It’s a warm, foggy November morning in Tiraspol. The tops of the trees are scattered with autumnal leaves of reddish-yellow hue as if they have been painted by an artist with vast natural brushstrokes. These are the last few remaining trees in the city centre. Most of the old acacias and poplars planted back in Soviet times to improve Tiraspol’s notoriously bad air quality have been culled. The city’s main street has kept its Communist-era name, leaving its inhabitants with no doubt as to which way we are headed.
Bright green Belarusian-made trolleybuses trundle along these roads, and on their sides is displayed in large red letters (of course): “We are together with Russia!” Everyone thought that these trolleybuses were given to the city as a gift from Russia, but we later found out that they were leased by the Transnistrian authorities, who were taking out loans either from the state or from neighbouring states to run them. For some reason, they decided to keep quiet about this and didn’t explain the true source of the buses to anyone. Not even the pensioners who use this kind of transport the most. A year after the buses came into use, the state declared that pensioners would no longer be able to travel for free, as had been the case for the past 15 years. This move was a slap in the face to all those who 25 years ago defended the ideals of our bright future, which for whatever reason has still not arrived.
People in Transnistria don’t know who to blame: either themselves for being naïve enough to believe that people power alone can build a welfare state, or those in power who, besides making themselves wealthy through corrupt schemes, have not been able to deliver the promised “little Switzerland” in the past 25 years of self-declared independence. People are also confused about whether to blame Russia, which refuses to recognise the independence of this narrow strip of land along the Dniester River (as it has done for Abkhazia and South Ossetia) while the population of half a million is subjected to a smooth local propaganda machine as a panacea for all ills. The people could blame their neighbours – Moldova and Ukraine – who are constantly dreaming up new ways to make our lives even more difficult. Frankly, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to blaming others.
I chatted with Grandmother Liuba in the trolleybus emblazoned with the “We are together with Russia!” sign. She has two sons – one living in Moscow, the other in Kyiv. Each has settled down there and has a partner and children. They all used to come back at least once a year to gather round the table and enjoy each other’s company. This proud grandmother used to carefully set aside part of her small monthly pension of 300 Transnistrian roubles (around €25) to pamper her grandchildren. But there’s no point any more. Her sons no longer come home at the same time in case, God forbid, they start an argument over which one of their countries, Russia or Ukraine, is in the right.
So they take it in turns to visit their mother, and Liuba, having recently seen the government cut her pension by 30 percent, can no longer treat her loved ones as she would like. Apart from making her grandchildren happy through her well-known culinary skills, there’s not much else she can afford to do. The government just took over the regulatory function of doling out portions of joy: “You, pensioner, we’re going to take away 30 percent of your happiness – what’s the point of that in your old age anyway? Go away and get by as best as you can”. While she was telling this story, the bus conductor asked for her fare. With a dried-up, trembling hand, Baba Liuba reached into her string bag, took out her pension card wrapped up in newspaper, and took out a carefully saved rouble. She handed it to the conductor along with her pension card. After examining the card carefully, the conductor returned it along with a trolleybus ticket. Another old woman sitting nearby also got her card out to show the conductor, but she did not have her fare: “My love, I must have lost this rouble somewhere; I saved it, but now it’s gone. Or someone took it?”
The conductor looked reproachfully at the old woman and replied coldly: “Pay your fare”. The old woman began to fumble in her pockets, looking around at the stony faces of the passengers standing next to her. “Take this for the old woman”, someone said from somewhere in the depths of the trolleybus. A young man of about 20 years made his way through a dense crowd of passengers with a rouble note in his outstretched hand. “Take this, conductor. Can’t you see that she’s not lying to you? She’s not that kind of person”, he said, and handed the rouble over.
“Mummy’s here!”, yell three naughty kids as they run out of their bedroom. Snezhana is ten years old, Masha is nine, and Maxim is still only three. They are expecting treats from the sweet shop, but they still don’t understand that Mummy cannot afford to buy them sweets or biscuits, because there’s only enough money for pasta and cereals. Annushka – as her husband, Sergei, affectionately calls her – has just come home from a job interview. She did not get the position because the prospective employer found out that she has three children with the youngest just three. “You see, your youngest will get ill, but we have serious work to do. Sometimes we even have to stay on after working hours”, they told her.
The family lives off her husband’s salary of around 4,000 Transnistrian roubles (€335), which is not a bad salary by local standards. The lion’s share of this goes towards paying the rent. They could never afford to buy their own place because they never went abroad to earn money and have always looked after their children themselves rather than rely on the grandparents to help out. Most young couples, a few months after the birth of their first child, entrust their baby to their parents while they themselves go abroad to earn roubles, dollars, or euros. There used to be NGOs which would sound the alarm about the growing problem of “orphans” in Transnistria – children who would not see their parents for years. But, these days, this issue is far down the agenda of a government which is only committed to figuring out who is the boss and what kind of schemes can be dreamt up in order to make a quick buck.
“This year has been not so bad”, says Anna. “Food prices at the market are not too high because our Transnistrian farmers are not allowed to export fruit or vegetables. So they are selling everything at the market at affordable prices to get a little return on their investment. They’re not doing so well out of this, but it’s better for us”. On Saturdays, the two girls go with their mother to the nearby town of Bendery. They have found a second-hand clothes shop there. “For a dollar or two we can buy sweaters and skirts for the girls. Shoes and winter clothes are a little more expensive”, says Anna. “We can’t even dream of affording to buy new clothes”.
Anna does not feel like talking about the upcoming legislative elections. How can you even think about elections when the population is being robbed right before your eyes? Civil servants do not receive their full salary, and the authorities carry on repairing the same stretches of road in the city centre. Many, like Anna, are out of work and cannot expect much help from the state, yet she knows that the future of her three children depends on her, her husband, and possibly the generosity of close relatives. There’s no point waiting for any form of social benefits.
The bridge across the Dniester River, which connects Tiraspol and Bendery, has been painted in the colours of the Russian and Transnistrian flags. Another bridge has been lit up with so-called smart lighting which flashes these same national colours.
A Russian company was commissioned to decorate municipal buildings with artistic lighting – the boss probably got the contract through his government connections, and was then awarded a medal for “distinction in labour” to boot. All this while the suburbs live without street lighting, and the recent cut in pensions means that the elderly have their electricity cut off because they cannot afford their utility bills. The Roman concept of “bread and circuses” operates flawlessly in Transnistria. For those who have seen little improvement in the last 25 years and have lost faith in the ability of reforms to change the situation and improve the standard of living, there is consensus on just one thing: “No more war”. This is a chorus that can be heard at the bus stop, in shops, offices, and the factories that are still running. This is the one unifying idea which the authorities cling to as if on a melting ice floe that has inexplicably fallen into the warm Gulf Stream.
Vladimir runs his own small business, employing 15 people. He pays them each a wage that is 20 percent higher than the average in Transnistria. But it is nothing compared to what they could earn in Russia. Many people leave to go and work in Moscow or St Petersburg, where they can earn ten times more for the same work.
Over the past couple of years, Vladimir has experienced all the delights of the “real concern of the state for small businesses”. Every day this “concern” increases. There are two stages. The first includes numerous meetings, roundtables, investment forums, and other types of presentations. The distinctive features of this stage are: the burying of any sensible idea in the depths of obscure government mechanisms, the pretence of any interest on the part of government agencies in the development of small businesses, and regular state media stories about “successful public activities and implementation of effective measures” to help the country get out of the economic crisis.
The second stage is: “If your business does well, then we will come to visit you”. And so all sorts of people come knocking at the door: the customs office, health and safety, the tax office, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor’s Office, the fire service, pest control, the centre for price-setting, and many others whose salaries are funded by the taxpayer. Since the Transnistrian budget has a huge deficit, civil servants – who outnumber those employed in the real economy – happily wander round Transnistria making life difficult for businessmen. And these are not always routine checks. There are more and more unplanned checks where the result of an inspection depends on the amount of cash handed over. It is the same with retail space, which by sheer coincidence has been bought up by people who have direct access to the ruling elite. These new owners then lobby the government for higher rental fees which makes it incredibly difficult for small businesses to keep their head above water.
Despite all this, Vladimir is trying to keep his business afloat and to look after his staff. “If I shut everything down now, where will they go? Each of them has a family, children; for some, the whole team even went to see their firstborns in hospital. The advantage of small business is that it is more flexible and can react immediately to new market conditions. Unfortunately, we have not yet learned how to react to the regular checks that we get because there is no logic to them. We get the impression that they have got orders ‘from above’ to collect a designated amount by hook or by crook, without taking into account the law or common sense”.
With decaying leaves rustling underfoot, the traffic lights change to amber while the stars begin to emerge in the darkening sky. Maybe Transnistria will find its own guiding star one day, which will lift this region out of this depression, which grows like a tumour on this 25-year-old organism that many call the outpost of Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.