Pridnestrovian Diary: 30 July 2022
Much has been written about the activities in Pridnestrovia, the self-declared independent Republic within Moldova approximately located between the two boundaries of the River Dniestr and hence known as Transniestr, in recent weeks. Virtually every international newswire has written at least one article replete with alarming assertions such as that Pridnestrovia exists under Russian military occupation; it is an extremist para-state bleating pro-Moscow views; Pridnestrovia is home to Russian troops that intend to participate in the war in Ukraine; Russian hardware and ammunitions are being stored there; the capital, Tiraspol, is a dangerous pro-Russian totalitarian city; and so on and so forth. Virtually everything written by the media and in military intelligence analysis and reports bounced about the media and the internet about Pridnestrovia, or the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (to give the territory its full name), is wrong. In this article we intend to correct a number of the presumptions made, building upon our first, second and third articles about Pridnestrovia written earlier this year after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, to help the reader understand what is really going on in Tiraspol and Pridnestrovia more broadly.
1. The Russian military presence in Pridnestrovia is, contarary to various international statements of condemnation by various western institutions and politicians, virtually zero. Even the cursory examinations of luggage and documents by visitors to Pridnestrovia on the way in and out of the jurisdiction by Russian soldiers, looking for evidence of mercenaries, has disappeared. The sole border controls now are Moldovan police officers, who routinely wave all traffic through without stopping it; and Pridnestrovian Armed Forces border guards, who undertake elementary entry entry of immigration information (passport number, etcetera) into a computer, something that creates a white receipt-like slip of paper that one is meant to keep with you throughout one's visit to Pridnestrovia. In this author's experience there were no searches of persons, vehicles or luggage, unlike his prior visit a few months ago.
2. Somewhat mysteriously, and without any obvious explanation, the principal entry border between (the rest of) Moldova and the PMR, between Chisinau and Bender (the latter being a town in the western PMR) has moved several (four or five?) kilometres east of the location where it used to be just outside central Bender. This can surely have taken place only with the coordination and cooperation of the Moldovan and PMR border guards working together. One can only speculate as to why the border has moved, and indeed we do so speculate in another article; we also observe that it is not the first time since the end of the conflict that gave rise to the PMR in 1992 that the border posts seem to have moved through cooperation.
3. The port of Bilhorod-Dnystroksvii, officially in the Budzhak region of the southwestern part of the Odessa oblast in Ukraine, continues to function as Pridnestrovia's main port, access to which is via the Dinestr River. This is so notwithstanding that BilhorodDnystrovskii is supposed to be in a different country that is at war with Russia that supposedly is running a puppet government in Pridnestrovia. However Russia is not obviously doing anything in Pridnestrovia.
4. THere are a couple of Russian troops guarding one or two of the principal road arteries in Pridnestrovia. Other than that the Russian presence in Pridnestrovia is zero. There are large Russian military bases in both Tiraspol and Bender, but they are empty. When we say empty, we mean it. There are no people to be seen no armour to be seen, absolutely nothing to be seen at all. They are both in the centres of these respective settlements and they are not disguised or even apparently guarded. You can just see straight in.
5. There is a very large and well-known building in central Tiraspol allegedly run by the Russian government with a huge elevated statue of Lenin in front of it. Sometimes, by some people or on some maps, this building is described as the Russian "consulate" although it is not clear that any consular activity is actually taking place there. At the current time that building is locked and bolted as best as one can tell. Nobody is going in or out of it, no lights are on at night and there is no evidence of its occupation or that any operations are underway there. (Incidentally, some people describe this building as the Pridnestrovian Parliament but there seems little doubt that this is not what it is - it is a Russian government building, albeit completely empty.)
6. The shops are mostly full. Foodstuffs are in ample supply. Nightlife is thriving. The food has become peculiarly better than it was when this author visited in March 2022. The banks seem very busy. Fresh fish, meat, cheese and bread are all available. Alcoholic drinks are available. We assume that the food on the shelves in Pridnestrovia is either Ukrainian or Russian, reaching Tiraspol via the port of Bilhorod-Dnystrovskii. It may be that supply is stimulated because regular food deliveries from Odessa port are blocked due to the embargo of the port and the messy negotiations in which the United Nations has found itself involved in order to de-block that port. Inn the meantime, Pridnestrovia gets the cream of the crop.
7. The banks are open and are being widely used.This author has observed bank customers withdrawing and depositing tens of thousands of US Dollars. The Transnistrian Ruble remains stable at about 16 rubles to either the EURO or the US Dollar.
8. Gasoline prices have crept up in accordance with global trends, notwithstanding Russian subsidies.
9. Although there are reports of Ukrainiain refugees having flooded Pridnestrovia, it has so far been hard to prove how many refugees there are. Those there are appear to have been moved from central Tiraspol, which remains eerily calm and organised. There is no obvious refugee presence in Tiraspol of any kind.
10. The press is uniformly conservative, and hence the general undertone of the daily media is light and infrequent reporting roughly sympathetic to Russian forces but an emphasis is placed upon domestic news. The fact that there is a war on Pridnestrovia's doorstep is of course transparent to everyone but it is under-emphasised in the media. GazpromTV, a Russian government-owned cable television channel, contains frequent documentaries and news items on the war in Ukraine from the Russian point of view. Most houses in Pridnestrovia have access to GazpromTV and some to other Russian news channels.
11. Travel to Odessa remains straightforward, via the Palanca Tri-Point which remains perhaps the quietest and most orderly Ukrainian border post.
12. Pridnestrovia, and Tiraspol in particular, has a feeling of having emptied out to some extent. There are fewer people in the streets and in the various shops and hospitality venues. There seems to be a sense that war is coming to Pridnestrovia, notwithstanding the prospect being downplayed in the domestic media. It may be that a number of people who have the resources to leave Tiraspol have done so.
13. Pridnestrovia continues to adopt Moldova's visa policy. If you are lawfully in Moldova, then you are lawfully entitled to travel to the PMR without further paperwork and indeed without even explaining why you are going. On this occasion no questions were asked of this author at all; the entire immigration procedure lasted about 30 seconds. In principle the white receipt-like immigration slip gives you the right to stay for seven days; in practice you can get it extended at the Police station.
14. There are other indicators that Chisinau and Tiraspol, notwithstanding their formal rhetoric each against the other, have been quietly cooperating during this period of civil conflict to which they are neighbours. It is not just that the Moldova-PMR border has become easier to pass with fewer questions, searches or formalities. It is now relatively easier to change Moldovan Lei in Pridnestrovian money changing offices and banks, whereas that was a relative rarity before. (We do not know whether the converse is possible and Pridnestrovian rubles can now be changed in Chisinau, but we intend to find out.) Also, someone has put up a series of Moldovan mobile telephone masts in Bender and Tiraspol. What this means is that a person with a Moldovan (or any other) mobile telephone can now use their phone while in the PMR. (If they have a non-Moldovan number then they will be charged roaming rates.) This never used to be possible. It always used to be the case that only Pridnestrovian SIM cards worked in Pridnestrovia; while Pridnestrovian SIM cards did not work anywhere else in the world apart from Pridnestrovia. The former has changed since our last visit in March 2022; the latter still appears to hold true.
15. Perhaps the most fascinating symptom of discreet and unannounced Chisinau-Tiraspol cooperation is that you can suddenly now pay with a western credit card for certain things in the PMR. It is a very hit-and-miss process of working out which venues now accept western plastic. Nobody has put up "VISA" or "Mastercard" signs. However we have found one restaurant-bar, that shall remain nameless but would appear to be part of the Sheriff Group (a corporate state conglomerate owned by the President of Pridnestrovia that controls the greater majority of the Pridnestrovian economy), that did accept this author's visa credit card. Also there is a taxi application, which again shall remain nameless but that is really quite sophisticated by western standards (it covers the entire PMR and even destinations in "Moldova proper", as long as you order the taxi to collect you from a starting point in the PMR) that also accepts western credit and debit cards. If this trend continues (and it does not yet seem to apply to the majority of businesses in Tiraspol - only a handful), then we might find the whole of the PMR economy merging into a unified economic success story with that of Moldova.
16. The reader will be aware of Moldova's recent initiation of her accession process to the European Union. It seems that Pridnestrovia will end up joining the European Union de facto, even if not de jure, by reason of the fact that the various borders, customs, financial and other barriers between Moldova and the PMR appear slowly to be dissolving. However the PMR will not formally join Moldova or formally join the EU; and that is not just because Moscow doesn't want it (if Moscow has an opinion about the issue which it is not clear it does - Moscow cares much more about creeping NATO accession than creeping EU membership which Moscow regards as mostly harmless). The PMR is basically a duty free zone. There are very few taxes in the PMR, whose public revenues are mostly the profits of the Sheriff Group and auxillary conglomerates; and the revenues of that most fascinating company TiraspoTransGas, which charges a levy for the efficient transit of Russian gasoline from Ukraine to the rest of Europe via Moldova. Because the PMR has its own revenues independent of taxation, the sale of goods, commodities, hospitality, food, beverages and services is not taxed. Goods come in via Bilhorod Dnystrovskyii in a de facto tax free regime, and the net result is that consumer goods and lots of other things are very cheap - cheaper than in Moldova proper, where the EU has compelled the accession state to introduce taxes like VAT, income tax, corporation taxes and all sorts of other ghastly things.
17. Needless to say, once the EU twigs what 's going on here, they're not going to be terribly happy. An ostensible Russian military-backed para-state in the corner of Europe is joining the EU by the back door without any of the accessionary institution-building which ought to be mandatory nor any of the EU's standard tax regimes. The PMR is a smuggler's paradise and a perfect place for cheap electronic goods, strong alcohol (Kvint brandy is distilled in the PMR and sold by the Moldovans as the domestic product) and lots of other highly irregular sales. Nevertheless the EU's pressure points in forcing the PMR to comply with EU institution-building are pretty minimal. The EU is now desperate to have Moldova join her ranks as soon as possible, to prevent institutional backsliding towards the Russian model, as the EU fears that Russia is going to step up her influence over Moldova whether by soft power means or military measures. Therefore the EU is pushing the Moldovan accession process forward as quickly as she possibly can. If the EU wants to do this, then she's going to have to accept the Transnistrian backdoor as a price of the deal. Pridnestrovians are Moldovan citizens, with free movement in Moldova and now they can move goods across the border from the PMR to Moldova without taxation or import duties. This of course is extremely convenient for both the Moldovans and the Pridnestrovians, which explains their new bout of unannounced cooperation hidden in particular by a new barrage of senseless rhetoric between the sides. The purpose of the rhetoric, and in particular describing the PMR as a Russian para-state when it is no longer anything of the sort because the Russians have all left, is a tool to obscure the reality that both Moldovans and Pridnestrovians have a motive to cooperative in what might be described as a more or less illicit way (or at least a way that violates some sorts of fundamental EU flat playing field principles). This can all be hidden by shouting about Russian influence.
18. In fact if you go to the Russian part of Tiraspol, everything is closed. The shops accepting Russian rubles are mostly closed, as are the Russian notaries and doctors. That is because there aren't any Russians left in Pridnestrovia anymore. There is still a Russian nightclub; but the children and families of the Russian soldiers who once comprised of the Russian garrison in Pridnestrovia have by and large integrated into the Pridnestrovian ethnic mix of Ukrainians and Russians. It is something of a mystery as to where all the Russian soldiers have gone. Some Pridenstrovians will tell you that these soldiers have gone to take tactical positions surrounding the city of Odessa which is a mere 100km east of Tiraspol; and that might well be true. What is very uncertain however is whether and when these soldiers are ever coming back. The Pridnestrovians don't seem to be in any particular hurry for them to return. Although Russian maps showing their territorial intentions for the forthcoming war in Ukraine appear to indicate a wish to connect up Pridnestrovia with a band of Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian territory running through the cities of Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Melitopol, Mariupol and Donetsk, it is far from clear that there will be any political changes in Tiraspol or Pridnestrovia as a whole. The government states that it is loyal to Moscow and does seem to obey Moscow's instructions when they are delivered from time to time. A number of Russian banks, including Sberbank, have major presences in Tiraspol. Presumably Russia is taking advantage of Pridnestrovian banking, and Russians (if they can get there) may likewise be taking advantage of Pridnestrovia as a de facto duty free stone. Russian is the only language heard on the streets; in one sense this is already Russian territory. There is little more one could do to increasingly to Russify it.
19. Nevertheless Pridnestrovia seems destined to play out a role as a Second Cold War front line town. As well as operating under Moscow's writ, the PMR appears to be about to enter the European Union by the back door and this appears to be agreeable to more or less everybody. The EU itself is probably simply going to ignore the fact, as being too inconvenient to deal with. There is also the issue that many Pridnestrovian institutions, including the Central Bank, the new Court system, the Police and security forces, and others, also seem relatively good by the standards of the region.
20. Pridnestrovia might end up a little like Hong Kong in the first decade of the twenty-first century: an area of shared influence between a large unwieldy power and a state or group of states (in this case the EU) interested in institutional quality. Whether or not this arrangement continues to remains stable, as has the Pridnestrovian model more or less remained stable since the end of the PMR's short war with Moldova in 1992, remains to be seen. What Pridnestrovia is not, however, is what the British government recently described it as, namely as one of a handful of unrecognised states or territories subject to unlawful Russian military occupation. That label is totally misleading. THere is in fact no Russian military occupation of Pridnestrovia anymore; the war in Ukraine seems at least for now to have brought that to an end. Therefore the question of whether the occupation is unlawful (it was recognised by several western countries and international organisation in the so-called Moscow Convention of 1997) appears moot. The PMR remains unrecognised; but that is very unlikely to change. The PMR would not want to be recognised as an independent state, or it might have to deal with import and export tariffs, visa requirements for its citizens, and all sorts of things the PMR is able to sidestep deftly by remaining in its current ambiguous juridical position. The Moldovans are very pleased with the arrangement as well, as it means they have an adjacent duty-free zone attached to their country, convenient for whenever they want to opt out of whatever latest onerous strictures the European Union is attempting to place upon them. Put another way, Pridnestrovia's future is as a Russian back door into the EU; in a Second Cold War, it is arguably a good thing that such a mechanism exists.
Finally, the Pridnestrovians are a remarkably friendly, orderly, peaceful, honest to a fault and kindly group of people, at least to this author. Although they are sandwiched in the middle of a serious European war they manage to take it all with the customary phlegm, the territory exhibits a feeling of safety and calm, and the Pridnestrovians retain their warm welcome towards visitors even from countries with whom diplomatic relations are poor or non-existent. It is impossible not to like them. Viva Pridnestrovia!