Transdniestria and Moldova: unloved, unresolved

Andrey Kalikh
8 April 2009

18 March 2009 could have marked a successful conclusion to the Transdniestrian conflict. That was the day when the presidents of Russia, Moldova and Transdniestria signed a statement agreeing that Russia would give up its 20-year-long monopoly of peacekeeping in the region. This task should now have passed to the OSCE. But for all the loud fanfare, the parties to the statement have sabotaged the peace process. The sticking point was in the wording of the statement: the transition to an OSCE-managed "peace support operation" will only take place "following a Transdniestrian settlement". Everybody knows this is highly unlikely to happen in the near future.

A scandalous incident occurred at a meeting hosted in Tiraspol by the organization that calls itself the Proryv! (Breakthrough!) International Youth Corporation.  Proryv's members had just shown a new video about the kind of public activity they conduct in Transdniestria. After the viewing, the chair of the meeting, a German who had before been totally diplomatic, could bear it no more. ‘What I see here is Nazism and Fuehrerschaft', he announced decisively. ‘I oppose the methods your organization and I am leaving.' And so he did.

Proryv's members watched him open-mouthed. For a moment it looked as if some tall, imposing men (leaders of the "corporation", apparently) were going to follow him  to find out how opposed he was to the "methods" of their organization. So everyone jumped to their feet. It took a while for the discussion to be resumed. The young Proryv! members were sitting quietly, cowed. Offended, the adults were doing all the talking, waving their arms around. They went on about the need to recognize Transdniestria and enter into a union with Russia; about the West's hostility and double standards, the way it used every possible means to block this - the behavior of the German was just another example.

On the streets of Tiraspol there are at least two large portraits of Vladimir Putin: opposite the Council House in the city centre and on a wall of Proryv's headquarters. Here, Putin is accompanied by Dmitry Medvedev and for some reason also by Che Guevara. The words underneath read: "Proryv - Putinsky Proryv!" (Breakthough is Putin's breakthrough!).

Over the road hang two more billboards. One carries the legend "Our Force is Unity!" along with the flags of Transdniestria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and, of course Russia, protector of all orphans and offcasts. The other shows Sergey Bagapsh (President of Abkhazia), Eduard Kokoity (President of South Ossetia)  and Igor Smirnov (President of Transdniestria), looking triumphant, as if saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, we did it". The text reads, "Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be recognized!"

The Proryv Youth Corporation reflects the political mood in Transdniestria - the yearning for Putin's Russia - Putin's, not any other. But sooner or later Russia will withdraw its troops and stop supporting these separatist regimes. It will get behind the international efforts to stamp out the apparently endemic corruption and arms smuggling. Russia put an end to the armed conflict here some time ago, and it could play the key role in resolving the issue completely. However,  everyone understands that as long as Putin remains in power, that is not going to happen. 

In a paper entitled Moldavian Moldavians and Moldavian Rumanians, Dmitry Furman, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on  the CIS,  has this to say about the situation in Transdniestria: "The collapse of the USSR saw the emergence of Russian and Russophone separatist movements whose Soviet slogans easily transformed into Russian nationalist slogans. Such movements appeared in many former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Ukraine, the Baltic states. But only in Moldova did the Russian-Soviet separatism lead to the creation of the Transdniestrian Republic. The industrial left bank of the Dniester proclaimed its status as a republic in September 1990 and declared its independence in August 1991, at the same time as Moldova".

Today Transdniestria is the most peaceful of all the post-Soviet conflicts. It had its ‘hot' phase in June 1992, when there were fierce battles around the Dniester bridge, in Bendery and other settlements on the border with Moldova. Some one or two thousand people were killed, another 80 thousand became refugees, and Bendery and other settlements were badly damaged. Relations with Moldova are still tense. Over the past few years serious crises have led to a breakdown of relations on a number of occasions, but these have always stopped short of armed conflict.  

Transdniestria has its own government, its own currency (the Transdniestrian rouble), its own constitution, police force and other attributes of statehood. The only thing it lacks is international recognition. So far no state in the world,  including Russia, has recognized its independent status, unless one counts Nagorny Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia as states.

Transdniestria has even issued its own passports. But they can only be used within the republic. If you want to go abroad, you need a passport from a recognized state. For most Transdniestrians this state is Russia. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Simonenko, one fifth of Transdniestrians have Russian passports.  Russia has opened a consulate in Tiraspol where it only takes two days to get a passport to travel abroad. This is quicker than if you apply in Moscow. ‘I myself travel with a Russian passport,' as the deputy minister of the unrecognized, but proud republic modestly admitted.

Here, as in South Ossetia, granting people citizenship serves Russia's interests by creating a stable majority of Russian citizens. Most Transdniestrian companies have Russian owners. Russia pays the locals pensions and benefits, provides funding for construction works, etc. Russia supports Transdniestria's independence, while not officially granting it recognition. Bear in mind the Russian military bases and the mass of poorly guarded weapons and the parallel with South Ossetia is clear.

However, few people believe that the region will erupt in armed conflict again. As the OSCE's head of mission Philip Remler says laconically, ‘Yes, Transdniestria does have some similarities to South Ossetia. But Moldova is completely different from Georgia!'

Moldova's Deputy Minister for Reintegration, Ion Stavila (i.e. the man charged with resolving the conflict with Transdniestria) would agree: ‘Apart from Russia, there are many other parties interested in a peaceful settlement - 5 + 2: the EU, OSCE, the US, Ukraine, Russia + Moldova and Transdniestria. All of them are happy with the status quo.'

Worst case scenarios

Nevertheless, some observers are less sanguine.  Ion Marandici, a Moldavian political scientist at Rutgers University, fears what might happen if the economic situation deteriorates dramatically. ‘ Transdniestria would probably accuse Moldova of all crime under the sun, and might provoke an armed conflict to justify its own existence. Moldova's army is not as strong as Transdniestria's, so Moldova would have to turn to Rumania, Ukraine and NATO for military support. Fortunately for Moldova, Transdniestria has no common border with Russia, which makes Russia's intervention problematic.'

The other crisis scenario, which Marandici thinks even more likely, would be triggered if Russia recognized the independence of Transdniestria. ‘The State Duma has already tried to push this through. It will become even more likely if nationalist forces win office in Moldova', he says.

One of the thorniest problems of any post-conflict settlement involves the weaponry in the republic. The depot in the village of Kolbasna alone has up to 20,000 tons of arms and munitions,  ranging from submachine guns to portable air defense missile systems. Since the 1990-s Transdniestria has acquired a reputation for running a black market in armaments. Thanks to international efforts, these depots are now better controlled. But they are still run by the Russian military. Some time ago Russia did take away some of the abandoned weaponry, but that soon stopped. Nor has the problem of criminal access been entirely resolved. From time to time, submachine guns and grenades from the Kolbasna depot are found in Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia and even in Africa.

Moldova's slow integration into Europe is another stumbling block to settlement of the conflict. Foreign diplomats in Chisinau complain not only about Moldova's dependence on Russia, but also about the European Union's lack of interest. The German Ambassador Nikolaus Lambsdorf did not conceal his disappointment during our meeting. ‘We have a problem: an almost complete lack of partners. Moldova is not oriented towards Europe. The only Western value they have accepted is the market.'

The Czech Ambassador Pyotr Kupr is even more pessimistic. As a representative of the country which holds the  presidency of the EU at the moment, he says he is doing his best to bring Moldova closer to Europe. The result is marginal. ‘People are interested in foreigners when it comes to making a profit. They do not think like Europeans. There is no civil society, no independent mass media... There is only so much one can do on the micro level.'

The Communists, who have been in power in Moldova, and who won again in the parliamentary elections on 5 April clearly have some influence on their country's political and economic preferences. But the country did not follow most of the CIS republics and dismantle the democratic achievements of the 1990s. Power in Moldova was not usurped by an authoritarian President, and the strong, independent Parliament still provides a serious counterbalance to him.

Dmitry Furman describes this phenomenon in the following way: "Ideologically (after the Communists came into office in 2001 - A.K.) Moldova has almost returned to the Soviet past. But in its political system it has diverged further from it than all the other CIS republics and almost as far as the Baltic States. It is very peculiar: it is at once the most democratic CIS country and the only one where the Communists hold power."

Furman maintains that what stopped Moldova from becoming one of the typical authoritarian regimes of the CIS was its split identity. There are two popular ethnocentric forces involved.There are the "Rumanians" (Unionists) on the one hand, who see no other future for Moldova than in a union with the "sister" Rumania, i.e. with Europe. On the other, there are the "Moldovians" who back the political and cultural status they had Moldavia had in the Soviet period (1944-1991).

After Rumania was accepted in the EU in 2007, its popularity shot up in Moldova. Between 10- 20% of Moldovans already have Rumanian passports (which means European passports, too), and this number is increasing. As between the two vectors, the European one is slowly but steadily winning.

It will be interesting to see what impact this will have on the conflict with Transdniestria, especially now that the international community has increased its involvement. As long as Russia remains the most influential force in the region, Transdniestria will go on ignoring the West and looking longingly eastward. But we have yet to see whether Russia will go on putting up with these dubious unrecognized regimes, or whether it will try to "hand them over" to their "countries of origin".

Whatever happens,  Transdniestria's chances of being reintegrated with Moldova are dwindling. The region now has it own elite that values its power and does not want to become merely a province of Moldova. In Moldova, too, only the most radical fringe is demanding the return of the left bank of the Dniester. For Moldovans, this strange region with a shady past and uncertain future has ceased to be "theirs". They have other things to worry about.

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