|Transnistria (Perconte CC BY-SA 2.0)|
Last week I got a close-up look at what might be a model of Russian territorial expansion in the 21st century, the semi-autonomous state of Transnistria. To the United Nations, Transnistria is part of Moldova, the eastern European nation that declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But going to Transnistria requires a passport, and the border crossing is no joke.
Transnistria occupies a 1,600-square mile strip of land east of the Dniester River from Moldova and along the border with Ukraine, not far from Odessa. In 1992, only months after the end of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, Transnistria fought a war with Moldova for close to four months. Prominent monuments to the fallen can be found on both sides of the border today, in Chișinău and Tiraspol. An uneasy truce resulted in which Transnistria regards itself as an independent nation, and it operates with near autonomy within Moldova's internationally recognized borders.
|Sign at Border Crossing (CC BY-SA 4.0)|
Near autonomy does not fully describe Transnistria's situation, because the breakaway state depends on Russia for unofficial political recognition and essential economic support. Economic aid keeps prices shockingly low in the markets. A big part of border security is interdiction of smuggling, especially for precious taxable commodities such as liquor.
|Sheriff FC Billboard|
(CC BY-SA 4.0, no claim to underlying work)
|A Sheriff Supermarket (CC BY-SA 4.0)|
And those ties to Russia help, I think, to illustrate Putin's strategy for a new kind of Russian union. The Crimean peninsula essentially is Russia, Putin has argued, a minority Russian population being marginalized by a Ukrainian majority. Russia is still fighting to extend this Crimean buffer zone into mainland Ukraine. Move just a bit counterclockwise around the Black Sea coast and one comes to the prized port of Odessa, then shortly to the Dniester River mouth, leading to Transnistria.
|Me and Lenin in Tiraspol (CC BY-SA 4.0)|
For now, the hearts and minds of Transnistria are not yet committed. Notwithstanding ubiquitous Cyrillic script and an unexpected Russian military presence this far west of Sochi, people in Transnistria, like in Moldova or anywhere else, just want security and opportunity. The subsidized subsistence of Transnistria is a Potemkin Village—a curiously appropriate term, as related in origin to Russia's historic annexation of Crimea—not a thriving economy.
However, reinvigorated American isolationism and stalled European expansion eastward can't presently compete with what Putin has on offer. Transnistria now looks like an idiosyncratic outlier among European neighbors. One day Transnistria might prove to have been a bellwether.
To visit Transnistria or explore elsewhere in Moldova, I recommend Voyages Moldavie. The website is in French, but contact guide Andrian Gurdis for English-speaking tourism, too. For long-haul taxi services in Moldova, turn to Corneliu Scurtu and his business, Carpoint (Facebook). Read more about Transnistria at Wired (2016), The Bohemian Blog (2013), and The Wall Street Journal (2011). There's a deeper dive, which I've not read (pay wall), into the Crimea comparison in Adrian Rogstad, The Next Crimea?, 65:1 Problems of Post-Communism 49-64 (2018).