Magazine article Geographical

The Country That Doesn't Exist: Moldova's Rebel Province, the Self-Declared Republic of Transdniestria, Is a Land That Time Forgot and a Country the World Refuses to Recognise. but with Illegal Arms Flowing across Its Borders, the Race Is on to Break This Political Impasse

Magazine article Geographical

The Country That Doesn't Exist: Moldova's Rebel Province, the Self-Declared Republic of Transdniestria, Is a Land That Time Forgot and a Country the World Refuses to Recognise. but with Illegal Arms Flowing across Its Borders, the Race Is on to Break This Political Impasse

Article excerpt

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Eastern Europe is a country that has three names but doesn't exist. It's said that no man is an island and, legally speaking, the same might be said for a nation. Without the acceptance and recognition of its peers, the Dniester Moldovan Republic (DMR), aka the Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublica, aka Transdniestria is little more than an anomaly, a non-country--and it's been like this for more than 14 years.

The sleepy streets of Tiraspol, Moldova's second largest city and Transdniestria's capital, are awash with Communist iconography. Outside the parliament building (still called the Supreme Soviet) is a Soviet tank, while Lenin busts abound. The statues may keep the Transdniestrian population pacified--after all, life throughout Moldova, Europe's poorest country, is much as it was under the USSR--but the conspicuous consumption of a small elite would embarrass even the Communist leaders of old.

There is a clear disparity between the haves and have-nots. Private enterprise is rampant, to the extent that the hammer and sickle is being given a run for its money by an altogether newer logo--the ubiquitous red-and-blue star of the Sheriff Corporation.

Running everything from petrol stations to TV stations, and even the local football team, the company has enjoyed government favours and tax breaks and is said to have strong links with the perennial president Igor Smirnov. Little wonder then that this tiny state has been dubbed the Sheriff Republic.

Transdniestria is still considered part of Moldova--not least by Moldova itself, which lost a third of its industry when the province broke away in 1990. Since a brief but brutal war in 1992, quelled by the Russian 14th Army, this sliver of land to the east of the Dniester River, which comprises just over 4,000 square kilometres (about 12 per cent of the Republic of Moldova), has been a 'frozen conflict'--kept in check by the continued presence of the 14th Army.

There are widely held concerns about the present situation due to Transdniestria's 38,000-tonne stockpile of old Soviet military equipment and its munitions factories. Military wares smuggled out of the DMR have found their way to Kosovo and Chechnya. According to a report funded by the British Department for International Development, "Transdniestria is a smuggling company masquerading as a state". Moldova's president, Vladimir Voronin, has gone so far as to accuse the Dniester authorities of state-sponsored smuggling and illegal weapons sales. "A mafia, a corrupt and bandit regime led by Smirnov, is now in power in the Dniester region," he said, before cancelling the breakaway republic's export rights, considerably denting its economy.

Had Voronin's 2003 plan to create a federal Moldova proved successful, its wayward eastern region would have become voluntarily re-integrated last month. However, that initiative--like those before and since--has faltered, mainly because the DMR's aim is sovereignty within a 'common state' alongside the Moldovan Republic, with which it demands equal status.

Other offers by Moldova, including one of a guaranteed number of seats in the Moldovan parliament and making the DMR president a deputy prime minister of the Moldovan Republic, have been rejected by Transdniestria's hardline president, who demands that the DMR be allowed its own military and currency (the DMR ruble isn't accepted anywhere beyond its borders).

In light of Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution', security fears have put Transdniestria back on the agenda, with signs the international community is to take an increasing role in helping to find a solution, mainly through the work of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In December last year, at the OSCE Ministerial Council, US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared "a new push from the OSCE and by the leaders of participating states is needed". …

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