The black hole that ate Moldova
A glimpse inside Transdniestria
EMBARRASSINGLY sleazy, expensive and indefensible—but ours, and we are bloody well going to hang on to it. That was West Berlin during the cold war, seen through NATO eyes. And it may also explain why Russia has supported Transdniestria, a narrow strip of land on the eastern bank of the Dniestr river that has broken away from Moldova, the poorest and most demoralised country in Europe.
Just as Western soldiers propped up West Berlin, so Transdniestria has survived thanks to the presence of Russian military “peace-keepers”—really “piece-keepers”—maintaining their country's hold on territory that has been a bastion of Russian military strength for centuries. Western officials told the West Berlin government what to do; Russians occupy senior positions in Transdniestrian officialdom.
West Berlin was a thumb in the Soviet Union’s eye. A mixture of military conquest and ruthless power-politics had brought Soviet power to the heart of Europe, but West Berlin was a symbol of freedom. Here Soviet power had been checked.
Transdniestria is a thumb in the West’s eye. Brussels and Washington may have driven the Russians (for now) out of the Baltics, Central Europe and the Balkans. But at least in this corner of south-eastern Europe the influence of NATO and the European Union is checked.
West Berlin showed in concentrated form the weaknesses of its sponsors, including grotesque indulgence for both spies and businesses with good political connections.
Transdniestria, in turn, is a microcosm of Russia’s weaknesses. It is a legal and financial black hole in which politicians and officials turn lawlessness into lucrative business opportunity. Just like the motherland, it has fake pluralism, pseudo-democratic “youth movements” and an overmighty security service.
At the heart of power in Transdniestria is a grizzled veteran of the cold war, Vladimir Antufeyev. He left Latvia in a hurry after orchestrating a failed Soviet crackdown there in 1990. Now he is minister of state security in the Transndiestrian government. His office building has thick steel front doors; on the left is an anonymous interrogation room; up the stairs is his own office, insulated against listening devices and with quotes from Lenin’s secret police chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, on the wall.
General Antufeyev’s steely manner would have fitted in well in cold-war Berlin; he could easily have been one of the Western or Soviet “advisers” who minded their docile, nominally independent authorities on either side of the Berlin Wall. He is charming, relentless, unflappable, with reasoning based on well-informed if flawed geopolitics: setbacks are inevitable; but there is no reason to worry; history is on our side.
The same resolute tune comes from his sidekick, Dmitri Soin, who runs the splendidly named Che Guevara School of Political Leadership—a youth movement that aims to funnel Transdniestria’s young people into constructive activities such as NATO-baiting. The pony-tailed, yoga-loving Mr Soin reminds one of senior officials in East Germany’s Communist youth movement, the FDJ: he is friendly, glib, slightly sinister.
Mr Soin and General Antufeyev don’t show it. But they are worried. The Kremlin now hopes to gain a bigger prize—pulling all Moldova into Russia’s sphere of security, economic and linguistic influence. That would mean a common Moldovan-Transdniestrian state, with some of the latter's pseudo-statehood shaved away. Moldova insists that any peace deal must include the departure of Mr Antufeyev and his colleagues. The Kremlin is certainly putting pressure on Transdniestria. Subsidies have dried up, debts are mounting, living standards are tumbling.
The EU will be tempted to nod through any settlement that gets Moldova off its conscience. A pity. Instead of rising to the level of Europe, Moldova risks being dragged down to the level of Transdniestria.