Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Breakaway province longs for Mother Russia

Region, formerly of Soviet Ukraine, hopes to be next rebel area Kremlin will recognize

By MARIA DANILOVA
Associated Press Jan. 3, 2009

T IRASPOL, MOLDOVA — In a softly lit room, giggly teenagers rise from their desks and sing a hymn. Then the leader of the youth group starts a detailed reading of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's state of the nation address.

But this is not Russia. It's Transnistria, a tiny, poor separatist province in Moldova where the dream of joining Mother Russia is now stronger than ever.

After the Russian army went into Georgia in August and the Kremlin recognized two Georgian rebel regions, many in Transnistria are hoping they'll be next in line. Of course, there's still the problem that Russia's nearest border is 430 miles away.

"If only we had 1 centimeter," of border, said Alyona Arshinova, 23, an activist with the Kremlin-funded youth group Proryv, or "Breakthrough," who has a small Russian flag hanging off her key chain. "For me, Russia is everything. For me, Russia is knowing who I am. Who am I? I am Russia."

Russian democracy

Group leader Dmitry Soin is no less fervent, praising Russia's commitment to democracy at a time when the West is criticizing it for rolling back democratic reforms.

"The winds that are blowing in Russia must start blowing" in Transnistria, Soin tells the group meeting.

This sliver of land twice the size of Luxembourg is home to about 550,000 people — Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans. It has proclaimed itself an independent republic but is not recognized as such by anyone else, including Russia.

The mainly Russian-speaking region used to be part of Soviet Ukraine but became part of Moldova, a region that was annexed from Romania shortly before World War II. Fearful that Moldova would reunite with Romania after the Soviet collapse and clamp down on the use of the Russian language, Transnistria broke away in 1992 in a war that killed about 1,500 people.

Soviet control

As with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Kremlin supports Transnistria with cheap gas, monthly $10 stipends to pensioners, a contingent of 400 peacekeepers and perhaps the most prized gift of all — its maroon passports. Every fifth resident holds a Russian passport.

President Igor Smirnov controls the region in the style of his Soviet predecessors. A trip to Transnistria's capital of Tiraspol is a step back in time to the Soviet era, an era Russia itself has in many ways left behind.

Rusty trolley buses carrying tired passengers break the quiet of an otherwise silent central square, and poor pensioners sell threadbare coats and potted plants. Elderly women in head scarves line up to fill plastic bottles with milk on a street corner. Giant black-and-white portraits of the region's most industrious workers — as well as the regional president and the mayor of Moscow — adorn the streets. Foreign journalists are shadowed by security services.

In a bow to a Soviet tradition, brides in heavy makeup and dazzling white gowns climb on top of a lonely green World War II Soviet tank on the city's main square to pose for photos, paying tribute to their grandfathers' victory in the war.

The old Soviet ways exist side by side with Orthodox religion. Black-robed Orthodox priests bless a Soviet-style red-bannered military parade marking the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, even though it launched 70 years of vicious state-sponsored atheism.

There is also more than a streak of capitalism, which took hold here after the Soviet collapse. A short walk from a grim statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin that looms over a main square, poor pensioners sell threadbare coats and potted plants, while better-off families treat themselves to hamburgers and French fries at Andy's Pizza. Businessmen in Lexus vans with tinted windows zoom along the street — all things that would outrage Lenin.

Shop windows are filled with U.S. jeans, brand-name running shoes and computers. Travel agencies offer tours of Thailand and Egypt, while models in skimpy outfits adorn ads hawking mattresses and luxury cars from billboards. The local soccer team is filled with Brazilian players, whose exploits on the field and in the bars are the subject of intense gossip.

Trafficking, smuggling

Western agencies say Transnistria is a haven for weapons and drug smuggling. Residents say anything is on sale in this bleak region, including women trafficked abroad and forced into prostitution, and gasoline and cars exported from Romania and sold at a profit in Ukraine. Some Ukrainians living near Transnistria prefer to buy cars in Tiraspol because they avoid paying taxes and fees there.

Since the war with Georgia sent relations with the West to a Cold War low, Russia has cooled to Transnistria, reluctant to see this crisis escalate. Some experts say Russia backs Transnistria only to torpedo Moldova's prospective bid to join NATO. If Moldova pledges not to join the Western military alliance, Russia might agree to pressure Transnistria to reach an accommodation with Moldova.

Still, many here, like Galina Antyufeyeva, a lawmaker in the regional parliament, are convinced that Transnistria's future lies with its eastern neighbor.

"If you think about it, who today can exist without Russia?"

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