President Obama’s been talking on the phone to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It’s the first direct contact between the two men since the West imposed sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. American experts, meanwhile, have been pouring over maps to see where Russia might march next. The small breakaway state of Trans-Dniester, technically part of Europe’s poorest nation, Moldova, is considered by some to be at risk. The territory became separated from the rest of Moldova in a brief war in 1992 and now its 300,000 people moscos,. Humphrey Hawksley has been to one Moldovan village that ended up as an enclave within Trans-Dniester.
As it flows down from the mountains, the Dniester River twists and turns through Europe’s poorest country, Moldova. Just north of the run-down village of Concieri it creates a horse-shoe shape, across the bottom of which is an old ceasefire line, marked now by a checkpoint and a bored Russian soldier.
The drab, flat agricultural land that runs from the check point to the river banks is controlled by the Moldovan government. On the other side is Trans-Dniester, a strip of territory torn away in a 1992 war that came with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It’s now Russian-controlled.
“We had only lived here a year before it happened,” says Ludmila Agatia looking across her small yard where piles of logs and hay are covered with blue plastic tarpaulins. A cat stretches is back and runs towards the field. Her dog barks setting chickens scampering. He strains on a chain bolted to the wall of her house.
“It was in the very first days,” she says. “My husband was down by the river and killed by a sniper.”
Valentin was a 30-year-old civilian lorry driver, a veteran, though, of the war in Afghanistan, who along with the rest of the village fought doggedly to keep out advancing Russian troops. Ludmila, now in early middle age, zips up her purple anorak against the wind and puts on a grim smile. “We didn’t fight so hard for it to be like this. As things are now…” she shakes her head sadly. “I don’t think it was worth it.”
The Crimean crisis has focussed minds in Concieri where national sovereignty is a moot issue. In the past hundred years or so it’s been part of Ukraine, Romania, the Soviet Union, Moldova now, and by a hair’s breadth the check point could have been in another place and the villagers would be citizens of Trans-Dniester, where a statue of Lenin and the Soviet Hammer and Sickle remain symbols of government.
The river would have been a natural boundary, but the ceasefire was declared along a line that pretty much ran through wherever the fighters’ positions were at the time. So Concieri has become a horse-shoe-shaped enclave within an enclave, its people feeling very much the presence of Russian troops – technically peace-keepers – who man border checkpoints. And they feel abandoned by their own Moldovan government, its beacon of European Union membership mustering not much enthusiasm.
The badly paved roads, crooked electricity poles and basic housing are pretty much unchanged from when people here were citizens of the Soviet Union. For many, the causes for which they fought have come to nothing. Modern Europe is seen as a place of unpredictable chaos, while in the lost territory of Trans-Dniester, people say have higher wages and pensions and political stability.
This is where the popularity of new Russia competes face to face with that of democratic Europe.
Ludmila says there’s a photograph of her husband Valentin in the village museum, but she doesn’t want to come with us to the museum because it makes her too upset.
Instead, we go with Vasily Nirca, who’s now 53, with a weathered face and faded blue eyes. “The whole village fought against the Russian ,” he says proudly as we walk, pointing to walls pockmarked with shrapnel and bullets. “It was close at times, but — by God — did we hold the line.”
It’s late afternoon and the sun is trying to pierce through leaden rain clouds that have yet to break. We stop at the village square, a patch of dirt with a small Orthodox church and a memorial inscribed with the names of villagers who died.
“So, what now?” I ask. “After Crimea.”
In Washington and Brussels, the talk is that Trans-Dniester could be Vladimir Putin’s next target, while in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, analysts say that voters don’t care that much. A patch of occupied land from another era is far less important than jobs and the economy.
Concieri’s museum is a room in the primary school – one wall give over to the war. Valentin’s black and white photograph shows a smartly-dressed young man in uniform.
Vasily points to another, of a prim, stern woman who was the village school teacher. “They came to her house one night and just shot her dead,” he says. His hand moves up to a faded photograph of a fighter who looks no more than a boy. “He stepped on a land mine,” he explains slowly. “He died in my arms.”
He tightens his lips, trying to keep his composure. “All this sacrifice,” he says. “You ask about Crimea. For sure we’ll be next.”
“And would you fight again?” I ask.
He’s quiet for a moment, his eyes moving carefully along the wall of pictures and tributes. “Who would fight?” he answers. “Not us. It’s wrong. The people in Trans-Dniester, their lives are better than ours. The Russians – they could just walk in here now, and who would stop them?