A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of the Transnistria Republic
The Transnistria republic is not recognized by the international community, nonexistent in the mind of the Europeans looking to the east in the enlargement process of the EU. Nevertheless, this small republic, which has its own flag, army, national anthem and constitution, claims strong ties with Russia maintaining at the same time a strong soviet posture.
Transnistria, known also as Transdniestria, it is governed as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic PMR, also known as Pridnestrovie. The Republic of Moldova does not recognize PMR and considers the territory as part of Moldova, under the autonomous territorial unit with special legal status Unitatea teritorială autonomă cu statut juridic special Transnistria, or Stînga Nistrului, meaning “Left Bank of the Dniester”.
Only the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are also unrecognized states, have officially recognized Transnistria and maintain friendly relations with each other.
Soviet Legacy, Independence and War
At the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union established the Socialist Soviet Republic of Moldova, born from the union of the Dniester river region, mainly Russian speaking and part of Ukraine, and the Bessarabia region, which was part of Romania from 1918 to 1940. The SSR Moldova was fully integrated in the Soviet Union as one of its 15 republics.
In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost produced its effects in the Moldavan SSR, allowing the creation of political movements. The most prominent of these was the Popular Front of Moldova, a nationalist movement which set Moldovan as the only state language, returns to the use of the Latin alphabet, and the shared ethnic identity of Moldovans and Romanians.
On 31 August 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR adopted Moldovan as the only official language, returned Moldovan to the Latin alphabet, and declared a shared Moldovan-Romanian linguistic identity. Ethnic minorities felt threatened by these moves, the possible unification with Romania and the strong nationalist character of the Popular Front. The response was the Slavic Yedinstvo Unity Movement.
The nationalist Popular Front won the first free parliamentary elections in the Moldavian SSR in the spring of 1990, and its agenda started slowly to be implemented. On 2 September 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed as a soviet republic by an ad hoc assembly, the Second Congress of the Peoples’ Representatives of Transnistria. Violence escalated when in October 1990 the Popular Front called for volunteers to form armed militias, while in response volunteer militias were formed in Transnistria.
In the interest of preserving a unified Moldavian SSR within the USSR, and preventing the situation escalating further, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, while condemning the restriction of civil rights of ethnic minorities by Moldova, declared the Transnistria proclamation illegal and annulled it by presidential decree on 22 December 1990. Nevertheless, no real action was taken against Transnistria and the new authorities were able to stay in power.
The first serious armed clash broke out between Transnistrian separatists and Moldovan volunteers as early as November 1990 at Dubăsari. Volunteers, including Cossacks, came from Russia and Ukraine to help the separatist side. In mid-April 1992, under the agreements on the split of the military equipment of the former Soviet Union negotiated between the former 15 republics in the previous months, Moldova created its own Defense Ministry. According to the decree of its creation, most of the 14th Soviet Army’s military equipment was to be retained by Moldova.
The war that followed was inevitable as Chisinau government tried to conquest and regain control of the Dniester region; the bitter conflict had its peak in June 1992 with the battle of the Dniester river bank where over 700 people died. The former Soviet 14th Guards Army entered the conflict in its final stage, opening fire against Moldovan forces, backing the secessionists.
As a result, the Moldovan “blitzkrieg” failed, over 1.000 lives were lost and Moldova was forced to accept a ceasefire on 21 July 1992. The armistice ensured a demilitarized zone of 10Km, allowing the small republic to survive, although decisive was the intervention of the Russian army stationed in defense of the arsenal still present in the area.
Since 1992, the situation is blocked and the presence of Russian troops is for Moldova one of the reasons of the impossibility to reach an agreement and solve the latent conflict between the two republics. Nevertheless, several attempts of mediation have been made during these 20 years with small progresses but unable to unblock the stalemate.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) organized a negotiation on 8 May 1997, between the Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi and the Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov. The “Memorandum on the principles of normalizations of the relations between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria”, also known as the “Primakov Memorandum”, established legal and state relations.
In November 2003, Dmitry Kozak, a counselor of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, proposed a memorandum on the creation of an asymmetric federal Moldovan state, with Moldova holding a majority and Transnistria being a minority part of the federation. The opposition of Transnistria, seeking equal status, was balanced giving veto power on constitutional changes. The plan at the end failed as the Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, who was initially supportive of the plan, refused to sign it after internal opposition and international pressure from the OSCE and US, and after Russia had endorsed the Transnistrian demand to maintain a Russian military presence for the next 20 years as a guarantee for the intended federation.
In September 2006 a referendum, unrecognized by Moldova and the international community, asserted Transniestria demand for independence and also backed a plan eventually to join Russia.
In 2008 a new negotiation was organized under Russian mediation involving Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. In February 2011 these were extended in the new formula “5 + 2 Talks” involving in addition the US and the EU as external observers in Vienna.
PMR, Transnistria Republic: Soviet Rhetoric and Challenging Economic Survival
Transnistria is considered by the majority of countries as a legal part of the Republic of Moldova. The small republic is recognized only by states in similar situation such South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of the population, between 300 and 400 thousands, have Moldovan passport as the international community does not recognize the ones issued by the Transnistrian government. Moscow in an attempt to keep influence over the region issued Russian passport to almost 80,000 citizens and open a consulate in Tiraspol.
Even after the war there are several disputes on the border: nine villages from the Dubăsari district, including Varniţa, Copanca, Cocieri and Doroţcaia, which geographically belong to Transnistria, are under the control of the government of Moldova; one city and six villages on the west bank are controlled by the PMR. These issues led to several tensions with confrontation between Moldovan and Transnistrian forces, however without any casualties.
Tiraspol is the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Transnistria, maintaining a clear reference to the USSR, from which everything is coming back from the past: large roads and typical soviet architecture, military parades, hammer and sickle in clear sight, soviet anthem playing on the roads. KGB is in control of the society, politics and economy of the country, while censorship on TV, radio and press ensure devotion to the government. The government adopts a mixture of socialism and nationalist rhetoric: while announcing the great conquest of socialism on one side on the other remarks the differences with Moldova and the peculiarity of the region. In Transnistria nearly 40% speaks Russian, but Moldovan is the first language, although the government tried to shut down schools that do not teach Russian.
The country has a multi-party system and a unicameral parliament named the Supreme Council. Its legislature has 43 members elected by Single-member district plurality. The president is elected to a five-year term by popular vote.
Igor Smirnov was the first President of Transnistria since the declaration of independence in 1990 for four consecutive terms. Self-proclaimed head of state in 1990 at the moment of secession, has later “legalized” his position with the official election in December 2001, disputed by UE, Romania, Moldova and even Russia. In 2011 was defeated at the first round and replaced by Yevgeni Shevchuk. His party, the Renewal Movement, has the majority in the parliament followed by the Republic Party affiliated with the ex President Igor Smirnov. A former speaker of Transnistria’s parliament, Yevgeny Shevchuk was a former ally of Igor Smirnov, who later challenged the president’s power with an anti-corruption movement that also called for greater transparency in the government. The new president says he wants to improve relations with Moldova and Ukraine, while remarking Transnistria independence.
The only two opposition parties, Narodovlastie Party and Power to the People Movement, were outlawed at the beginning of 2000 and eventually dissolved. This led many to believe that the multiparty system is only nominal and elections are questioned about their fairness and transparency.
In 2007, was founded the Social Democratic Party, led by former separatist leader and member of the PMR government Andrey Safonov, which allegedly favors a union with Moldova.
Transnistria in Soviet times was heavily industrialized, and in 1990 it was responsible for 40% of Moldova’s GDP and 90% of its electricity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Transnistria wanted to return to a Soviet-style planned economy. However, following a large scale privatization process in the late 90s most of the companies in Transnistria are now privately owned. The economy is based on a mix of heavy industry, mainly steel production, electricity, manufacturing and textile, which together account for about 80% of the total industrial output.
Transnistria central bank issues the Transnistrian Ruble, which it is convertible at a freely floating exchange rate but only in the country.
Over 50% of the export goes to the CIS, mainly to Russia, but also to Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Main non-CIS markets are Italy, Egypt, Greece, Romania, and Germany. The main imports are non-precious metals, food products and electricity.
The economy is largely dependent from Russia and the major industries have more or less official links with Moscow’s firms: the Moldova Steel Works is part of the Russian Metalloinvest Holding; the largest power company Moldavskaya GRES is owned by Inter RAO UES; the gas company Tiraspoltransgas is probably controlled by Gazprom, although Gazprom has not confirmed the ownership officially; the banking sector of Transnistria consists of eight commercial banks, including Gazprombank.
Russian Military Presence, Arms Withdrawal and Influence
A 1,200-strong Russian military contingent is present in Transnistria, whose status is disputed. The 1992 cease-fire agreement between Moldova and Transnistria established a Russian peace-keeper presence in Transnistria. Russian troops stationed in Moldova since the time of the USSR were fully withdrawn to Russia by January 1993.
A series of agreements to ensure the withdrawal of Russian armaments, were only partially or not fully implemented, increasing suspicions on Moscow’s role:
- Agreement signed on 21 October 1994 by Russia and Moldova: Moscow government committed to the withdrawal of the troops in three years from the date of entry into force of the agreement; this did not come into effect because the Russian Duma did not ratify it.
- The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) included a paragraph about the removal of Russian troops from Moldova’s territory and was introduced into the text of the OSCE Summit Declaration of Istanbul (1999), in which Russia had committed itself to pulling out its troops from Transnistria by the end of 2002. Not ratified by the Russian Duma until 2004.
- On 19 July 2004, the Russian Duma passed the treaty and President Vladimir Putin signed the Law on the ratification of the CFE Treaty in Europe, which committed Russia to remove the heavy armaments.
According to the OSCE Mission to Moldova, of a total of 42,000 tons of ammunitions stored in Transnistria, 1,153 tons (3%) was transported back to Russia in 2001, 2,405 tons (6%) in 2002 and 16,573 tons (39%) in 2003. However, no further withdrawal have taken place since March 2004 and a further 20,000 tons of ammunition, as well as some remaining military equipment are still to be removed. Russia insists that it has already fulfilled those obligations and states that the remaining troops, serving as peacekeepers authorized under the 1992 ceasefire, are not in violation of the Istanbul accords and will stay until the conflict is fully resolved.
In a NATO resolution on 18 November 2008, Russia was urged to withdraw its military presence from the “Transdnestrian region of Moldova”.
The Russian role in the Transnistrian legacy is clearly out of question, and is one of the reasons of the actual incapacity to reach a final settlement. However, the reasons of Russian involvement have changed during these 20 years. Following the collapse of the soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, a strong nationalist opposition made of anti-Russian and anti-Slavic tones pervaded the Romanian area. This area suffered the same malaise that destroyed the ex-Yugoslavia for a decade. At first, the Transnistria struggle was a clear matter between a Slavic population and pro-Romanian nationalists, as well as a resistance of hardliners in the soviet state against any change of the status quo. Many of the volunteers or fighters that joined the transnistrian war were past member of the KGB or Red Army with some involved with the failed military coup in August 1991. One of these central figures was for example General Vladimir Shetsov, better known as Vladimir Antiufeev. The General was for many years Head Minister for National Security in Transnistria, until it was relieved by the current President Shevchuk. Antiufeev was a key member of the KGB in USSR and took refuge in the new republic after the failed coup in August 1991. He is still wanted by Latvia for war crimes committed during the uprising in 1990-91, when he led the special soviet forces to crush the rebellion.
This character of a “safe soviet exile” made Transnistria the home for disillusioned soviet members with the new path in Russia and convinced with the necessity to preserve the Slavic population rights. However, the role of Russian state in the first 10 years can be considered passive or inclined to a tacit cooperation, mainly due to the weakness of the state during Yeltsin years and major disruption of institutions. The turning point in history is Putin’s coming to power, especially after 2005-6 we assisted a reasonable grow in Russian economy and in parallel a more aggressive stance on foreign policy. This culminated with the blitzkrieg in Georgia in 2008 that signed the end of the Russian appeasement toward the west and the start of a more aggressive policy in defense of Russian geopolitical space.
Transnistria consequently changed its aspect from a defense to a nationalist and Slavic secession to a geopolitical strategy for Russian counterbalance of western influence in Romania, Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.
Republic of Moldova and Arms Trade Accusations
The Republic of Moldova still considers Transnistria part of its territory and does not recognize its secession. The initial strong nationalism and pro-Romanian stance that led to the disastrous war in 1992 have with time left space for a more diplomatic approach through the mediation of the OSCE and EU in particular, although stronger has grown US interest in the region.
Moldova has reiterated several time its accusations on Russian responsibility not only for the secession but also for the war and its stalemate until these days. In reality most has changed from the chaos and anarchy that ensued the collapse of the Soviet Union and nationalism has now paved the way for a more complex geopolitical and strategic calculations involving the powers. Moldova tried especially until 2003-4 to use the illicit arms trade claims as a propaganda tool to win consensus and isolate further Transinistria and its main protector Russia. In those years, characterized by a weak Russian position on the international scenario, Moldova cultivated strong ties with Romania, Ukraine and other ex-soviet republic or satellite states hostile to Moscow. Moldova addressed concernsthat the Transnistrian authorities would try to sell armaments internationally, and intense pressure was applied to have these ammunitions removed by the Russian Federation. However, in the autumn of 2006, the Transnistria leadership agreed to let an OSCE inspectorate examine the munitions and further access was agreed moving forward. Transnistrian authorities declared that they are not involved in the manufacture or export of weapons. The OSCE and European Union officials stated in 2005 that there is no evidence that Transnistria “has ever trafficked arms or nuclear material” and much of the alarm is due to Moldovan government’s attempts to pressure Transnistria. Their report stated that the evidence for the illicit production and trafficking of weapons into and from Transnistria has in the past been exaggerated, although the trafficking of light weapons is likely to have occurred before 2001. The report also states that the same is true for the production of such weapons, which is likely to have been carried out in the 1990s primarily to equip Transnistrian forces.
Although this now seems not anymore a big issue, what concerns more Romania and Moldova is the presence of Russian troops and the clearly “unofficial” appeasement of Moscow to these breakaway regions such South Ossetia and Abkhazia. To the above needs to be added the renewed interest of the US in the region.
Transnistria is a particular case but not dissimilar from other territorial disputes in the world; it has closest ties with other unrecognized regions like South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno–Karabach, and its unilateral declaration of independence is also not dissimilar from the Kosovar one. Nevertheless, Transnistria case is more complicated, and even Russian is in reality struggling to find a position that will not backfire. Whilst Kosovo independence was regarded as a “democratic change and wish of the population to a brighter future” for the west, Transnistria and the other ex-soviet territories are branded rebellious regions whose illegal status cannot be accepted under international law. The dual standards used in these cases is clear and evident, as the anti-Russian posture from the international community. Russia therefore, especially under Putin, blocked any change of status quo in Transnistria as well as appeasing and supporting the two Georgian secessionist republics. The military involvement, that at first was legitimated by presence of troops prior USSR collapse, change to military defense in assistance to fellow countries. However it is difficult even for Russia to balance herself in this play. Russia has always condemned any separatist movement or change of status quo internally, and the Chechen war is an example and warning to any rebellion. Russia does not recognize Kosovo independence, as this could clearly set dangerous example in a federation that sometimes struggle to stay united. However, it did not hesitate to wage war against Georgia in 2008 in defense of two secessionist regions on the claim to support Russian population and even threatened to recognize their status permanently. Transnistria did not seem to be on the same length, as Russia still does not recognize the region.
Russia currently prefers to keep open the Transnistria issue, but a full independence will not be easily achieved without international support from other countries. On the other side an integration into the Russian Federation would not be easy but could offer to Moscow a way to control directly a corridor between two states that saw a clear US interference: Romania and Ukraine. The decline of both states in their anti-Russian posture and the rise of pro-Russian parties have clearly supported Russia in the desire to use the Transnistria to counterbalance US strategy in the Eastern Europe.
Whatever will be the future of the PMR is clear that no change will happen without Russian approval and under favorable terms and conditions to its strategic needs.