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From Ecology to Tolerance: Breaking Ice on the Dniester

With practically no official contact between Moldova and Transdniester, both sides quietly work with civil society to rebuild trust. 

by Madalin Necsutu and Ilie Gulca 21 March 2019

Just six months after proclaiming independence from the Soviet Union, Moldova was riven by civil strife, as the strip of territory east of the Dniester River fought a war of secession. The conflict in the spring and summer of 1992 cost the lives of 1,130 people and left 3,500 wounded.


On the heels of the truce signed by Russia and Moldova on 21 July 1992, the separatist territory known as Transdniester sprung up across the river from Moldova, with military and financial help from Russia.


Ever since, the communities on the opposite banks of the Dniester have been living in parallel realities: Moldova aspires to be a democratic society, while Transdniester dreams of independence as a step toward becoming part of Russia. Transdniestrians and Moldovans live in different informational spaces: they cannot send letters across the river and have no direct telephone connection. Each has a different educational system – Moldova has adopted the occidental model, while Transdniester has kept the Soviet one.


“Almost 30 years after the war, a new generation has appeared, one that knows nothing about formerly being part of the same country,” says Ilya Trombitsky, the director of Eco-Tiras, an umbrella group gathering dozens of NGOs on both sides of the Dniester.


“The people living on both river banks have conjured the idea of the enemy on the other side,” he muses.




The notion to put together a cross-border consortium to protect the Dniester emerged when Trombitsky and his colleagues from the Biotica Ecological Society in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, began tossing around ideas on how best to address the precarious situation of the river – from pollution and contaminated drinking water to overuse of this resource, the main source of drinking water for all of Moldova and the Odessa region of Ukraine.


The Dniester flows more than 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) from the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine to cross Moldova before turning back into Ukraine for the last short stretch to its mouth on the Black Sea. The Dniester basin covers 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles), home to about 8 million people.


The Dniester


“We understood that the Dniester can be protected only once there will be an attitude change from all the states that have access to the river basin – Ukraine and Moldova, including Transdniester,” Trombitsky says.


In 1999, Biotica held two international conferences with like-minded NGOs from Ukraine and Moldova.


At the suggestion of one guest, environmental law expert John Bonine of the University of Oregon, ecologists from Moldova, Transdniester, and Ukraine borrowed a model for cooperation from North America – the riverkeeper, an idea that has spread like ripples on a pond from its beginnings in the Hudson River valley of New York State.


At the time, the Dniester was seen far more as a wall than as a natural feature able to restore severed ties. Nearly a decade after the fighting stopped, the wounds were still open. The causes of the war – quarrels over the state language, the movement to speak Romanian and write with the Latin script (fired by slogans like “Chemodan,vokzal, Rossia!” – “suitcase, train station, Russia,” indicating that Russian sympathizers should depart for that country) still weighed heavily on society, at work, among friends, even in mixed families. 


“Once in 1992, I went to Chisinau, where I ran into an old acquaintance. I greeted her in Russian and she didn’t answer, and she wouldn’t answer until I greeted her in Romanian. From that moment on and until 2003, for more than 10 years, I didn’t go to Chisinau,” says Nicolae Galeiliuc, who runs the Turunciuc ecological organization based in Cioburciu in southern Transdniester.


After the war, the authorities in Chisinau and the self-proclaimed government in Tiraspol discouraged or persistently hindered initiatives meant to consolidate trust between the two formerly belligerent shores of the Dniester.


As early as 1993, one group began organizing events on both sides of the river, but three years later the chief of the political police in Tiraspol announced its closure for “subversive activities,” a step probably agreed on with the Chisinau authorities, says Oazu Nantoi, a specialist in Transdniester at the Institute for Public Policy, a think tank in Chisinau.  


Setting Up the Network


Still, the founders of Eco-Tiras understood that the ecological problems of the Dniester could not be solved without the active participation of Transdniester. In 2003, they set out to form the group, using their personal contacts, and starting with a network of environmental NGOs on the left, Transdniestrian, bank of the river.


“We used the connections we had formed with some participants in our past projects – for instance, a kayaking expedition down the Dniester, from its source all the way to the sea, and some people from Transdniester also took part in it. We knew the others from Soviet times,” Trombitsky says.


Trombitsky at the summer school


Galeiliuc describes his first meeting with one of the leaders of Biotica.


“A beautiful woman named Tatiana Sineaeva came to Cioburciu, walked through the park, told me about their activities, and made me very interested. I asked her if they belonged to some religious sect, because I am Orthodox and I don’t like politics and proselytizing,” he recalls.


The scope of Eco-Tiras still very much embraces “keeping” the Dniester, but the group has expanded into a range of social and educational activities.


The Transdniestrian member organizations of Eco-Tiras have the pledge not to get engaged in politics enshrined in their legal statutes. “We are outside the political sphere,” insists Leonid Ershov, director of the Pelican organization in Transdniester’s second largest city, Bender.


Eco-Tiras now includes more than 50 environmental and other organizations in both parts of Moldova and in Ukraine.


Projects and Problems on the Left Bank


Early on, Eco-Tiras, through its Transdniestrian partners, opened eight information centers in the region's major cities and towns, providing not just environmental information, but internet access as well.


“We are talking about 2004–2005, a time when the internet was not accessible to everyone in Transdniester. These centers were windows of communication with the outside world,” says Ivan Ignatiev, president of the EkoSpektr group, an environmental NGO based in Bender.  


Nowadays, when everyone has the internet, the centers have become seedbeds for partnerships to tackle social and ecological issues – and raise the needed funds.


But in 2014, Transdniester adopted a law inspired by legislation passed two years before in Russia, requiring NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in “political” activity to register as foreign agents. That has meant serious  hassles for both NGOs and local officials who seek those funds for projects they could not otherwise envision.


“Local authorities need our support to access grants from external donors,” Ignatiev says.


When the Tiraspol authorities do approve Western funding, it typically is for infrastructure and development projects to ease the financial burden on the poorly endowed, unrecognized territory.


Although the law – which has yet to be used against any NGO – effectively bars international funders from directly financing organizations on the left bank of the Dniester, a side effect has been to encourage cooperation between NGOs in both parts of Moldova on projects not seen as “political.” 


Knowledge Versus Prejudice


One of the most successful Eco-Tiras projects is a summer school that celebrated its 11th edition in 2018. It, too, has become a visible booster for the work of local NGOs, raising their profile, especially among young people and their parents.  


Each year 70 teenagers and university students are selected for the 10-day program, 35 from each side of the river.


“We combine lessons about ecology with others on human rights, anti-racism, European institutions, practically everything,” Trombitsky says.


Stefan Driga


The camp is held in Molovata Noua, on the left bank but in a small piece of territory controlled by Chisinau. Director Stefan Driga says the camp has helped break down barriers.


“At the beginning they didn’t know each other, and they came with different visions and prejudices, especially the students from Transdniester – namely that Moldova is public enemy number one, and they saw here that this isn’t so,” Driga says.


“For me it was something shocking, I [initially] thought that politics could solve Transdniester’s problems, but then I understood who can really solve them. The children, by getting to know each other, saw that the enemies are on neither side of the Dniester,” he adds.


Igor Savga, a young man who has attended the camp several times, says it helps counteract what children learn in school:


“Everybody starts with this preconception that everybody else [on the opposite side] is bad,” he said. “At the end, after 10 days, they realize that things aren’t the way they were told in school, or how they imagined them to be.”


Savga, from the Transdniestrian town of Cameanca, is currently studying for his medical degree in Chisinau. 


Igor Savga


“Students from Transdniester hear in school that Moldova is a bad place, and they don’t go there. The only people who change their minds are people who study in Moldova … But the ones who stay in Transdniester and don’t communicate with those from the right bank stick to their opinions,” he adds. “At this summer school, people can speak freely in Romanian and Russian” – the main languages of Moldova and Transdniester, respectively.


“Nobody tries to make someone feel uncomfortable,” says Ershov, director of the Pelican organization, which has also sent local kids from Bender to the school. 


Money From the West


Efforts by civil society to bring the two banks of the Dniester closer together have, however, failed to get a serious hearing from the authorities in both Chisinau and Tiraspol.


Trombitsky illustrates that point with his experience in 2012, when he suggested to the deputy prime minister for reintegration that, rather than merely talking up reconciliation initiatives, the government in Chisinau should get involved in ongoing projects that were already showing results in increasing awareness of social issues.


In reply, the Bureau for Reintegration, whose remit is to end the 27-year rift in Moldova, directed him to an agreement Moldova and the European Union signed that year on continued financing for environment-related projects. In other words, Trombitsky should look to European money, because the state was not interested in co-financing projects promoted by civic groups working in the public interest, especially in territory under Tiraspol’s control.


Chisinau has some sway over Transdniestrian civil society through Eco-Tiras and other cross-river organizations. However, despite official support for fostering trust between the two shores, over the past few years only projects in the “security zone,” comprising several small pieces of Chisinau-controlled land on the left bank, have received official backing.


Over these years, Chisinau has focused almost exclusively on programs related to maintaining and developing infrastructure in areas under its jurisdiction – such as renovating and maintaining schools on the left bank where the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic is taught, and fixing up other public buildings such as city halls, street lighting, roads, and so on.


In a response to questions regarding its activities in Transdniester, the Reintegration Bureau said it offered financial support totaling 45 million lei ($2.6 million) between 2014 and 2018 to Moldovan farmers who were unable to work their lands in Transdniester.


In the security zone, where a contingent of about 1,200 Russian, Moldovan, and Transdniestrian peacekeepers has patrolled for more than 20 years, the bureau said it made available 96 million lei to finance 355 development projects between 2011 and 2018. In addition, eight Latin-alphabet schools in Transdniester received 5.7 million lei for educational activities over the same period.


According to the bureau, between 2011 and 2018 all bilateral projects that included people from the Transdniestrian region were financed exclusively by donors and external partners of Moldova, and totaled 17 million euros.


Pushing the Limits


The constraints on a resolution of the Transdniestrian conflict are many, but they all inevitably converge toward the lack of political will in both countries, according to activists from the Eco-Tiras network and other analysts.


Eco-Tiras director Trombitsky is still skeptical about the possibility of finding a solution at the government level.


“The cooperation potential between Chisinau and Tiraspol for receiving funds from abroad is very great. But our ministries don’t want such cooperation. Any Moldovan-Transdniestrian initiative has to pass through the Reintegration Bureau, which is under the Chisinau administration, where practically no decision ever gets made,” he laments.


“In Chisinau there is no political will, and in Tiraspol any rapprochement between the two shores is not permitted,” Trombitsky says. As the region’s analysts have long noted, Tiraspol has little incentive to seek rapprochement since closer, cordial relations could eventually accelerate a push toward reintegration into Moldova proper, diminishing the local authorities’ power.


International bodies that could finance cooperation projects have heard the message to keep clear, Trombitsky says.


From the perspective of Transdniestrian civil society, Ignatiev contends there are no problems between NGOs on either side of the Dniester. Problems appear once the authorities get involved. For instance, the office for foreign affairs in Tiraspol hinders the access of foreign delegations in the region, he says.


Nicolae Grosu – head of Renasterea (Rebirth), a group affiliated with Eco-Tiras, which is based in Talmaza in southeastern Moldova – explains that while there is no shortage of trust-building initiatives, Tiraspol all too often throws obstacles into their path.


“The first is that before we can take our projects to the other side of the Dniester, we must have the approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Transdniester,” he says. 


Grosu’s group has had some success on the far bank. When in 2009–2010 the municipality of Nezavertailovca, a few miles from Talmaza, badly needed repairs to its water and sewage system, Eco-Tiras and Rebirth arranged 1.2 million lei in funding from the UN Development Program.


“The results were construction of 11 kilometers of water pipes, supplying running water for the school and the kindergarten, and repairs to the pumping station and the sewage system,” he says.


The Turunciuc NGO in southern Transdniester also solved a water-supply problem thanks to the same partnership.


“With support from Eco-Tiras, we obtained $45,000 from the U.S. Embassy [in Chisinau]. With this money, we laid 10 kilometers of modern water pipes” to repair the aging water system in Cioburciu, the group’s director Galeiliuc says.


Bureaucratic hassles and the inability of the two sides to cooperate on all sorts of projects, there are other, more ominous complications in dealing with partners in Transdniester. Grosu says his partners there must inform the authorities, including the security ministry (known until recently as the KGB), in advance of starting a project.


“Their police keep our partners from coming to the right bank of the Dniester, unlike the Moldovan police, who have never created any problems. The Moldovan authorities never did anything to restrict the movement [of Transdniestrians],” Grosu says.


According to Ershov, now just as when civil society was first getting started in Transdniester, the State Security Ministry monitors the activity of civil society leaders.


How Do You Spell “Mother?”


Crucially, political analyst Nantoi contends, the work of ecological groups in Transdniester is severely hampered because the regional security bodies, which he believes are guided by their Russian counterparts, permit only activities they deem harmless from a political point of view.


“In Transdniester, your activity can be related to the social integration of children with autism, but you cannot touch upon anything having to do with the so-called political component, beginning with the alphabet you use to spell the word ‘mother,’ the expert says.


His view is shared by the head of the Moldovan think tank IDIS, Igor Munteanu, who claims that all activities of Transdniestrian NGOs are controlled by the security service. The secret police do allow some foreign-funded activities to go ahead, provided they are non-political and do not include blacklisted organizations.


Grigori Volovoi, a television journalist and president of a human rights defense fund in Transdniester, argues that such views are misguided. Civil society does exist in Transdniester, but it remains less developed than in the main part of Moldova, he says.


“In Transdniester there is a civil society disliked by those in power, just as there are opposition political parties. The problem is that neither Chisinau nor Tiraspol takes into account the opinions of the Eco-Tiras experts,” Volovoi says. 


Looking beyond the red tape, political rivalries, and hints of secret police infiltration of civil society, everyone who cares for the Dniester agrees that the coming generation will be crucial to its protection and development.


Natalia Sarbu, from the Slobozia district of Transdniester, says children like her 17-year-old daughter are not tainted with the old propagandistic view of the problem on both banks and see the present in a different way.

Her daughter Maria attended the Eco-Tiras summer school two years running.


“I was impressed by the organization and the mood there,” her mother says.


“I think our task, as adults, is first of all to trust our children. Children make the correct conclusions. They communicate, make friends, call each other, write letters after these summer schools,” she says. “I think we, the adults, are pushing our problems too strongly. Sometimes the world should be seen through the eyes of the children."  

Ilie Gulca is deputy chief editor of the newspaper Jurnal de Chisinau and has contributed to many investigative reports on such topics as illegal arms exports and illicit energy deals. Madalin Necsutu is editor in chief of the Moldovan edition of Evenimentul Zilei and has been the Balkan Insight correspondent in Moldova since 2017.
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