Building business ties to heal the scars of civil war

Ivan Khodakovsky Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ivan Khodakovsky says it is difficult for people who lived through it to forget the civil war

Ivan Khodakovsky was seven years old when civil war broke out in Moldova.

"The explosions hit the city during the school graduation," he says.

"I have imprinted in my memory an emergency evacuation to Ukraine, including many women and children.

"And a huge number of holes from bullets in half-ruined and burnt buildings."

Now 31, Ivan is looking back at a little-known European conflict - the Trans-Dniester War.

The main fighting took place over four months in 1992 between Moldova, which declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country's separatist eastern region of Trans-Dniester.

Trans-Dniester, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, didn't want to be part of Moldova, whose main language is Romanian.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The main war in 1992 lasted for four months

Up to 700 people were killed in the battles that saw Trans-Dniester, a narrow strip of land between the main part of Moldova and Ukraine's western border, establish itself as a self-proclaimed independent nation, albeit not one recognised by any other country.

Often called a "frozen conflict", Moldova and Trans-Dniester have maintained a tense stand-off ever since, with border controls and tariffs between the two territories, which are among the poorest in Europe.

Difficult memories

To help build bridges between the two sides, since 2015 the European Union has funded a UN-administered project called Support to Confidence Building Measures Programme.

Spending €1.8m ($1.9m; £1.5m) last year, and due to run until 2018, one of the key aims of the scheme is to bring together entrepreneurs from both sides of the border.

With support grants available, the participants are encouraged to meet and chat at training events, look into doing business on the other side of the border, and even consider setting up joint ventures with someone from the other region.

Ivan, who lives in Trans-Dniester's de facto capital Tiraspol, is a participant in the programme, and has secured a €7,480 grant to help him expand his phone charger business.

His company, Tech Design, makes a phone charger that is encased in wood, and retails for between €19 and €113.

Image copyright Igor Hincu
Image caption Igor Hincu is Ivan Khodakovskyi's new business partner. Igor's toys are well known in Moldova

While Ivan says that "the events" of the civil war "are well kept in the memory of our citizens", thanks to the EU-UN scheme he is starting a venture with a fellow entrepreneur from across the border.

Ivan's new business partner is 34-year-old Igor Hincu, who runs Moldovan toy company EduJoc.

The two men, who met via the programme, are joining forces to produce a range of solar-powered wooden cars and other toys.

Both hope that in the future trade barriers between the two territories can be removed. For example, at present someone from Moldova travelling to Trans-Dniester has to fill out a form in Russian detailing the reason for his or her visit.

'Past tensions'

Fashion designer Marcela Moscovciuc is another entrepreneur who has benefited from the EU-UN programme, which has given her a €14,160 grant.

Based in the town of Orhei near Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, her company, Mar Alb, makes clothes and bags inspired by Moldovan traditional costumes.

Image copyright Marcela Moscovciuc
Image caption Marcela Moscovciuc (third from right) utilises traditional Moldovan designs

To get a catalogue of her latest designs made up, she went to a printing business in Trans-Dniester owned and run by Denis Gumeniuc, who she met through the project.

Marcela says: "I didn't know so many people in the Trans-Dniester region before the programme. Now if you have all the right documents, and all the conditions are fulfilled, the tensions from the past in the region won't influence you."

Trans-Dniester profile

  • Before the creation of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940 (the precursor to Moldova), Trans-Dniester was an autonomous part of Ukraine
  • It is predominantly Russian-speaking, while the rest of Moldova is majority Romanian-speaking
  • Moldova declared independence from the USSR in August 1991 with Trans-Dniester already saying it would become a separate independent state
  • Limited fighting between Moldovan and Trans-Dniester forces had taken place as early as 1990, but the main conflict took place from March to July 1992
  • Russian troops fought on the same side as Trans-Dniester soldiers, and maintain a presence in the territory
  • Has a population of more than 500,000

Read the BBC's profile of Trans-Dniester

Denis Gumeniuc, who has also had financial support from the EU-UN project, says he was pleased to be able "to work on the other side of the Dniester", the river that forms most of the border between the main part of Moldova on its western side, and Trans-Dniester to its east.

Image copyright Lorelei Mihala
Image caption Angela Sobol is pleased to have made some cross-border contacts

A fifth person to benefit from the EU-UN scheme is Angela Sobol, who has set up a breakfast cereal business called Ronti, from her home town of Floresti, in northern Moldova.

While she hasn't formed any partnerships with entrepreneurs from Trans-Dniester, she says she is pleased to have established some cross-border friends, with whom she speaks to from time to time about pricings, suppliers and other business issues.

Political uncertainty

The political situation in Moldova and the breakaway Trans-Dniester has been complicated by Moldova last week electing a new pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Igor Dodon has said he wants Moldova to move back into Russia's arms

Mr Dodon wants the country to restore close ties with Moscow, and move away from the European Union.

This could potentially put the Support to Confidence Building Measures Programme at risk.

However, Moldovan commentators say that the president has few constitutional powers, and that a majority in parliament wish to continue integration with the EU.

In the meantime, French independent policy consultant Carina Stachetti, an expert on Moldova, says the EU-UN scheme has been a "quiet success story".

Entrepreneur Igor Hincu adds that the project "has helped build new bridges of co-operation and mutual support on both sides of the Dniester".

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