oDR

Transnistria is a bridge too far for Russia

The breakaway republic – de facto state – of Transnistria has steadily been edging closer and closer to Russia, but the Kremlin does not seem all that enthusiastic.

Pål Kolstø
11 June 2014

Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea on 18 March, Jean-Claude Juncker, former Premier of Luxembourg, and top candidate to become the next president of the European Commission, opined that the EU ought to take specific action to prevent Moldova from becoming ‘the next victim of Russian aggression.’ As he saw it, there is a real chance that the breakaway region in the eastern part of the country, the Transnistrian republic, might follow in the footsteps of Crimea and be accepted into the Russian Federation as a new federal subject.

How realistic is this scenario? As Aleksandr Zhelenin pointed out (in Russian), once the taboo on grabbing territory from another state has been breached, an important psychological barrier has been removed and it can happen again – as events in Eastern Ukraine seem to indicate.

Crimea – setting a new precedent

Some of the arguments Vladimir Putin used in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly on 18 March to justify the Crimean annexation were quite general and could, without too much creative interpretation, be applied also to other cases. For instance, he claimed that, in organising a referendum on independence from Ukraine, the Crimeans had availed themselves of their right to self-determination, a right enshrined in the UN Charter. While such a principle does exist, few legal scholars would agree that it gives ethnic groups or regions in a state a right to secede.

Putin maintained that Russians are one of the largest ‘divided nations’ in the world.

Even so, many people, also in the West, share Putin’s interpretation of this principle. Moreover, Putin, in the same speech, maintained that Russians are one of the largest ‘divided nations’ in the world, if not the largest; and, since the majority population in the Crimea is ethnically Russian, the peninsula should be allowed to become a part of Russia, as this would reduce the dividedness of the Russian people. However, there are today millions of ethnic Russians living outside Russia also in other countries; by this yardstick, not only Crimeans but all compact communities of the Russian diaspora could be covered by the same principle. Indeed, this is how Putin’s speech was received by pro-Russia activists in Donetsk and Luhansk; and in the Transnistrian republic.

Map of Transnistria, the breakaway republic and de facto state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, 2008. cc Serhio.

Map of Transnistria, the breakaway republic and de facto state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, 2008. cc Serhio.

The Transnistrian drive for unification

The Transnistrians have already conducted two referenda on self-determination: in 1991, and 2006, both showing overwhelming support. The first time, the Transnistrian population were asked if they were in favour of state independence for their break-away region; the second time the question was formulated somewhat differently: ‘Do you support the course towards independence for the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic and its subsequent free unification with the Russian Federation?’ With 78% turnout, 97% voted in favour. The Transnistrians were clearly willing to forgo their non-recognised independence and join another state – provided that that state was Russia.

Transnistrians kept edging closer and closer to the coveted union with the Promised Land.

The 2006 Transnistrian referendum expressed only a pious wish, since Moscow at the time clearly did not see it as being in its interest to welcome Transnistria into the Russian fold – in fact, Russia has not even extended de jure recognition to this de facto state. Its stance did not change even after the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008 when Russia recognised two other post-Soviet break-away regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Nevertheless, Transnistrians kept edging closer and closer to the coveted union with the Promised Land. Economically and socially, their country gradually became more integrated into Russian structures. Transnistrian pupils use textbooks produced in Russia, and study Russian history; Transnistrian students move to Moscow and St Petersburg to study. More than 200,000 residents of Transnistria hold Russian passports, and very many receive their pensions from there (though 150,000 hold Ukrainian citizenship and many thousands have taken Moldovan citizenship).

Flag of Transnistria Republic giving prominent place to the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle. cc Dl.goe

Flag of Transnistria Republic giving prominent place to the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle. cc Dl.goe

Hundreds of Transnistrian firms are owned by Russian companies; including many of the biggest ones. Like Ukraine, Transnistria is totally dependent on Russian gas and has just as often failed to pay its bills. In fact, the Transnistrian economy is to a large degree kept afloat by direct and indirect Russian subsidies and loans.

In late autumn 2013, the Transnistrian parliament passed, at the first reading, a bill to the effect that all Russian legislation is automatically to become part of the legal code in Transnistria, much as EU laws are incorporated into the legal framework of the member-states of the European Free Trade Association (currently the European Union and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). Somewhat earlier, plans were made to introduce the Russian rouble as a second parallel legal tender in the country. All this amounted to a unilateral drive for unification, although neither of the decisions was implemented.

For quite a while, these overtures did not elicit much reaction in Moscow but, after the Crimean referendum on 16 March, new opportunities seemed to open up. The Transnistrian parliament decided to strike while the iron was still hot, and athe very same day sent an appeal to the Russian president, pleading to be accepted into the Russian Federation.

Transnistria is a Russuphone region

While Transnistrian state propaganda had previously made much out of the allegedly unique Transnistrian identity as a basis for state-building, now the emphasis was on underlining the Russian character of Transnistrian statehood. Transnistria has three official languages – Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan (with Cyrillic script) – but in their letter to Putin the Transnistrian legislators mentioned only the official status of the Russian language.

‘Transnistria is a Russophone region; more than 90% of the Transnistrians talk and think in Russian.’

The legislators also added (correctly, but rarely admitted officially) that Russian is totally dominant as the de facto language of business correspondence and interethnic communication. ‘Transnistria is a Russophone region; more than 90%of the Transnistrians talk and think in Russian.’ Other social, cultural, economic, and political ties between Transnistria and Russia were also emphasised. To back up this official plea, almost 200,000 signatures were collected from the Transnistrian public.

Copies of the letter from the Transnistrian parliament were sent to the UN and the OSCE but, unsurprisingly, international sympathy was not forthcoming. The European Parliament condemned it as ‘a dangerous and irresponsible act;’,in Moscow, however, at least, some politicians and parties reacted with alacrity. Both the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) have come out strongly and boisterously in favour of welcoming in the Transnistrians; LDPR Duma Deputy Roman Khudyakov, himself a native of Transnistria, has initiated a campaign to collect signatures in the State Duma in support of a parliamentary resolution on this issue.

The ostensibly social-democratic (but in practice pro-Putin) party ‘A Just Russia’ drafted a bill intended to simplify procedures for accepting new members into the Russian Federation, but the legal text was apparently so sloppy that it could have ended up making things more complicated instead. This legal initiative was withdrawn, but it nevertheless signalled firm readiness to support the Transnistrian supplicants.

International observers from Russian pro-Kremlin youth organisation 'Nashi' camp at 2006 referendum, Transnistria, cc Romanstr

International observers from Russian pro-Kremlin youth organisation 'Nashi' camp at 2006 referendum, Transnistria, cc Romanstr

The pro-Putin party ‘United Russia,’ by far the largest party in the State Duma, has remained conspicuously silent.

However, the pro-Putin party ‘United Russia,’ by far the largest party in the State Duma, has remained conspicuously silent. The reason for this unusual reticence is probably that they are waiting for clear signals from the Kremlin, which have not been forthcoming.

The Kremlin position

Putin has appointed Dmitry Rogozin, the nationalist enfant terrible of Russia’s government, as his special envoy to the Transnistrian republic. Rogozin has been in the region several times, but his statements after these visits have been deemed rather bland, not least given his reputation as a person who rarely minces words.

Putin himself, in August last year, commented on the Transnistrian question, in one of his informal Q&A sessions at the pro-government Seliger youth camp. He declared, rather non-committedly, that the situation in Transnistria was ‘among the most complicated problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union (…) Roughly half-a-million people live there, and they are oriented towards Russia. In Transnistria there are many Russian citizens, and they have their own perceptions about how they want to build their future. If we allow people to do what they want, that will simply be an expression of democracy.’

Likewise, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has approached the Transnistrian issue in a rather careful manner. In a TV talk show on 21 April this year. he explained: ‘in the modern world some countries at certain points in time become attractive for other peoples and begin to function as a magnet, socially, economically and otherwise.’ Russia is now becoming such a magnet to some peoples, Peskov claimed. This self-congratulatory analysis, however, did not hold out any promises to the Transnistrians: ‘Each specific request to be admitted into the Russian Federation must be assessed extremely carefully.’

Annexation

Despite the apparently strong similarities between Crimea and the Transnistrian situation, several issues put a damper on Russian enthusiasm for admitting the Transnistrians into the Russian Federation. For one thing, it would undermine some of the arguments Russia has used to justify the Crimean operation. In his 18 March speech, Putin not only said that the Crimeans had a right to self-determination, but also that they had a right to rebel against Kyiv because the new authorities were putschists and Fascists, hence devoid of legitimate authority. In an ad hoc interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect, Russia also assumed the right to intervene in the peninsula, in order to protect Russians there against alleged violations of their basic rights, such as the right to use their language. None of this is applicable to Transnistria, where the people have been running their own affairs for more than 20 years; and not even the Kremlin questions the legitimacy of the Moldovan state.

Not even the Kremlin questions the legitimacy of the Moldovan state.

More pragmatically, a quick glance at the map will suffice to show that it would be far more difficult to administer Transnistria from Moscow than Crimea. While the Crimean peninsula can be reached from Russia by sea, and it has been decided to build a bridge to the mainland across the Kerch Strait, Transnistria can be reached only by air or by road over the territory of other states that will not recognise Transnistria as Russian territory.

Until now, transport communications between Transnistria and both Moldova and Ukraine have been remarkably smooth and unimpeded, incomparably better than in any other de facto state – but that is bound to change, should Russia make such a drastic move as to annex the region. Transnistrian politicians may have claimed that Ukraine has recently instituted a blockade of Transnistria, but this seems to be hyperbolic language intended to elicit sympathy in Moscow. Only males of fighting age holding Russian citizenship, and trucks with Russian license plates, have been held back, in an attempt to stem an influx of paramilitary supporters of the pro-Russian separatists in the east and south of Ukraine.

Run-down street in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. cc flickr.com/photos/minamie

A street in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, with an Orthodox church in the background. Photo: cc flickr.com/photos/minamie

Finally, in the tug-of-war over Moldova’s soul between Russia and the EU, Russian annexation of Transnistria would inevitably drive the Moldovans into the embrace of Brussels. All political factions in Chisinau, including the Communists, are united in their determination to defend the territorial integrity of Moldova. The Kremlin would immediately lose whatever leverage it may still have in Moldovan politics.

Russian annexation of Transnistria would inevitably drive the Moldovans into the embrace of Brussels.

The president of the Transnistrian de facto state, Evgeny Shevchuk, has been cautious in his comments on the issue. In an address to the Transnistrian public on 7 April, he stated: ‘our dream is a blossoming, independent Transnistrian state, together with Russia.’ Apparently, Shevchuk has realised which way the wind is blowing, and has no desire to embarrass the Russian president by using the equivocal signals given in his 18 March speech against him.

Without support from the Kremlin, the most likely scenario for Transnistria is that it will remain a de facto state more or less in the same way as it has done for the last 23 years.

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram