Transnistria — a breakaway republic of Moldova and host to a Russian garrison — has welcomed Ukrainian refugees – and the international organizations working with them.

According to official figures, 63,800 people from Ukraine had entered Transnistria by January. However, while the so-called minister of foreign affairs, Vitaly Ignatiev, claimed 20,000 stayed, he said, “Transnistria relied only on local resources” and “did not get any support from international organizations.” People working with refugees on the ground saw things differently.

“Some people say there are 2,000 refugees here, others that there are 8,000,” said Olena, the representative of an international organization working with refugees in Transnistria. “Publicly, the Transnistrian leadership is against international organizations, but in fact, they are OK with us as long as we don’t get into politics.” Vitaly, who works with another international organization, agreed. “Local authorities have no money to pay for refugees. They sponsor refugee centers and let donors in,” he said in an interview.

According to people who work with refugees in Transnistria, in December 2022 there were about eight organizations in Transnistria working with Ukrainian refugees, and at least three of them received money from international sponsors.

Although this includes international organizations, the amount of help Ukrainian refugees can get in Transnistria is much less than in Moldova, the country it broke away from in 1990. They are eligible to receive about €120 ($133) a month from the UNHCR, but they have to be registered in Moldova and must travel across the border to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, to claim the money. Food and other humanitarian goods are also mainly distributed outside Transnistrian territory.

The economic situation in Transnistria is even worse than in Moldova. Typical jobs for refugees — as teachers, manicurists, or nurses — are very badly paid, discouraging refugees from further integration. “Refugees don’t make plans,” Vitaly explained. “Many are retired and cannot work, and if they do, the average salary they can get is only $50-$80 per month. At the same time, they can travel to Chisinau and get food from humanitarian centers, which cost $35.”

Considering the pro-Russian rhetoric of Transnistrian state officials, and its poor economic conditions, why do Ukrainians go there at all?

Linguistic and social ties are one answer, and memories provide another. Olga, about 35 years old, was born in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, but in 1992 moved to Odesa, in Ukraine, to escape the war over control of her homeland. In 2022 she returned.

“I came here because I grew up here. Everybody speaks Russian, and in Odesa, we also spoke Russian,” she said. “90% of people who come here from Ukraine do it because they have relatives and friends here.”

Vitaly said the experience of the early 1990s was also an important factor in the welcoming of refugees. “Many people here compare the current situation with what was happening in 1992, when Ukrainians welcomed locals running away from horrors of the war,” he said. “They believe it’s their duty to help people who come from Ukraine.”

Some Ukrainians disapprove of their fellow citizens fleeing to a country backed by Russia, and there are similar feelings in Moldova. “We are hostages of the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria,” Olga said. “When we travel to Moldova, we don’t say we are from Transnistria because they won’t give us humanitarian supplies. They say it is only for Moldova.”

Paradoxically, the Russian invasion and refugee crisis have created grounds for dialogue between Tiraspol and Chisinau. When Ukraine proposed to “help” Moldova deal with the Transnistria problem in April 2022, it provoked much anxiety among Transnistrian leaders. They hastened to assure Kyiv there was no threat emanating from their side and reached out to Chisinau. Without direct access to its greatest supporter in Russia, the area of fewer than 500,000 people is feeling vulnerable.

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Moldovan officials agree the breakaway republic doesn’t want either side dragged into the war, not least because the Russian invasion has made Transnistria more dependent on Moldova; its economic links with Ukraine have been destroyed.

The war has, however, driven Moldova further from Moscow. In mid-2022, Moldova, along with Ukraine, received EU candidate status, and in February this year, Ukraine said it had intercepted Russian plans to “destroy” Moldova. On April 28, the country banned Russian President Vladimir Putin from entry, provoking an immediate response from the Kremlin and its propagandists.

Putin’s close ally Dmitry Medvedev posted on Twitter that “there is no such a country anymore. . . local bosses have already sold it to Romania.” Two months earlier, Putin revoked a 2021 decree recognizing Moldova’s sovereignty over Transnistria.

Before 2022 the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria seemed to be deeply frozen. Politicians invested little energy in its immediate resolution, and people living on both sides of Dniester got used to it. Nobody wanted the renewal of warfare either. The Russian invasion of Ukraine spotlighted the issue again. An intensification of dialogue and collaboration between Tiraspol and Chisinau over Ukrainian refugees, as well as the openness of the breakaway republic to international organizations, could even provide additional grounds for a discussion on reintegration.

Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory and lecturer in the Sociology Department at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

This article is the result of a collaboration with the Free Russia Foundation.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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