Igor Smirnov: "People want to live free, and the will of the people is a clear order"
The people of Pridnestrovie have chosen freedom, says Igor Smirnov in this interview. Any talk of unification with Moldova is a non-starter: "The will of the people is a clear order for me," explains the president of the unrecognized country. The only way forward is independence.
Pridnestrovie's current president, the generously eyebrowed Igor Smirnov, looks back into history. After the 17 September independence referendum, but before the 10 December presidential elections, Igor Smirnov was interviewed by R.A. Zvyagelskogo, editor-in-chief of Eastern Europe's most prestigious law journal, "Russian Attorney."
Here, he explains that Pridnestrovie is not just 16 years old. It is the result of a tradition that goes back a lot further, and he explains some of the ideology which brings the people together on a shared wish for a democratic future which is not based on ethnic divisions or what he calls nationalistic fervor.
Amazing result. Congratulations!
" - Thanks. It did not anticipate that there would be such a decisive result. On the first question, 97 percent voted for independence. On the second question, 94 percent rejected unification with Moldova. Now, remember: One third of the population of Pridnestrovie are Moldovans. But the independence referendum was the logical step after fighting off military attacks, economic embargoes and blockades, bad-mouthing and smears, threats, all of which we overcame year after year. The people of Pridnestrovie want to live free from all of that, and see their future, first of all, in a closer collaboration with Russia. The will of the people is a clear order for me, and for parliament, and for everyone else who is authority: We are forced to follow the clear wish of the voters."
" - During these 16 years since we declared independence, we have always discussed the main problems of our republic in an open and public way. We have always consulted the people, every step of the way. In 1991 and 1995, we held referenda to reaffirm the creation of Pridnestrovie as an independent state, in reaction to excessive nationalism and chauvinism from Moldova. Try to guess who said the following: "These people have always lived together, side by side. Here they were born, raised, here are the graves of their ancestors. But now they are carrying out a genocide, directed against their own people. People who live here are brutally killed by their own, and moreover, they are killed in a way that makes the actions of the SS men in World War II pale in comparison."
I think it was General Lebed, the commander of the Russian 14th Army, who said that.
" - Precisely. Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed."
And how did all of that start? What triggered the fuse that led to war and the killings of hundreds of people?
" - The collapse of the Soviet Union. Nationalistic fervor, under the rallying cry of "Greater Romania", gripped hold of Moldova. At that time, I was a member of parliament of the Moldavian SSR, elected by the voters of Pridnestrovie. But my Moldovan colleagues in parliament were not very pleasant, calling us "occupiers" and talking about "national priorities"... I, as a Russian, never considered my nationality to be an issue or anything important. The only things that mattered, for me, througout my entire life, were two key concepts: A man can do the right thing in this world, or he can be dishonorable. Nationalism, that belongs to the unhealthy mind of individual people. It is easy to be smitten by this disease and suffer from its results. As a member of parliament, on paper I had parliamentary immunity. But that was just a theory. In reality, we from Pridnestrovie suffered humilation, insults, even physical violence. At one point, I was even arrested, along with other members of parliament from Pridnestrovie, for voicing our wish for independence: Popov, Bondarom, Milmanom, Pologovym, Topalom, Kendigelyanom. We spent more than a month in jail. When one of the cellmates declared hunger strike, of course, I had to join and we starved together.
And how did your voters react?
" - The voters strongly supported us. My wife told me that the few times we got to see each other, when she was allowed to visit us in jail. All over Pridnestrovie, the people had organized protest actions on our behalf. The women organized a strike committee headed by Galina Andreeva and stood up to Chisinau. In Bender, this group of women blocked the main railroad, and stopped the trains. Risking their lives, they showed their solidarity with us, the prisoners. In the end, the authorities were forced to release us."
" - At the time, we had to decide: What will our lives be like in the future? We understood that a society can not prosper if it does not organize itself, so we create a state. In doing so, we tried to preserve those things from the past which were symbols of greatness: the respect for our forefathers, the love of our fellow man, and our attitudes towards work, the land, family, and society. Concern about the pensioners in old age, and attention to the young. This was all included in the constitution, and we created all government institutions for that kind of a state."
" - This was when the hysteria of chauvinism and nationalism in Moldova reached its peak. More and more, we heard slogans about washing the streets with Russian blood, drowning Jews in the Dniester, and all that. Chisinau passed their language law, changing the alphabet overnight and basically making the majority of the country's population into illiterates. Russian was virtually outlawed. The state of Israel helped us evacuate the Jews who were in danger in Moldova, many of them left with tears in their eyes."
Did all the Jews leave?
" - No. Many, especially the younger generated, remained. They fought to protect their property, and their land. Some perished, others survived. One of them, a brilliant lawyer, is now head of the Arbitrage Court of our young country, of Pridnestrovie."
So, these were insults? Verbal intimidations?
" - What do you mean, verbal...? It turned into war. The Republic of Moldova initiated a genuine military attack against the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica, against us in Pridnestrovie. In March of 1992, in Dubossary, a full-scale shooting war was started. Moldova used rockets and mortars against us. Their MiG-27 fighter planes bombed our bridges, but also bombed ordinary apartment buildings and residential neighborhoods from the air. The strategy of Moldova was to cut Pridnestrovie in half, and liquidate the people's will to resist."
" - Then came the 19th of June. On that day, Moldova's parliament adopted a nice sounding declaration: The conflict with Pridnestrovie must be solved through peaceful negotiations. That was on a Friday, a calm day. Schools were closing up for the weekend, some of the students were on their way home. Kids were playing in the gardens. Adults still at work. Then, at 5:40 p.m., we heard the first shots tear through the calm and peaceful summer afternoon. Explosions around us, and bullets over our heads, shooting to kill. Then came artillery, tanks. All throughout the night, we heard the shooting. It didn't stop, it continued all night. Mothers scurried down into their basements, hiding there with their children all night .In the morning, we could see that the whole city was littered with dead bodies. Everyone rushed to turn on the radio, and their TVs, and we all wanted to find out what was going on. Then we heard the statement of the president of the Republic of Moldova: He was on the airwaves, telling us: "Dear citizens of Bendery, preserve your calmness. In the city, everything is normal. We are carrying out a constitutional order." But after he carried out this "order", the result was 804 war deaths and 3,500 injured. Moldova then gave Snegur the highest medal of their republic. Truly pathologic hypocrisy. Today, if Moldova once again proclaims that it wants a strictly peaceful and negotiated solution, we run for the hills..."
And in this tragic situation, you even had a "fifth column"?
" - Yes. The infamous Ilie Ilaşcu. He was a hardcore nationalist who wanted a Greater Romania, and in Pridnestrovie he was the head of the Popular Front. Then, in 1992, when the war started, he became the leader of a sabotage group and terrorist organization, called "Buzhor". That group completed several high profile crimes. In Slobodzya, they assasinated Nikolai Ostapenko, who was a member of parliament. The also killed Aleksander Hussar, and burnt his body. But law enforcement finally caught Ilaşcu and his group. They were arrested, tried and sentenced in a court of law. Initially, their leader got the death sentence, but since Pridnestrovie has a moratorium on capital punishment, his sentence was communited to ailtime and he is now a free man. He lives in Romania. The European Court of Human Rights called him a political prisoner. Given his crimes and violent action, I find that absolutely amazing. He was supposed to get 180 thousand Euros in compensation. I wonder how he feels about the two men that he killed, and if their families don't also deserve some kind of compensation."
Well, you could actually file a petition with the European Court of Human Rights...
" - What for?"
Because surely you know that the media in the West calls Pridnestrovie a "black hole" for weapons smuggling. You, in particularly, are singled out as the main mafioso behind this trade. You should sue for defamation.
" - That's not all. Let me tell you, Moldova's president, Voronin, keeps telling everyone that in Pridnestrovie we manufacture two million automatic assault weapons, machineguns, every single year, and that is how we make money. Before saying something crazy like that, it would help if he would at least look at a map. See where we are. We are landlocked, and sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. To export anything, we have to pass through these two countries in transit. Both sides control over borders closely. It is impossible to export anything which is not carefully checked by Moldovan or Ukrainian border guards. Simple impossible. And this issue is moreover supervised by dozens of international border monitors. The result: Nothing. We do not smuggle arms, or anything else."
Why, for 16 years, the two sides - Moldova and Pridnestrovie - have not been able to find a agree on a mutually advantageous compromise?
" - The war ended when Russia brokered a ceasefire between the two sides, and then a multinational peacekeeping forces came and a demilitarized buffer zone was created. But each side has a different view of the future. I remember the first time I met Mircea Snegur, who was president of Moldova at the time. He said: "I am a Romanian, Moldova will be with Romania. As for you, you can go to whatever God you want." Then the next president of Moldova, Petru Lucinschi, he tried everything he could to sow strife between Pridnestrovie and Russia, and break our ties. Today's leader, Vladimir Voronin, takes his orders from Washington. Everything that has to do with "Transnistria", as he calls us, is thoroughly discussed and coordinated with the United States. He does not know any other way of working. Moldova is now part of the Western financial aid system, and it is completely dependant now on foreign money and Western loans."
Your minister of internal affairs, Alex Korolev, took me to Rybnitsa to participate in the celebration of the 15th year anniversary of the creation of PMR's own police force. As part of the celebrations, in the middle of the city, almost the entire population showed up.
" - That is not surprising. In some places, police are contemptuously called "cops", but here they are highly respected. Today, you can look around our republic, and you will see a very low index of criminality. We have almost no crime, and that is because of the enormous merit of our police. Rybnitsa's police force was the first in PMR to swear allegiance to the young republic, and they were also the first to be killed by Moldova. In the early days of our state creation, they gave their lives but paid at price at the hands of the enemies of the people's freedom."
In Rybnitsa, I was struck by another detail, too. Your local House of Culture is still a functioning and is a very active community center. In other places, long ago it would have been sold to a private business and it would today have been a car showroom or a furniture store.
" - I fully understand how you feel. It is part of our tradition, and our culture, and our general national roots. And overall, I think that probably we would not be human beings if we were not drawn to the pursuit of excellence. Sometimes, even today, the skeptics ask me: "But why should we spend money on artistic exhibitions, cultural events or sport competitions? Why is this necessary?" And I answer that in the sixteen years of our existence, we have of course operated with a small budget, but a very large percentage of our limited funds have been spent on these kinds of activities. In fact, 25 percent is spent on educational activities. Therefore we have been preserving the associations of amateur artistic activity, our museums, all the libraries, the picture galleries, sports centers, and of course our theaters, where the most varied groups come together. It is better to let the young people gather there, doing drama or music, rather than in some back alley where they sniff glue or snort drugs."
In Bender, I met met two volunteer soldiers. Igor Koteley and Oleg Teterey, both of them local, both born in Tiraspol. In the conversation with Igor, he explained that the major Moldovan offensive against Bender took place on 19 June, 1992, when here, on the bridge, an entire group of fresh school graduates were killed. That was the same day, he said, when he also graduated from school. That was the day when he decided to become a soldier and defend the land where he was born. After I told him that I would be interviewing Igor Smirnov, he asked me to pass on a message to you. He wants you to know that he and his comrades will do whatever it takes to make sure that the peace on the two banks of the Dniester will be respected.
" - I give thanks to these boys. Like Gorkiy said, "there are the feelings which can not be expressed with words". I do not have words with which, on behalf of the people of Pridnestrovie, that I can sufficiently express our appreciation to the peacekeepers. I am happy to say that in all these years of their noble mission, not a single soldier perished. The 1992 ceasefire has held, and they have kept the peace just like they were supposed to. Where else in the world can we say the same?"