Family of Transnistrian man jailed for protesting Russia’s war speak out
Human rights conditions in the Russian-backed separatist enclave have been deteriorating since the invasion of Ukraine
Victor Pleșcanov has been in prison since June 2022, after displaying a Ukrainian flag on the balcony of his apartment.
Pleșcanov lives in Transnistria, the unrecognised Russian-backed breakaway state in Moldova that borders Ukraine, where any public condemnation of the war Russia is waging in Ukraine is met with harsh punishment.
Neither his wife Oxana Lopusneak, who is based in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol, nor his lawyers, based in the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, have been able to obtain a written copy of the charges against him.
The case against Pleșcanov is an official secret, since it has been made by the MGB, short for the Ministry of State Security – but representatives of the regime told his family that Pleșcanov had been tried for incitement to extremism.
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Lopusneak told openDemocracy about her “constant state of fear and powerlessness” since the arrest. “In Transnistria, you get a feeling that something can happen to you 24 hours a day,” she said. “There is no comfort.
“It all began after Victor hoisted a flag [on the balcony]. He noticed he was being followed and then agents of the security service, the MGB, came to the house to check his social media accounts and his phone.
“Victor has been sentenced but he doesn’t know what he’s been accused of. All the communication has been done verbally. The MGB and prosecutors have [claimed] that he wrote ‘Slava Ukraini and death to the [so-called Transnistrian Republic]’ but we have seen no screenshots or print-outs. Everything is based on their word.”
“What law he broke, whether there is a list of what we are allowed to talk about and not [is not known]”, she said. And, addressing the authorities, she continued: “Please, publish it so that we can all know what we are permitted to do. Because in this situation we are afraid of talking about anything.”
Meanwhile, Lopusneak is extremely concerned about her husband’s health. Although he has been allowed visits from family, his mental state is increasingly precarious. He has been suffering from depression and claustrophobia since before his arrest.
Pleșcanov has been surviving thanks to the food parcels his wife has been preparing and sending him weekly. But without access to psychological care, he attempted suicide in late November.
At the time, according to his wife, he was locked in a basement isolation cell as punishment because he had refused to carry out the petty tasks assigned to him by the guards, such as cleaning up.
In Transnistria, you get a feeling that something can happen to you 24 hours a day
Moldova has condemned Pleșcanov’s persecution and opened a criminal investigation into his illegal detainment, but in practice, the law of the country is not recognised in Transnistria. What’s more, Moldova’s leadership is keen to avoid further disagreement that could destabilise Moldovan society amid the broader issues brought about by the war, such as an economic crisis and an influx of refugees from Ukraine.
Similarly, foreign diplomats in Moldova have been reluctant to speak out about Pleșcanov, with the exception of US ambassador Kent Longsdon. Longsdon brought up the subject in a discussion with Vadim Krasnoselski, Transnistria’s unrecognised leader, in November, but this prompted no result.
British-American anti-corruption campaigner and sanctions advocate Bill Browder told openDemocracy Pleșcanov was a “hero for defending Ukraine in an area controlled by pro-Russian forces”. He believes targeted so-called ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions should be deployed against the individuals responsible for his treatment.
Under Russian control
Transnistria, an unrecognised breakaway state that is internationally seen as part of Moldova, is a long strip of land on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.
A Russian peacekeeping force has been stationed there since 1992, when Russia intervened in support of Transnistrian separatist forces. Since then, the self proclaimed “Moldovan Republic of Transnistria” has created a parallel administration in the city of Tiraspol, its self-declared capital. Moldova has been asking Russia to remove its forces – which have no legal status on Moldovan territory – from Transnistria for years.
In recent weeks, the leaders of Ukraine, Moldova and Romania have claimed Russia is planning a coup of the Moldovan leadership, using protests at a football match in Tiraspol and anti-government demonstrations in the Moldovan capital of Chișinău as a cover.
Conversely, the Kremlin has suggested that Ukraine and Romania could launch their own military action against Transnistria – something that has, in turn, been denied by Chișinău, Kyiv and Bucharest, and even by some of the Kremlin’s own allies, Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus and Transnistrian leader Krasnoselsky.
The football team, Sheriff Tiraspol, which belongs to local oligarch Viktor Gushan, was ordered to play the match in question against Partizan Belgrade with no fans in the stands, to avoid anti-Moldovan unrest.
Tensions over Transnistria have increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the situation in the breakaway region has been worsening.
Like every other aspect of life under the Moscow-backed regime of Transnistria, public information and self-expression are tightly controlled in accordance with the Kremlin’s standards. Gushan is an ex-KGB officer who heads Sheriff Ltd, a company that controls about 60% of the economy in Transnistria. He has remained neutral in the war, fearing that Russian forces occupying Transnistria would be wiped out by the Ukrainian army, and that Western sanctions could be imposed on his UEFA Champions League football team.
The regime’s security services and police have cracked down hard on any form of dissent. Kidnappings, wanton violence and arbitrary imprisonment have been on the rise over the past two years, contributing to a climate of growing repression in Transnistrian society – against an economic backdrop of worsening employment and high inflation.
Moldova is considered the poorest country in Europe, and things are worse still in Transnistria. Population numbers have declined steadily since the 1992 occupation due to general uncertainty regarding its political status, inability to trade legally with neighbours, and constant violations of basic human rights. The real-terms median wage is estimated by local experts at the equivalent of £250 a month, which, as the price of goods has been rising, leaves many households struggling.
Since 2020, repression has stepped up thanks to an “anti-extremism” law brought in by separatist leader Krasnoselski, copying Moscow’s approach to political dissent.
This law allows the regime to intensify control and surveillance of foreigners as well as take “preventive action” against those who are “subject to the influence of extremist ideology”.
It also aims to combat “extremist organisations” and “informational extremism”, as defined by the Kremlin, that “destabilises the socio-political situation in Transnistria”.
Dozens of investigations against ordinary people have been created on this basis, targeting anyone who dares to speak or think in different terms from the ruling clique. We found some of the victims had fled abroad to avoid prison, obtaining asylum in Germany, Switzerland or Ukraine, while others haven’t been able to leave and are now behind bars in Transnistria.
After 24 February 2022, the day Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the pseudo-state of Transnistria also took a turn towards intense repression along the lines drawn by Moscow in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine. The Transnistrian enclave’s media, which is controlled by pro-Russia officials, has entirely avoided the topic of the war, and any show of support for Ukraine is taboo. Dissidents are being harassed, threatened, assaulted and imprisoned at a higher rate, and the opacity of the process for trying and sentencing someone has increased.
Observers are quietly wondering if summary executions and other forms of extreme violence might be in store next.
Growing impunity in Transnistria has led to ever more serious abuses. A 15-year-old was detained on 23 January in Bender, a town in Transnistria, and beaten by the Transnistrian police force. The child is said to have been mistaken for someone else and was set free after his mother’s intervention.
According to his mother, Ala Arion, he was beaten on his hands and torso and left traumatised by the episode. She told openDemocracy that her son, once energetic and outgoing, has become withdrawn and shy after the kidnapping. Local activists and lawyers have made complaints, but apart from a new criminal investigation in Chișinău, no pressure was brought to bear on the Tiraspol regime.
Out of hundreds of such cases, only one member of the regime, Andrei Samonii, was ever tried and sentenced in Moldova, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2021 for having kidnapped and tortured a couple on Moldova’s territory.
Tens of other Transnistrian abusers are free, although the European Court of Human Rights has said they should be brought to justice.
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