1 Apr 2014

Fear, football and torture – undercover in Transnistria

It sounds like a distant planet in a dystopian sci-fi movie, and the place itself does not disappoint – our team went undercover inside the next potential flashpoint between Russia and the west.

Welcome to Transnistria, a tiny strip of land measuring less than 15 miles wide. Wedged in between Moldova and Ukraine, experts say that this rarely talked about patch of a geopolitical puzzle looks set to become the next new flashpoint between Putin’s Russia and the west, writes Jim Wickens.

To travel into Transnistria is to travel back in time, to a place where policeman wear hammer and sickle ensignia, where monuments to Lenin adorn the “Grand Soviet”, as the parliament is known, and where Russia maintains 2,000 troops.

Long linked to organised crime, the government here doesn’t take too kindly to journalists, so we went in undercover. Our destination was one of the country’s last Romanian-speaking schools – behind wrought iron bars on the outskirts of the Transnistrian capital, Tiraspol.

We watched as a half-empty class took French lessons in their native Moldovan language. These are Romanian-speaking Moldovans, a dwindling group of whom still eke out a living in Transnistria. But it’s getting harder.

Ethnic tensions

Last month the authorities confiscated the wages for the teachers. Alex, a teenage pupil we spoke to, says that he’s scared and that people here hate them. He doesn’t know why.

We watched as the school gathered around a Moldovan flag, singing happy birthday to the headteacher as a student saxophonist serenaded her with Yesterday. She wiped away a tear and the school applauded her.

They are a close-knit community but they are under siege by Russian-speaking nationalists who want them to leave.

On the outskirts of Tiraspol and away from the attention of the security forces and the dreaded secret police, we find three Ukranian grave diggers tending Orthodox gravestones.

Loading long shovels into a rusty Skoda, a man and two women berate the pro-European movements of Ukraine away from Russia, and demand that Russia come to take over Transnistria.

Life here would be so much better with Russia in charge, they say. A giant sheriff’s badge looms over the gate to the ground of Sheriff, the football club giant whose multiple stadiums, training grounds and offices tower over the landscape in this tiny state.

There is no justice. Everything is bought and sold. It’s just like at the market. Just like in a shop. You walk in and ask for the price of things.

Sheriff is a force to be reckoned with on and off the pitch, Sheriff today owns 26 seats of Transnistria’s largest political party, wielding an unprecedented influence in this corrupt corner of the world.

We watched as two regional teams played out in an enormous indoor stadium, a few dozen fans on either side cheering on teams amongst five TV cameras, overlooked by policemen scowling at the crowd in Soviet-era uniforms.

We sit next to a few fans and elderly grannies with their young grandchildren gazing on at the spectacle in front of them. With tickets on sale for just 50 cents, it’s cheap even by Transnistrian standards.

Just as Moldova begins the long route to EU accession, experts fear that Russia will invade Transnistria. One geopolitical expert we spoke to Kisineu suggested that it is not a matter of if but when Russia makes a move.

But in many ways perhaps Russia simply doesn’t need to. Russian “peacekeeper” troops have remained stationed here since the end of the civil war with Moldova in 1992, sitting upon a vast stockpile of 28,000 tonnes of arms and ammunition, amidst a network of tank-hardened roads that roll all the way through Moldova and Romania.

Why would they need to invade? They’re already here. West of the Transnistrian border we found a sleepy village in the late afternoon, empty but for elderly women and young children scooting around in the dust next to a crumbling building block, and a derelict playground with swings made out of bits of old string.

“Everyone has left,” an elderly lady tells us, gone to work in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. “Things were much much better in the past,” berating the steep increase in the price of bread since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In Transnistria they get free gas and a pension from Russia, far more than the Moldovan side and their European Union sponsors, who are unable to compete with such persuasive economic firepower.

Underneath the clean streets and smart blocks of houses in Transnistria however, there is a vein of fear that courses through this Stalinist throwback. And we had to travel back to the north of Moldova to find it.

Life on the inside

In a dreary tower block we found Alex, a former policeman who bought a flat in Transnistria with his wife and young child.

One day he was picked up by cops in a car with Russian plates. “I was taken to a six-metre-deep basement, with no windows or doors, where practically there was no air… I was severely beaten up on the first day. On the third day I lost consciousness and I came round when the ambulance took me to hospital where I asked to be kept in. But the police officers refused”.

Alex got three years in jail, and the policeman who arrested him took his flat, living in it for three years before selling it on and pocketing the cash.

Today Alex has been reunited with his wife and kid in Moldova, but the memories still loom large. Another Moldovan man, Vitalie, is still in jail. A bread factory owner in Transnistria he was picked up, forced to hand over the deeds to his businesses and then sentenced to 12 years in jail.

“He was beaten up in there, he was threatened and tortured… He was taken outside the prison walls by armed man and his execution was staged… They fired machine guns at his feet and he had to dig his own grave,” his sister told us.

“The prison in fact is hell on earth… The basement where people are kept is completely covered in mould. We need to send chemicals for that as well, to wash the mould off.”

People talk about free gas and pensions, but they don’t see the wider picture claim those who have suffered at the hands of the Transnistrian security forces.

“There is no justice. Everything is bought and sold. It’s just like at the market. Just like in a shop. You walk in and ask for the price of things. That’s how the justice system works. What’s the price of a year of freedom? How much does that cost? Everything has a price,” says Vitalli’s sister.

Transnistria is a land of complete lawlessness and chronic corruption, where those in power can grab resources as and when they want to. It is a mafia state. Putin’s Russia doesn’t need to invade this strip of land. It’s already here.

Watch Jim Wickens and Paul Mason’s report on Channel 4 News tonight.