Moldova’s dirty war

MALCOLM GRAY July 27 1992

Moldova’s dirty war

MALCOLM GRAY July 27 1992

Moldova’s dirty war


Letter From Bendery

The walls of the 17th-century Bendery fortress are reminders of the battles that raged here at one time.

—from a 1988 tourist brochure titled “Welcome to Soviet Moldavia”

Burned-out buses and menacing gunmen, rather than fortress walls, are now the reminders of war in Bendery, a manufacturing centre in eastern Moldova (formerly Moldavia). All but 30,000 of the city’s former 130,000 inhabitants have fled for safety, and smashed buildings and fresh graves are legacies of another bloody ethnic conflict on the edge of the collapsed Soviet empire. Since March, more than 600 people have died along the scenic Dniester River in clashes between Moldovan forces and predominantly Slav separatists, many of them ethnic Russians, in the selfproclaimed Trans-Dniester Republic. A narrow strip of factories and farmland 225 km long and swelling to just 45 km at its widest point, the republic is struggling to break free of Moldova and its ethnic Romanian majority. An uneasy ceasefire now hangs over the region, frequently broken by artillery duels, automatic-weapons clashes and the spaced reports of sniper fire.

Near a city centre that was strewn with the rubble and debris of war, Proskovia Durbalova, 66, a sturdy red-haired pensioner who has refused to leave Bendery, wept for her city. “I came here from Russia 40 years ago to help build Bendery,” said the former construction engineer. “Now, it is in ruins.” Across the street from a wrecked state food store, weary but unbowed rebels stressed that they would never again submit to Moldovan rule. Said 45-year-old Alexander Subbotin, a grey-haired former Soviet Army sergeant: “Our independence has been forged in the blood of our fallen comrades.” But Moldovan loyalists continue to resist the breakup of their state. And the conflict has turned the apple orchards and sunflower fields along the Dniester into unlikely front lines in a conflict that threatens to embroil Moldova in a wider war with nearby Russia.

The first signs of war appear 28 km southeast of Tiraspol, the capital of the secessionist region, on Moldova’s border with Ukraine. There, heavy concrete barriers slow traffic from the port city of

Odessa, which allows Ukrainian police to make a perfunctory check of vehicles entering Trans-Dniester. The policemen are trying to prevent weapons and rebel sympathizers, many of them cossacks from southern Russia, from crossing the border into Trans-Dniester. But officers readily acknowledge that anyone wanting to evade their scrutiny can simply wait until dark and enter the rebel enclave by crossing nearby farmland.

Tiraspol itself, a tidy city of 150,000, has its own concrete-block checkpoint manned by Trans-Dniester’s rebel guards and a large welcome sign featuring a hammer and sickle. It is an appropriate symbol in a city where statues of a brooding Vladimir Lenin still

stand in public squares and where local politicians supported last year’s hard-line coup attempt in Moscow. Located on the eastern edge of the river where the war is being waged, Tiraspol remains tense, but quiet. Here, an hour-long Moldovan artillery bombardment of a rebel-held village eight kilometres away can cause little stir. Earlier this month, as the noise of the exploding shells boomed and crackled in the humid midsummer air, a teenage boy zigagged through central Tiraspol, concentrating hard on perfecting slick moves on a skateboard.

But the modem four-lane bridge that spans the river between Tiraspol and Bendery, 15 km away on the river’s west bank, offers stark evidence of | the bitter divisions that scar the area More than b 500 people were killed when the rebels captured 2 most of the city from Moldovan forces. Now, there J is little civilian motor traffic on the 200-m bridge, <

and rebel guardsmen occupy the trenches and barriers near each end of it. Trolley wires lie in a tangle on the fireblackened asphalt roadway where a burned-out bus and a wrecked Russian T64 tank are graphic evidence of the fierce fighting that raged here during the threeday battle for Bendery last month.

About 3,000 cossack fighters have supported and stiffened the Trans-Dniester rebels’ fighting spirit. Some of the cossacks wear black berets emblazoned with the czarist double-headed eagle and are in Trans-Dniester, they say, to defend fellow Slavs. Although they wave off questions about the few hundred rubles that they receive each month, the cossacks offer startlingly specific tales of mercenaries on the other side.

Inside city hall, where a white marble bust of Lenin dominates a lobby now barricaded with sandbags, Georgi Bocharnikov casually recalled how he and his comrades had cleaned Moldovan snipers out of a redbrick building across the street. “Be careful in the streets after 5 p.m.,” warned Bocharnikov, a 41-yearold cossack. “By then, it is hard to pick out the snipers—they like to shoot with the sun at their backs.” And he passed on a popular rumor among the rebels, denied by Moldovan officials: that women sharpshooters from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are fighting with the Moldovans. Said Bocharnikov: “I have heard that they get 10,000 rubles [$100] for every one of our soldiers they kill.”

Despite such reports, Moldovan President Mircea Snegur and Russian Leader Boris Yeltsin have continued to search for a political solution to end the bloodshed. The 11-member Commonwealth of Independent States recently approved the formation of an international peacekeeping force, and the Moldovan parliament has agreed

to allow up to 2,000 peacekeepers, who may be deployed by month’s end. But it is uncertain whether Russian and Moldovan soldiers can work together in a region so bitterly split along ethnic lines.

Yeltsin and Snegur, in fact, are grappling with two of the most explosive legacies of the U.S.S.R.: the massive Russian settlements in Soviet outposts of the empire and the borders that the Kremlin redrew at will. Moldova’s present boundaries were created by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin when he annexed the Romanian province of Bessarabia in 1940 and welded it to a sliver of Ukrainian territory east of the Dniester.

Snegur presides over a country that is the same size as Holland and that has a population of 4.3 million, 64 per cent of them ethnic Romanians. The Slavs are a minority, except in Trans-Dniester, where 154,000 ethnic Russians and 170,000 Ukrainians form a narrow majority in an overall population of 600,000. In Trans-Dniester, Moldova’s 1990 declaration of independence, the switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet and establishment of Romanian as the national language have fuelled fears among local Slavs that the former Soviet republic is about to rejoin Romania.

Yeltsin, meanwhile, is under strong pressure from his own Russian nationalists to guarantee the safety of their 25 million countrymen in other former Soviet republics, including Moldovans of Russian descent. Last month, he bluntly warned Snegur that the Moscow government would respond firmly if more ethnic Russians were killed on the banks of the Dniester.

Said Yeltsin: “We must act to defend peo-

ple and stop the bloodshed. We have the strength to do that.”

That strength is centred on the former Soviet troops still under Russian government control and stationed in now-independent republics from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia. In Moldova, about 5,000 active-duty soldiers of the 14th Army serve controversial commander Gen. Alexander Lebed, who has openly expressed sympathy for the secessionists. From his headquarters in Tiraspol, the 42-year-old chain-smoking general recently said that his soldiers would return fire if they were attacked. But plunging directly into local politics, Lebed added that he did not recognize the popularly elected Snegur as the legitimate ruler of Moldova and described the 52-year-old ex-Communist as “a fascist.” Moscow’s refusal to censure Lebed for those comments is a clear indication of Yeltsin’s limited control over the 14th Army. At times during the past three months, its tanks have fought alongside the rebels. And some members of the army’s largely Russian officer corps acknowledge that they have helped train, equip and supply the irregulars. The Russian aid has been good for the secessionists’ morale. But Trans-Dniester faces a cloudy future. A fragment of a vanished superpower, it seems too small to survive as an independent country and too close to Ukraine to become part of Russia. Its tangled political future has already spilled blood along the Dniester. And the failure to resolve the conflict raises that most chilling spectre for post-Communist Europe: another Yugoslavia.