Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

December 18, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: MoldovaRussiaEuropean UnionVladimir PutinRomania

Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

Europe's poorest country is torn between Brussels and Moscow.

“Găgăuzia’s autonomy gives us the ability to write our own tax codes,” the başkan said. “We can offer your investors incentives no other place in Moldova can.”

After the meeting there was a ceremony. Dozens of Gagauz peasants had been driven in from the countryside to meet the officials from Russia. Mukhametshin surveyed them from the top of a staircase. Vlah, a few steps below him, called out different individuals from the crowd. First was a deaf woman, Angelina, from a village called Tomai, who approached the stairs uncertainly. Mukhametshin reached into his breast pocket, took out a hearing aid and handed it down to her. Maria from a village called Besalma was called out next. Her son’s leg had been ripped off by a chainsaw. Mukhametshin directed her gaze to a wheel chair being unloaded from a van. Maria broke down in tears. The parade of gifts—strollers, heart monitors, icons of Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of the Gagauz—went on for half-an-hour. “Russia has a special relationship with you,” Mukhametshin concluded, sweeping his hand over the peasants huddled below him.

Găgăuzia’s referendum has triggered calls for referenda elsewhere in Moldova. Two Russian-speaking towns near the Black Sea coast, Tărăclia and Tvardița, will deliberate their autonomous status early next year. Bălți, Moldova’s third largest city, goes to the polls this December. In June, the city elected a man called Renato Usatîi as its mayor. A decade ago, when he was twenty-six, Usatîi left his tiny village of Fălești for Russia. He got involved in Solntsevskaya, the deadly branch of the Russian mafia; he came to coordinate supplies for Russian Railways, then headed by Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin. Usatîi was possibly behind the March 2013 assassination attempt on the Russian banker German Gorbuntsov in London. His seizure of Gorbuntsov’s former bank, Universalbank, would probably have been illegal in every place except Moldova. Usatîi returned to Moldova last summer. “No one in the country had ever heard of the guy,” a marshrutka driver told me. “Immediately he began buying up apartments for all his friends.” Usatîi zipped around Chișinău in a striped Rolls Royce. A pro-Russian political party, Patria, was established; it works together with Dodon and the Socialists but pushes more extreme proposals: The American embassy should be turned into a nightclub; a replica of the Great Wall should be built along the EU border. Last November, Patria was declared illegal by the Moldovan secret service for its conspicuously foreign funding and its gang connections. Usatîi flew to Moscow. This marked the end of Moldova’s ability—or willingness—to control the situation. On May 6 Usatîi returned to Chișinău, scoffing at warnings that the entire Moldovan police force had deployed outside the airport for him. They hadn’t.

I was with Usatîi the day he became mayor of Bălți. He spent the morning tearing through cigarettes, black Ferragamo loafers kicked up on a table. A TV played reruns of Golos, the Russian talent show. On campaign posters Usatîi looks a bit squeamish: an uneven pair of eyebrows sits behind thick rims; he’s giving the camera a toothy grin and a thumbs-up. But this is the wrong impression. Dodon is Putin’s politician in Moldova; Usatîi, who is massive, is his thug. He likes to scare news correspondents by whipping assault rifles out from the underside of his desk in the middle of interviews. He glides around Bălți with one hand on the steering wheel of a black Range Rover. Together we rode to Lucian Blaga elementary school, where he voted for himself, then promptly returned to watching Golos. Six big Russian men came with us. They form a ring around Usatîi nearly every place he goes in Moldova. Pakhan, “boss man,” is what they called Usatîi outside his Pushkin Street headquarters, plastered with photos of campaign celebrities. One was of Iosif Kobzon, the singer who does concerts for the separatist battalions in Donetsk.

Officials I met in Chișinău all said that the Gagauz referendum—and those being proposed elsewhere—should not have been allowed to happen. They also acknowledged there was little they could do about it either way. Moldova’s problem is not that it’s a failed state. It’s a state where almost nothing has ever actually worked. In 2013, forty EU judges journeyed to Chișinău to observe how different state institutions functioned. They didn’t. Jobs that ought to be off-limits to political appointments—heading the banks, overseeing the police—are the specialty of political appointees. Four in five Moldovans profess no faith in the rule of law. Ninety percent of judges may be convicted of corruption when tried, but only last year, for the first time in Moldovan history, did one go to jail. Moldova is a state that cannot even pretend to control the real estate it calls its own. Roads are in disrepair if they’re paved at all. The national rail system is single-track—two trains cannot simultaneously operate in opposite directions. The complete lack of national interconnectedness is most evident in the presence of the notorious baroni locali, the “local bosses” who govern largely beyond Chișinău’s reach. Justice in Soroca, a town in the north, is meted out by a bulibaşa, a gypsy king called Artur. Oleg Bădărău, the mayor of a village called Bahmut, was hauled to trial in 2012 when he was discovered to have raised his own private militia.

A state this brittle and decentralized is in no position to confront its in-built polarization. Moldova’s 1990 independence reignited a debate—the Bessarabian Question—that once commanded the same notorious thorniness as the Macedonian Question. Who are the Moldovans? The search for an answer made the postindependence situation in Chișinău unique from that in Baku or Kiev or Tbilisi. First, surging nationalist elements weren’t crying out that Soviet rule had stifled an indigenous “Moldovan” culture. Their claim was instead that “Moldovan” had been a fiction all along: Moldovans were Romanians, and Moldova was Romania’s provincia pierduta, “lost province.” Violent outbreaks against identification with Romania resulted in the special statuses afforded to Găgăuzia and Transnistria, the bastions of Soviet agriculture and industry, respectively. It also resulted in a Slavic minority dispersed throughout Moldova that, to this day, has never felt any real association with its independence. One in four of Moldova’s Russian-speakers has still never learned the state language—still technically called Moldovan for fear of upsetting these people. The failure to incorporate any of these groups into the state has also kept vast segments of Moldova’s population locked in Soviet-era conceptions of statehood. It’s a nostalgia that has made for strange contradictions of late. Polls showed that a majority of Moldova’s ethnic Ukrainians actually supported Russia’s seizure of Crimea, for instance.

The EU’s ongoing failure in Moldova has leaders on both banks of the Prut River resurrecting that old idea: an enlarged Romanian state. They point to Germany. “A decade ago it was impossible to argue the case for merging with Romania,” Moldova’s former prime minister Ion Sturza told me in Bucharest. “Today, many see that unification may be Moldova’s only way forward.” Putin’s ties to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban—a Moscow-Budapest axis that, from the west, is stirring up the Hungarian minority in Ukrainian Transcarpathia and challenging Romania’s claims on Transylvania, and from the east is threatening the Budjak, the Black Sea coast around Odessa that’s home to tens of thousands of Romanian-speakers—only deepen feelings among hundreds of thousands of Moldovans that their natural protector can only be Romania, not the EU. One consequence of Romania’s increasing involvement in Moldova is that Russia is able to program its political rhetoric there—as it has done in Ukraine—with terms lifted from the 1930s: “cultural autonomy,” “minority rights.” No Russian-speaker in Moldova has been allowed to forget that Romania’s last attempt to incorporate the country was the work of Ion Antonescu and the Iron Guard. In southern Moldova I met Russian-speaking peasants who couldn’t read the Latin alphabet but who knew this. Of course Russian propaganda had all but formed their opinions; in Găgăuzia, for instance, farmers have been distributed leaflets detailing Romania’s different preferred methods for seizing land: “Romanian gendarmes are coming back! So are their priests!” In Chișinău, more than forty Russian nongovernmental organizations—AntiFa, Social Shield, Restruct Moldova, Russian Legion, New Legion—push the same line. Romania’s interest in Moldova plays so perfectly into the Kremlin’s narrative about European fascism that a handful of analysts I met believe that Putin is covertly funding Moldova’s pan-Romanianist movement, “Acţiunea 2012.” In Iași I met its leader, a Romanian called George Simion whom Chișinău, lest it provide Putin with even more ideological fodder, has banished from the country.

There’s no better proof of Chișinău’s failure to implement statehood and of the embers-still-lit appeal of the USSR than the existence of an entire parallel state within Moldova. Transnistria is, in many ways, a genuine Soviet fossil, a police state par excellence. It’s the only place in Europe where the KGB was never dismantled. Its officers still sit guard over the Dniester bridgeheads where makeshift local militias routed the Moldovan army in June 1992. You have to check in with authorities within twenty-four hours of arriving in Transnistria, where government buildings fly hammer-and-sickle flags. Three armies occupy the region, two illegally—Transnistria’s and the Russian 14th Guards Army—as well as a peacekeeping force comprised largely of Russians and Ukrainians currently using the same mess halls. Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital and Moldova’s second-largest city, is the seat of its own elected government, postal system, legal code and passport control. Transnistria’s banks are unregulated and unrecognized; the Transnistrian ruble, printed locally and tacked to the American dollar, is arguably the greatest vehicle for money laundering on earth. Transnistria is even run by something bizarrely approaching a command-and-control economy. Sheriff, a small grocery store founded by two Gagauz KGB officers in 1993, was coopted by Tiraspol’s elites in the 1990s and now reigns over every service in Transnistria: gas stations, mobile and internet services, cognac stores, yoga studios, the Tiraspol soccer team. Sheriff, by far the greatest employer in Transnistria, even pays its workers in Sheriff discounts, not rubles. Transnistria does not recognize the authority of a single international body, which has made regulating the region all but impossible. Estimates of the amount of undocumented weaponry in Transnistria—most of it explosives withdrawn from East Germany in the early 1990s—range upwards of 21,500 tons.