CHISINAU, Moldova, Aug. 27 — The world may not be ready for another crisis on Ukraine’s borders, but one may be brewing — this time on the west, in the obscure Moldovan province of Transnistria, occupying about 1,600 square miles between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian frontier.
Amid heightened tensions with Russia, and fears of agitation by pro-Russian separatists in the semiautonomous province, Moldovan security forces were on alert today, the anniversary of Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The day passed peacefully, but the area remains another potential flashpoint on the eastern edge of Europe.
The issues are the familiar ones in the region: a pro-Western government in Moldova — a poor nation of 4 million — seeking closer ties with the European Union, over opposition, encouraged by Moscow, from a population with cultural and economic ties to Russia. An “association agreement” between Moldova and the EU in June was answered by Russia with a ban on imports of Moldovan produce — a severe blow to this largely agricultural nation. Visiting the capital, Chisinau, and Tiraspol earlier this week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin offered to lift the ban if Moldova backed away from the EU — and warned of unspecified consequences for attempts to “destabilize” Transnistria.
Pro-Russian sentiment is especially strong in that province, which at about 1,600 square miles is smaller than Delaware. It won a kind of semiautonomy from Moldova in a brief, bloody war at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The memories of the 1,500 who died in that conflict are still fresh today, and the terrifying holes can still be seen in the walls of the buildings along the Dniester. Fighting in Eastern Ukraine, 750 miles away, has awakened fears of renewed fighting here.
But on both sides of the Dniester, there is a strong sentimental attachment to Russia on the part of people who grew up under the Soviet system. A villager who gave her name as Maria, 73 years old, told Yahoo News it would be better if Moldova were “good friends with Russia.” But even many teenagers, in Chisinau and other cities, can be seen sporting the Ribbon of St. George on their T-shirts — a symbol of pro-Russian sentiment. Even the head of the Socialist Party of Moldova, Igor Dodon, who opposes joining the EU, wears the ribbon and displays it on his Facebook page.
Transnistria is a small — but potentially valuable, given its location — pawn in the larger geopolitical game playing out between Moscow and Kiev, and, ultimately, Russia and the West. A compliant satellite on Ukraine’s western border would go a long way toward aiding Putin’s regional ambitions.
But for Moldovans, as they make a slow and halting transition toward democracy — national elections will take place in November — the fate of this tiny region looms large.