TIRASPOL, Moldova – The Kvint Distillery with its smooth, wooden casks full of honey-colored brandy is so revered in Trans-Dniester that it graces the 5-ruble bank note.
But like this breakaway republic, it exists in isolation. The bottles chugging down the assembly line to be filled, corked, stamped and boxed for shipment once traveled easily around the Soviet Union and the rest of the Communist world. Not anymore. Lately they have faced barriers entering two of their biggest markets, Russia and Ukraine.
The parallels aren’t lost on the 550,000 people of Trans-Dniester. The territory, having broken away from Moldova, is recognized by no one. Its passports, holdovers from when it was part of the Soviet Union, are useless. Its smugglers have saddled it with a reputation as an outlaw state, of potential use to terrorists. Foreign visitors are so rare that an American journalist visiting a school was besieged for autographs.
It has just voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to seek unification with Russia, but Russia doesn’t seem eager to have it. Meanwhile, as Trans-Dniester looks east, Moldova, like neighboring Ukraine and nearby Romania, is looking west, to the democracies of the European Union.
Of all the broken pieces and sharp edges left by the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly 15 years ago, few are as unusual as this ragged ribbon of land, 125 miles long by 10 miles wide, wedged between the Dniester River and Ukraine.
The Soviet breakup gave birth to 15 new nations, but it also left millions of ethnic Russians in limbo, stranded in countries suddenly turned foreign and in many cases eager to shake off Moscow’s heavy hand.
In the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, ethnic Russians complain of discrimination against their language. In Ukraine, they are a powerful political force engaged in a constant tug-of-war with pro-Westerners. The ex-Soviet republic of Georgia is carved up by two pro-Russian separatist regions. Kaliningrad is a Baltic Sea enclave of 1 million Russians, 350 miles from home soil and surrounded by EU countries. Chechnya has been waging a separatist war for a decade.
Trans-Dniester, about twice the size of Luxembourg and comprising one-eighth of Moldova, has never stopped yearning for Russia’s embrace. Its leader, Igor Smirnov, who has Russian citizenship, hails Russia as the natural home for his people.
Trans-Dniester declared itself independent as the Soviet Union began to show signs of crumbling, fearing Moldova would seek to reunite with Romania. Pro-Western Moldova, backed by the European Union, wants it back. The Kremlin, while at odds with Moldova and sympathetic to the separatists, has reacted coolly to the idea of absorbing the impoverished territory, and says the two sides should negotiate a settlement.
So the Sept. 17 referendum, which voted 97.1 percent yes to the government’s goal of union with Russia, is dismissed by political analyst Viorel Cibotaru of Moldova’s Institute of Public Policy as a feel-good measure and nothing more.
“It’s like a circus: you see something, but it’s an illusion. Because the truth is, Trans-Dniester is an empty idea. It’s going nowhere,” he says.
Not so, insists Smirnov. Trans-Dniester and Moldova simply have nothing in common, the president declared to his people after the vote. “We choose Russia, and they choose the European Union and NATO. All these 16 years, they have tried to impose on us an alien point of view … but today, that’s history.”
History weighs heavy here. Once known as Bessarabia, the entire region has a rich ethnic mix, with parts of it falling under the Lithuanian, Czarist Russian, Romanian and Soviet empires. Today, the scrambled geopolitical jigsaw puzzle left by the Soviet collapse is highlighted by the 109-year-old Kvint distillery in Trans-Dniester’s capital, Tiraspol. Caught on a bureaucratic merry-go-round, its wines and cognacs are frozen out of Russia because the Kremlin considers them Moldovan, and has an embargo on Moldovan alcohol. And they were frozen out of Ukraine for two years because they weren’t considered Moldovan enough – the plant didn’t have the right Moldovan business registration. Its export certificate is still only temporary.
Critics claim Trans-Dniester is a paradise for smugglers, bandits and traffickers in weapons and drugs. “The Trans-Dniester problem is reflecting negatively on the entire criminal situation in Moldova and Ukraine,” Ukraine’s interior minister, Yuriy Lutsenko, complained recently.
The EU has deployed border police of its member states to help stem the flow of contraband through the deserted, hilly roads that connect Trans-Dniester to Ukraine.
Trans-Dniester has responded to criticism with a charm offensive on the Web. http://www.pridnestrovie.net offers “10 things you didn’t know about Europe’s newest country,” including that it has twice the population of Iceland, 35 national groups and a market economy. It also claims to have made giant inroads into the smuggling problem, and quotes EU and other Western watchdogs as saying “there is no evidence that Pridnestrovie (Trans-Dniester) has ever trafficked arms or nuclear material,” referencing reports from 2004 claiming Trans-Dniester could be a marketplace for weapons of mass destruction left over from Soviet arms factories.
Smirnov, the president, has suggested that Trans-Dniester suffers in part because of his unconcealed nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
Trans-Dniester and Moldova both elect their presidents. But while Moldova is on a reformist, pro-Western course, Trans-Dniester keeps its Soviet habits and discipline. The streets are largely empty, but everyone uses crosswalks and waits for the lights to change. Slogans endorsing Soviet-era solidarity and cooperation are freshly painted on walls and buildings.
After school, teenagers gather along the left bank of the Dniester River to strum guitars and talk about what they’ll do when they get out – to Moscow, to Kiev, to Odessa, wherever. “Moscow is a big city and that’s where the opportunities are,” said Aleksandra Luchkova, 16, in fluent English.
The population has fallen 20 percent in 16 years; in 2004, 5,000 babies were born, down from 12,000 in 1992. The wait for Russian citizenship and a passport can be two years. Meanwhile, to get in and out requires passing through five separate checkpoints.
For the referendum, Dmitry Soin, head of a state security committee, whipped up the youth vote to burn Moldovan flags and ride giant American tractors through Tiraspol’s streets under banners of Che Guevara.
“We are waking up Trans-Dniester youth,” said Soin, 37, sipping espresso in a dimly lit cafe. “I’m not going to say we don’t have a problem with youth migration, but I don’t think it’s so unusual. Youth, the world over, are very mobile and dream of escaping to somewhere new.”
The students set up a tent camp with the help of a pro-Kremlin youth group brought in from Russia. But on referendum day, the tents were empty and blown away by the wind.