Imagine that you are young, hardworking and have just been accepted to one of the best universities in Europe, you even got a scholarship that covers your expenses, but your passport is closing all the doors. No, you did nothing wrong, you were just born in a difficult place. Imagine you have opportunities to study in good schools and you want to bring back all the knowledge you will obtain back to your people, but your region is not on official maps, nor on official lists of passports to get a visa or a travel permit. Imagine that the leaders of your homeland travel to the most beautiful and developed countries, for business and/or vacations, but you cannot leave to go study. Is that right? Does that align with human rights?
This is what has been happening for the last few decades in the Transnistrian region. For more than 20 years, some thousands of people born in this territory get passports that represent, in a way, their identity but not their opportunities. With a Transnistrian passport someone can travel to a very limited number of places, almost nowhere, because not one United Nations (UN) country recognises it as a country.
Being born on a territory that limits educational (and any other) opportunities should not be a source of guilt, but a synonym for the fight for personal rights. ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own’ says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13). But, there are territories that are not state parties to UN covenants, or other standards of human rights.
If a passport does not allow you to travel abroad for University, ask yourself how do the leaders of the Transnistria region travel? A video filmed last year at Chișinău (capital city of Moldova) Airport, shows the arrival of Transnistrian leaders from Germany with a large load of goods, while their bodyguards were blocking reporters from filming and asking questions. Transnistrian leaders hold passports from other countries. So, if they lead a de facto state but travel with the passport of another country, people deserve to know how they have achieved this and how it could also work for themselves.
After decades of this unrecognised reality, some people in the Transnistrian region have as many as four to five passports from different entities: the Soviet one – for memories, the Transnistrian – for local identification, the Russian – to travel to Russia and former Soviet Union territories, the Moldovan – to travel to up to 70 countries, and some people also have the Romanian passport, that allows them to travel to 118 states without a visa.
Travel abroad is possible only with the last three passports, with the last two there are no visa requirements to travel to the European Union (EU), and with the last one you have the possibility to work in the EU and be exempt of educational taxes for student fees in many universities.
It has been almost five years since the start of the Visa Free Regime between Moldova and the EU, and any person born in the Transnistrian region is welcome to get a Moldovan passport. By having that passport they also find it easier to directly access their rights, including those specified in the UN Charter, the Council of Europe charters, and specifically the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR). And this form of access works, with the support of Moldovan lawyers and NGOs to raise matters with the international mechanisms.
Having a right does not mean it is automatically respected in such unrecognised areas. But it does mean that there is a system of rights and institutions with obligations to uphold those rights. Thomas Hammarberg, in his role as UN Senior Expert on Human Rights in Transnistria, did a monitoring visit to Transnistria back in 2013. The conclusions were not the most positive and there were many recommendations for improvements. Five years later, Hammarberg returned to Transnistria and found an amazing thing. Yes, the territory is still unrecognised and the institutions are not efficient, but he noticed ‘a growing human rights awareness in the Transnistrian region. In several key areas’. It is obvious that in the Transnistrian region more and more people know what their rights are and where to look for truth and justice, but the way to go is still long.
While many of the Transnistrian people use Moldovan passports, they cannot use the Moldovan judicial system to fight for their rights. But they may ask for help from the ECtHR.
The Media Center in Tiraspol does the hard job of amplifying the voices of citizens in the region. A special online project ‘No Torture!’ helps citizens to understand their rights, how not to be punished unlawfully and how to get help. A specially-made video aids in informing citizens from the region how to appeal to the ECtHR.
There is a long list of cases won by citizens from the Transnistrian region at the ECtHR. It started in 2004, when a group of prisoners of war detained since 1992 in different prisons in the region won their case at the ECtHR. The Ilascu Case was the first case to prove at an international court that the Russian Federation was involved in the war of 1992 and in the further separation of the region. The Russian Federation accepted the decision and payed damages to all four prisoners of war.
After that, many other groups from the region claimed justice at the ECtHR and won. Among these numerous groups were parents and children attending Romanian language schools in Transnistria that had been prohibited to study in their mother language in their home cities. The Russian Federation was found guilty of obstruction of education rights in eight schools in the region. The decision was pronounced in 2012. The Russian Federation has not yet paid damages, but there has still been a decision and all the pupils, their parents and teachers have learned that they have rights in this issue. Many of those pupils have already finished school and many of them got into European Universities, including Romanian establishments that provide scholarships to young people in difficult conditions. Through the ECtHR case people involved have learned to have a better future, a future with fulfilled human rights.
The violation of human rights in the region never stopped, but the number of people looking for justice in respect to their rights is higher. The 2018 list of decisions from the ECtHR about citizens living in the Transnistrian region is long enough, and the guilty countries are the Russian Federation and the Republic of Moldova. Transnistria, not being considered a country, is not named guilty, but a list of local officials are named guilty for breaking fundamental human rights. The names of officials include Igor Smirnov, former president of the region and his son Vladimir Smirnov – the former head of local customs. People complained against them for multiple reasons, including inter-alia; unlawful detention, torture, limited access to properties, right to education; and all of them won. Many of the complainants received financial damages paid by the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation. All of them made the complaints to the ECtHR as citizens of the Republic of Moldova or the Russian Federation. Not one person made a complaint on the basis of Transnistrian identity. Citizenship is a right and a tool for enforcing rights – a lesson learned by all sides.
A short look at the official news webpage of the Transnistrian administration shows that Moldovan citizenship is largely recognised. At the end of April 2019 a Moldovan athlete, Lilia Fisikovich was selected to participate at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. She was born in Tiraspol, the capital of the Transnistrian region. But she won under the Moldovan flag and she is congratulated on both sides of the river Nistru. Recently, a group of children from Transnistria won medals at an international swimming competition in Ukraine. How could people from a disputed territory participate in competitions in Ukraine that is suffering from territorial disputes? The young swimmers competing under the Moldovan flag, and most probably, with Moldovan passports.
So did ‘DoReDoS’, a band from the region who won the national Moldovan Eurovision contest and represented the whole of Moldova in Portugal in the 2018 ‘Eurovision’ international contest. Some days ago, the same state agency informed the public that the title ‘Miss Europe’ belongs to a Transnistrian girl. While the word ‘Europe’ is used in music, sports and cultural events, in politics it is seen as a problem in many cases.
Looking at the same official press agency from Tiraspol, ‘Novosty Pridnestrovia’ we find many ‘bad news’ articles of events happening in EU countries: ‘press freedom in EU is worse than ever’, ‘death because of air pollution doubled’, ‘tourists in Europe are unhappy’. All of these negative news articles are based on real facts and no doubt do contain some information citizens should be informed about. But, for example, on the same press agency webpage we could not find one article about freedom of the press in the Transnistrian region. Reporters from the region have come a long way from the Soviet era of journalism to modern reporting. They have participated in hundreds of media trainings in Chișinău, Brussels, Riga, Stockholm, Washington DC, and Chicago. They have visited newsrooms worldwide and they have learned how to make balanced news, visual journalism, and investigative reporting. Thus, their inability to work at home and the lack of freedom of the press in the region is among the worst problems for Transnistria. One of the few articles in the region about freedom of the press argues that it is much worse in Transnistria than everywhere else in Europe.
While Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) guarantees ‘freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’, reporters in the region claim that they cannot publish any critical article about the ruling administration, that many editors-in-chief and journalists were fired because of their wish to use freedom of speech. It is not enough to have the freedom to criticise the Moldovan Government or European governments. Journalists and society should be able to analyse and debate problems at the local level. For now, one good thing in the region for journalists is that they can travel to many places with Moldovan passports to learn. Back at home, they, as holders of Transnistrian passports, cannot write free news if they are critical about the local government, and they might not be able to publish positive news if it is about Moldova as a whole or about the EU. Despite these issues, there is the Internet for sharing and publishing news that has no borders.
Freedom of the press is complex and involves many responsibilities. One of them is to bring to attention the voices of the unheard. The Media Center in Tiraspol helps journalists and citizens to shed light on their lives, including the difficulties. ‘Who are human rights defenders in Moldova?’ ‘What is a freelance journalist and how (s)he works?’ ‘What is the right to information?’ – The answers to all these questions are online, and in the Transnistrian region almost every household has access to the internet. There is also information about how to look for information and how to use databases from local government to the Moldovan government. Information in the public realm does not have boundaries. Holders of any passport are able to check public information and databases in Moldova. And when there is a lack of journalists, anybody can learn how to do citizen journalism in Transnistria.
While modern democratic principles are more and more accepted by citizens of the region and most of the people have and use other countries passports, the authorities of Transnistria stick to the old concept of keeping the region in the list of unrecognised territories. Recently, the president of the region, Vadim Krasnoselsky, promised the citizens that “Pridnestrovie will be recognised. Foreigners should get used to the real name of the country”, adding that “we are a successful modern state”.
The last meeting between Krasnoselsky and the EU Ambassador to Moldova, Peter Michalko showed again the pleasure to have opened doors to the EU. Krasnoselsky confirmed that the “EU is among the most important trade partners of Transnistria”, while Michalko mentioned that he is glad that “Transnistrian businessmen use the opportunity to have access to [the] EU market and the volume of commercial transactions is growing”. Transnistria does not have any commercial agreements with the EU, the only way for regional businesses to access to European market is to hold official Moldovan documents, including passports. And everybody knows about that fact, including the office of the leader of the region.
For now, people living on the left bank of Nistru river may get Moldovan passport without any difficulty, have access to education, the health system, pensions, and other services, as well as travel and conduct with business the EU. However, Krasnoselsky claims that any unification with Moldova is impossible. “I am for the unification of Moldova, but without Pridnestrovie. This is fundamental”, claims Krasnoselsky in an official statement.
Nevertheless, thousands of people living in the Transnistrian region, being holders of Moldovan passports, participated actively in Moldovan elections in February 2019, electing their MPs to the Chișinău Parliament. Despite the rumours that the voters were organised by some politicians, and possibly bribed to vote, the ice was broken and people from the area attained new skills – voting for members of the Parliament of an EU partner country.
Who wins in this territorial dispute? Russia? Moldova? The EU? The
Transnistrian administration? The real
winners are those who obtain access to education and information. Every year
thousands of young people from Transnistria, having passports from other
countries, travel to study, to visit, to participate in international
competitions, conferences, symposiums. Some of them come back to bring their
knowledge and experience home, some of them choose to stay in other places. And
this effects their personal lives and the life of their region for example by
setting up NGOs or working as freelance journalists or independent experts.
Author’s bio: Alina Radu is the Manager of the biggest investigative reporting group in Moldova – Ziarul de Gardă (ZdG). ZdG is affiliated to GIJN (Global Investigative Journalism Network),WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers – through Moldovan Association of Independent Press), SEEMO (SouthEastEuropean Media Network), RLNE (Russian Language Media News Exchange).ZdG covers Moldova, Romania, former Soviet countries, conflict areas, corruption and human rights – worldwide.
Photo by Clay Gilliland, Transnistrian Parliament House, September 2013, https://www.flickr.com/photos/26781577@N07/11384632876/. No modifications to photo. Creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
 The President Pridnestrovsk Moldavian Republic, About Citizen’s Passport Pridnestrovsk Moldavian Republic, Zakon-pmr.com, March 2002, http://zakon-pmr.com/DetailDoc.aspx?document=62492
 United Nations General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Huma Rights, United Nations, December 1948, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
 Correspondence From Chisinau, Journalists assaulted in Chisinau. The body guard of the Tiraspol leader forbade them to shoot, Stirile TV, October 2014, http://stiri.tvr.ro/jurnalisti-agresati-la-chisinau–paza-de-corp-a-liderului-de-la-tiraspol-le-a-interzis-sa-filmeze_50766.html#view
 Thomas Hammarberg, Report on Human Rights in the Transnistrian Region of the Republic of Moldova, United Nations in Moldova, February 2013, http://www2.un.md/key_doc_pub/Senior_Expert_Hammarberg_Report_TN_Human_Rights.pdf
 Thomas Hammarberg, Statement by Senior UN Human Rights Expert Thomas Hammarberg on the conclusion of his visit on 28 May – 1 June 2018, United Nations in Moldova, June 2018, http://md.one.un.org/content/unct/moldova/en/home/presscenter/press-releases/statement-by-senior-un-human-rights-expert-thomas-hammarberg-on-.html
 Human Rights House Foundation, Ilascu and Others vs. Moldova and Russia, Human Rights House Foundation, July 2004, https://humanrightshouse.org/articles/ilascu-and-others-vs-moldova-and-russia/
 Natalia Munteanu, Schools in Transnistrian Region Teaching in Romanian Language Waiting for Solutions to their Problems, PromoLEX, December 2018, https://promolex.md/14094-problemele-scolilor-cu-predare-in-limba-romana-din-stanga-nistrului-raman-in-asteptarea-rezolvarii/?lang=en
 PromoLEX, List of Persons Responsible for Violations of Human Rights in the Transnational Region, PromoLEX, March 2019, https://promolex.md/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lista_2018_persoane-responsabile-de-violare_Promo-LEX.pdf
 Sport News, Lilia Fiskovich has passed the selection for the Olympic Games – 2020, Novosty Pridnestrovia, April 2019, https://novostipmr.com/ru/news/19-04-28/liliya-fiskovich-proshla-otbor-na-olimpiyskie-igry-2020
 Sport News, Transnistrian swimmers won medals in the Championship of Ukraine, Novosty Pridnestrovia, April 2019, https://novostipmr.com/ru/news/19-04-29/pridnestrovskie-plovcy-zavoevali-medali-na-chempionate-ukrainy
 Ephraïm Beks, Moldova chooses DoReDoS for Lisbon, Eurovision, February 2018, https://eurovision.tv/story/doredos-to-represent-moldova-in-eurovision-2018
 Society News, The participant of the Dubossary Team ‘Serpentine’ won the title ‘Miss Europe’, Novosty Pridnestrovia, April 2019, https://novostipmr.com/ru/news/19-04-06/uchastnica-dubossarskogo-kollektiva-serpantin-zavoevala-titul-miss
 Site Search, Search query ‘Europe’, Novosty Pridnestrovia, https://novostipmr.com/ru/search/site/%D0%95%D0%B2%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%B0?page=5
 Site Search, Search query ‘Freedom of press’, Novosty Pridnestrovia, https://novostipmr.com/ru/search/site/%25D0%25A1%25D0%2592%25D0%259E%25D0%2591%25D0%259E%25D0%2594%25D0%2590%2520%25D0%259F%25D0%25A0%25D0%2595%25D0%25A1%25D0%25A1%25D0%25AB
 Michael Forst, On the situation of human rights defenders in the Republic of Moldova, Media Center of Transnistria , July 2018, https://mediacenter.md/prava_celoveka/1356-o-polozhenii-pravozaschitnikov-v-respublike-moldova.html
 Media Center of Transnistria, Freelance journalist: specifics of work in Transnistria, Media Center of Transnistria, December 2017, https://mediacenter.md/dostup_k_informacii/1286-zhurnalist-frilanser-specifika-raboty-v-pridnestrove.html
 Media Center of Transnistria, The result of the verification of the violation of the fundamental right – the right of access to information, Media Center of Transnistria, May 2017, https://mediacenter.md/dostup_k_informacii/1216-rezultat-proverki-narusheniya-fundamentalnogo-prava-prava-na-dostup-k-informacii.html
Media Center of Transnistria, Databases to assist investigative journalists, Media Center of Transnistria, October 2016, https://mediacenter.md/dostup_k_informacii/1138-bazy-dannyh-v-pomosch-zhurnalistam-rassledovatelyam.html
 Media Center of Transnistria, Recruitment to the School of Citizen Journalism, Media Center of Transnistria, March 2019, https://mediacenter.md/obiavleniya/1410-nabor-v-shkolu-grazhdanskoy-zhurnalistiki.html
 Press Officer, Vadim Krasnoselsky: “Transnistria will be recognised. Foreigners need to get used to pronouncing its true name”, President.gospmr, April 2019, http://president.gospmr.org/press-sluzhba/novosti/vadim-krasnoseljskiy-pridnestrovje-budet-priznano-inostrantsam-nado-privikatj-proiznositj-ego-istinnoe-nazvanie-.html
 Special Opinion News, Vadim Krasnoselsky: I am for a united Moldova, but without Transnistria, Novosty Pridnestrovia, February 2019, https://novostipmr.com/ru/news/19-02-11/vadim-krasnoselskiy-ya-za-edinuyu-moldovu-no-bez-pridnestrovya