Ukraine crisis: Could Trans-Dniester be next?

War memorial in Tiraspol,

Russia's annexation of Crimea has led some to wonder whether any other former Soviet countries could follow. The separatist region of Trans-Dniester has already offered itself to Moscow - a request which Russia has promised to consider.

"It's been getting much worse in the past few months," said a mother of two who didn't want to give her real name and called herself Anna.

"They have closed, let me see...." she counts on her fingers. "Eight blogging sites. The secret police are so active now."

We were having coffee in the centre of Tiraspol, capital of the tiny, unrecognised state of Trans-Dniester that lives in a time-warped other age.

Teams of workers tend street flowerbeds. A statue of Lenin stands in the main square and a red and green national flag with a small yellow hammer a sickle in the corner flies from the roof of an ugly parliament building - known as the Supreme Soviet.

"It's confusing," says Anna. "If I had a choice, I would choose Europe. But a lot of things are better here. There are more opportunities in Russia. Salaries are about the same, but our pensions are much higher - about $180 (£109) a month compared to $75 in Moldova." She smiles. "And our gas is much, much cheaper."

This week the Supreme Soviet sent an official request to Moscow asking if - given Crimea - Trans-Dniester could be allowed to join the Russian Federation. But there's been no celebration and barely an announcement.

Outside, one couple had not heard and when told, the man shrugged and walked on - wary, it seemed, of talking to a foreigner.

Across the wide October 25th Boulevard, a strong wind from the River Dniester scattered flowers laid at a memorial to those killed in recent wars.

Each name is listed on a black stone wall, including more than 800 killed in 1992 when Trans-Dniester, backed by Russia, fought to stop the tiny country of Moldova from becoming independent from a disintegrating Soviet Union.

It mostly failed. A ceasefire created this strip of land wedged between Ukraine and Moldova, that has become what's described as a "frozen conflict".

Trans-Dniester is home to about 300,000 people who live amid a drab and arid agricultural landscape, peppered with checkpoints run by Russian peacekeeping troops. The same soldiers also keep watch over immigration posts on the Moldovan border. More than a thousand are based here.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fighting between pro-Russians (above) and Moldovan forces in 1992 left hundreds of civilians dead

One of the few tourist attractions is a museum in the old headquarters of a swashbuckling Red Army General Grigory Kotovsky, who held sway over Tiraspol in the 1920s.

"He is magnificent like the Soviet Union," says the curator Nadejda Kostiurina, holding up a Soviet flag underneath his portrait. "That was much, much better than we have now."

She has been watching Russian television on the Crimea crisis and when asked about it says bluntly: "I hope the European Union has enough brains not to start a war. I don't understand why it wants to more bloodshed."

Compared with the ordered tranquillity of Tiraspol, where street lamps are polished and curb sides painted, the Moldovan capital of Chisinau carries the muddle of a new market democracy - pot holed roads, chaotic traffic, and luxury car showrooms blending together in Europe's poorest country.

Its beacon is membership of the European Union, but now, for many here, there's a new fear that Russia will try to stop that by moving on Trans-Dniester - and, therefore, Moldova.

"If Putin will continue in Ukraine, particularly along the Black Sea until Odessa with its connection to Trans-Dniester we could see a very sad scenario," says Oazu Nantoi a political veteran of the Soviet collapse. "If he can be stopped in Crimea, then we have a chance to survive."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A sign in Trans-Dniester reminds people: "We are not Moldova!"

In recent weeks, more Moldovans have been switching to Russian television channels because, according to analysts, it's what they trust in times of crisis. This is creating a new challenge by pitting the bullish Vladimir Putin against Moldova's urbane and cautious prime minister, Iurie Leanca.

"Putin is the most popular political leader in Moldova," remarks a newspaper vendor in central Chisinau, reflecting the view of the still powerful Moldovan communist party.

Mr Leanca accuses his opponents of using propaganda to poison the minds of voters, but he admits that such sentiment has added resolve and speed to his policies.

He wants to sign an EU Association Agreement - similar to the one that sparked the protests in Ukraine - as soon as practicable. He has set himself an optimistic target of 2019 to join the European Union. He also wants to consolidate Moldova's position as a Nato ally, despite its official policy of being militarily neutral.

Yet, as a graduate of one of Moscow's elite universities for diplomats, Mr Leanca believes he has a feel for how far he could go with a head-to-head confrontation against the power of Russia.

"My own experience is that you have to have a very good and intense dialogue with Russia and the more you discuss the more you will see progress," he says.

"If the Ukrainians think this is a good lesson we would be willing to share it because in our situations there is no alternative to dialogue."

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