Why Ukraine's Future Could Look a Lot Like Moldova

Corruption, Stagnation, and Division

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Moldovan President Pavel Filip on the Moldovan–Ukrainian border, July 2017. Reuters

If you want a glimpse into the future of Moscow’s proxy statelets in eastern Ukraine, come to Bender, a so-called “demilitarized” city on the border between the Republic of Moldova and the breakaway entity of Transnistria. The city sits only about 60 miles from the nearest European Union border with Romania and provides important lessons about the risks of allowing festering conflicts to freeze on Europe’s borders. If the statuses of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics likewise remain unresolved, those territories are poised to be plagued by corruption, criminality, and dysfunctional politics.

Bender became a demilitarized city in 1992. A year earlier, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a military conflict broke out between Moldova and the Russian-backed region of Transnistria, which sought independence. In July 1992, the two sides concluded a ceasefire agreement, which included the establishment of a Joint Control Commission to supervise security arrangements in a demilitarized zone consisting of 20 towns on both sides of the river. One of those is Bender.

In Bender, Russian soldiers, officially known as “peacekeepers,” share facilities with Moldovan and Transnistrian law enforcement officials in charge of security. According to the treaty, the Moldovans police villages around the area’s main city, while the Transnistrians cover the city center itself. But the parallel authorities sometimes clash. In one particularly farcical episode described to us by Moldovan officials, Moldovan police who were arresting a suspected trafficker were themselves detained and interrogated by Transnistrian militia who happened upon the scene. In the meantime, the trafficker continued on his journey unimpeded. Indeed, Transnistria’s unresolved status has led to no shortage of criminal impunity in Europe’s borderlands. Moldovan politicians are divided between those who look to the West and those oriented toward Moscow.

Tiraspol, the self-styled capital of Transnistria, is a Soviet time warp with a stagnant economy dependent on Russian subsidies. It features monuments to Vladimir Lenin and hosts diplomatic missions from sister breakaway regions, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whereas

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