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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Moldova's Divide Explained: Transnistria

Article by: Helen Kurvits

Frozen in time

Littered with remnants of the USSR and arguably less 'westernised' than other places in Eastern Europe, Transnistria is seemingly stopped in time. A tiny entity straddling along the border of Moldova and Ukraine, it comprises a relatively small 12% of Moldova’s territory and 21% of its population. But the separatist movement has been a topic of vivid discussion and effectively controls this small but important strip of land.

This post-Soviet frozen conflict zone is recognised only by three other, also unrecognised, states: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though Russia is considered to be its patron state, the country does not officially recognise Transnistria. During the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, the region erupted into full-scale civil war, sadly killing over a thousand people, and displacing many more. In the aftermath, the Republic of Transnistria was declared and to this day remains a semi-independent state with its own army, judicial system, and border controls, which are not associated with Moldova’s. Let’s find out more about Transnistria’s past, its current situation, and the possible future which lies ahead.

An orientation toward the East

The so-called Transnistrian Declaration of Independence reflects a view that the region has little in common with Moldova. It emphasises that the area has never been part of an independent Moldovan state but became part of the Moldavian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) in 1940. Transnistria used to be the most prosperous region of the Moldavian SSR by virtue of being an electricity supplier, whereas the rest of the country was oriented towards agriculture. This led to life being tangibly different in the two parts of the country. Many Transnistrians believed they did not share the same cultural values and lifestyles as the rest of Moldova, and instead could relate more to the rest of the USSR and its main constituent: Russia.

A language divide

Approximately thirty percent of Moldova’s population currently speak Russian as their first language, with most of these speakers residing in Transnistria. In the 1980s, nationalist movements in the Moldavian SSR were on the rise, expressing the desire to leave the USSR, which was supported by neighbouring Romania. In 1989, the Moldovan language, a dialect of the Romanian language, was declared the official language of the country. People in Transnistria became afraid of a potential unification of Moldova with Romania and an exclusion of its Russian-speaking population from aspects of public life, leading to further resistance between the regions.

An economic divide

On top of this, about 75% of Transnistria's budget is reliant on direct or indirect assistance from Russia. This comes in the form of humanitarian aid in money for food supplies or support for small businesses. Coinciding with these issues, due to large emigration from the region and its ageing residents, the population has shrunk by roughly 40% within the last 30 years. Hence, the region’s economic problems have been exacerbated by its demography and lack of working-age citizens, arguably increasing the economic dependency on Russia and the great subsidies it receives. Moreover, Russia is not charging Transnistria the market rate for imported gas. This might be seen as welcome support, but also buys Russia political influence in the territory.

Russian Military Presence: Will They Stay?

Russian troops have been present in Transnistria since the end of the civil war in 1992. 1,000 Russian soldiers alone are tasked with guarding an ammunition depot in the village of Cobasna, which is the largest ammunition depot in all of Eastern Europe. Another 500 soldiers make up the Russian peacekeeping mission in Transnistria. Repeatedly, the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, has called for the withdrawal of Russian troops and the transformation of it into a civilian mission run by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Maia Sandu, the first female leader of the country, won the elections at the end of 2020 with a vote of 57.7% against the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon. She has taken a pro-EU approach aiming to forge unity. With these developments, the challenge around the breakaway territory of Transnistria and the Russian influence there has become an obstacle for Moldova becoming an EU member state.

Priorities, priorities…

Perhaps surprisingly, public opinion in Moldova shows some indifference towards finding a solution to the frozen conflict. According to a 2021 poll, issues such as unemployment, low income, and corruption are the top three important issues to voters while solving the internal conflict can be found only in a distant 15th place. Part of this could be explained by the fact that young Moldovans have never actually lived in a united country and do not consider it a priority. The apparent indifference could benefit stability as there would be little desire for a militarisation or any agitation. That is not to say Moldova is willing to make many concessions. Its society could oppose most ways of power-sharing or of giving Transnistrian leader national political positions.

Any Possible Solutions in Sight?

Most observers believed that Transnistria would eventually fully re-join Moldova with great amounts of self-governance as this is what negotiations in a 5+2 format, involving Transnistria, the national government of Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE as well as the US and the EU, have been focusing on. However, these talks effectively broke down in 2016. Nonetheless, the case of Moldova has long been viewed as the most ‘solvable’ post-Soviet frozen conflict due to little ethnic hatred involved. But some speculate that Russia does not actually want a permanent solution as it could let Moldova drift further away from its sphere of influence and toward the EU. With the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, that thought seems not far-fetched.

Another Cause for Concern?

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the President of Moldova signed a formal application for EU membership in early March 2022 and condemned Russia’s actions. The Transnistrian region itself has remained neutral. Despite its undoubted Russian ties, the region also shares a border with Ukraine, as well as deep historical, economic, political, and cultural ties with its eastern neighbour. Roughly one-third of Transnistria’s citizens are ethnic Ukrainians, while 100,000 people living in the unrecognised state hold Ukrainian citizenship. This goes to show that, like so many others, this frozen conflict is not clear-cut and a long path to a final settlement remains ahead. For now, it seems likely that Transnistria will remain a place frozen in time.

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