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Tensions high on Ukraine’s border with Moldova's breakaway Transnistria

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April 11, 2014, 12:16 a.m. | Ukraine — by Oksana Grytsenko

Ukrainian border guards watch an automobile at a border checkpoint at Kuchurgan on April 9. (Anastasia Vlasova)
© Anastasia Vlasova

KUCHURGAN, Ukraine -- When on April 6 activists of the EuroMaidan Revolution came with Ukrainian flags and flowers from Odessa to Kuchurgan village located on the Ukrainian border with Transdnistria, they didn’t expect such an icy greeting.

The activists tried to organize a symbolic performance, burying a “hatchet of war” and planting a “tree of friendship” near the border line with Moldova's breakaway region, unrecognized internationally. They covered the tree with a tire painted in blue-and-yellow colors of Ukrainian flag.

But a group of local residents quickly dug out the hatchet, saying that it “will be handy in the household” and started a fight with the EuroMaidan activists, urging them to go away. The locals also uprooted and destroyed the tree, Odessa website Vgorode reported. 

The Ukrainian village of Kuchurgan near the border with Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region has heightened security since the Russian annexation of Crimea. But, contrary to Kremlin propaganda, Ukraine is not blockading Transnistria and routine border crossings are taking place all the time.

In Kuchurgan, which is just hundreds of meters from Transdnistria and is sustained by a border control checkpoint with the unrecognized republic, the majority of people share pro-Russian views just as their neighbors across the border.

“The majority of the population here is supporting (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and they are ready to meet him with bread and salt,” said Mykola, a resident of Kuchurgan, who didn’t give his last name fearing retribution from the neighbors. “They even removed the Ukrainian flag from our school over three weeks ago.”

Transdnistria is technically part of Moldova, but it is controlled by Russian-backed authorities and survives thanks to Russian military presence and economic help. “The budget of Transnistria has a 70 percent deficit, so it exists with the help of Russian money and free supplies of Russian gas,” said Artem Filipenko, head of Odessa branch of National Institute of Strategic Studies.

Thanks to a lack of effective government control over this area, Transnistria also has become a world-known hotspot of smuggling of cigarettes, alcohol and weapons.

A street market in the Ukrainian southwestern border village of Kuchurgran.

In the little border village of Kuchurgan, whose main road is a highway connecting Odessa with Tiraspol -- the capital of Transnistria -- mostly small and shabby houses are next to big, rich mansions. Smuggling allows many to prosper there, the locals say.

“Those who beat people from Maidan there were the bandits who do smuggling and produce samogon (homebrewed vodka),” Mykola said. “They are used to living this way and so they fear that the new authorities in Ukraine may destroy their business.”  

Volodymyr Kachanovetsky, a spokesman of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky border guard unit, said that only last week the border guards detained a group of smugglers with 100 boxes of cigarettes. About three weeks ago, the border guards also seized 1.2 tons of spirit, brought from Transnistria, which was planned to be used in Ukraine for producing of fake alcohol.   

The Ukrainian border guards, who often receive food and cigarettes as presents from EuroMaidan activists, don’t get support from the locals -- they are more likely to get objects thrown at their campsite.

After Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, Ukraine reinforced border control with Transnistria, fearing invasion of Russian troops or pro-Russian provocateurs across the border. There are up to 1,500  Russian soldiers and some 4,500 soldiers of the Transnistrian army there, Filipenko, the analyst estimated. He added that lacking the border connection with Russia the Russian troops in Transdnistria can be reinforced only by recruiting of local residents, the majority of whom already hold Russian passports.

But many people in Transnistria, where ethnic Ukrainians compose up to 30 percent of population, have the Ukrainian passports as well.

Yevhenia Dziubanova, an 80-year-old pensioner, is a Ukrainian national, but now she permanently lives with her husband in Pervomaisk, a town on Transnistrian side. She, however, often travels across the border on foot to Kuchurgan to buy cheaper goods on the local market and even to visit the hospital in Ukraine. She said the biggest number of people travel through the border on Sundays for shopping.  

Residents of the Ukrainian southwest village of Kuchurgan.

But in the recent time the number of travelers lessened a bit over the more severe checks by the Ukrainian border guards and also fears of the Transnistrians that it became more dangerous to visit Ukraine for them after events of Maidan revolution. Watching mostly the Russian pro-Kremlin TV these people believe that Ukraine have recently become a volatile and dangerous place.

“Of course everyone in Transnistria worries that there is no stability here,” Dziubanova said, adding, however, that she has little interest in politics anymore.    

Kuchurgan is a Ukrainan village bordering Moldova's breakaway Transnistria region.

Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at grytsenko@kyivpost.com

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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