After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, a thin sliver of land on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine broke apart from its parent country and declared independence from Moldova. A four-month war followed and some 700 casualties later, a ceasefire was signed. Since then, Moldova has stayed out of Transnistria’s business but still refuses to recognize it as an independent state. In fact, no other nation does.
Yet, Transnistria acts as an independent country, with its own government, military and police force, postal system, currency, constitution, flag, and coat of arms. Its flag still uses the communist symbol of a hammer and a sickle—the only country to do so.
A statue of Lenin stands in front of Transnistria parliament building in Tiraspol. Photo credit: Marco Fieber/Flickr
At the core of the conflict is the fact that Transnistria has been a primarily a Russian-speaking territory since the Ottoman Empire ceded the region to the Russian Empire in the late 18th century. The people of Transnistria have naturally felt more Russian than Moldovan. Even today, Russian-speaking people make up the largest ethnic group in Transnistria.
As per the ceasefire signed at the end of the Transnistria-Moldova conflict, Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in Transnistria, and provides constant financial, military and political support without which Transnistria could not exist. Russian subsidy, both direct and indirect, accounts for nearly half of Transnistria’s budget. Inevitably, there is a huge Russian influence on public life. Transnistria’s people watch Russian TV, kids in schools learn from Russian textbooks, and many pensioners receive Russian pension.
The lack of officially recognition does not bode well for Transnistria, especially the future of its younger generation. While the older generation is still hoping for Transnistria to be recognized and to become a part of Russia, the younger Transnistrians are struggling with lack of jobs and the tough economic situation. Most youngsters are eager to emigrate abroad, to Moscow mostly. Since the birth of the country, the Transnistrian population has decreased by more than a third.
When Justin Barton, a British photographer visited Transnistria in 2015 and asked a 23-year old girl to think about her homeland, she reportedly burst into tears. The girl, Anastasia Spatar, had never traveled beyond Transnistria.
German photographer Julia Autz, who travelled to Transnistria to capture portraits of the state’s youth, found the community closed and hard to penetrate.
“They can become kind of paranoid when they see a foreigner from the western world with a camera. Many people don’t relate with western values. Instead, they admire Putin and hope that Transnistria will become a part of Russia,” said Autz.
Like Justin Barton, Julia Autz too was struck by the permeated sadness in their expressions.
Despite the hopelessness of their situation, Autz found the teenagers and young people very receptive. “The young generation was very interested in me and they were curious about what I was doing in the country,” she recalled. “There are not many foreigners in Transnistria and most people have never been to western Europe, so they were really excited and wanted to spend time with me.”
Russia’s continuing presence in the region and its constant involvement in the affairs has soured relationship with Moldova. The Russian presence in Transnistria, so close to the Ukrainian border, is also perceived as a threat to Ukraine. Recently, a Ukrainian MP, accused Russia of using the conflicted region to influence the pro-European states of the post-Soviet space against joining the European Union.