‘I don’t feel safe here’: Transnistria fears could spark Moldova exodus


When a string of mysterious explosions hit government buildings in Transnistria, the Moscow-backed separatist region of Moldova, there was no immediate claim of responsibility. But for Pasha, a 24-year old journalist from the breakaway region’s capital, Tiraspol, this week’s blasts were a clear sign that it was time to get out.

“There was a chance that there would be more attacks, and it’s no fun waiting to find out where would be hit next,” he said. Adding to the uncertainty were growing rumours that men in the region would be mobilised to fight alongside Russian troops across the border in Ukraine.

So Pasha, his mother and his friend, fellow journalist Maxim, 23, packed their essentials and drove to the Moldovan capital, Chișinău, where they are staying with relatives. They are hoping to return home, but other friends who left Transnistria have already fled to Turkey, Poland or the Czech Republic.

With a population of 470,000 people, Transnistria is a predominantly Russian-speaking sliver of land wedged between the Nistru River and the Ukraine border.

A year after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union, the region broke away in 1992 after a five-month war in which Russian forces (and Crimean Cossacks) intervened on the side of the separatists.

No country, not even Russia, has recognised the self-declared Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, but the “frozen conflict” has kept Moldova partitioned ever since. Now, many fear that last week’s explosions may herald a dangerous thaw.

On Monday, government buildings in Tiraspol were hit by what appeared to be rocket-propelled grenades. In the following days, blasts hit a radio tower broadcasting in Russian, and shots were reportedly fired near a Russian arms depot.

Separatist authorities in Tiraspol blamed the incidents on Ukrainian infiltrators. Kyiv has accused Russia of launching the attacks to further destabilise the region, while Moscow denounced them as “acts of terror”. Meanwhile, Moldova’s pro-EU president, Maia Sandu, blamed the blasts on infighting between rival factions in Transnistria.

But the uncertainty has prompted growing concern that Moldova could be dragged into the Ukraine conflict.

Moscow has long used Transnistria as a bargaining chip in its efforts to influence Moldova. The region still hosts 1,500 Russian troops, as well as 20,000 tonnes of ammunition stored in Cobasna, the largest ammunition depot in eastern Europe. Among last week’s incidents were shootings a mile away from Cobasna, according to the Transnistrian authorities.

Moldovan government sources fear that if the depot blew up it could result in an explosion 10 times bigger than the 2020 Beirut blast, where more than 2,000 tonnes of explosive material was stored.

Despite its frail economy, Moldova has already received about 95,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine, a figure equivalent to 3.5% of its population, according to the Moldovan foreign ministry.

The events of the past week are prompting many refugees to consider fleeing once again. “If war comes to Transnistria, I will leave, probably for Germany,” said Lyuda, 35, an accountant and single mother who fled Mariupol in March and is now working for the UNHCR mission in Moldova.

Security has been stepped up on the Transnistrian side of the border, causing long queues of traffic, but at the Moldovan checkpoints down the road, security forces simply wave vehicles through.

Moldova’s government has pledged to step up security, but for now life goes on as usual in Chișinău. In Valea Morilor park, joggers make laps around the lake, anglers cast their lines and the loudest sound is the voice of a canoe coach training her students.

Shoppers at the central market in Chișinău. Photograph: Daniel Mihăilescu/AFP/Getty Images

Across the city, Chișinău’s central market is packed with people buying food and offerings for the upcoming Paștele Blajinilor, Moldova’s holiday commemorating the dead. But even here, there is an edge of uncertainty. Alex, a stallholder in the market had just come off a call with a cousin in Italy who he was thinking of joining, he said. “I have a wife and a baby, and I don’t feel safe here,” he said.

Inside Transnistria, separatist authorities have kept quiet about the war raging in Ukraine. “Transnistria’s leaders are being cautious,” said the Moldovan journalist Alina Radu. “They are not cheering on the war, but nor are they criticising Russia’s military aggression.”

Since the death of its Soviet-era industry, Transnistria’s economy has been dominated by a small elite. Russia provides Transnistria with free gas, which gives businesses in the region a competitive advantage over Moldovan businesses.

Its largest conglomerate, which controls everything from petrol stations to a cognac distillery – and the football club FC Sheriff – was co-founded by the former KGB agent Victor Gușan, who also has a Ukrainian passport and owns property in Kyiv.

“Transnistrian leaders are under a lot of pressure,” said the Moldovan journalist Alina Radu. “For the first time, they are isolated. Both Moldova and Ukraine have governments that are not pro-Russian. Transnistrian elites have two options: to follow the orders of Putin, the most terrible dictator today, or to have a prosperous future with Europe.”

Analysts in Chișinău warn that Russian security and propaganda networks are spreading.

A recent report from the Royal United Services Institute, said Russian spy agency the FSB aimed “to destabilise Moldova to tie down Ukrainian forces on the southern border, to counter growing pro-European sentiment in the country, and to show the west that support for Ukraine risks wider consequences, including in the Balkans”.

Valeriu Pașa, from the Moldovan thinktank Watchdog said that Moscow had overestimated vestigial pro-Moscow sentiment in the country.

“Russia’s aim is to create tension,” he said, pointing to debunked viral reports that Romanian troops had been deployed near the border with Moldova.

But Moldova, with a population of just 2.5 million, has already suffered from mass emigration, and such pressures still had the potential to cause more harm, said Radu. “I am afraid that the tension might generate yet another harmful wave of emigration – just as the government has been trying to bring back the diaspora.”

• This article was amended on 1 May 2022 to correctly refer to more than 2,000 tonnes of explosive material being involved in the 2020 Beirut blast, rather than 2,000 tonnes of ammunition.

{{topLeft}} {{bottomLeft}} {{topRight}} {{bottomRight}} {{/goalExceededMarkerPercentage}} {{#goalExceededMarkerPercentage}}{{/goalExceededMarkerPercentage}} {{heading}} {{#paragraphs}} {{#ticker}}{{/ticker}}{{#paragraphs}} {{.}} {{/paragraphs}} {{highlightedText}}


Single Monthly Annual

Other {{#cta}} {{text}} {{/cta}} Email address Please enter a valid email address Please enter your email address Set a reminder Sorry we couldn’t set a reminder for you this time. Please try again later. . To find out what personal data we collect and how we use it, view our We will send you a maximum of two emails in. To find out what personal data we collect and how we use it, view our Privacy Policy . If you have any questions about contributing, please We will be in touch to remind you to contribute. Look out for a message in your inbox in. If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us {{/paragraphs}}{{#choiceCards}}{{/choiceCards}}