Less than 200 kilometers separate Transnistria from the European Union's eastern frontier, on the Romanian border. Yet the tiny sliver of disputed territory might as well be on another planet.
"Do you want to complain about us? To whom? Are you stupid, or are you just acting like it?" the Transnistrian border guard laughs as he and his colleagues watch over a state that does not legally exist.
Transnistria, a narrow stretch of land on the eastern banks of the Dniester River, split from the Republic of Moldova in 1992 after a short military conflict — in which separatists were aided by Russia.
Yet, not even Russia, which still has soldiers stationed in the region and regularly conducts military maneuvers there, recognizes Transnistria as a sovereign state.
Arrests in broad daylight
Alexei Mocreac knows the despotism of Transnistria's political system all too well. He has spent more than 30 days behind bars for no reason whatsoever. He says he has been arrested four times, "Just like that — on the street, in broad daylight." He says he was told he was disrespecting Transnistria's "state order," that is, the order of a state that does not legally exist. Mocreac says he was eventually "released after each arrest, without being told why. They even wanted me to pay for the stays — as if I were in a hotel."
Mocreac is from the small Transnistrian city of Grigoriopol. When war broke out in the early 1990s, he fought for Moldova and against the separatists. At the time he was 33 years old. He was separated from his wife and two children for years, but he was unable to stay away. He returned to Grigoriopol where he says he was repeatedly arrested. He is still politically active today and continues to push for Transnistria's reintegration into Moldova.
NGO: Torture and unsolved deaths in the Transnistrian army
The army is a popular employer in this tiny, self-proclaimed republic of 500,000 residents. "Kids used to run away from the army, but now they want military posts — they bring secure income and retirement pay," says Mocreac. "But those who refuse to be recruited risk punishment, even jail time." In reality, most recruits are treated as if they were in prison anyhow, he adds: "They are humiliated, beaten, even tortured. Some kill themselves because they can't take it any longer."
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The nongovernmental organization Promo-LEX, based in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, is attempting to find answers to some of the deaths and rumors of torture in the Transnistrian army. Thanks to Promo-LEX, several such cases have made their way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Yet, the NGO says, "ultimately, Transnistrian authorities profit from the fact that no one can actually punish them."
Moldova has no judicial influence over Transnistria, which in turn ignores all international institutions. Russia, too, claims to have no obligations to that end, even though the ECHR has labelled the Transnistrian government a puppet of Moscow.
Romanian passport a ticket to Western Europe
The vast majority of citizens in Moldova speak Romanian, most of the region belonged to Romania before World War II. Those with Romanian roots can also apply for Romanian passports. Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, those passports make holders EU citizens as well.
Although roughly 60% of Transnistrian citizens speak Russian and do not have Romanian roots, Mocreac says that many "kids" of Russian or Ukrainian stock have been successful in acquiring Romanian passports, and thus a ticket to wealthier Western Europe.
And it is not only the boys and men who leave. "My daughter is in Germany," says Feodosia, who lives in the village of Varnita. Looking around, one can see abandoned train tracks that lead nowhere and children playing tag near a dilapidated house overgrown with plants. Bullet-riddled facades serve as a reminder of the war that raged here in the 1990s.
The village of Varnita is in a buffer zone near the border that does not legally exist. Control of the area is shared between Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities — both are under the watchful eye of Russian troops referred to as "peacekeepers" by the Transnistrians. Feodosia receives her pension payments from Chisinau, but the taxes and bills she pays are split between Moldova and Transnistria.
Outside Feodosia's village, just a few meters from a border crossing for Transnistria, Ivan Pascanu recently opened a shop. Sitting at a table surrounded by plastic chairs, he talks about the old days, when Moldova was under Soviet control. "In the Soviet Union we were all the same," he says. But according to Pascanu, "anarchy" rules today. He says schools were also much better when they were under Soviet control.
Even though Pascanu, himself a trained architect, looks to Russia with great admiration, he says that he, too, will send his children west to be educated in Romania.
Feodosia also has connections to the EU, where her children study, live and work. Yet, she cannot imagine moving to Germany like her daughter: "In the West I would be treated like a second-class citizen." Russia, she says, makes her humble existence on the European periphery more bearable: by providing gas at starkly reduced prices.
In Europe's most impoverished regions, whether one looks more favorably toward Moscow or Brussels is often determined by very simple criteria — like the price of gas.