Playing jokes on the leaders is punishable in the breakaway region of Transnistria, an enclave with a pro-Russian majority within the borders of Moldova. In this autonomous territory, wedged between a narrow strip along the Dniester River and the Ukraine, the authorities exercise a suffocating persecution of any attempt at dissent from an official discourse inoculated with Russian propaganda, as the few critical voices denounce.
“We can’t even joke around; they are aware that jokes are constructed from a realistic perspective”, says Cristina in Tiraspol, where she teaches classes in Romanian, a language persecuted by the regime. “They even infiltrated spies in the educational center to detect alleged opponents,” reveals this woman, who asks that her full name not appear for fear of reprisals and who dreams of the unification of Transnistria with Moldova.
Blackmail as a measure of repression is the order of the day in this territory, whose independence has not been recognized by the UN, nor by Russia itself. “That the Transnistrian secret services [herederos de la KGB soviética] know that criticizing the regime can mean that you will never find a job again, ”says the teacher, whose current salary depends on the Moldovan government. “First, they speak with the superior so that he transmits the notice to you; then, they fire you if you continue”, continues Cristina.
The Moldavian Republic of Pridnestrovia, as Transnistria officially calls itself, declared itself independent de facto in 1990. The Kremlin, which has not recognized this State, is interested in prolonging this situation in order to try to contain NATO’s expansion into Moldova. Also, Chisinau will hardly be able to enter the European Union while Transnistria is out of its control. Brussels does not want this secessionist region to pass into the hands of Moscow, as happened with Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed in 2014 by Russia through a referendum without international recognition. But annexation to Moscow is an outcome that a majority in Transnistria supports, due to the process of Russification lived in the last decades.
Transnistria subsists on the paltry price it pays Gazprom for gas. The labor market revolves around a nebulous conglomerate of companies, Sheriff, which dominates the economic life of the territory: from gas stations to supermarkets, through telecommunications, energy, steel and alcohol companies; he even controls the soccer club that beat Real Madrid in the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabéu in the fall.
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The low salaries in this secessionist region, about 3,200 Transnistrian rubles (about 177 euros) on average, is the main reason why many citizens go abroad. But last week’s explosions at a Security Ministry building, at a military unit near the town of Parcani, and at radio and television towers in Grigoriopol have heightened fears of an implosion in this region.
“Many friends have left and those who have stayed are prepared,” confesses Elena, the mother of a 16-year-old student at the Lucian Blaga Institute in Tiraspol. The fuel tank of her vehicle is full in case a conflict breaks out on the border with Ukraine. “People have been losing hope of change; that fatigue has reduced her dissent, she is no longer interested in politics, but in her day to day life, ”she warns.
Most Transnistrians refuse to meet foreigners and explain the tension that grips them these days. The few who decide to tell, prefer to keep their identity a secret. The regime’s harassment may force their exile. However, Tamara, a 55-year-old accountant, does not shy away from declaring her anti-Russian sentiment. Persecuted on numerous occasions by the former Transnistrian KGB and arrested for carrying some 8,000 euros in foreign currency to pay a month’s wages for the employees where she works, she shares her position. “All the chaos of the world happens in this territory; you can do everything that should not be done, ”she assures. She advocates the union with Moldova and hopes that it will be achieved: “When the Transnistrians see that the quality of life has improved on the other side of the Dniester River thanks to the fruitful relations with Europe, they will want to take that course”.
Tamara says she always feels harassed for speaking Romanian, she carries all her documents in her bag in case she has to escape to the Moldovan capital. In Chisinau her husband is waiting for her at the house of her in-laws. He has fled over rumors of a possible draft to defend Transnistria from foreign invasion. He is not the only man who has left this region in recent days. At the exit of the border crossing there are queues of cars longer than usual, with only men inside, while in the streets of Tiraspol accompanied women are seen of their children walking.
The tension is increasing. A television channel reported on Thursday that shots had been fired at the border with Ukraine. To prevent an attack, the authorities have reinforced the presence of the security forces and placed concrete blocks and sacks of cement at the intersections. There are even tanks hidden behind the bushes, not only at the entrances to the cities, but in the villages, in attack position.
Propaganda and Russification
A Soviet law between 1975 and 1985 allowed the military and secret agents of the KGB who finished their professional career in extremely harsh conditions, to move to a warmer area for their services. The favorite destination for retired soldiers was the Black Sea coast; specifically, Abkhazia, Crimea and Moldova, and during that decade, around 55,000 people availed themselves of this privilege to move to Transnistria. And the arrival of these former members of the Armed Forces and Soviet spies generated a separatist movement that degenerated in 1992 into a war that lasted four months and caused hundreds of deaths. Today at the border controls, soldiers from the peacekeeping mission can be seen on alert, and 500 of the 1,500 peacekeepers deployed after that clash belong to the Russian Army.
Transnistria today has half a million inhabitants, half of them of Russian and Ukrainian origin, and the other, Moldovans of Romanian origin, who have lived through the Russification. This process spurred on by the incessant bombardment of information from Russian channels (Moldovan channels are banned) makes many afraid to express opinions that do not fit the official discourse. The most challenging are the older ones. “The solution lies in the withdrawal of the XIV Army [el Grupo Operativo de Tropas Rusas (GOTR) que cuenta con unos 1.500 militares rusos en esta zona]; Russian influence would decrease considerably,” says Natalia Balbus, who was born in a village near Tiraspol 65 years ago.
The GOTR supposedly watches over the security of the 20,000 tons of the old Soviet arsenal stored in the small town of Cobasna, near the Ukrainian border. “Transnistrians do not support Ukraine because they have been brainwashed by Russian propaganda,” says Balbus, Mathematics teacher, who reveals her last name, but not her first name. She considers herself a patriot who has never voted in an election in Transnistria. “The current president Vadim Kranoseslki prevailed with 80% in the presidential elections in December, without opposition or dissenting voices, through arrests and the opening of criminal cases against those who criticize the Tiraspol regime, even through messages on social networks” , rivet.
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