Transnistria, or Trans-Dniester, represents a separatist region that is located on a narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border. Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1990 and is not recognized by the international community as an independent state. The de-facto administration of Transnistria is supported economically, diplomatically, and militarily by Russia, which is believed to have 1,500 soldiers stationed there.
History of Transnistria & the Soviet Union
Transnistria has historically been a multiethnic borderland where Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians make up most of its population. The territory now known as Transnistria has been ruled by different Eurasian nomads, Kievan Rus’, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ottoman Empire for the previous two thousand years. By the late 1700s, the region had been incorporated into the Russian Empire by the famous Russian General Alexander Suvorov, and it was an autonomous part of Ukraine before Soviet rule.
The issue of Transnistria dates back to 1940, when the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, decided to take the province of Bessarabia from Romania under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed with Germany. To facilitate the assimilation of the Romanian-speaking population, Soviet leadership decided to merge it with Russian-speaking Transnistria and form the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet Union implemented major demographic and social changes in both territories that later acted as a prerequisite for the conflict.
Namely, since 1920, the Soviet Union had promoted the development of a Moldovan nation. The first step to accomplishing the creation of a proletarian Moldovan identity was the formation of a Moldovan language in the Cyrillic script. Historically, people living in the territory of Moldova spoke a certain dialect of Romanian and were considered to have Romanian origins. However, the century-long policies of the Soviet Union resulted in the loss of ties with neighboring Romania.
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As a result, the people living in Bessarabia became alienated from Romanian identity and the nation-state. By the late 1980s, the result of the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored nation-building was that people living in Bessarabia started to identify themselves with the Moldovan ethnicity. On the other hand, Transnistria became more ethnically diverse as a result of the immigration of Russian-speaking peoples due to the highly developed heavy industry in Transnistria. This migration resulted in Transnistria’s ethnic diversity, which has been maintained to this day: 158,000 Russians (33.8%), 153,500 Moldovans (33.2%), and 124,200 Ukrainians (26.7%) make up the population of Transnistria.
Nevertheless, within the Soviet Union, these ethnic groups coexisted peacefully, freely speaking their languages throughout the Soviet era. Nationalism had never been a popular idea among the Transnistrian multiethnic populations.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union & the Disputed Land of Transnistria
The Soviet Union’s policy of forced nation-building and demographic changes throughout the 20th century had its consequences when the Union collapsed in 1991. No longer suppressed by Soviet forces, several “frozen conflicts” emerged in Eastern Europe as the post-Soviet states started their struggles for independence. These conflicts include the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova.
The rise of nationalist movements within the Soviet Union started in the 1980s, when the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced the policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) that allowed political liberalization and more open economic policies in the Soviet republics. The political liberalization pushed for the formation of independence movements with nationalistic aspirations and a desire for self-determination.
In 1988, a resurgence of nationalism resulted in the creation of the independence movement — the Popular Front of Moldova. The movement’s main goal was the recognition of the Moldovan language as the only state language and the return of the Latin alphabet. The Popular Front also included more radical factions advocating for more extreme measures regarding ethnic minorities. They demanded the minority populations of Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians) be expelled from Moldova. Over time, the movement became more pan-Romanian. On April 26, 1990, the Romanian tricolor flag was adopted. Thus, the possibility of a union with Romania sparked fears about the Romanian influence and the loss of linguistic equality and multiculturalism among the multiethnic population of Transnistria.
By 1989, the Popular Front had managed to acquire support from some of the members of the parliament and, coupled with organized protests, pushed through a law that declared Latinized Moldovan as the state language. The law also removed the Cyrillic Russian.
These moves threatened the ethnic minorities in Transnistria and Moldova in general, as Russian was widely used for interethnic communication. The ethnocentric rhetoric of some of the members of the Popular Front further escalated the dissatisfaction.
To counterbalance the Popular Front, a separate Slavic independence movement, the Yedinstvo (Unity) Movement, was created. It aimed to establish equal rights for both Slavic people and Moldovans.
In early 1990, members of the Popular Front won seats in the Moldovan parliament. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, the Soviet Union allowed non-communists to participate in the elections. Even though no political parties were recognized besides the Communists, the Popular Front managed to gain 27% of the seats by joining the moderate Communists and other independent candidates, forming the majority of the parliament.
Eventually, the communists became the opposition. The agenda of the Popular Front started to become a reality. These developments sparked a political conflict that spread to Transnistria and Gagauzia, another region of Moldova populated by Turkish-speaking people. In Transnistria, the Joint Council of Labor Collectives was formed in 1989 to stop the pro-Romanian language laws. The political movement organized mass strikes and protests, though without achieving any notable results from the Moldovan government. All of these pushed Transnistrians to seek political and territorial independence from the rest of Moldova.
Transnistria declared independence in 1990. On September 2, 1990, a successful referendum established the Pridnestrovian-Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR) by the Second Congress of the People’s Representatives of Transnistria. In response, the authorities of Moldova condemned the acts of independence and sent the military to re-establish the central government’s rule. Volunteer military groups were formed in Transnistria as well. The situation escalated when, in April of 1990, nationalists attacked ethnically Russian members of parliament, and the Moldovan authorities refused to restore order. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to prevent the escalation of the conflict and annulled Transnistria’s proclamation of independence on December 22, 1990. For a short period, the central government managed to establish control over the region.
A Self-Proclaimed Independence of Transnistria & the War
The Pridnestrovian-Moldavian SSR announced its independence from the Soviet Union after the failed coup d’état attempt in 1991. On November 5, 1991, Transnistria gave up its socialist ideology and changed its name to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. These developments further escalated the already tense relations with the central government of Moldova, and armed clashes erupted in the spring of 1992.
The Transnistrian separatist groups were supported by the Soviet military and volunteer units of so-called Russian Cossacks, who represented predominantly East Slavic Orthodox Christian people originating in the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia. Although the tension in Transnistria had the appearance of an ethnic conflict, its results differed from the Karabakh and Abkhazian wars of the same period because ethnic cleansing did not take place in the separatist region of Moldova.
In 1992, there were 1,132 fatalities from the conflict, including 310 civilians, and more than 3,500 people were injured. Some 70,000 refugees from the conflict area sought safety in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; about 130,000 people were internally displaced. The Transnistrian area was no longer under Moldova’s jurisdiction.
The support of the former Soviet 14th Army turned out to be decisive for the fate of the war. Although the Russian Federation was officially neutral in the conflict, this military unit was, in fact, fully subordinate to the central Soviet government in Moscow. There was even a threat that units of the 14th Army would penetrate deep into Moldova, prompting further military actions by the authorities of Moldova.
On July 21, 1992, a cease-fire agreement was signed between Russia and Moldova, ending the war. The Russian 14th Army was divided into two parts: the Russian part of the trilateral peacekeeping force (alongside Moldovan and Transdniestria troops) and the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), which aimed to guard old Soviet arms depots in Transdniestria and remains in the region to this day. Moldovan soldiers fought until it came to a deadlock in 1992. Eventually, Moldovan forces left it as a breakaway state, and Russia did not officially recognize Transnistria as an independent state. The Russian peacekeepers became the main lever of Moscow’s influence on Moldova.
The Russian military presence in Transnistria prevents the Moldovan government from reunifying with Romania or joining the European Union. Although Russia pledged in 1999 to remove military forces, Moldova had never agreed to the OGRF’s deployment there. After Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin refused to ratify a peace agreement that would have put an end to the conflict in exchange for Moscow accepting Russian military bases and other rights, President Vladimir Putin suspended the pullout in 2003.
Negotiations & the Current Political Status of Transnistria
On May 8, 1997, a “memorandum on the principles of normalization of relations between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria” was signed between the presidents of Moldova and Transnistria, Petru Lucinschi and Igor Smirnov. Russia and Ukraine acted as mediatory forces during the process. The memorandum, also known as the “Primakov Memorandum,” aimed to support the establishment of legal and state relations between the two parties, promising to safeguard mutual security. The memorandum also granted Transnistria the right to conduct foreign economic activities independently. However, the provisions have been the subject of legal and political interpretations from signing parties and have struggled to achieve the primary goals.
In 2003, on behalf of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Kozak, a counselor of Russian President Vladimir Putin, initiated another memorandum that proposed the creation of an asymmetric federal Moldovan state. Known as the “Kozak Memorandum,” it entailed Moldova holding a majority and Transnistria being a minority part of the federation. Even though Transnistria sought equal status, authorities decided to sign it because it promised veto power over future constitutional changes. On the other hand, Moldova denied the suggested memorandum due to internal and international opposition. Eventually, the Kozak Memorandum failed.
The so-called 5+2 format (composed of Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, plus the United States and the EU as external observers) was another tool for the negotiations. It began in 2005 but was halted due to a lack of success. In February 2011, the 5+2 format was renewed.
The Moldovan government passed the “Law on Basic Provisions of the Special Legal Status of Localities from the Left Bank of the Dniester” on July 22, 2005, establishing a part of Transnistria as an autonomous territorial unit within the Republic of Moldova, despite having no direct control over Transnistria’s territory.
All the members of the United Nations consider Transnistria a legal part of Moldova. Only the unrecognized states of South Ossetia, Artsakh, and Abkhazia have officially recognized Transnistria as a sovereign state.
The majority of Moldova’s industrial infrastructure is located in Transnistria, but its isolation from the rest of the world limits its economic potential. It has its own flag, anthem, constitution, currency, and parliament. Russia provides the area with financial support. It has a history of organized crime, corruption, and smuggling and has refuted claims of money laundering and illegal arms sales. One thousand five hundred Russian troops continue to be stationed in Transnistria, which remains a distinct yet unrecognized country.