When asked how she feels about living in a country that doesn’t exist, Maria Sakalova, all of 24 years old, gets annoyed. “I want to make people come here, come here and see what my country’s like,” she retorts.
Born in 1992, Sakalova belongs to a generation that has known only the State of Transnistria — a territory born out of the ashes of the USSR in 1990 and officially under the control of the Moldovan authorities, but which is de facto independent and supported financially by Russia.
Her one wish is to see the independence of Transnistria recognised at last and she is desperate to be able to travel freely on her Transnistrian passport; her identity papers currently give her no rights abroad.
A young woman with blue eyes and long hair, Sakalova seems determined and self-assured. As a bright literature student involved in university life, she could have gone to finish her studies abroad as all her friends have done. But she made a different choice: to stay in Transnistria and set up her own business.
Since last year, she has been growing strawberries, which she sells at the local market. She could not have done so without €5,000 (US$5,200) of grants from the European Union and UNDP who are working to bring together those on the two banks of the Dniester, the river that acts as the border between Moldova and Transnistria.
“We had our first harvest this year but I’m still not sure I’m going to break even,” she explains. “I didn’t choose the easy option but I wanted to run my business and contribute to my country’s development, because if I don’t do it, who will?”
Finding that their qualifications are worthless, many students leave the country. They move to Moldova or Russia, the only countries that will admit them. But it is not only young people who are affected by migration. Between 1989 and 2014, Transnistria went from having 750,000 inhabitants to only 450,000, mostly due to the lack of jobs.
Anton Polyakov, a 26-year-old documentary photographer, is well aware of this situation. And yet, he has chosen to remain living here. He has been getting by, selling his photographs to foreign newspapers. “The people who have gone abroad will come back sooner or later, because they’re not happy there,” he maintains. “When I was working in delivery in St Petersburg, all I wanted was to come home. It’s my homeland, my friends are here and we are surrounded by nature here. I really feel a need to be here.”
He recently started taking a series of photographs of young people in rural areas. His images, filled with boredom and yearning, depict more limited expectations than those found in cities. If they want to stay, one of the few options available to young men is to join the Transnistrian or Russian army. Otherwise, agriculture remains one of the few ways to support themselves.
The official unemployment rate is 3.4 per cent, but this is far from representative as it takes no account of those who have emigrated. And, according to experts, unemployment has continued to rise over recent years, testifying to a difficult economic situation.
For women, the options are just as limited: become a mother fairly young, study in Tiraspol or go to work in Sheriff outlets — a local conglomerate with a virtual monopoly over the region’s economy. At the end of the day, these are broadly similar prospects to those of young people in neighbouring post-Soviet countries.
Leaving to find greater freedom
Many tell themselves they will leave one day. One of these is Alexandra Telpis. Working for a local NGO with funding from the Czech Republic, this young woman runs Club 19, the only slightly “alternative” space in the capital city. Confident about her rights, she organises topical discussions, film festivals and exhibitions in this warm and cosy venue decked out with reclaimed furniture.
“I love my work, I feel useful here,” she tells me. She studied over the border in Moldova, then in Romania, according to her family’s wishes. They cannot understand why she did not then go to Europe, as she has Romanian nationality. “As long as no-one is stopping me from working, I will stay,” she declares.
Working in the voluntary and cultural sectors remains tricky in Transnistria, particularly if touching on topics relating to human rights, tolerance or citizenship. “The regime considers these “political” issues and therefore out of bounds,” she sighs.
As in Russia, the local Parliament is drafting legislation against “foreign agents”, which could well lead to the dissolution of her organisation. “To the secret services, I am the classic foreign agent!” Telpis says ironically. “I speak Romanian, I have a Romanian passport, I work for an organisation financed from abroad...”
She suspects that her NGO is under surveillance. Several times, she has been threatened over the phone or followed, but she claims she is not overly fearful: “I know I am not doing anything illegal or that could go against the regime. That helps stop me getting paranoid.”
Carolina, a 21-year-old photographer, has suffered similar pressures. “I feel as though I’m waking from a horrible nightmare,” she declares. For several months, she worked on a series of photographs documenting the problems faced by the LGBT community in Tiraspol. Publicity for the opening exhibition on social networks resulted in an avalanche of online criticism and threats.
“I realised I was in a minority for wanting progress,” she explains. “In truth, hardly anyone here wants change, because they have very conservative mindsets — and as long as the country is closed off, this will not change.”
The exhibition was supposed to be launched at Club 19, but Carolina decided to cancel it following threats from the secret services towards her family and friends.
She was also afraid she would be stopped from leaving the country to finish her medical studies. Despite having a Russian passport, which would make this easier for her, she still cannot decide between the Russian and European capitals: “In Russia, there is more freedom than here, but less than in Europe...”
In one of Tiraspol’s trendy bars, decorated in Halloween colours, Ghenadie Cornitel greets everyone he bumps into, in between phone calls. A glass of wine in hand, the 22-year-old entrepreneur explains how he created, “partly out of boredom”, a page dedicated to Transnistria on a Russian social network. Now with 35,000 members, the page and the advertising hosted on it bring him some income and, above all, a certain degree of fame.
But he knows that there are some rules he needs to respect. “I’ve got three moderators who remove certain comments, such as ones criticising the regime or calling for demonstrations,” he explains. “But in general, internet users are well aware of what they can and cannot say,” says the young man, who can see himself going into politics, based on his popularity.
However, it is not easy for Cornitel to stay here, and for good reason. He is studying finance — when neither the local Transnistrian currency nor the country’s banking system are recognised. He still finds it funny that he chose such an apparently unpromising sector.
But for the moment, self-censorship works well in Transnistria, especially at times such as during the country’s recent presidential election, when there is even more control than usual on public expression. On Sunday 11 December 2016, Vadim Krasnoselski was elected President of the Transnistrian Parliament in the first round, obtaining 70 per cent of votes to beat his rival, Evgheni Sevciuk, the current serving President.
But it does not seem that this election will have much impact on the geopolitical situation in the country. In reality, the negotiations for reconciliation between Chișinău (the Moldovan capital) and Tiraspol have been stalled for several years. “I’d really like to stay here and not have to leave, but only if Transnistria becomes a bit more stable,” Cornitel confides.
“However, the situation has been in deadlock for 26 years so I don’t see how it can move forward.”