Transnistria: A Smoldering Hotspot With Potential For Escalation – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
The Ukrainian crisis, and especially the Russian invasion in 2022, drew attention to an important but largely forgotten crisis hotspot in the world: Transnistria. The frozen war conflict in that Moldovan region in the early 1990s from the time of the collapse of the USSR has become relevant again.
The are fears that the spread of war conflicts from Ukraine to Transnistria could happen in several ways: 1) so that there is a new war between the Moldovan government and the rebel pro-Russian region, 2) the renegade region goes to war with Ukraine, 3) the Russian army creates a corridor through southern Ukraine via Odesa to Tiraspol. Such fears are not unfounded as Ukrainian officials have repeatedly offered their military services to the Moldovan government. For example, in the spring of 2022, President Zelenskyy’s advisor Oleksiy Arestovič stated that the Ukrainian army can solve the problem of Transnistria “in the blink of an eye”.
What is it really about? Since 1991, the Transnistrian Republic of Moldova has been a self-proclaimed but internationally unrecognized state that is part of the Republic of Moldova under international law, but in practice functions as an independent state. It is located on a narrow strip between the left bank of the Dniester River and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, with an unrecognized state also controlling a small area on the right bank of the Dniester River, while the Moldovan government holds a small area on the left bank. The breakaway republic’s borders are the result of the 1992 Transnistrian War (also known as the Moldovan-Russian War) between pro-Russian rebels and the Moldovan government. In order to better understand the contemporary position of Transnistria, we need to go back in history, because historical processes have given this unique Eastern European region a special stamp.
Historically a border region
Transnistria is a border region that has repeatedly appeared as such in different historical periods. The region has always been a border area where the interests of different empires met. The approximately 250 km long province was often a battlefield between Byzantium and the Slavic peoples. It is a multi-ethnic and multicultural region because Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians and other peoples have been living together there for centuries. In the last two thousand years, Transnistria has often changed rulers, so at one time it was ruled by various Eurasian nomadic tribes, the Kievan Rus, the Polish-Lithuanian Union and the Ottomans.
By the end of the 18th century, the region was integrated into the Russian Empire by the famous Russian general Alexander Suvorov. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romanian-speaking rural population from Bessarabia (the historical name for modern Moldova) began to migrate to the left bank of the Dniester, which was mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. In the early years after the founding of the Soviet Union, in 1924 Transnistria formed the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) within Soviet Ukraine. In the summer of 1940, during the Second World War, the Red Army occupied Bessarabia, and Stalin merged it with the MASSR, thus creating the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Nevertheless, in the continuation of the 20th century, there will be a big gap between Bessarabia and Transnistria.
Historically, the Moldavian people were considered part of the Romanian people and spoke a dialect of the standard Romanian language. However, half a century of Soviet rule had the effect of alienating Moldovans from Romanians. At that time, the modern Romanian nation was being built and strengthened, and the Moldavians were not involved in these processes. Thanks to politics, two distinct nations developed on the two banks of the Prut River that flows between Moldova and Romania. Since the 1920s, the USSR authorities have encouraged the development of a single Moldavian nation by creating the Moldavian language in the Cyrillic script and promoting a single Moldavian identity. By the late 1980s, these efforts, combined with the strengthening of nationalist Moldovan elites, created Moldovan nationalism. State-sponsored nation-building also caused Moldova/Bessarabia to become more ethnically homogeneous.
Unlike the rest of Moldova, Transnistria has become more ethnically diverse year by year. As the Soviet economy strengthened in line with post-World War II reconstruction, the region became an attractive destination for tens of thousands of immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the USSR. They mostly came to work in heavy industry factories. The influx of immigrants resulted in ethnic diversity that has persisted to this day. Throughout the Soviet period, different ethnic groups (Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Gagauz, Turks) lived in harmony, freely speaking their languages and intermarrying. Due to the multi-ethnic character of the region and the then-communist ideology that encouraged national mixing, mono-ethnic nationalism was expectedly an unattractive ideology for the population of Transnistria.
Late 1980s – the rift between Moldova and Transnistria
In the late 1980s, thanks to the unsuccessful policies of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR was rapidly moving towards its end. In the last years of the existence of the “first state of workers and peasants”, there was a strengthening of nationalism and nationalist ideas in all parts of the country, including in Moldova.
In 1988, certain Moldovan circles began to propagate the idea of secession of that republic from the USSR. The Popular Front of Moldova led the Moldovan nationalist movement from May 1989. The three main objections of the Moldovan nationalists were: the use of the Cyrillic alphabet within the Moldovan language, the placing of Romanian in the background compared to the Russian language, and the undefined relationship between the Romanian and Moldovan languages. Moldovans complained that the Cyrillic alphabet was incompatible with their language. Moldovan nationalists demanded that Romanian in the Latin script (as opposed to Moldovan in the Cyrillic script) be introduced as an official language. Three laws promoting this change were adopted in August 1989. Furthermore, Moldovans felt that their language was marginalized, claiming that most media outlets only used Russian.
Finally, the question of the historical unity of Moldovans and Romanians prompted nationalist forces to demand that the Moldovan government recognize these two groups as a single ethno-linguistic community. The Popular Front of Moldova began advocating pan-Romanism at the end of 1989, and especially in 1990. Similar nationalist trends occurred in other Soviet republics.
Rise of OSTK
Pan-Romanian rhetoric, the adoption of the Romanian tricolor in April 1990, and widespread talk of union with Romania raised fears of “Romanization” among Transnistria’s multi-ethnic population. Before the passing of the law promoting Romanian as an official language, the citizens of Transnistria organized themselves politically in the form of the Joint Council of Labor Collectives (OSTK).
Since its inception in August 1989, OSTK has been a political organization focused on stopping pro-Romanian laws. OSTK politically united the whole of Transnistria for the first time in history. Work collectives were distributed in numerous factories and plants. Widespread strikes organized by OSTK attracted thousands of workers. For the citizens of Transnistria, the imposition of the Romanian language represented excessive Romanian influence and a threat to their linguistic equality and multiculturalism.
OSTK, in the spirit of Soviet national policy, stood for the official equality of Moldovans and Russians. Russians, Ukrainians and other nationalities relied on the Russian language as a language of inter-national communication. Although the OSTK relied on the Slavic population, ethnic Moldovans in Transnistria supported its mission to grant official status to the Moldavian and Russian languages.
The support of ethnic Moldovans shows that at the very beginning of the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict in 1989 and 1990, the OSTK advocated linguistic equality and multiculturalism, not exclusive Russian nationalism. Moldovans lived in a multicultural community and in multicultural families, so it was logical that they opposed Romanization to the detriment of the Russian language used by their relatives, colleagues, friends, and neighbors. The multinational population of Transnistria could not accept the nation-state model promoted by Moldovan nationalists in the capital Chisinau. Transnistrian support for the use of both Russian and Moldovan languages during the early 1990s was not a way to promote Russian nationalism, but an effort to preserve ethno-linguistic equality in the region.
Deterioration of relations and outbreak of the war
When the Transnistrian efforts did not produce the desired results and Chisinau continued to implement pro-Romanian nationalist policies, the citizens of Transnistria demanded a kind of secession from Moldova, more precisely they demanded autonomy, which was popular in the USSR. After a series of referendums, the politicians of the multicultural region unilaterally declared the Transnistrian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR on September 2, 1990. After it became clear that the Soviet Union was nearing collapse following the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, the government in Tiraspol proclaimed the creation of the independent Transnistrian Moldavian Republic on 25 August. By March 1992, the political dispute between Tiraspol and Chisinau turned into open war.
The Russian 14th Guards Army, which had been stationed in Transnistria since the 1950s, intervened on the side of local rebels in June. To this day, it is not clear why the Russian army commanded by the wayward general Aleksandar Ivanovich Lebed joined the war. At that time, the Russian Defense Minister revealed that Lebed was not following orders from Moscow. In all likelihood, the Russian soldiers and General Lebed decided to intervene on their own initiative because they had integrated into the Transnistrian society and considered that region their home. With Russian support, and thanks to the arrival of volunteers from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, the Transnistrians broke the stalemate on the battlefield.
Cossack volunteers from the Don and Kuban regions as well as the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO) also participated. According to their explanation, Ukrainian fighters participated in order to “defend the Slavs from Moldavian-Romanian aggression”. 50 Ukrainians received the “Defenders of Transnistria” award. It is interesting that the then Ukrainian government also diplomatically supported the rebels in Tiraspol. After all, all aid to the region from Russia went through Ukraine, which wholeheartedly helped its Slavic brothers. A cease-fire in July 1992 ensured the de facto independence of Transnistria and created a peaceful but permanent “frozen conflict” between Tiraspol and Chisinau. As part of the ceasefire agreement, a tripartite Joint Control Commission (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) was established to oversee security in the demilitarized zone in 20 locations on both sides of the Dniester River.
Russification of the region
In the three decades after the end of the war, Russia supported the renegade region, and over time Russian nationalism and Russification prevailed in it as a barrier against Romanization. The constitution of the self-proclaimed state clearly established that Moldovan, Russian and Ukrainian have equal status, but over time Russian took a dominant position and became the de facto official language. Statistics from 2019 on the language in the education system reveal the high status of Russian in Transnistria. Despite Russians making up only about 30% of the region’s population, 93% of preschool children were taught in Russian. Out of 150 schools, 112 have classes exclusively in Russian. Furthermore, slightly more than 10% of students were educated in the Moldovan language, and only 400 students were educated in Ukrainian. At higher levels of education, the dominance of Russian is even more pronounced.
The dominance of Russian is not surprising, because about 70 thousand Moldovans have left the region in the last two decades. Russian nationalism has gained fierce momentum among the political elite as illustrated by the Tiraspol government’s 2022 request to join the Russian Federation. The president of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselski, called joining Russia “destiny”. Romanian media reported that Transnistrian officials traveled to Moscow in February 2022 in hopes of being recognized as an independent state like pro-Russian regions in Ukraine. In March, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko carelessly revealed Russian combat plans to send troops to Transnistria. Like Russia, Transnistria has revived large Soviet-style Victory Day parades in an effort to highlight historical ties to Russia.
Transnistrian Republic of Moldova – the fact on the ground
The Transnistrian Republic of Moldova is not recognized internationally, but it exists on the ground. However, it was recognized only by the breakaway pro-Russian republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh. All four countries are members of the Community for Democracy and People’s Rights organization. Transnistria is organized as a presidential republic and has its own government, parliament, army, police, postal system, currency (Transnistrian ruble), constitution, flag, anthem, coat of arms, and vehicle license plates. The self-proclaimed republic has 475 thousand inhabitants on 4,163 square kilometers. According to the 2015 census, 29.1% of Russians lived in Transnistria, 28.6% of Moldovans, 22.9% of Ukrainians, 2.4% of Bulgarians, 1.1% of Gagauz, etc. Under the auspices of the EU, an agreement was reached in 2005 of Moldova and Ukraine, according to which all Transnistrian companies that want to export goods across the Ukrainian border must be registered with the Moldovan authorities. Most Transnistrians have Moldovan citizenship, but many also have Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian citizenship.
The country is full of communist and socialist symbols that glorify the USSR and communism, so many consider it a Soviet relic. It is usually said that those who want to see what the USSR once looked like should go to Transnistria. Indeed, the region exudes the Soviet spirit like no other post-Soviet area. Close relations with Russia are reflected in the fact that Moscow supplies the region with free natural gas and helps the elderly by paying supplements to their pensions. Out of about 1,500 Russian soldiers, only 50 to 100 of them are from Russia, and all the rest are local residents who have received Russian passports. Due to its unique position as a rogue province, Transnistria is a training ground for international channels of arms smuggling, narcotics, money laundering and human trafficking.
Transnistria – a bone in Moldova’s throat
In recent years, Russia has exploited the frozen conflict and hindered efforts to reach a solution through peaceful reintegration. Russian media broadcast anti-Moldovan propaganda on Transnistrian television. Since the end of the war in 1992, Russia has maintained a military presence in despite a promise to withdraw its peacekeeping forces in 2002. The continued presence of the Russian military in Transnistria allows Moscow to exert influence over Moldova. Moscow’s three-decade prolongation of the Transnistrian dispute has diminished Moldova’s ability to integrate militarily and politically with the West. Due to the unresolved conflict, Moldova is blocked: it cannot join NATO.
Likewise, the lack of complete peace has made it much more difficult for Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation, to join the European Union. In June of last year, the European Commission gave Moldova, together with Ukraine, the status of a candidate for EU membership, marking an important step in the country’s ambitions for EU membership. However, entry into the EU is impossible until the Moldovans control their border with Ukraine, which they cannot do as long as Transnistria exists as a separate entity with Russian military forces. As part of the anti-Russian diplomatic campaign, in March 2022, prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU declared Transnistria a territory under Russian occupation. This decision does not change anything on the ground, the only thing that slows down the possible integration of Moldova into the EU.
Incidents in 2022
Between April 25 and 27, May 6 and June 5, 2022, eight different incidents took place in Transnistria, from throwing Molotov cocktails at government buildings to more sophisticated armed drone attacks. The most devastating attack occurred near the village of Majak on the morning of April 26, when five to ten people placed 12 anti-tank mines on a telecommunications complex, destroying two large radio antennas.
On June 5, a drone dropped two grenades into a parking lot used by Russian peacekeepers. Fortunately, there were no victims. Local authorities did not say who was responsible for the attacks, but called them “terrorist acts”. All interested parties, Transnistrians, Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians condemned the attacks. Regardless of who is behind them, the goal is to drag the region into the Ukrainian war.
New war conflicts in Transnistria?
As things stand now, in the spring of 2023, it does not seem very likely that the frozen conflict in Transnistria will flare up militarily. The government in Chisinau has repeatedly rejected Ukraine’s proposals for a military invasion to reintegrate the region into Moldova by military means. It is certain that the Moldovan government headed by Prime Minister Dorin Recean does not want to resolve the conflict in Transnistria by force and wants to find a peaceful solution. A diplomatic solution is something the European Union wants to see. Ukraine cannot intervene on its own because it would be a violation of international law that the Western powers, Ukraine’s biggest partners, would not approve. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba stated that although Transnistria poses a threat to Ukraine, Kyiv respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Moldova and cannot invade.
On the other hand, the military forces of the rogue republic are too weak to invade Ukraine. There are 1,500 Russian soldiers, formally peacekeepers, and between 4,500 and 7,500 members of the Transnistrian Armed Forces. Recently, the Transnistrian authorities requested that Russia send more of its peacekeepers. Even if Russia increases its forces, it will not significantly strengthen the military forces of the separatist republic. Despite this, the Ukrainians are building defensive fortifications along the border. The option of Russian troops advancing through southern Ukraine to Transnistria is currently off the table. For that to happen, Russian troops would first have to occupy Odesa, which is not in sight. However, despite the fact that the outbreak of war is not currently on the table, the whole of Transnistria is a smoldering crisis hotbed, the escalation of which can be triggered by even minor incidents. If there really is an escalation, the consequences could be felt by the whole of Europe and consequently the world.