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In the small, self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria, a region of Moldova whose independence is not recognized by any country in the world, there are few signs that a war is underway a few kilometers away.
Mykolaiv, one of the Ukrainian cities most bombed by Russian forces, is just 150 kilometers from the region’s self-proclaimed capital, Tiraspol. Transnistria had deep ties with the Soviet Union and today owes its very existence to the economic and military aid it receives from Russia. For weeks, fears have been circulating that the Russian army could use Transnistrian territory as a base for attacking Ukraine from the south.
In Tiraspol, however, there are no signs of an exceptional situation and the life of the Transnistrians seems to go on in an ordinary way: as always, the boys play football in the park dedicated to Catherine II, the Russian empress considered the re-founder of the city, and people of all ages spend their local rubles in bars and restaurants, which are valuable only in this thin strip of land about 400 kilometers long, squeezed between the rest of Moldova and Ukraine.
The ties between the 500,000 inhabitants of Transnistria and Russia are close, but so are those with Ukraine.
Russia pays extra pension to Transnistrian seniors, provides gas at controlled prices to heat their homes. Tiraspol is full of statues dedicated to Soviet generals and Russian flags. Yet about a fifth of the people living in the small self-proclaimed republic have Ukrainian citizenship, and know relatives and friends forced to flee their homes due to the Russian invasion. Keeping the two together is not easy: this is perhaps why the Transnistrian government he neither condemned nor supported the invasion of Ukraine. It is as if the whole territory was experiencing a moment of suspension.
Some traces left by the ongoing war, however, can be seen. A few steps from the city center, an association of volunteers, My ryadomy (“On your side”), is helping the self-proclaimed government coordinate the reception of people arriving in Transnistria after fleeing Ukraine.
According to the data available to the association, there are currently around 9,500 refugees arriving from Ukraine in Transnistria. Dmitri Voroniuc, volunteer manager of My ryadomy, he says that many of them choose to come to Transnistria “because the cost of living here is lower than in Chișinău”, the capital of Moldova, or because they already have a network of family and friends they can count on.
This is the case of Natalia, who arrived from Odessa in her car a few days ago with her nine-month-old baby. She came here because her husband was born in Transnistria and still has several relatives living in the area. From My ryadomy receives diapers and baby food, which along with other baby products are scattered throughout the association’s headquarters. Like many other Ukrainians who have stopped in Moldova, Natalia too hopes to return to Odessa soon, where she has left her home and her parents.
The material that My ryadomy distributes to refugees comes mainly from private donations or from local companies: also because Transnistria is substantially isolated at the political and institutional level, and the international NGOs that have mobilized to manage the reception of refugees in Moldova, for example, have no access. My ryadomy it’s basically based on what she gets from people like Sergei and Natalia, an elderly couple who donated some baby blankets and shoes.
Sergei worked as an orchestra conductor and speaks good Italian, but he seems more interested in talking about his old job than the moment this piece of the world is experiencing.
«We are absolutely sure that the forces of peacekeeping who work here will be able to assess the situation “, explains his wife Natalia, referring to the hundreds of Russian soldiers stationed in Transnistria since the end of the civil war that the pro-Russian forces fought against the pro-Moldovan ones in 1992.
The subject of war is treated by all with great circumspection. Asked whether it is easy for those living in Transnistria to keep separate the fact that people fleeing Ukraine are doing so because of the invasion of an allied country like Russia, Voroniuc replies that Transnistrians empathize with Ukrainians because they in turn fled their homes during the civil war, and that “politics” and the “moral” obligation to help people in need remain on two different levels.
It is strange that Voroniuc defines a war that in a few weeks has caused thousands of deaths and millions of refugees as a “political” question. But he probably doesn’t have much choice: My ryadomy he is a guest in the spaces of Obnovlenie, a moderate political party, by local standards, but aligned with the pro-independence and pro-Russian cause.
Even the self-proclaimed government of Transnistria was very careful with words when it came to commenting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The self-proclaimed president of Transnistria Vadim Krasnoselsky, who is also of Ukrainian origins, called the war in Ukraine “unpleasant” and “tragic”, but never indicated Russia as responsible for the invasion. The presence of transnistrian security forces on the streets of the capital, Tiraspol, is very limited. “The Transnistrian media talk about how many refugees arrive and how they are assisted by the government, but they do not give updates on the development of the war”, he tells the Post Luiza Dorohsenco, journalist and director of an independent information center in Tiraspol.
Some observers they speculated that the equidistance that Transnistria is trying to keep is also due to the commercial interests of Sheriff, a group of companies that belong to a kind of pro-Russian oligarch and that includes a chain of shops, gas stations and even a football team who a few months ago beat Real Madrid in the group stage of the Champions League. An intervention alongside Russia would destabilize an already fragile and very poor economy: in a nutshell, it would make the Sheriff lose a mountain of money.
“We have no signs that Transnistria, its security forces or the Russian soldiers present there are preparing to attack Ukraine,” he said most recently the Moldovan Foreign Minister, Nico Popescu. “Of course, if the Russians came to the transnisters saying that they owe them a favor, it would be difficult to say no”, he said to Defense News analyst Thomas de Waal, Carnegie Europe expert on Eastern Europe.
Wandering the streets of Tiraspol and reading the latest developments in the local media no one seems to think of imminent danger. Under the surface, however, perhaps something is moving. Anja (invented name) says that her parents, owners of two electronics stores, are frightened by the idea that the conflict could extend to Transnistria, “and that what happened in Odessa or Kharkiv, Ukraine, could happen here: it’s something that makes them very anxious. In case, we will flee to the south of Moldova, where my family comes from ».