Transnistria | And as always – once you are there, things are different

The situation of Transnistria in the light of recent political developments

The annexation of the Crimea by Moscow and the war in Donbas in the spring and summer of 2014 brought to mind again the fact that unresolved territorial conflicts do exist in the eastern neighbourhood of the European Union (cf. Mason 2014). Today, in 2020, these conflicts have become hardened, and we await with concern Putin’s reaction to the outcome of the elections in Belarus.

In 2014 there were many predictions that Transnistria would be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West, after Crimea and Donbas. That did not come to pass, mainly because Transnistria is a much complex place with multiple allegiances and separated from Russia by Ukraine. As one local resident told me in 2014, “My head is in Russia but my legs are walking to Europe.”

Thomas de Waal (2016)

Today the conditions for effective international management of these conflicts are worse than ever. The increasing separation of Moscow from Europe and the military conflict in eastern Ukraine poses a risk of further destabilisation for Moldova. On the one hand, the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR) has unconditionally bound itself to Russia since the battles for separation. On the other hand, economic interdependence with Moldova, Ukraine and the EU has increased, primarily through labour migration. Due to the complicated political situation, most people in Transnistria possess several passports: a Transnistrian passport that is not accepted anywhere in the world, a Moldovan, a Romanian and a Russian passport.

On Russia’s role in the Transnistrian conflict

Russia is always trying to prevent Moldova from moving closer to the EU (cf. Fischer 2016). Transnistria, in particular, is supposed to remain within Russia’s sphere of influence. To this end, Moscow is intervening massively in Moldova’s internal politics. This was done, for example, by the propagandistic and financial support of the pro-Russian referendum in Gagauzia. Instead of Moldova’s integration into the EU, Moscau promoted a customs union with Russia. In further elections in Moldova, support was given by the pro-Russian opposition Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) to the Russian state media.

Thus, even on the surface, Tiraspol appears to the visitor as the last room in which the typical exterior of a city from the Soviet era has been preserved. Unfortunately, many of the tourists passing through associate something dark and threatening with Tiraspol, as if the shadow of Lenin and Stalin still lay upon the people.

And in a way, many in the segregated zone also feel trapped by present Russian politics. Many fear that the Donbas conflict and the annexation of Crimea could be a blueprint for possible developments in Transnistria. Yet young people have long since started working in European countries with their Romanian passports. This is already apparent from the innumerable cash dispensers that run along the main street of Tiraspol like a double-row string of pearls.

Another aspect of the internal situation in Transnistria which might be conducive to an agreement with Chisinau, concernsthe growing interest that the Transnistrian industry is showing in consolidating and expanding access to the EU market. Last year, Transnistrian exports to the EU increased by nearly one-fifth over 2005, and accounted for nearly 40% (over US $300 million) of the total value of Transnistria’s export. The possibility of benefiting from the Autonomous Trade Preferen-ces granted by the EU to Moldova in January 2008 is particularly enticing to the Transnistrian business, which is however well aware that without the final settlement of the conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol it will not gain permanent access to the EU market.

Witold Rodkiewicz (2008, p. 5)

Tiraspol has a quite repellent effect with its bare facades, which still bear the insignia of Soviet power. But it is above all the old people and sometimes the young mothers with their children who have remained in the region. Often, however, they too are in Spain or Italy and work there to send the money they have earned home. Thus, Tiraspol seems more like a village where time stands still. People chat on the street; everyone comes immediately and helps if you seem disoriented. Even in the registration office, which is still called OMON as in Soviet times, the impression never arises that the situation could turn unfriendly.

The unrecognized statelet of Transnistria broke away from newly independent Moldova in 1990, and is famous as a Soviet nostalgia theme park. Its statues of Lenin and red-star-encrusted factories all stand, and its parliament is called the Supreme Soviet. More than a thousand Russian troops uphold the territory’s independence and posters of Vladimir Putin are even more ubiquitous than in Russia.

Thomas de Waal (2016)

Symbols of armed conflict dominate the built space: the conquest by the Russian Tsarist Empire, the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany and the Romanian fascists, the defence of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The historical background most certainly favoured the escalation of the conflict on 1 March 1992. The Moldovan Soviet Republic had consisted of two subregions with historically different roots and traditions. Bessarabia, situated between the rivers Pruth and Dniester, had been part of the Russian Empire since 1812. Culturally, however, it had a strong Romanian influence. After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Bessarabia had become part of Romania in 1918. With the Hitler-Stalin Pact Bessarabia became Soviet in 1940. The areas west of the Dniester made terrible experiences with the Romanian rule as an area of occupation in the governorate „Transnistria“.
During the Soviet period, the sub-regions of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR) became more and more diverse: the cities were industrialised with a multi-ethnic population from all parts of the Soviet Union. As a result, all cities were de facto Russian-speaking. The rural areas, however, were Romanian-speaking.
After the collapse of the Soyevt Union, the Soviet functional elites were exposed to increasing pressure from the Moldovan emancipation movement. The aim of this movement was a linguistic and thus de facto personal Moldovanization at all levels of leadership, which made the Russian-speaking elites fear for their posts. In this respect, it was ultimately the 1990 Moldovan declaration of sovereignty that led the various groups against each other.

The regional museum in Tiraspol narrates the story of the secessionist struggles as a liberation fight supported by ‚Russian peacekeepers‘ and remembers the citizens who died in battle

The former Soviet elites concentrated them on retaining power in the industrial strongholds. Which areas they could bring under their control depended on the specific constellations of political power on the ground and the intensity of Russian military intervention. In the industrial cities west of the Dniester, the separatists prevailed in Bender, but not in Chişinău, Bălţi and smaller cities. In contrast, with the support of the Russian military, the former Soviet elites also succeeded in gradually and forcibly integrating the rural areas east of the river into the secession area. The entity thus created, with the Russian geographical abbreviation Pridnestrov’je (Transnistria), was to be given legitimacy by reference to the „Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia“ (MASSR), founded in 1924 within the Ukrainian SSR, which was territorially similar to the MASSR – as a precursor of Transnistrian „statehood“.

Exhibits in the Regional Museum of Tiraspol: Products of Transnistrian manufacturing industry – what is missing are the products of the arms industry

Klemens Büscher (2016) considers a settlement of the conflict through the reintegration of Transnistria into the Moldovan state to be conceivable: In his view, there are neither unbridgeable differences in mentality nor a deeply rooted hatred between the societies on the left and right of the Dniester. However, in light of the history of the conflict, extensive autonomy rights would be necessary. A higher hurdle is posed by the regional elites who have secured access to the region’s economic resources.

One of Russia’s conditions for the regulation of the Transnistrian conflict would be the adoption of an „inter-national legal document” in which Russia, the US and the EU would guarantee Moldova’s neutral status.

Witold Rodkiewicz (2008, p. 3)

Organised crime and corruption are very present in Transnistria (cf. Devyatkov 2017, O’Conner 2019). The government around former President Smirnov, in particular, was suspected of stealing state funds. The whereabouts of the former weapons of the Soviet army, which are said to have been used in numerous wars on the African continent, remain a mystery. The sheriff’s company, run by the Smirnov Clan, still dominates almost all branches of the economy. The smuggling of wrongly declared food and clothing via the partially disused Ukrainian railway network is said to evade taxes worth millions.

However, Büscher (2016, p. 45) stresses that the decisive factor is Russia. If Transnistria was to be integrated into the Russian Federation, which is also interesting as a political instrument vis-à-vis Ukraine, the influence on Moldova would undoubtedly be completely lost through this hard act. At present, both Moscow and Tiraspol and Chişinău seem to see the best option for dealing with the conflict in holding on to the status quo.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: © Stefan Applis (2015)

Reading recommendations

Klemens Büscher (2016): Der Transnistrienkonflikt im Lichte der Krise um die Ukraine. In Sabine Fischer (Hg.). Nicht eingefroren! Die ungelösten Konflikte um Transnistrien, Abchasien, Südossetien und Berg-Karabach im Lichte der Krise um die Ukraine. SWP (=Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit). Berlin.

Andrey Devyatkov (2017). Never Sans Sheriff: Consolidating Power in Transdniestria. Carnegie Moscow Center. 7 August 2017.

Sabine Fischer (2016). Die russische Politik in den ungelösten Konflikten. In Sabine Fischer (Hg.). Nicht eingefroren! Die ungelösten Konflikte um Transnistrien, Abchasien, Südossetien und Berg-Karabach im Lichte der Krise um die Ukraine. SWP (=Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit). Berlin.

Robert O’Connor (2019): Transnistria Isn’t the Smuggler’s Paradise It Used to Be. Foreign Policy. 5 June 2019.

Paul Mason (2014): If Transnistria is the next flashpoint between Putin and the west, how should Europe react? The Guardian. 1 April 2014.

Witold Rodkiewicz (2008). The frozen conflict in Transnistria: A chance for agreement? CES-Commentary. Issue 3. 10.3.2008. The Centre for Eastern Studies (CES). Warsaw.

Thomas de Wall (2016): An Eastern European frozen conflict the EU got right. Politico EU.

Further reading-recommendations

David Noack (2017). Der Konflikt um Transnistrien 1989 bis 2016 – Politische Ökonomie, Nationalstaatswerdung und Großmachtinteressen an einem geopolitischen. In: Brennpunkt in Südosteuropa. Multipolar 1/2017 • Zeitschrift für kritische Sicherheitsforschung • S. 11–26 , S. 11–26.

Nina Caspersen (2013). Unrecognized States. John Wiley & Sons

Dov Lynch (2004). Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States. Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States. Foreign affairs (Council on Foreign Relations) 83(6), p. 155 ff.

Photo via @SaschaDueerkop

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