet states.


Lack of recognition by the international community also means Tiraspol has not been to enter into legitimate business transactions to boost its economy. As a result, the area has become synonymous with black marketeering, corruption and crime.


From 1998, Transdniestrian custom officials – backed by the military – began to demanding arbitrary taxes and even confiscating property from people in some borderline areas like Cocieri that technically lie outside their territory.


“This happens mainly during the autumn season when farmers harvest their crops,” Nirca told IWPR, adding that other villagers have had their gas or water supply cut off, or have been removed from their jobs.


Grigore Policinschi, a local government chief on the Moldovan side of the river Dniester, is pessimistic about the area’s prospects, “While people here are under constant pressure from the Transdniester regime, Moldova’s government is just offering us advice and asking us not to react to any provocation.”


Officials in Chisinau the Transdniester region is causing huge losses to the Moldovan economy, including billions of dollars lost every year through arms smuggling and non-taxed trade.


Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev recently told the media that many of Moldova's economic problems can be blamed on its inability to control all of its state borders and collect customs duties. He estimated that Moldova's economy would see tenfold growth if only it could get hold of these revenues.


As things stand, signs of poverty can be seen almost everywhere in Moldova. Many country villages – typically with crosses and statues of Christ or the Virgin Mary by the roadside - are half-empty because so many young people have gone abroad to find work and send money home to support their families. It is thought that 14 per cent of Moldova’s 4.4 million population – mostly young people - have left their homeland in search of jobs since the republic became independent 13 years ago.


In the Soviet period, Moldova’s fertile landscape supported orchards and huge vineyards that produced wine for the Communist bloc. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its centralised market and economy, around half the Moldovan population now scratches a living from subsistence farming. But even that economic activity has shrunk to the third of the size it was a decade ago.


The tiny republic, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, is now the poorest state in Europe. The average income is 30 US dollars a month, and the quality of life is uniformly miserable - cold apartments, empty refrigerators, hand-me-down clothing, and a hope that things just have to get better.


Only a few thousand at the top enjoy any real benefits - many of them former Communist insiders who profited from post-Soviet disintegration by snapping up former state industries at bargain prices. They are to be found at restaurants such as the capital’s Coliseum, where customers wash down Italian dishes with Moldovan wine. The bill for three is similar to the average monthly wage earned by the bulk of the population.


In another part of Chisinau, unemployed former engineer Vitalie Lupu looks up at the decaying Soviet-era concrete flats that loom over the city. He blames confusion and inertia for the bulk of the problems facing Moldova – and believes that a blurred identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union has not helped the people adjust.


“I really don’t know what kind of country Moldova is,” he shrugged. “It’s a country with porous borders, one which does not control its entire territory, and with an official language which is called Moldovan despite it being very similar to Romanian.”


Lupu, who is now taking accountancy classes in an attempt to boost his career prospects, sees no improvement in Moldova’s political future.


“Unfortunately, we are still under very strong Russian influence as we are dependent on fuel imports from there,” he said. “And Moscow still controls all the important factories in the region. How can Moldova develop under such conditions?”


Corneliu Rusnac is a journalist with the independent news agency Basa Press.


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