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Russia continues to have an big impact in parts of Eastern Europe, like Moldova

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Soviet Union broke up three decades ago, but Russia continues to have a big impact in parts of Eastern Europe, not only here in Ukraine, where it is, of course, fighting a war, but also next door in the small country of Moldova, where Russia has stationed troops in a separatist region since the 1990s. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on a place called Transnistria.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Moldova's just a bit larger than Maryland, but it struggles with some of the outsized political tensions at work today in Eastern Europe, and nowhere more so than in Transnistria. It's a sliver of land that stretches 250 miles along the border with Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FARMING EQUIPMENT RUMBLING)

LANGFITT: Veera Samylnov (ph) is a farmer. She lives in a part of Transnistria under Moldovan government control, but she faces a huge problem.

VEERA SAMYLNOV: (Through translator) Ninety-one percent of our land is under control of the separatist region. And we fight every year, every spring to get there, and then again in the fall to harvest the crops.

LANGFITT: Transnistrian authorities won't let Veera walk to her lands. Instead, they make her drive a roundabout route through a customs post. It's guarded by Transnistrian troops. Overhead flies Transnistria's red and green striped flag with a yellow hammer and sickle. Veera says, in some years, she's planted crops only to have Transnistrian authorities seize her harvest with no explanation. One year, they even took one of her tractors, which was towing at least 15 tons of wheat back to the Moldovan controlled side of Transnistria, where she lives.

SAMYLNOV: (Through translator) We were running behind the tractor yelling, screaming, because this was our food, the food for our kids. I sat on the tractor. And I said, no way. I'm not giving you the tractor. That's all my work.

LANGFITT: This year, she says, Transnistrian officials won't give her access to her fields after July, which would once again prevent her from harvesting her crops.

SAMYLNOV: (Through translator) I totally mean everyone is so nervous and so stressed.

LANGFITT: We reached out repeatedly to Transnistrian officials for interviews and to visit the Russian-controlled territory. They declined. Transnistria, in its current form, grew out of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In Moscow, the hammer and sickle is lowered for the last time, and an era comes to an end.

LANGFITT: Moldova declared independence from the USSR in 1991. Transnistria responded by effectively declaring independence from Moldova. A short war followed. Since then, Russia has stationed about 1,500 troops in Transnistria, which is not internationally recognized as independent. The Council of Europe recently deemed it occupied territory. Alexandru Flenchea, a former Moldovan deputy prime minister, says the government is trying to resolve this conflict.

ALEXANDRU FLENCHEA: The founding fathers, so to speak, of this country thought, OK, we need to get rid of the foreign troops that we don't want on our soil. And one way to do this is to proclaim ourselves a neutral state as a sort of a guarantee Russians. Look. NATO's not coming here. So it's safe for you to withdraw, so please do.

LANGFITT: To get them out of Transnistria.

FLENCHEA: Exactly. Well, as we know, it didn't work out.

LANGFITT: Andrei Popov, an official with Moldova's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says Transnistria has strategic value to Russian President Vladimir Putin. For instance, Putin could use Moldova's energy dependency on Russia and Transnistria to pressure the country's pro-Western government, which applied to join the European Union last month.

ANDREI POPOV: We get about 75% of our electrical energy coming from a Transnistria-Russia-owned energy plant. So this gives Russia a very strong leverage. And should this be interrupted, we'll be in a very difficult situation.

LANGFITT: Transnistria is not the only Russian-speaking part of Moldova, which is one of Europe's poorest countries. Drive south from the capital of Chisinau, now past some of Moldova's many vineyards, and you come to Gagauzia. It's an autonomous region. There are checkpoints, no troops, but a ton of support for Russia. I bumped into Igor Kolsa (ph). He's a musician who plays the trumpet. We were about a block from a statue of Vladimir Lenin, and I asked him whom he supported in the war across the border.

IGOR KOLSA: (Through translator) Yeah, for sure. I always support the Russian.

LANGFITT: Why?

KOLSA: (Through translator) Because they are honest and they are right.

LANGFITT: And what do you think is the best argument for the invasion?

KOLSA: (Through translator) To take out Nazism and fascism in Ukraine.

LANGFITT: Kolsa's referring to President Putin's false claim that his soldiers went to Ukraine to denazify by the country. He's surprised that I don't seem better-informed.

KOLSA: (Through translator) You don't see on TV how the Nazis are dealing with the people, how they treat them?

LANGFITT: Give me some examples.

KOLSA: (Through translator) While they were manning the bomb shelters, they manning the roads, they didn't let the people, you know, to get out of the war. And Russia does opposite. They're bringing the humanitarian help.

LANGFITT: In fact, Russian artillery has hit civilian targets. This exchange, which I had with a number of people in Gagauzia, is a reminder of the power of Russian disinformation, as well as the complex politics in this small frontline state, and how support for Russia in this war can defy borders. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Moldovan-controlled Transnistria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.