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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Misery in a pariah state

By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Transdniester is a region of the country of Moldova which broke away in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Because of its unrecognised status, it receives very little help from the outside world and its children are the first to suffer.

Alla is 22 years old but has a mental age of four
Orphans suffer because of Transdniester's pariah status

Alla lies in bed, her painfully thin arms poking out from under the blanket. Like the other girls in this room, she spends most of her life on her back, staring at the ceiling.

As we walk in she starts screaming: "Mama, mama!" at the top of her voice.

The doctor explains that Alla is 22 years old but has a mental age of four. She is one of 50 patients at the Bendery Institute for Girls with Neurological Problems.

It is a dilapidated place with peeling walls and dark corridors which smell of cabbage and urine.

The horrific conditions in orphanages around Eastern Europe have been well-publicised, but this is one of the worst places of all for a vulnerable child.

Russian presence

Transdniester is a pariah state and gets very little international aid.

Moldova and Transdniester map

A narrow sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine, it has its own currency, flag, stamps, army and president, but is recognized by no other country.

It used to be part of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. But it proclaimed independence nearly 14 years ago.

As the USSR began falling apart, Moldova was already split down the middle with the River Dniester as the dividing line.

An insight into a strange and unrecognised corner of Europe

On the Moldovan right bank, many people identified strongly with neighbouring Romania. That frightened the Russian-speaking population on the Transdniestrian left bank, who felt a much stronger allegiance to Moscow.

Fighting broke out between the two sides and nearly 2,000 died before troops from an ex-Soviet army base intervened. Russian soldiers are still there today as peacekeepers.

Transdniester looks a bit like the Soviet Union 20 years ago. The streets of the capital, Tiraspol, are filled with communist slogans and the parliament is still called the Supreme Soviet.


Transdniester President Igor Smirnov
Our people trust these Russian soldiers and regard others as occupants. And there is nothing you can do about it
President Igor Smirnov

President Igor Smirnov is suspicious of outsiders and believes the West has only one agenda, the withdrawal of Russian troops.

The idea that Transdniester should have an international peacekeeping force arouses his scorn:

"Just tell me where your international troops have ever achieved success? Look at what is happening now in Kosovo.

"Our people trust these Russian soldiers and regard others as occupants. And there is nothing you can do about it."

President Smirnov's people are poor. Most barely earn $50 a month. Many homes only get hot water three times a fortnight, because Transdniester now has to pay Russia market prices for gas.

Football stadium
The Scottish team will be playing at the Sheriff stadium in October

But there is one place here with lots of money which attracts thousands of international visitors, the Sheriff football stadium.

It emerges from its surroundings like a mirage, a bright blue oasis in a sea of grey.

The Dutch national team played there last year, and Italy and Scotland will come for World Cup qualifying matches in the autumn.

Willie McDougall of the Scottish Football Federation is impressed:

"It has facilities second to none, and they are building a five star hotel for visiting teams. I wish we had something like this in Scotland."

The stadium complex and football team belongs to a firm called Sheriff, which owns other businesses including a chain of petrol stations, supermarkets and a TV channel.

Sheriff clearly enjoys advantages from the state, such as tax breaks and the right to conduct business in hard currency. Other businesses have to use Transdniestrian roubles.

'Smuggling company'

Organised crime experts in the UK suspect that Sheriff really belongs to the first family of the rogue republic, and claim the Smirnovs use it to launder money.

A recent report funded by the British Department for International Development says that "Transdniester is a smuggling company masquerading as a state".
Newspaper Editor Grigory Volovoi
Non-recognition is very profitable and convenient for those who decide economic policy here
Newspaper Editor Grigory Volovoi

This is firmly denied by the president's son, Vladimir Smirnov, who heads Transdniester's Customs Authority.

Grigory Volovoi says some allegations about state-sponsored smuggling are exaggerated. But he says it is inconceivable Sheriff could thrive without the blessing of Mr Smirnov. He told the programme:

"Either the president knows what is going on and controls the situation or he does not.

"We say that in muddy waters it is hard to catch a fish. And the non-recognition of this republic is the dirty water, because the non-recognition is very profitable and convenient for those who decide economic policy here."

Brighter future

This "muddy water" also causes great suffering for ordinary people.

But for the girls in the Bendery Institute, there is now the chance of a better life, thanks to a pioneering British charity, Hope and Homes For Children.

Zinaida Gurskaya
We want to move the girls as soon as possible
Zinaida Gurskaya, Hope and Homes For Children

In a few months' time, all the children will move to a new centre and some will go to foster families.

"Many of these girls are capable of learning to look after themselves and leading independent lives," said Zinaida Gurskaya, who works for the charity in Transdniester.

"But they desperately need more individual care and attention, as well as toys, music and nicer surroundings."

She proudly showed me around the new, spacious building, and told me: "We want to move the girls as soon as possible, but we still lack equipment and trained staff."

Willie McDougall of the Scottish Football Federation is aware of the poverty here. He is expecting up to 5,000 fans to come here in October and hopes that some of them may be able to donate money or toys.

"The Tartan Army travels all over the world and has a tradition of giving to local charities," he said. "This place, whether it is recognised or not, should be no exception."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 1 April, 2004 at 1100 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 5 April, 2004, at 2030 BST.

Crossing Continents


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