Commentary by Henry Srebrnik
When it comes to eastern Europe, most of the world’s attention these days has been focused on the quarrel within Ukraine between those who want the nation to join the European Union and those who desire closer ties with Russia. But it’s not the only problem in that part of the former Soviet Union.
Just to the west of Ukraine lies Transnistria, also known as the Trans-Dniester Republic and (officially) the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, an unrecognized state that broke away from the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union in 1990.
Today it retains its independence thanks largely to the military support provided by the Russian 14th Army, which has been stationed there since the 1950s, when the whole area was part of the USSR. Russia also provides Transnistria with financial assistance.
The tiny breakaway republic of 4,163 square kilometres consists of a narrow strip of land located east of the Dnieper River (hence the name), plus the city of Bender and its surrounding localities located on the western side. The country borders Ukraine to its east.
In total, Transnistria comprises more than 500,000 people, with Russian and Ukrainian Slavs making up 59 per cent of the population and Moldovan Romanians 32 per cent. The capital, Tiraspol, a city of 203,000, is almost three-quarters Russian and Ukrainian.
Moldova itself has a checkered history. It is a largely Romanian-speaking entity, historically known as Bessarabia, which was part of Romania after the First World War until occupied by the Soviets in 1940 and reconstituted as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian SSR).
However, when Moscow created the Moldavian SSR, it added the mainly Russian-speaking Dniester region, formerly an autonomous part of Ukraine, to Romanian Bessarabia —sowing the seeds of future ethnic trouble.
In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, it was clear that Moldova had an identity problem and that the inhabitants, coming from an array of ethnic backgrounds, were a long way from being a cohesive and friendly family.
The mainly Russian and Ukrainian population in the Dniester region grew alarmed over growing Moldovan nationalism and even the potential reunification of Moldova with Romania. A 1989 law which made Moldovan an official language added to the tension. The law made it compulsory for everyone who worked in a position where they had to communicate with customers to speak both languages; Russian and Ukrainian speakers saw this as discriminatory.
Given all this, the Trans-Dniester Republic proclaimed its secession from the Moldavian SSR in September 1990. A year later, when the USSR ceased to exist altogether, the Moldovian SSR declared its own independence, as did Transistria.
After World War II, Transnistria had been heavily industrialized and though it accounted for only 17 per cent of the old Soviet republic’s population, it was responsible for 40 per cent of its GDP. So the newly independent state of Moldova, whose 3.6 million people are themselves quite poor, attempted to regain the Trans-Dniester Republic, resulting a in a short war between March and July 1992.
With aid and equipment from the 14th Army, which still retains a 1,200-strong Russian military contingent in Transnistria, the region held off the Moldovans. A cease-fire led to the creation of a three-party Joint Control Commission, consisting of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria, which supervises a demilitarized security zone on both sides of the Dniester River. It has been a “frozen conflict” ever since.
In September 2006 Transistria’s citizenry voted overwhelmingly to confirm their independence and the country has created its own constitution, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms, as well as a military, police, postal system, and currency. But Transnistria remains a de facto state, unrecognized by sovereign members of the international community -- including even Russia itself.
Transnistria is plagued by corruption, organized crime and smuggling. It has been accused of conducting illegal arms sales and of money laundering.
However, it remains an electoral democracy. Indeed, the current president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian, won the December 2011 election by beating the incumbent, Igor Smirnov, and the Kremlin-backed speaker of the parliament, Anatoliy Kaminski.
Moldova is also home to 160,000 Gagauz, a Turkic Christian people. In 1994 the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, in Moldova’s south, was established for them. If Moldova decided to unite with Romania, Gagauzia would have the right of self-determination.
Moldova and Transnistria have engaged in talks in recent months, including a meeting between Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca and Shevchuk. Moldova announced that its parliament would consider removing travel restrictions on Transnistrians with Russian or Ukrainian passports.
Moldova last month signed a free trade pact and political association treaty with the European Union which offered the impoverished country’s 3.5 million citizens visa-free travel entry within the 28-nation bloc.
Russia has already shown its dissatisfaction by banning the import of Moldovan wine, Moldova’s major export, and it has delivered thinly veiled threats that Russia might stop supplying Moldova with natural gas.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moldova recently, and said that the Obama administration would sponsor a Moldovan trade mission so it could develop a market for its wine in the United States.
It is unlikely that war will be renewed because Russian President Vladimir Putin would actively support Transnistria, while the Moldovans could expect little military aid from the United States and NATO.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.