Thursday, February 26, 2009

Transdnistria: Border Politics and the Geopolitical Gaze

BOULDER, Colorado -- As reported in the Moscow Times Thursday, the AP's Masha Danilova wrote a story about the efforts of the Russian government to distribute Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics. Recently, Russia has been aggressively distributing passports in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdnistria - 135,000 of the region's 550,000 inhabitants now hold Russian passports.

Since splitting from Moldova after a brief civil war in 1992, this narrow sliver of land has been a close ally of Moscow - like Georgia's breakaway regions, it is also patrolled by Russian "peacekeepers" who are really just occupation troops. Transdnistria is one of the many pseudo-states that dot the former Soviet space. Without international recognition, these places represent geopolitical "black holes" - they are breeding grounds for criminal enterprises, like trafficking in drugs, weapons and people, enterprises that are usually run by the elites in control of the government. With a reliable patron like Russia, citizens can receive the benefits of an internationally-recognized passport, while the state can remain outside the purview of international institutions and regulations. Transdnistria especially has deserved this reputation as a gangster state, as it is a hotbed of smuggling in people and weapons, rackets allegedly under the control of the authoritarian president, Igor Smirnov.

Russia is not the only country in the region engaged in passport politics. Romania has periodically allowed Moldovan citizens to apply for Romanian passports (which now also makes them EU citizens). The Moldovan government has criticized this move as undermining their statehood, but many in Romania (and Moldova) hope to eventually unify the two countries, as their languages and cultures are nearly indistinguishable. Moldova had traditionally been part of Romania until World War II, when it was annexed by the USSR. The language of the region was switched from Latin to Cyrillic script, and the Romanian speakers now under Soviet control were declared to be a separate ethnic and linguistic group, called "Moldovans."

What particularly intrigues me about Transdnistria is the geopolitics of the region's name. This is a contested region that straddles the line between East and West. In English, its name means "across the Dniester River" - looking eastward, it hugs the far bank of the river. For the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, this region was the farthest extent of their eastward push along the Black Sea's northern coast. The "civilizational" divide between these empires and the Russians to the east can be seen in the frontier fortresses that dot the area. The gaze from the other direction has the opposite meaning - its name in Russian is Pridnistrove, where the prefix "pri" means "in front of," so it is thought to lie on the near bank of the Dniester.

In the context of the contemporary border politics of Europe, this distinction holds a great deal of meaning. The European Union has drawn a bright line across the continent. Countries within its borders are promised prosperity, security, and freedom of movement for citizens; outside, they are subject to the machinations of a newly-assertive Russia and beyond the reach of EU cash. Of course, the line is never as bright as it appears at first. Knowing that it can never truly be a "fortress Europe," the EU extends all manner of assistance to its neighbors, especially for immigration controls and border security though its Border Assistance Mission. The fancy PDAs now carried by Ukrainian border guards were bought with EU cash.

Like in Transdnistria, Russian diaspora communities have provided a number of challenges to Moscow and the host countries since 1991. Since Putin's ascent to power in 2000, Russia has seen them as an asset rather than a liability. Through passports, as well as overt and covert support of nationalist political groups, the Russian government has found supporters of its foreign policy goals inside neighboring countries. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine want to keep the country out of NATO and keep the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol; in Estonia, they agitate against the country's nationalist language and citizenship policies. They are especially useful in breakaway regions, like Transdnistria, and Georgia's restive republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where nearly everyone holds Russian citizenship, is eligible for a Russian pension, and government workers have their salaries paid by Moscow. In the case of Georgia, these benefits are not only extended to ethnic Russians, but to the entire population; should Russia gain a stronger footing in Transdnistria, they would probably also offer passports to the Ukrainians and Gagauz who occupy the territory, though likely not to ethnic Moldovans.

Transdnistria is comically awful place, and I can hardly fit all of the entertaining bits of information I know about this geopolitical querio into a single blog post, but I can point you to other resources. The author of news*diet will be spending the next year of his life studying "Moldovanness" for his dissertation, and he has made many forays into the hermit kingdom of Mr. Smirnov. Also, check out the research by geographers John O'Loughlin and Vladimir Kolossov on pseudo-states. Transdnistria's English-language propaganda newspaper, the Tiraspol Times, is always good for a laugh. The few minutes it took for my train to cross this sliver of land on my way from Moscow to Chisinau was all the time I needed to spend in Transdnistria, and I do not have any plans to return.

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