Thawing a Frozen Conflict: Young People Healing Old Wounds in Transnistria and Moldova

March 25, 2021
Natalie Himmel
11 min read
Photo credit: The Romanian Centre for European Policies in Moldova
For nearly 15 years now, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation has nurtured civil society in contributing to the democratic foundations of the Black Sea region.

For nearly 15 years now, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation has nurtured civil society in contributing to the democratic foundations of the Black Sea region. As part of its grantmaking mission, BST promotes confidence building, regional cooperation, and reconciliation within the post-Soviet frozen conflicts. Like in many other success stories, the Romanian Centre for European Policies in Moldova engaged youth to explore the recent past and envisage a future that overcomes the challenging historical and political context that separated them. For organizations working in the areas of interest for BST, please check our Calls for Applications.

Western countries don’t often talk about Transnistria. But when they do, they call it “the country that doesn’t exist.” Eighteen-year-old Mihaela, who is from the self-proclaimed republic in Moldova, says though the idiom is partially true, it prompts her international friends to jokingly ask if Transnistria is like Voldemort from Harry Potter and if they shouldn’t invoke its name. “I have to explain to my friends no, Transnistria is just a piece of soil that says we are not Moldova, we are something different,” Mihaela says. In a Zoom call her video camera displays her upside down, and she jokes with Irina, who is also eighteen and from another city in Transnistria, she is like Spider-Man and is waiting for her Mary Jane. Both Mihaela and Irina participated in a creative project by the Romanian Centre for European Policies in Moldova to bring youth together on separate sides of the Dniester river, which acts as a border between Moldova and the breakaway state. But can a creative project really build bridges across such a divide?

Although Transnistria, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, claims to be separate from Moldova, no independent country officially recognizes it as such, including Russia, its benefactor. It has remained a frozen conflict zone for decades. The conflict began near the fall of the Soviet Union when Moldova became an independent country and adopted Romanian rather than Russian as its national language. Transnistria became a retreat for Russian speakers who wished to continue living as part of the Soviet Union, even after it collapsed. In 1992, war broke out between Moldova and the breakaway state, which was backed by Russian soldiers. Later that year, after thousands were killed or injured, a ceasefire was declared and an agreement between Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria established a joint commission between the three parties to keep the ceasefire.

Yet the ceasefire did nothing to solve the political and social conflict between Moldova and Transnistria. The border between the two, with the Dniester river as a natural boundary, is flanked by military personnel. Those in Moldova and Transnistria often identify themselves as being from the left bank (Transnistria) or the right bank (Moldova) of the river.

Growing up Frozen in Time

When Mihaela and Irina were born, the war had been over for years, but the estrangement of Transnistria had only increased. Transnistria established its own government and currency, refusing to accept the Moldovan leu within its borders. It has its own passports and has built up its own military and police force. The infrastructure of the self-proclaimed republic remains staunchly Soviet-era. Street names nod to communist icons, statues of Lenin stand tall, Soviet-era relics, buildings, and symbols are commonplace. The Transnistria flag, which often flies alongside Russian flags, recycles the Soviet golden hammer and sickle and gold-bordered red star.

Both Irina and Mihaela began to realize at a very young age their experiences were different depending on which side of the river they lived. Irina’s school had been run out of town before she was born for teaching Romanian in the Latin script in Transnistria. Due to pressure and intimidation from Transnistrian authorities, the school was forced to evacuate to the right side of the river, where it could use an existing building for its students in the second half of the day. So when Irina turned seven, she learned it would be a normal experience for her to take the bus across the river in order to safely go to a school registered with Moldova’s ministry of education. Her routine included passing through customs and handing documents over to border security guards.

Mihaela, too, came to understand that there was a separation at the river by crossing the border in order to visit her relatives in Moldova. “When we were going there, we always had to pass through customs. Without documents we were not able to pass through, and I didn’t quite understand why, but I knew there must be something different about the two sides because of this.” Going to a Russian kindergarten in Transnistria, Mihaela began to learn that there were rules and expectations—she was not to speak Romanian on the left bank in Transnistria; she had to speak Russian.  “This information that we are a different country, a different republic, was introduced to us early,” Mihaela says. “When you’re a little girl who has to identify herself with one side or the other…it is sad to deal with.”

A New Approach to an Old Conflict

The Romanian Centre for European Policies in Moldova, a Central and Eastern European think tank that focuses on dialogue and debate on the Eastern Partnership countries, saw something alarming in how those on both sides of the river felt about resolving the conflict: growing indifference and complacency.

Olesea, who works for the organization and coordinated the project to bring youth together on separate sides of the Dniester river, explains that people on the left bank in Transnistria know they live in an unrecognized republic, and like Irina and Mihaela, they often learn early because it is their only reality. But people on the right side of the river in Moldova don’t have the interest to learn more about the situation in Transnistria—they learn about it in school and in history lessons, but that’s it. “National surveys show that interest in solving the conflict is getting lower and lower. It’s no longer perceived as one of the top priorities for the country by Moldovans,” says Olesea.  

Irina agrees that although she became aware early of the conflict, she too, used to try not to think about it. “The conflict is long lasting and has no visible solution. It just didn’t seem worth it,” she says.

Olesea and her organization knew that something had to be done, and that the best place to start was with students. “Young people from both sides have now been born into this conflict,” Olesea explains. “They grow up on either side of the bank and they don’t know each other, they don’t connect. If they can travel, they sometimes do, but many people stay on their side of the bank and don’t ever get to connect on a meaningful level.”

The project, titled, “The Reflection of the Transnistrian Conflict in the Eyes of Youth through Street Art,” aimed at promoting reconciliation and peace to the younger generation by using urban art and pop culture in reflecting their views on a tumultuous past and their search for solutions. The project chose fifteen young people from the right and left bank. Before they were able to turn to collaborating on street art, there was one major thing that needed to be addressed and dismantled: stereotypes.

“One of the most common phrases in Transnistria is ‘don’t be such a Moldovan,’ or in other words, don’t be so stupid,” Mihaela says. “I’m not sure why we say this.” Just as ridiculous, she explains, is a common stereotype that Moldovans believe when they think about Transnistria: “They think that we are all Bolsheviks—that we have typical communist beards and that all of us are wearing guns and grenades. They think that we are such a scary people.” Mihaela rubs her temple as she speaks. Irina joins in and says she meets people who believe those from Transnistria only know how to speak Russian.

This is a common stereotype, explains Olesea, and one that was immediately dispelled as soon as students from both sides began speaking in Romanian. She shared a reflection from Nicoleta, a student from Moldova who participated in the project, exemplifying this realization: “I didn't know much about youth and people living in Transnistria. I have never been there,” she said. “I thought they are different, speak Russian, and know very little Romanian. But this opinion turned out to be totally wrong…I realized that we have a lot in common.”

Irina thinks people are often more alike than they think they are, and that differences are mostly manifested on the political level. Mihaela says she has discovered that stereotypes “are a wall that prohibits us from working together.” Another participant from the right side of the bank in Moldova had told project leaders that by being able to talk with her peers, “I discovered the multitude of stereotypes and now I can say that I know how to overcome them.”

The students took their realizations to pen and paper, sketching out ideas that would become murals in schools on both sides of the river. Art is a language anyone can speak, explains Mihaela, and you might feel alone or not think you have anything in common with someone else on the outside, but through art you start to see where you are the same and appreciate other perspectives. “And where there was just one of you, now there is two.”

The students worked with local graffiti artist Izzy Izne, who had already been involved in organizing workshops for youth, to design two large murals that represent mutual feelings between the participants. The first mural was painted in the courtyard of a high school in Chisinau and has as a central element, the inscription “Together we are stronger,” with two trees reaching their branches toward each other over the river that separates the two sides. In another high school in Transnistria, participants painted a mural that represents two girls between whom a river flow.

It wasn’t easy to coordinate the project amid COVID-19 restrictions and measures by Transnistrian authorities to keep inhabitants of the left and right bank on their separate sides of the river. Yet the students feel proud of their work and the connections and friendships they’ve made. They say they have learned it depends on each of them whether the river will continue to be a dividing line or whether it will become a bridge.

This is exactly why Olesea and her colleagues chose young people to participate in this project. “This is the group that is always the most open to learning more…so many years have passed from the start of the conflict. So much is lost, and people don’t feel the need…they have the option to either communicate from the other bank or not, and it is easier not to communicate.” It’s easy to see how passionate Olesea is on the subject. While she lives on the right side of the river in Moldova now, she grew up in Transnistria, and her parents still live on the left bank. Although the river separates them, she hopes society will not.

To some, young people seem like they have the least at stake—they were born into this conflict, they did not experience the violence of the war and do not hold those painful memories. To them, things have always been this way, so why would they change? And yet, Olesea sees young people forming friendships, changing their mind, developing critical thinking, and allowing hope to define their futures, not indifference.

Irina has recently left Transnistria to study at university. She dreams of getting into a master’s program in conflict management and learning about frozen conflict zones like her homeland and how to monitor political conflicts and negotiation processes. Maybe one day, she thinks, she will help Transnistria and Moldova finally reconcile their political differences.   

Mihaela, too, wants to find a solution. In her utopia, people in Transnistria will be able to speak in whatever language they want to, and she hopes especially that when she crosses the river, there will be no more border or customs. “I want to contribute in any way that I can to solving the problem. It is my home,” Mihaela says. “It’s a big pain in my soul that in our small country we are divided by political and historical and social problems. If I have the chance to help, I will help with everything I have.”

Olesea says she is realistic about the fact that her project cannot drastically change politicians’ minds or policy decisions. But she and her colleagues have plans to continue the project in future iterations based on the overwhelmingly encouraging feedback they received. Connecting fifteen students to create a public work of art is enough to be proud, but the nature of the project expands its impact. “We want to inspire those involved directly, but we also want to inspire those who read about this project, those who see our murals.” Olesea imagines a student standing in front of the wall and looking at the mural wondering, maybe for the first real time, ‘if I live on the right bank, what is it like on the left bank? And are we really that different?’ “If we encourage people to think about these questions,” she says, nodding to herself with a soft smile, “we will reach our goal.”