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Moldova/Transnistria: Pandemic brinkmanship brings strife to ‘Security Zone’

Illustration: Sanja Manakoski/BIRN
Author: Ilie Gulca
21/09/2020 12539

A BIRN investigation reveals how Transnistrian emergency laws, imposed in the name of public health, ended up jeopardising the health of thousands of people, restricting their access to medicines and medical facilities.

On March 17 this year, as Europe was entering lockdown, the village of Molovata Noua in eastern Moldova awoke to find its links to the world severed by mysterious armed men. They had appeared seemingly overnight, establishing a checkpoint on the only road that connected the village to nearby towns and the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.

The news reached Mayor Oleg Gazea as he was overseeing preparations for the pandemic, sourcing medical masks and disinfectant, from his office in the village hall. He rushed to the new checkpoint where, he said, “a military man, sitting in a car” forbade him from going futher. Neither the man in the car, nor his colleagues at the checkpoint, wore any insignia on their uniforms to indicate their names, rank or affiliation.

“They were like the ‘little green men’ who appeared in Crimea,” Gazea told BIRN, using a common term for the Russian troops in unmarked uniforms who seized the Crimean peninsula from Moldova’s eastern neighbour, Ukraine, in 2014.

It was not a fanciful comparison. The geopolitical faultline between Russia and the European Union runs directly through Moldova, as it does through Ukraine. Both countries’ efforts to strengthen alliances to their west have led to armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists in their east.

In Moldova’s case, the conflict dates to the break-up of the vast entity of which it was once a part, the Soviet Union. Moldova’s pursuit of independence was violently opposed by Transnistria, a region east of the Dniester river, which wanted to remain within Russia’s orbit. After four months of heavy fighting in 1992, a Russian-mediated ceasefire led to the creation of the Security Zone – a 12-20 kilometre buffer between the area administered by Chisinau and the Transnistrian separatists headquartered in the eastern city of Tiraspol.

Transnistria says the new checkpoints are needed to safeguard public health. Photo: Viorica Tataru

Oleg Gazea’s village lies within the Security Zone, east of the Dniester – the same side as Transnistria. It is one of ten towns and villages on the eastern bank that are administered by Moldova but are entangled by geography with Transnistria. Their combined population of 23,000 had relied on Transnistrian authorities for access to the road bridges across the Dniester – until the pandemic struck.

The checkpoint outside Gazea’s village was one of 37 installed between March 16-17 under a state of emergency imposed by the Transnistrian administration. Officially justified as a protective measure, the road closures effectively blockaded Moldovan-administered settlements in the Security Zone, curtailing their access to healthcare, food, and medicines for more than two months at the height of a pandemic.

This investigation by BIRN reveals how restrictions, introduced in the name of public health, helped a self-declared republic assert its claim to sovereignty, gaining leverage in a so-called “frozen conflict”. However, the curbs also jeopardised the health of thousands of civilians who depended on free movement for their basic needs.

Barred from the roads, the residents of Moldovan-administered settlements on the east bank ended up using an overloaded ferry service to cross the Dniester for medical care and essential supplies.

“There were people with cancer who had to get morphine, children with toothaches, pregnant women who had to get to a hospital,” said Raisa Spinovschi, the mayor of the Moldovan-administered town of Cocieri, on the east bank of the Dniester. “Everyone sat in line, waiting for the ferry for three or four hours.”

Russia’s role

Transnistria occupies a ribbon of land between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border, a territory that claims to be a state but is not recognised as such by any country. It has acquired a reputation as a corrupt, crumbling theme park to the Soviet Union, sustained by exports to the EU, Russian strategic interests, and smuggling. In Moldova meanwhile, politics is divided between pro-EU and pro-Russian camps. Also plagued by corruption, the country is by most measures the poorest in Europe.

International efforts to broker a political settlement in the dispute have been led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. The talks have made fitful progress, while Russia has maintained its influence through allies in both Moldova and Transnistria, and through the presence of a 1,500-strong unit of soldiers stationed in Transnistria since the end of the 1992 war.

A map showing some of the new checkpoints in the Security Zone. Credit: CU SENS

Russia has argued that its troops perform vital roles as peacekeepers or as guards for a decommissioned Cold War-era ammunition dump in the town of Cobasna. In an interview with the Russian Tass news agency on July 8, Moscow’s envoy in Chisinau, Oleg Vasnetsov, rejected long-standing Moldovan demands for the removal of the troops, saying they “cannot be withdrawn with a magic wand”.

The Transnistrian dispute is nowadays classified alongside the other so-called “frozen conflicts” that involve Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine and Georgia. Unlike those conflicts however, there has been little violence for the last 30 years, the de-facto border has remained open, and populations on both sides have come to depend on each other economically. Until the latest curbs, the residents of Moldova and Transnistria were free to commute across the Security Zone, unhindered by a network of 40 checkpoints.

The 37 new checkpoints almost double the number of controls in the area. Observers in Moldova and beyond believe the Transnistrian move is part of a Russian strategy to exploit the pandemic for tactical gain in the “frozen conflicts”. Similar low-level “borderisation” measures were reported this year in Georgia, while separatists in Ukraine restricted the movements of OSCE observers during the lockdown.

Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, told BIRN that Russia was “completely behind” separatist regimes in Transnistria, as it was in Georgia and Ukraine. He said Moscow was using the pandemic to promote its interests in the “frozen conflicts” in a manner customised to each territory.

Rosian Vasiloi, a Chisinau-based security analyst and former colonel in the Moldovan border force, told BIRN that the Transnistrian separatists were acting “with the consent of their leaders” in the Russian military. .

Russia says its troops perform essential peacekeeping duties in Transnistria. Photo: Viorica Tataru

Moscow’s strategy is broadly geared towards maintaining a pro-Russian enclave in Transnistria while supporting pro-Russian parties in Moldova. The Moldovan president, Igor Dodon, is close to Russia, as is the Transnistrian leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky. The dispute over the new checkpoints thus pits two Russian allies against each other – an apparent contradiction in policy.

Such contradictions are a familiar aspect of the frozen conflicts, according to Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an international foreign policy think tank. He argues that the term, “Russian policy”, is misleading, giving the illusion of coherence to an interplay between disparate, often conflicting Russian interests. “We should not talk about ‘Russian policy’ as there are competing interests which the Putin ‘power vertical’ sometimes manages to iron out but often does not.” In the frozen conflicts, he said, “the interests of Russian diplomacy, business, and security do not always coincide.”

De Waal questioned the extent to which a single Russian strategy provided an explanation for the checkpoint manoeuvres, arguing that local rivalries were a bigger factor. “To be honest, I don’t see much direct Russian control in Transnistria, beyond some strategic directions,” he told BIRN.

Covid patients but no specialists

In the early, otherworldly days of the pandemic, the people living in the Security Zone did not quite grasp how the new checkpoints would change their lives. They had already stockpiled essential supplies in readiness for lockdown, and once the measures were imposed, had little reason to test their freedom of movement.

“They had no great need to leave the locality, they were able to hold out,” said Oleg Gazea, the mayor of Molovata Noua. “It was only later, as the isolation deepened, that the problems became apparent.”

The impact of the Transnistrian measures was first exposed in the local healthcare system, as hospitals and clinics in Moldovan-administered settlements on both sides of the Dniester began experiencing staff shortages.

Mayor Oleg Gazea said the impact of the new checkpoints was not initially apparent. Photo: Ilie Gulca

Many of their employees commuted from Transnistrian-administered settlements on the east bank, tempted by the offer of higher wages and better conditions in Moldova. After the emergency measures were imposed, they stayed at home, dissuaded by the requirement to quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Transnistrian territory.

According to data from the Reintegration Bureau, a Moldovan government unit that handles issues relating to the conflict with Tiraspol, some 95 people – most of them doctors – were unable to travel to work on the west bank during the lockdown.

BIRN established that at least six medical facilities on the Moldovan west bank – including district hospitals and clinics – did not have enough doctors and nurses on duty. The district hospital in Rezina, on the west bank of the Dniester, was among the worst affected, as it had to make do without 17 employees who lived in Rabnita, a city on the east bank that is under the control of the Tiraspol administration.

“The hospital was practically left without basic specialists,” the head of the institution, Nina Postu, told BIRN. The staff shortages forced the remaining doctors to work overtime, cancelling any days off.

The Moldovan authorities view the checkpoints as illegal. Photo: Viorica Tataru

At the start of the pandemic, there was only one infectious-diseases specialist in charge of Covid-19 patients, Postu said. However, that doctor left in May, and the hospital has been without a specialist since then. It has two Covid-19 wards with a capacity of 54 beds, of which 46 are currently occupied.

“Coranavirus patients are treated by general practitioners and therapists,” Postu told BIRN. She said 150 patients had been treated for Covid-19 between May and September, three of whom had died.

Pandemic as ‘pretext’

The restrictions on movement also affected medical workers living and working on the same side of the river – in cases where their jobs required them to cross between territory controlled by a rival administration. In April, the Transnistrian authorities arrested two ambulance drivers from a Moldovan-administered village who worked in a Transnistrian-administered town. They were charged with violating quarantine rules and briefly detained.

The restrictions had a particularly acute effect on Cocieri, a Moldovan-administered town on the east bank of the Dniester, between Molovata Noua and Dubasari.

“The entire perimeter of the locality was surrounded by checkpoints,” the town’s mayor, Raisa Spinovschi, told BIRN. “The Transnistrian border guards closed all the roads heading to the territory. Even people from Transnistria who worked in the emergency room [of the local clinic] were not allowed to enter.”

At the main clinic, the burden of serving some 8,000 people was shouldered for two months by a lone doctor, a woman over 60. Under Moldovan law, a doctor should not serve more than 1,500 people. Pharmacies in the town were also closed for the period March 16 and June 3, as their employees who lived in Transnistrian-administered territory were unable to come to work.

Mayor Raisa Spinovschi said Cocieri was entirely cut off by the checkpoints. Photo: Ilie Gulca

According to Spinovschi, local residents largely put up with the restrictions out of a desire to avoid conflict. “People are patient because they do not want war anymore,” she said. “We’ve been through the war and all those ordeals.”

Transnistria maintains the restrictions were introduced strictly in response to the pandemic. In a written statement provided to BIRN, the Tiraspol administration said the checkpoints were needed to “monitor compliance with quarantine measures, with the main goal being to protect human life and health”.

The Moldovan government, which regards the breakaway region as part of its territory, has emphasised that the checkpoints are illegal. The head of the Reintegration Bureau, Cristina Lesnic, told BIRN that the Transnistrian authorities were using the pandemic “as a pretext to isolate themselves and create artificial barriers to free movement”.

The OSCE has also criticised the Transnistrians, accusing them of blocking the population’s access to workplaces and healthcare. “Both sides of the Dniester are inter-connected and inter-dependent,” the head of the OSCE’s mission to Moldova, Claus Neukirch, told BIRN. “Freedom of movement is a key issue.”

No ferry, no food

Hemmed in by roadblocks, the residents of the east bank of the Dniester came to rely on a car-ferry service to cross the river.

However, the ferry’s capacity was limited to 30 vehicles. As demand for the service soared, long queues formed on both sides of the river, with vehicles typically waiting three to four hours to board. Residents hoping to catch the first ferry from the east bank, departing at 0715, would start queuing from 0500. The passengers included many sick and elderly with complex medical needs.

“It was hardest for the elderly who have no relatives or means of transport,” said Valeriu Vladimirov, a retired policeman and decorated war veteran from Molovata Noua who spent lockdown as a volunteer, fetching morphine for cancer patients.

With morphine banned by the Transnistrian authorities, Vladimirov had to source the drug from a hospital in Cosnita, another Moldovan-administered town on the eastern bank of Dniester, south of Molovata Noua. Vladimirov would begin his journey by taking the ferry to the west bank, travel 60 kilometres by road to cross a bridge to Cosnita, and back the same way. The round trip by road and river spanned more than 120 kilometres and crossed the Dniester four times to avoid passing through Transnistrian checkpoints.

Cars wait in line for the ferry across the Dniester. Photo: Ilie Gulca

At a time when it seemed as if life could not get harder on the east bank, the ferry service also stopped operating. On May 9, the water level in the Dniester fell below the minimum level deemed safe by the boat’s operators.

The sudden drop was the result of a decision to increase the amount of water discharged by Moldova’s main hydroelectric plant, located downstream in Dubasari and operated by the Transnistrian authorities. The decision, officially taken in order to reduce the risk of flooding, left the inhabitants of the east bank entirely cut off from the world.

“On the one hand, we were blocked by the military checkpoint,” Oleg Gazea, the mayor from Molovata Noua, told BIRN. “On the other hand, we had no communication with the western bank of Dniester. We no longer had food reserves. We were totally stranded.”

After three days and intense pressure from Chisinau, Tiraspol reversed its decision, the water level rose, and the ferry service resumed.

Confrontation at Cocieri

As the spring gave way to summer, governments across Europe began easing their lockdown restrictions. In the Security Zone however, as some curbs were relaxed, others were being tightened.

Tensions boiled over on June 2 outside the east bank town of Cocieri. The Transnistrian police had joined the border guards operating one of the new checkpoints, and for the first time, began imposing fines for lockdown violations. As word of their conduct spread, a crowd of some 30 people gathered at the scene, including many Moldovan veterans of the 1992 war.

“People were already fed up because of all the previous humiliations,” Mayor Gazea told BIRN. He said he was particularly concerned that the veterans, who had come unarmed, might get into the fight into a fight with the police. The mayor of Cocieri, Raisa Spinovschi, told BIRN that the local residents “wanted to overturn the Transnistrian police car. We were very close to a real conflict”.

Violence was narrowly averted after phone calls to the OSCE and local officials. Later that day, the Transnistrian guards withdrew their checkpoint from Cocieri.

Tiraspol said the checkpoints would remain until the coronavirus pandemic had been ‘completely defeated’.
Photo: Viorica Tataru

The showdown appeared to have spurred the leaders into action. After talks over the summer with Moldovan President Igor Dodon, Transnistrian authorities partially eased some restrictions on movement in the Security Zone, removing many of the new checkpoints. However, Moldovan demands for the removal of all the checkpoints continued to be rebuffed.

In a statement issued to BIRN, the Tiraspol administration said it would not discuss removing all the checkpoints until the coronavirus pandemic had been “completely defeated” and the “epidemiological situation in neighbouring Moldova had been normalised”.

Tiraspol’s stance has prompted speculation that it is using the checkpoints to extract concessions from the Moldovan president. Dodon is running for re-election in November but faces a strong challenge from the pro-EU opposition.

Residents of Transnistria will also be eligible to vote in the election, as Chisinau views them as Moldovan citizens. In the event of a tight contest, votes from the territory, which tend to favour pro-Russian parties, could prove decisive for Dodon. However, as Transnistria does not recognise the election, Dodon would depend upon Tiraspol to bus the voters to polling stations on Moldovan-administered territory.

“Dodon wants as many Transnistrians as possible to vote for him,” Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation told BIRN. “Krasnoselsky, of course, blackmails Dodon using these additional and temporary positions [checkpoints] as leverage.”

The Moldovan government has been accused by the opposition of taking too soft an approach to Transnistrian provocation. Critics say Chisinau has, at best, tried to alleviate the consequences of the restrictions, rather than addressing their cause.

However, the Reintegration Bureau’s Cristina Lesnic told BIRN that the government had filed “hundreds” of requests to Tiraspol, as well to international mediators and observers, seeking a resolution to the checkpoint issue.

In early September, Moldovan authorities told BIRN that 12 of the 37 new checkpoints were still in place in the Security Zone. On September 10, Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky indicated that number was likely to go up. He said some checkpoints would be brought back because of a rise in Covid cases, which he attributed to contact with Moldovan citizens.

Ilie Gulca is a journalist based in Chisinau. Additional reporting by Madalin Necsutu. Editing by Neil Arun. This article was produced with a Reporting Democracy grant for stories that reveal how the Covid-19 crisis is reshaping politics and society in Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe.

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