This is the land that time forgot. Transdniester, the eastern half of Moldova on the left bank of the Dniester river is the last gasp of the old Soviet Union.

Even before the final collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Transdniester region had seen the future and recoiled. In September 1990, this largely ethnic-Russian province seceded from ethnic-Romanian Moldova, which like the other non-Russian regions of the European Soviet Union was heading toward independence. The Russians in Transdniester – led by Russians not native to the area – had reason to believe they could make secession work: they were backed by the Soviet Fourteenth Army, stationed near Tiraspol and Moldova’s only military force.

Now ten years after its secession, Transdniester is an enclave for political Luddites whose clock stopped around 1972. The self-proclaimed leader is Igor Smirnov, a chain-smoking Lenin look-alike whose party bosses sent him to Tiraspol in the late 1980’s. The greater power in the region, however, is State Security Minister General Vladimir Antyufeyev, a.k.a. Vadim Shevtsov. Antyufeyev faces criminal charges in Latvia for his role in the short-lived Soviet suppression of the Latvian uprising in 1991, when he was a major with Interior Ministry forces. He came to Moldova under the name Vadim Shevtsov and remains in power in Tiraspol.

Beginning in 1994, Russia has promised repeatedly to withdraw the Fourteenth Army. At last year’s summit of the Organization for European Cooperation and Security, Russia agreed again to pull out fully and unconditionally by the end of 2002. But the army – reduced to a garrison – remains, along with its arsenal.

Moscow does what it can to preserve the rump state and Russia’s position there. President Putin named former prime minister and foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov to head a State Commission on Transdniester, which last week leaked a plan that would accomplish those objectives. The Primakov plan would create a “common state,” a fictive union in which Transdniester and the rest of Moldova would be equal entities sharing no common institutions. Each party would have its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches, its own armed forces and police. Disputes between them would be resolved by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, with Russia given the right to maintain troops in the region indefinitely.

In Moldova proper, the government is weak and divided. Communist delegates took control of the legislature last year, and the president, Petru Lucinschi, is in his final months in office. The treasury is broke. The country depends for fuel on Russia’s Gazprom, to which it owes hundreds of millions of unpayable dollars. The Russian-backed secessionists in Transdniester, however primitive and thuggish, seem to have the government in Chisinau completely overmatched.