Transnistria: The Last Soviet Republic

Holy shitballs, Russia!

Like large parts of the rest of the world, Boyfriend and I have been following the crisis in Ukraine with keen interest. When protesters first took to the streets, my impulse – like it always is – was to support them, and we watched with sadness as yet another government treated its dissenting citizens with brutality. Then, just as we had begun to lose hope, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, in true dictator style, fled his mansion to an undisclosed location. Revolutionaries took over the Presidential palace and for the first time, the world saw in detail the sordid indulgences this man allowed himself – among other displays of absurdity, there are a couple of zoos with exotic animals on the property. Then reports started to come in about how several factions among the revolutionaries were dominated by conservative, even fundamentalist forces. Accepting that as a (hopefully) temporary part of the package deal of revolution in the modern world, we allowed ourselves to think the drama was now ending on an uplifting note. (Even parasitically corrupt but anti-Russian former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko emerged from prison, signature hairdo in place). Even President Obama came out to play, making one of his baby animal threats to Russia (you know, the kind that makes you go, “Aww!”). It was a nice, symbolic closing act to the theater of revolution.

And then, Russia pulled its troops into Crimea, a disputed territory dangling off the southern coast of Ukraine. This morning, I woke up to a BBC news update buzzing on my phone, about how Russia has issued Ukraine an ultimatum: surrender the troops in Crimea in a matter of hours, or else. Vladimir Putin, he-who-rides-horses-topless, he-who-mauls-bears-with-his-bare-hands, is lusting for war, and he doesn’t give a rat’s derriere what the rest of the world thinks.

Holy shitballs, Russia.

I woke Boyfriend up this morning with news of the ultimatum, and he murmured, eyes half-open, “Did you know there is one last Soviet republic that remains in the world today? It’s called Transdneistria.”

I take it the connection was that he was about to say he thinks Crimea is going to turn into Transdneistria too. But he slipped right back to sleep before he could say that.

Not just a funny picture anymore. (Image source.)

Not just a funny picture anymore. (Image source.)

Transdneistria or Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie, as its citizens call it, is a breakaway region of Moldova that measures roughly 250 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west, and sits on the eastern bank of the Dneister river. In 1940, Transnistria was an autonomous region of Ukraine. That same year, in a secret provision of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that the USSR signed with Nazi Germany, Romania was forced to accede a piece of its territory to Soviet control. The USSR created Moldova from this newly acquired territory, and reallocated the Transnister region of Ukraine – a Soviet republic – to Moldova.

Cut to 1990. The USSR crumbled to the ground, leaving a heavy cloud of dust in the air. Many former Soviet republics were more than happy to be independent, Moldova one among them. Originally carved out of Romania, Moldova had a Romanian majority, and never really felt a part of the USSR family. However, over half a century, especially after WWII, the Transnister region had turned into an industrial hub of sorts, attracting workers from various Soviet republics. Over decades the region developed a Russian speaking majority, and a population of factory and industrial workers who were very political, and believed in the Soviet way of life. When the USSR crumbled, the Transnistrians were deeply suspicious of the language-nationalism of the Moldovans, and worried that Moldova might try to reunite with Romania. Transnistria panicked, and declared independence in 1990. Not only did they want nothing to do with Moldova, they wanted to remain Soviet.

Moldova, fueled by the adrenalin rush of its newly acquired independence, attacked Transnistria to force them back into the fold. A bloody conflict ensued which lasted two years and took the lives of about 700 civilians, until the giant that was the Russian Army marched in, shooed the Moldovan forces back, and established peace. Moldova retreated with a whimper and a whine that has lasted more than two decades. The de facto republic of Transnistria, its feelings for both Moldova and the Soviet Union reinforced by the two-year conflict, got exactly what it wanted – the famously glorious Soviet life:

Statues of Vladimir Lenin, the maintenance of which local municipalities prioritize.

A coat of arms, and the only flag in the world, that bears the hammer-and-sickle emblem.

Socialist-realist murals on the walls of museums and government buildings.

A bureaucracy that brings life to a grinding halt every single tedious day.

Rush hour in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. (Image source.)

Rush hour in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. (Image source.)

Organized crime, corruption, illegal arms sales, money laundering.

Complete financial dependence on Russia.

The coveted position of the primary site of the denouement of all conflicts between Russia and other Eastern European countries.

In 2006, as a warning to the newly-elected, pro-Western Ukrainian President Yushchenko, Vladimir Putin – Baba Yaga of former Soviet republics; evil, seven-headed dragon from the Ukrainian fairy tales of my childhood – raised the price Ukraine would have to pay for natural gas from Gazprom. In retaliation, Yushchenko immediately tightened Ukraine’s grip on the throat of Transnistria’s illegal exports, bringing the de facto nation and its truly alternative economy, to its knees. And this is only one of the several occasions when Transnistria has played a convenient battleground for the two countries. Some political thinkers are of the opinion that the existence of this helpless little plaything has thus far prevented Russia and Ukraine from escalating their dispute over Crimea. But now that Vladimir Putin, he-who-must-not-be-named, is baying for fresh blood, Crimea has been brought to the table, and it must be had.

Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca issued a statement a couple of days back stating that Russia’s actions in Crimea are reminiscent of Transnistria. And as much as we may criticize the emptiness of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that He-who-must-not-be-named has “lost the plot,” and the laughability of Barack Obama’s threats, the truth is that no world leader can/will do anything here: there are no good wars, but there are some that are worse than others.

So we watch the schoolyard bully pick a kid up by the collar and threaten to punch his face in. And we hope against hope that it doesn’t happen. And then we make ourselves feel better because Jared Leto mentioned Ukraine in his Oscar acceptance speech last night.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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