Exchange of Empires

Recognized internationally as a part of Moldova, the para-state of Transnistria highlights a unique dilemma for the European Union. A microcosm of the former Soviet Union at first glance, this narrow region on the east bank of the Dniestr River is a fusion of communist and Western cultures, a symbolic representation of the decline of the Russian empire. Since 1992, Transnistria has won de facto autonomy from Moldova and equipped itself with all the attributes of statehood – except for international recognition. With its neighbor states aligning more closely with the West, however, the corrupt Transnistrian regime is under increasing pressure from advocates of democracy and human rights, some of whom surprisingly favor a return to communism. Unless the European Union integrates more parts of the former Soviet Union, warns commentator Timothy Garton Ash, "the most reluctant empire in the history of mankind" runs the risk of falling into decline. – YaleGlobal

Exchange of Empires

Who will dare to fill the black holes being left by Russia's long retreat?
Timothy Garton Ash
Friday, May 20, 2005

Sitting in a cafe on Lenin Street, next to three smartly turned-out female officers in dark green KGB uniforms, I had this wild thought: can the Soviet Union join the European Union?

For the surreal breakaway para-state of Transnistria on the east bank of the river Dniestr looks at first glance like a miniature version of the old Soviet Union. In the heart of the capital, Tiraspol, a giant redstone Lenin stands proudly before the Supreme Soviet. Across 25 October Street, named for the Russian revolution of 1917, is the obligatory tank on a plinth. In the House of Pioneers display boards show gnarled, bemedalled Soviet war veterans explaining to eager youths "How Good It Is Without War!" Not just on Lenin Street but on Soviet Street, Communist Street and Peace Street every third person seems to be in uniform. The arm badges of those female officers, whose elaborate make-up, brightly dyed hair and high-heeled leather shoes nicely set off their pristine uniforms, proclaim that they belong to the ministry of state security (MGB), but informally people still call them KGB. In every government office there is a sullen secretary, a pot plant and a framed portrait of the leader.

It makes me feel almost nostalgic. But look a little more closely and things are not as they seem. In the basement of the House of Pioneers, the kids are playing western computer games: Tomb Raider, Tank Racer. The shops on 25 October Street include Adidas and a fast-food restaurant decorated with giant, blown-up photos of American skyscrapers. Up the road, there is a vast new sports complex built by the biggest local company, which is called Sheriff, a tribute to the wild west frontier marshals of the US. At the Hotel Timoty, the receptionist, Tania, is dressed in a stretchy white tracksuit, emblazoned Dolce e Gabbana. Not the genuine article, of course. She explains to me that the hotel's name - Timoty - in the Russian version, stands for TIraspol-MOscow-TIraspol, signalling the heavy involvement of Russian capital.

Even the tank on the plinth tells a new story. It commemorates not the Soviet Union's great patriotic war of 1941-45 but the heroic "war" of 1992, in which the local forces of this heavily Sovietised, largely Russian-speaking strip of land, aided by the Russian 14th army, won their de facto autonomy from the authorities of Moldova, who had adopted the Latin rather than Cyrillic script for their Moldovan/Romanian state language, and were tentatively reorienting the territory west of the river Dniestr towards Romania, Europe and the west. Since then, the entity which in English is most conveniently called Transnistria (ie across the Dniestr, seen from the west) and which in Russian styles itself, literally translated, the On-the-Dniestrian Moldovan Republic, has equipped itself with its own flag, crest (with hammer-and-sickle), anthem, president, parliament, uniformed border guards, security service, police, courts, schools, university, constitution - most of the attributes of statehood, except international recognition.

Its president, Igor Smirnov, who looks like a cross between Dr Faustus and a provincial dentist, runs a repressive, corrupt regime, sustained by virtually free energy supplies from the Russian Gazprom, the presence of a small number of Russian troops, some local industry - including arms factories - and, by most accounts, a good dose of illegal trafficking in arms and people. While a recent offer to undercover Sunday Times reporters to sell them a post-Soviet Alazan missile with a "dirty bomb" warhead may have been a con job, western experts in the area believe that weapons supplies to rogue regimes and potential terrorists do come from, or through, Transnistria.

Now, however, the Smirnov regime is under pressure. To its west, the president of the internationally recognised Moldovan state, though himself a communist, is trying to get closer to the European Union and the United States. On its other three sides is Ukraine, where the orange revolution has produced a more pro-western president with a greater interest in closing this black hole. The EU and the US are again looking at possible negotiated solutions. Smirnov also faces some opposition at home, which is partly supported by the mighty Sheriff oligarchs. Even in Transnistria, there is just the faintest smell of orange.

Sitting in the bare, cold offices of his foundation for the defence of human rights, Alexander Radchenko tells me that Smirnov "has the powers that Stalin had, or Saddam Hussein". He and other parliamentarians want to change the constitution to allow them to impeach the president, strengthen the constitutional court, and so on. He has received threatening phone calls: "You can end up in the Dniestr." Yet on closer questioning it emerges that what Radchenko, a stocky former political commissar in the Red Army, would really like is less a "return to Europe" than a return to the Soviet Union. "Of course!" he exclaims, flashing several gold teeth as he smiles, "in the Soviet Union there was peace, friendship among the people, and welfare. There was no unemployment, no homelessness, no drug addicts, no prostitutes, no people-trafficking." The rot set in, he says, soon after Stalin died. This is orange Transnistrian-style.

What does Transnistria matter to anyone who is not, as I am, a lover of the Tintinesque and a connoisseur of obscure east European conflicts? Perhaps not much - except to the people who live there, to the women who are brutally trafficked from there, and to those who are killed by the weapons coming out of there. Yet it also highlights a historical development - only half-perceived by most of us - which has driven so many of the changes we have witnessed in Europe over the last quarter century, and is still driving change in Europe today.

That development is the decline and fall of the Russian empire. At first, it was possible to believe that this was just the fall of the Soviet empire, not the Russian one. When you reach Georgia, Ukraine and places like Transnistria, that is no longer possible. In the centre of Tiraspol is a giant statue of Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov. It marks the conquest of this territory and the founding of this city by the great tsarist general, at the end of the 18th century. Here, it's not just the Soviet but the tsarist empire that is crumbling.

We Europeans now have three choices. We can leave places like this as black holes. We can allow the US to become the new imperial power. Or we can decide that the European Union, in a security partnership with the United States, should gradually expand to bring more freedom, respect for human rights and a long-term prospect of prosperity, even to such parts of the former Soviet Union. Provided, of course, the people living there want it to.

Yet the EU is the most reluctant empire in the history of humankind. The enlargement that we have done thus far is already fuelling the no vote in core countries like France. If the EU does not expand to take in more parts of the former Soviet Union, places like Transnistria will remain black holes. If it does, the European Union risks itself going the way of the former Soviet Union. That is the dilemma we see illuminated, as by a Red Army rocket flare, on the left bank of the river Dniestr.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005