Until the recent events in Ukraine, very few people in Europe were even aware of the existence of Transnistria. As a consequence of the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation in 2014 and the ongoing war in Donbass, fears of destabilisation in the region became real in Moldova.
Promo-LEX is a non-governmental organisation, based in Moldova since 2002. It is a prominent advocacy group whose main activities focus on human rights in the Republic of Moldova, with a particular attention to the Transnistrian region.
Transnistria had been the scene of a brief but bloody war in 1992, where separatist militia backed by Moscow fought for their independence from the newly formed Republic of Moldova. Whereas Moldova had recently reinstated the use of the Latin alphabet in 1989, separatists, fearing the resurgence of Romanian nationalism in the country, aimed at maintaining the area under the control of Russian-speaking authorities. They received decisive military support from the Soviet 14th Guards Army, headquartered in Tiraspol.
Despite this, the war cannot be interpreted as a sociolinguistic dispute that escalated into a full military confrontation: asserting control over the most industrialised Moldovan region and its coveted assets, during the collapse of Soviet central authority, played a crucial role in the separatists’ claims. Several hundred people died as a result of the conflict and since July 1992, the region is de facto a breakaway republic.
Along the years, it became a frozen conflict. The patronage of Russia, despite falling short of official recognition for the republic, made it difficult for the government of Moldova to find a political solution. Furthermore, the government of Moldova made many mistakes during the past two decades; as critics point out, help and support for the inhabitants of the region dried out. Many felt abandoned by the central government and became increasingly disillusioned with the politicians in Chisinau. Some actively started to support the Transnistrian authorities, also thanks to higher pensions paid by the local administration.
Until the recent events in Ukraine, very few people in Europe were even aware of the existence of this breakaway region. As a consequence of the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation in 2014 and the ongoing war in Donbass, fears of destabilisation in Transnistria became real in Moldova and this almost forgotten conflict came back into the news cycle.
Access to the region is still severely restricted to journalists and international observers. Starting from 1991, the territory was ruled by president Igor Smirnov for twenty years. Smirnov allegedly controlled large chunks of the crumbling Transnistrian economy through the company Sheriff, an ubiquitous presence in Tiraspol and its surroundings. A chain of modern supermarkets, factories, media channels, petrol stations and the staggering football stadium in Tiraspol are a costant reminder of the lack of economic freedom in the region.
Since 2011, Yevgheni Shevchuk has been the president but not much has changed: Freedom House still rates the ‘country’ as not free and despite the seeming calm and tidiness of Tiraspol streets, corruption and human rights abuses are rife.
The human rights lawyers of Promo-LEX have worked on many legal actions related to such abuses in Transnistria and they have brought several cases to the European Court of Human Rights, such as Catan versus Republic of Moldova and Russia and Ilascu versus Moldova and Russia, amongst others. Thanks to these legal actions, Promo-LEX had arguably one of the most relevant roles in bringing renewed attention to the abuses committed by the self-declared authorities of the Moldovan Republic of Transnistria towards the local population.
“It is really hard to have a precise idea about who is financing who and how Transnistrian/Russian authorities can manipulate Moldovan citizens through money offers.”
Ion Manole is the chairman of Promo-LEX, who, during a long and intense talk in Chisinau, passionately recollected why conflict resolution in Transnistria is still far from being obtained, but should be a priority for the Moldovan state in order to re-establish peace and social stability in the area.
Elections and freedom of speech, says Manole, are a good starting point to explain why Transnistria is such an anomaly.
Is it possible, for Moldovan citizens who reside in Transnistrian territory, to vote for the Moldovan government? How does the electoral system work?
Yes, it is possible but the separatist local administration creates obstacles to these citizens during elections. I think that their biggest problem is not just their impediment to go to vote. The main problem is that they are not informed. They often don’t know how many parties are participating in the elections and who the candidates are. They are also unable to meet them and discuss. Why? Since the separatist administration is very afraid to open up political rights to the residents, they don’t allow political debates and meetings with Moldovan politicians in the territory under their control. This is an aspect that needs to be explained further. Despite electoral campaigns for Moldovan parliament being banned in the region, when the Russian Federation organises a national election, about twenty-five polling stations are open and fully functioning, in order to allow the Russian passport holders to vote. This violates international laws and bilateral agreements with Moldova. For such a small region, not officially recognised by Moscow, without any kind of permission from the constitutional authorities of Moldova, electoral campaigning for Russian elections is provided; candidates from the Russian Federation are coming into the region, spending money and organising meetings with the residents. And they do not grant the same rights to Moldovan citizens during Moldovan parliamentary elections. What is also interesting is that many residents hold double citizenship, so theoretically they could vote for both Russian and Moldovan parliaments.
In order to be able to vote, Moldovan citizens residing in Transnistria have to travel to Chisinau to vote? If so, how can they prove that they actually live in Transnistria? Is there an electoral register?
No, there is no electoral register. People simply come to Chisinau and in other locations on the right bank of Nistru River [regions under the full control of the central government], where there are some special polling stations for the residents of the Transnistrian region, and they have to provide valid national documents to be allowed to vote. The real problem, as I said, is that these people haven’t received adequate information about political parties and their programs. Consequently, these citizens can be easily manipulated by Russian and Transnistrian propaganda and can influence the national vote.
Your organisation has monitored parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova on several occasions. How transparent is the electoral campaign here compared to Transnistria, when it comes to spending money?
We observed that a lot of money has been spent, here in Moldova, on advertisements and meetings but there are often no official documents providing information on how this money has been spent. There is no public register for donations here but we noticed, for example, lots of donations for building new churches in villages. Another case in point is how many candidates failed to report expenses for their electoral campaign [for a full report on the finances of electoral candidates during the campaign for the 2014 Moldovan parliamentary elections, see: http://www.promolex.md/upload/publications/en/doc_1419319553.pdf]. You see how difficult it is to track money in this country despite being fully democratic elections. Going back to Transnistria, it is really hard to have a precise idea about who is financing who and how Transnistrian/Russian authorities can manipulate Moldovan citizens through money offers and so on.
Do you have any figures on how much money is moved, especially during the electoral campaigns, from Russia?
No, it is impossible. No transparency, no information. This is why it is a very convenient situation for everybody. And not just during elections. Lack of transparency and lack of international recognition are the reasons why money laundering is such a profitable activity in Transnistria. And not only for the separatist authorities, but also for some politicians and Moldovan businessmen. In all sectors: agricultural funding, banking services [Tiraspol has a central bank, the Transnistrian Republican Bank, issuing their own currency called the Transnistrian ruble that lacks international recognition], energy..there are many people that think it is convenient to maintain the status quo. Certainly many old people think so, even here. We have reports about people living on the right bank of the Nistru River, therefore regions under full control of Chisinau, that go to Tiraspol, and get Transnistrian passports in order to receive pensions, which are bigger than here because Russia is funding their welfare state. The so-called Putin’s allowance (Putinskaya nadbavka).
“Lack of transparency and lack of international recognition are the reasons why money laundering is such a profitable activity in Transnistria. There are many people that think it is convenient to maintain the status quo.”
A shadow criminal economy has always played a key role in the way Transnistria is ruled. Corrupt police forces are particularly feared. Could you please give an example amongst the cases Promo- LEX has brought to the European Court of Human Rights?
I could mention the Mozer case. Boris Mozer, a Moldovan national, was accused of having defrauded the security company for which he worked. He was kidnapped and beaten up. Despite claiming his innocence, the police forced him to write a confession. He was even threatened with a mock execution. He suffered from asthma and during the illegal detention his health deteriorated. The family was asked to pay a ransom, a huge amount of money. As soon as we got to know the case, we immediately notified the case to the European Court. The European Court urgently communicated the case to Russia and Moldova. Thanks to this legal procedure, Mozer was liberated. An appalling case of human rights’ violation.
Has there ever been any defector from the ranks of the Transnistrian authorities? What about people that in the past were supportive of the regime and then decided to oppose it?
No, they are under strict control by the KGB, the Transnistrian security service. The left bank of Nistru is not a very populous area, about 400,000 people. Many of them are part of the military, and many are pensioners and it is easy for the authorities to control them effectively. Only a few times, some courageous human rights activists organised press conferences in Chisinau. After that they were prosecuted. It is not uncommon though to find people that became victims of abuses from the Transnistrian judiciary and security services and decided to search for help here, either through organisations like ours or through national authorities. The problem is that during the last twenty-three years, our authorities often refused any involvement with their citizens living in the Transnistrian region. They have been unable to identify solutions, to help and support them. For this reason, the number of people asking for help is now very low. At the beginning, right after the war in 1992, there were many more requests, but every time Chisinau said: “No, we are unable to do anything”, people lost faith. You can understand this from some European Court of Human Rights‘ judgments, a case in point being the Ilascu1 case in 2004 and the Catan case in 2012. The European Court ruled that the Moldovan government has positive obligations to help Moldovan citizens whose human rights have been abused, even when they reside in territories under control of the separatist authorities. Using the words of the Court, regarding the Ilascu case, “even in the absence of effective control over the Transnistrian region, Moldova still has a positive obligation under Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights to take the diplomatic, economic, judicial or other measures that it is in its power to take and are in accordance with international law to secure to the applicants the rights guaranteed by the Convention”.