The frozen conflict in Transnistria is a unique case study in post-Soviet politics. Viewed from the outside, Transnistria is an independent state with its own government, currency, and national symbols. In reality, however, it is completely dependent on Russian economic aid, political trends in Moldova, and the constantly evolving relationship between Russia and the West. Despite gaining de facto independence from Moldova during a civil war in 1992, Transnistria has failed to reach any final settlement with the Moldovan government that would normalize its international status.
The Republic of Moldova was created out of the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR), which was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union from 1940 until its collapse in 1991. The country’s population primarily consists of ethnic Moldovans, who speak the Romanian language and share a common cultural heritage with Romanians. There is an ongoing debate on whether Moldovans constitute their own ethnic group or are a regional subgroup of Romanians. Significant minority communities include Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Gagauz (a Turkic-speaking group that inhabits the autonomous region of Gagauzia in the south of the country). During the conflict in 1992, Moldovan security forces unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Transnistria from seceding.
Transnistria (Prednistrovian Moldovan Republic)
Formed after a violent civil war in 1992, Transnistria is a self-proclaimed republic located on a narrow strip of land between the Dneister River and Moldova’s de jure border with Ukraine. The war was fought primarily due to Transnistrians’ fear that newly independent Moldova would attempt to reunify with Romania. Russians and Ukrainians form a plurality of the population in Transnistria, with ethnic Moldovans comprising only 31.9%.[i] Transnistria’s territory was formerly the western portion of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR), which was an autonomous region within the Ukrainian SSR from 1924-1940, before becoming part of the MSSR. Today, its independence is only formally recognized by three other breakaway republics in the region: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
[i] “Оглашены предварительные итоги приднестровской переписи населения” (Preliminary results of the  Transnistrian population census are announced), Olvia-Press, accessed February 2, 2016, http://www.olvia.idknet.com/ol37-09-05.htm.
1812: Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812, the two warring sides sign the Treaty of Bucharest, under which the eastern half of Moldavia, between the Prut and Dneister Rivers, is ceded to the Russian Empire. This newly annexed territory is quickly reorganized as the Bessarabia Governate.
1859: Under the influence of Romanian nationalism, both Wallachia (a Romanian-speaking principality located between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube River) and Moldavia elect Alexandru Ioan Cuza as their prince, thus uniting under a single ruler for the first time in over two hundred years. Romanian nationalism, which promotes the cultural and political unity of ethnic Romanians, would later become a major ideological force in Bessarabia and Soviet Moldova. The fear of Moldovans seeking to join their ethnic kin in Romania would shape Russian and Soviet policy towards the region.
1878: Romanian independence is formally recognized by the Ottoman Empire after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
1917: Following the February Revolution in Russia, patriotic-minded Moldavians begin to organize local congresses to advocate for self-governance, land reform, and the use of the Romanian language.[ii] Further political upheaval during the October Revolution leads to the creation of the Sfatul Ţării (National Council). On December 15, its members proclaim Bessarabia as an autonomous republic.
1918: On January 24, Bessarabia declares itself to be an independent republic. Soon afterwards, under pressure from Bolshevik troops, the Sfatul Ţării requests military aid from the Romanian government in Iaşi. On March 27, the Sfatul Ţării votes to form a union with Romania.[iii]
1924: After several years of Soviet attempts to undermine Romania’s claim to Bessarabia by sending detachments of anti-Romanian agents across the Dneister River, the two sides meet for a conference in Vienna between March 27 and April 2. The conference ends in failure when Moscow requests to organize a plebiscite in Bessarabia. Disappointed by these developments, Soviet officials soon establish the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) on the left bank of the Dniester. The MASSR’s primary purpose was to serve as the foundation for Soviet authority in Bessarabia. In November, at the first session of the Central Committee of the newly founded Moldavian Communist Party, the president of the republic famously offered a toast to the “Moldavian ASSR, cradle of Soviet Romania.”[iv] Despite its name, in 1926 only 30.3% of the republic’s population claimed to be of “Romanian” heritage, while Ukrainians and Russians represented 48.5% and 8.5%, respectively.[v]
1924-1939: During these years, Soviet policy toward the MASSR is focused on “severing the ties of the Moldavians east of the Prut with Romanian history and culture.”[vi] In practice, this means emphasizing the distinct nature of the Moldavian people, justifying the annexation of Bessarabia in 1812, and converting the newly-established “Moldavian” language from Latin to Cyrillic. Largely because of this legacy, the Romanian language is referred to as “Moldavian” in modern-day Transnistria, and it is still written in Cyrillic.[vii]
1939: On August 23, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sign a “non-aggression” pact, dividing Europe into two “spheres of influence.” Under this arrangement, Bessarabia falls into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. One week later, Germany attacks Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.
1940: Following Hitler’s invasion of the Low Countries and France, Stalin decides to settle the “Bessarabia Question” before Germany has a chance to stop him. On June 28, he forces Romania to cede Bessarabia and the northern half of Bukovina to the Soviet Union. The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR) is created on the central two-thirds of former Bessarabia and a small strip of land on the left bank of the Dneister that previously belonged to the MASSR. Crucially, despite the previous line of Soviet propaganda that advocated for the “unification” of Bessarabia with the MASSR, Moscow gives Southern Bessarabia and most of the former MASSR to the Ukrainian SSR.
1941-1944: On June 22, 1941, Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu joins Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union. In the process, he manages to recover Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. While under Romanian control, the vast majority of Bessarabia’s Jews are either murdered or deported to Transnistria, where many more die of disease and starvation.[viii] The Soviet Army recaptures the region during the first half of 1944.
1944-1985: During this period, Soviet leaders and historians attempt to erase all cultural ties between the MSSR and Romania.[ix] In a direct continuation of previous “Moldovenism” policies in the MASSR, the “Moldavian” language is considered to be separate from Romanian, and it is written in the Cyrillic script. The post-war years also see an influx of Russian and Ukrainian workers to fill industrial and administrative jobs, particularly on the left bank of the Dneister.[x]
1985: Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union and initiates a program of economic reform and political liberalization, leading to a surge of pan-Romanian nationalism in Moldova.
1989: The nationalist Popular Front of Moldova gains momentum in its campaign to reintroduce the Latin alphabet, establish Moldovan as the official state language, and denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. On August 31, the Moldavian Supreme Soviet passes a law meeting the first two of these aspirations.[xi] Although this law also establishes Russian as an interethnic “language of communication,” and even provides for the protection of minority languages such as Gagauz, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Yiddish, this does not prevent the emergence of Edinstvo (“Unity”), a group opposing Moldova’s transition to democracy and sovereignty. Edinstvo particularly appeals to Russian speakers on the left bank of the Dneister who feel that the new language policy discriminates against them.
1990: In March, the Popular Front wins over 40% of the mandates in parliamentary elections, becoming the dominant political force in the Moldavian Supreme Soviet. Among its first acts, the new Supreme Soviet incorporates significant Romanian national symbols into Moldova’s flag and anthem. During the month of June, which marked the 50th anniversary of Bessarabia’s annexation by the USSR, thousands of Romanian citizens march across the Prut River into Moldova and advocate for the reunification of the two states.[xii] On August 20, increasingly alarmed by the prospect of joining Romania against their will, Gagauz leaders proclaim the autonomous Gagauz Republic at a congress in Comrat. Twelve days later, the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic is created in Tiraspol. In November, skirmishes break out in Dubăsari when a Moldovan police detachment attempts to clear a roadblock placed by city residents on a bridge over the Dneister River. The resulting shootout leads to the deaths of three residents, the first casualties of the conflict.
1991: On August 27, the Moldovan government condemns the attempted hard-liner communist coup d’état in Moscow and declares its independence from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Transnistria and Gagauzia come out in support of the coup, and express their commitment to the values of the Soviet Union. Later that year, they boycott Moldovan presidential elections and hold their own, which are not recognized by Chisinau. Igor Smirnov is elected President of Transnistria.
1992: After Moldova becomes a member of the United Nations on March 2, President Mircea Snegur authorizes military action against the newly-formed Transnistrian Republican Guard, thus initiating the active phase of the conflict.[xiii] On April 5, Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy visits Tiraspol and offers the separatists Russia’s support in obtaining independence.[xiv] The Dubăsari region experiences its heaviest fighting throughout the second half of May. In June, the center of the conflict shifts to Bendery, which is under separatist control but located on the right bank of the Dneister.[xv] General Alexander Lebed, who in June was designated commander of Russia’s 14th Army, intervenes on the side of the separatists. On July 21, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Snegur sign a ceasefire, designating a three-party Joint Control Commission to supervise a demilitarized security zone on both sides of the Dneister. It is estimated that 1,112 people were killed during the conflict.[xvi]
1994: Moldova and Russia sign an agreement that requires the Russian 14th Army to withdraw from Moldovan territory within three years. However, the Russian State Duma does not ratify the deal, and it is never implemented.[xvii]
1997: On May 8, Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi and Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov meet in Moscow to sign the so-called “Primakov Memorandum,” which serves as the “basis for normalizing relations” between Chisinau and Tiraspol.[xviii]
2003: Russian politician Dmitry Kozak introduces a plan to reintegrate Transnistria within a highly federalized Moldovan state. This plan, which later becomes known as the “Kozak Memorandum,” proposes giving Transnistria veto power on any issue concerning it, allowing Russian troops to remain stationed on Moldovan territory for at least two decades, obliging Moldova to disband its military, and giving both Transnistria and Gagauzia disproportionately high representation in parliamentary institutions.[xix] Moldovan President Vladimir Vororin initially supports the agreement, but is forced to abandon it at the last moment under pressure from protestors at home and Western diplomats abroad.
2004: Transnistrian authorities close four out of six schools in the region that teach Moldovan language using the Latin alphabet.[xx] The EU introduces a travel ban against officials involved in the decision, and negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol are temporarily put on hold.
2005: The Moldovan parliament adopts a law “on the special status of Transnistria,” which effectively rules out federalization as a possible settlement.[xxi] Later in the year, the “5+2” negotiating format is launched. The “5+2 Talks” include Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, as well as the US and the EU as external observers.
2006: Early in the year, 5+2 Talks break down due to disputes over the access of Moldovan landowners to their property in the Dubăsari region.[xxii] Soon afterwards, Ukraine begins to enforce an agreement with Moldova that requires Transnistrian companies to register with Chisinau authorities and obtain Moldovan licenses in order to conduct legal import-export operations. Tiraspol angrily denounces this as a “blockade.”[xxiii] In September, Tiraspol conducts a referendum on Transnistria’s independence and future integration with the Russian Federation, which is supported by over 97 percent of voters.[xxiv] The results of the referendum are deemed illegitimate by Western countries, while even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calls it “unacceptable.”[xxv]
2011: The 5+2 Talks resume after a five year hiatus. In December, Transnistria’s longtime ruler Igor Smirnov is defeated in presidential elections by the relatively moderate Yevgeny Shevchuk, who is believed to favor improved relations with Chisinau.[xxvi]
2014: In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, the head of Transnistria’s Supreme Council, Mikhail Burla, publicly asks to join the Russian Federation. Although the Fair Russia party had introduced a bill in the State Duma that would have simplified the procedure for adding new territories to Russia, this bill is soon withdrawn.[xxvii]
[i] Nicholas Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova: The Soviet-Romanian Territorial Dispute (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1991), 12.
[iii] Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova, 17.
[iv] Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova, 24.
[v] Pântea Călin, “The ethno-demographic evolution of Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic,” Codrul Cosminului 18 (2008): 169-204.
[vi] Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova, 23.
[vii] Giorgio Comai and Bernardo Venturi, “Language and education laws in multi-ethnic de facto states: the cases of Abkhazia and Transnistria,” Nationalities Papers 43, no. 6 (2015): 886-905, accessed March 15, 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2015.1082996.
[viii] Dennis Deletant, “Ion Antonescu and the Holocaust in Romania,” East Central Europe 39 (2012): 61–100.
[ix] Argentina Gribincea, “Moldovenism: the State Ideology of the Republic of Moldova,” Moldova.org, December 6, 2006.
[x] Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova, 71.
[xi] “О функционировании языков на территории Молдавской ССР” (Law on the Functioning of Languages on the Territory of the Moldavian SSR), Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, accessed February 10, 2017, http://lex.justice.md/ru/312813/.
[xii] Andrew Andersen, “The Conflict in Transnistria: National Consensus is a Long Way Off,” accessed January 26, 2016, http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/moldova/nistru_konflikt.htm.
[xiii] Cristi Vlas, “Separatist Transnistrian authorities commemorated the ‘Day of the Start of the Moldovan Aggression,’” Moldova.org, March 2, 2017.
[xv] Sergey Tikhonov, “Приднестровский конфликт: как все начиналось” (The Transnistria Conflict: How It All Started), Ekspert, 2014.
[xvi] “Цифра дня: количество жертв Приднестровского конфликта” (Figure of the Day: Death Toll From the Transnistria Conflict), Locals.md, March 2, 2013.
[xvii] Olga Savceac, “Transnistria-Moldova Conflict,” ICE Case Studies, May 2006.
[xviii] “Меморандум об основах нормализации отношений между Республикой Молдова и Приднестровьем” (Memorandum on the basis for a normalization of relations between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria), Olvia-Press, accessed February 15, 2017, http://www.olvia.idknet.com/memorandum.htm.
[xix] “Меморандум Козака: Российский план объединения Молдовы и Приднестровья” (The Kozak Memorandum: The Russian Plan to Unite Moldova and Transnistria), Regnum, May 23, 2005.
[xx] “OSCE: Linguistic cleansing underway in Transnistria,” OSCE, July 15, 2004.
[xxi] “Об основных положениях особого правового статуса населенных пунктов левобережья Днестра (Приднестровья)” (Law on Fundamental Regulations of the Special Legal Status of Settlements on the Left Bank of the River Nistru [Transnistria]), Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, accessed March 20, 2017, http://lex.justice.md/viewdoc.php?action=view&view=doc&id=313004&lang=2.
[xxii] Zsuzsanna Vegh, “Moving Beyond Intractability: Conflict Resolution in the Case of Transnistria” (master’s thesis, Central European University, 2012), 33-54.
[xxiii] Agnieszka Tomczyk, “The New (Old) Moldovan-Transnistrian Border Conflict,” New Eastern Europe, October 30, 2013.
[xxiv] Mihai Popșoi, “Scottish Referendum- Lessons for Transnistria, Moldovan Politics, September 21, 2014.
[xxv] Michael Schwirtz, “Transnistria Votes on Independence,” The New York Times, September 18, 2006.
[xxvii] “Приднестровье попросилось в состав России” (Transnistria Asks to Join Russia), Lenta.ru, March 18, 2014.
|Exclusive Central Jurisdiction||Exclusive Regional Jurisdiction||Mixed Jurisdiction|
|• Citizenship||• Regional administrative structures, laws, and budget||• Language (with the center determining the “state language” and the Special Region determining additional regional official languages)|
|• State emblems and anthems||• Regional emblems||• Economy and finance (macroeconomy centrally determined, but with significant administrative and tax autonomy at the regional and local levels)|
|• Foreign relations and defense||• Education||• Police (uniformed police at the regional level, criminal police at the central level)|
|• Monetary policy||• Cultural life||• Judiciary (regional judicial branch headed by a regional high court, but subject to revision by the Moldovan Constitutional Court)|
The report also recommends that Chisinau guarantee Transnistria the “external right of self-determination” in the event that Moldova chooses to give up her statehood in order to join Romania. At the same time, it calls for the “orderly and complete withdrawal of foreign troops,” meaning those of Russia. One year later, the CSCE Conflict Prevention Centre came out with a subsequent report explaining the main factors holding back the peace process.[ii] In particular, it cites lingering tensions over language policy, the prospect of reunification with Romania, the presence of the Russian 14th Army, and Transnistria’s future status as the primary issues that must be addressed before reaching a political settlement for the conflict.
Primakov Memorandum: On May 8, 1997, Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi and Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov met in Moscow under OECD premises to sign a memorandum that served as the “basis for normalizing relations” between Chisinau and Tiraspol. This memorandum, named after former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, names Russia and Ukraine as the guarantors of enforcing the peace process. Perhaps more importantly, Lucinschi and Smirnov agreed to build their relations within the framework of a common state, that is, within the pre-1990 borders of the MSSR. There are two main reasons given as to why the Primakov Memorandum did not lead to a more comprehensive peace agreement. First, as suggested by the name of the memorandum, Russia continued to play an outsized role in the negotiations. This very fact, as well as the ongoing presence of Russia’s 14th Army in Transnistria, caused many Moldovans to distrust the peace process, contributing to the intractability of the conflict. It has even been suggested that Moscow deliberately keeps the Transnistria conflict “frozen” as leverage against Moldova’s attempts to increase cooperation with the EU.[iii] Second, many elites on both sides of the Dneister began to realize that the preservation of the status-quo is in their best interests. Particularly in Transnistria, political power is directly related to economic wealth, meaning that influential oligarchs are hesitant to give up the privileges they enjoy in a quasi-independent state.
Kozak Memorandum: This plan, which was promoted by Russian politician Dmitry Kozak in 2003, sought to reintegrate Transnistria within a federalized Moldovan state. Among other provisions, the Kozak Memorandum proposed giving Transnistria veto power on any issue concerning it, allowing Russian troops to remain stationed on Moldovan territory for at least two decades, obliging Moldova to disband its military, and giving both Transnistria and Gagauzia disproportionately high representation in parliamentary institutions. In effect, this would have resulted in a highly decentralized state in which Moldova proper and Transnistria have roughly equal powers. Soon after the Kozak Memorandum was published, large protests broke out in Chisinau, forcing then-President Vladimir Voronin to reconsider his initial approval of the solution. Under pressure both at home from demonstrators and abroad from the United States and the EU, Voronin declined to sign the document at the last moment. One year later, Moldovan-Russian relations worsened considerably when Transnistrian authorities closed four out of six schools in the region that taught Moldovan language using the Latin alphabet. The resulting standoff between Chisinau and Tiraspol ensured that the Kozak Memorandum would no longer be considered, causing all negotiations to be temporarily stalled.
5 + 2 Talks: After the rejection of the Kozak Memorandum, Chisinau began to adopt a more assertive policy toward Transnistria. In 2005, the Moldovan parliament passed a law “on the special status of Transnistria,” which effectively ruled out federalization as a possible solution to the conflict. President Voronin also sought assistance from the West to counterbalance Russia’s immense diplomatic influence. It was in this context that the so-called “5+2 Talks” were launched in late 2005. The talks included Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, as well as the US and the EU as external observers. However, negotiations immediately broke down in early 2006 due to disputes over the access of Moldovan landowners to their property in the Dubăsari region. This was followed by a diplomatic crisis when Ukraine began to implement an agreement with Moldova under which all companies in Transnistria had to register with Chisinau authorities and obtain Moldovan licenses in order to conduct legal import-export operations.[iv] Tiraspol interpreted this as an economic blockade, pushing it to conduct a referendum later that year on Transnistria’s independence and future integration with the Russian Federation, which was supported by over 97 percent of voters. Because of these tensions, official 5+2 Talks only resumed in 2011 with the encouragement of Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who adopted a more mediatory approach to the conflict. The talks have continued intermittently since then, but they have mostly focused on day-to-day issues, such as movement across the de facto border between Moldova and Transnistria, and failed to address the overarching political questions.[v]
[i] “Report No. 13 by the CSCE Mission to Moldova,” OSCE, November 13, 1993.
[ii] “The Transnistrian Conflict in Moldova: Origins and Main Issues,” CSCE Conflict Prevention Center,” June 10, 1994.
[iii] Igor Botsan, “Заложники приднестровского режима” (Hostages of the Transnistrian Regime), e-Democracy.md, March 14, 2006.
[iv] Vladimir Socor, “Ukraine Steps in to Close Europe’s Biggest Black Hole,” The Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 8, 2006.
[v] “Freedom in the World 2015: Transnistria,” Freedom House, accessed March 23, 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/transnistria.
Transnistria’s Gas Debt: Over the past 25 years, Russian energy giant Gazprom has been the only provider of natural gas to both Transnistria and Moldova. However, Transnistrian leaders have long been encouraged by Moscow to use their uncertain status within Moldova as an excuse to avoid paying for gas.[ii] In 2012, Russia’s special representative for Transnistria, Dmitriy Rogozin, stated that if Chisinau does not recognize Tiraspol as an “equal partner,” then it will have to pay Transnistria’s gas debt itself.[iii] As a result, Transnistria currently owes Gazprom about $6 billion, while Moldova owes only $500 million. Although Chisinau has typically tried to distance itself from this arrangement, newly elected President Igor Dodon recently recognized Transnistria’s gas debt as part of Moldova’s “total debt” during a trip to Moscow, which will only reduce Tiraspol’s incentive to ever pay Gazprom back or consume less energy.[iv] Transnistria’s gas debt is a controversial issue on both sides of the Dneister, and it serves as yet another impediment to a final peace agreement.
Political Unrest in Moldova, 2014-2016: In 2014, Moldova was rocked by a corruption scandal that involved the disappearance of $1 billion from three large banks.[v] This sparked widespread protests in Chisinau, led by the newly-formed “Dignity and Truth” movement. During the political crisis that ensued, two successive prime ministers, Chiril Gaburici and Valeriu Strelet, were forced to resign. However, many Moldovans feel that their concerns about corruption have not been fully addressed. When former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was arrested last October in connection with the banking scandal, many suspected that this was merely an attempt by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc to eliminate his long-standing political rival.[vi] Meanwhile, local businessman Ilan Shor, who is believed to have been the primary beneficiary of the scandal, was recently elected mayor of the city of Orhei.[vii] Most Moldovans see this corruption as a far more important issue facing their country than the frozen conflict in Transnistria. As a result, there is “virtually no pressure” from the Moldovan electorate to find a solution to the conflict.[viii]
Moldovan Presidential Election, 2016: After Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled in March that the country’s president should be elected directly by the people, voters headed to the ballot boxes to choose a president for the first time since 1996.[ix] Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) quickly emerged as the main candidates for the position, with each representing dramatically different sides of the Moldovan political spectrum. On one hand, Dodon was mostly seen as a “pro-Russia” candidate, having expressed his clear intent to cancel Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union and join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. During the campaign, he also vowed to reintegrate Transnistria in a federalized Moldova.[x] In contrast, Maia Sandu is a World Bank-educated economist who advocates for greater cooperation with the EU, which she believes is essential for anti-corruption reforms. The run-up to the election was marked by a large-scale smear campaign against Sandu, which was supported by pro-Kremlin institutions such as the Moldovan Orthodox Church.[xi] Leaflets which were widely distributed on the streets of Chisinau accused her of supporting homosexuality, mass immigration, and reunification with Romania. Sandu did in fact receive the endorsement of Moldova’s LGBT community, but the other two claims were highly dubious. In the end, Dodon won the second round with 52.11 percent of the vote.
Transnistrian Presidential Election, 2016: This election was primarily fought between the incumbent Yevgeny Shevchuk and the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Vadim Krasnoselsky. Shevchuk, who had succeeded Igor Smirnov as president in 2011, is well-known for criticizing Sheriff, a powerful business empire based in Tiraspol that accounted for about 30 percent of Transnistria’s state budget in 2013.[xii] This brought him into direct conflict with Krasnoselsky, who is supported by Sheriff’s unofficial political party, Obnovleniye (“Renewal”), which controls 33 of the 43 seats in the Supreme Soviet.[xiii] Despite these differences, both candidates spoke strongly in favor of Transnistria’s ultimate unification with Russia throughout the campaign. In the end, Krasnoselsky won easily in the first round with 62% of the vote, compared to 24% for Shevchuk.
[i] “14 лет назад началась миротворческая операция на Днестре” (The Peacekeeping Operation on the Dniester Began 14 Years Ago), Olvia-Press, accessed February 4, 2016, http://www.olvia.idknet.com/ol143-07-06.htm.
[ii] Kamil Całus, “The Unfinished State: 25 Years of Independent Moldova,” Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), December 14, 2016.
[iii] “Д.Рогозин: Если Кишинев не признает Тирасполь, тогда долг за газ, потребленный Приднестровьем, – это долг Молдавии” (Dmitriy Rogozin: If Chisinau will not recognize Tiraspol, then Transnistria’s gas debt is Moldova’s debt), RBC, April 18, 2012.
[iv] Mihai Popsoi, “How Dodon Sold the Country and His Soul to Putin,” Moldovan Politics, January 19, 2017.
[v] Rayhan Demytrie, “Moldova anger grows over banking scandal,” BBC News, September 14, 2015.
[vi] Vladimir Socor, “Moldovan Political Leader Filat Arrested in Intra-Coalition Coup,” The Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 19, 2015.
[vii] Tim Whewell, “The great Moldovan bank robbery,” BBC News, June 18, 2015.
[viii] Kamil Całus, “Power politics on the outskirts of the EU: Why Transnistria matters,” LSEE Blog, June 19, 2014.
[ix] Mihai Popsoi, “Controversial Ruling by Moldova’s Constitutional Court Reintroduces Direct Presidential Elections,” The Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 8, 2016.
[x] “Moldova presidential election appears headed to runoff,” USA Today, October 30, 2016.
[xi] Charles Recknagel, “In Moldova, Smears, Orthodox Church Target Pro-EU Candidate Ahead Of Runoff,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 11, 2016.
[xii] Kamil Całus, “An aided economy. The characteristics of the Transnistrian economic model,” Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), May 16, 2013.
[xiii] Mihai Popsoi, “Transnistria: Change of Leadership, But Not Policy,” Moldovan Politics, December 21, 2016.
Romania: Ever since the Romanian Revolution in 1989, there has been constant speculation about Romania and Moldova’s future. A 2015 poll conducted by INSCOP, a Romanian polling company, found that 67.9% of Romanians would support reunification with Moldova before 2018, which will mark the one hundredth anniversary of their initial union.[iv] Moldovans, for their part, are considerably more apathetic towards such a possibility. In March 2016, a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Fund found that only 23% of Moldovans would support reunification, while 63% would oppose it.[v] These diverging tendencies can be illustrated by the recent controversy over former Romanian President Traian Basescu’s desire to obtain Moldovan citizenship. Although pro-Western President Nicolae Timofti granted Basescu citizenship in June 2016, this was soon revoked by his successor, Igor Dodon, who has accused Romania before of threatening Moldova’s sovereignty with its “unionist” rhetoric.[vi][vii] The future of Moldovan-Romanian relations has major implications for the conflict in Transnistria, as the Transnistrian population is unlikely to support reintegration with Moldova so long as unification with Romania is perceived as a possibility.
Gagauzia: Politicians hoping to reintegrate Transnistria into Moldova often view the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (Gagauzia Yeri) as a model for doing so. Similar to Transnistria, Gagauzia has its own unique history with an ethnic composition significantly different from the rest of Moldova. The Gagauz people, a Turkic-speaking group that adheres to Orthodox Christianity, migrated to the region en masse from northeastern Bulgaria following the 1812 Russian annexation of Bessarabia. In the 2004 census, they comprised 82.1% of the population in Gagauzia. Most Gagauz today use Russian as a lingua franca. The interwar years are still remembered as a period of “Romanian occupation,” while Soviet troops are remembered as “liberators” who rescued the Gagauz from forced assimilation and exile at the hands of Ion Antonescu’s regime.[viii] Because of these factors, it seemed for a while that Gagauzia would follow a similar path to Transnistria and separate itself from Moldova. From 1991-1994, it was effectively an independent state, occasionally clashing with the Moldovan authorities. However, in February 1994, the Gagauz agreed to abandon their goal of confederation in return for receiving autonomy. By the end of the year, the Parliament of Moldova passed the “Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia,” which recognized the Gagauz as a “people” with the right to self-determination within Moldova.[ix] In most Russian-backed proposals to end the conflict in Transnistria, Gagauzia would join Moldova and Transnistria as equal members in a federalized state.
Ukraine: As the only country besides Moldova that shares a border with Transnistria, Ukraine has always had a major stake in the conflict. Ethnic Ukrainians form 28.8 percent of the region’s population, which motivated hundreds of volunteers from the nationalist UNA-UNSO organization to fight alongside Transnistrian separatist forces during the active phase of the conflict in 1992.[x] The Ukrainian government’s relations with Transnistria, however, have been more complicated. During the 1990’s, Ukrainian politicians and business elites profited immensely from both legal and illegal trade to and through Transnistria.[xi] Even today, key figures in the Tiraspol-based holding company Sheriff have extensive business ties with Ukraine.[xii] Beginning with the Primakov Memorandum in 1997, Ukraine has been present at most multi-party negotiations on the conflict. But as Ukraine’s political orientation gradually shifted west, its policy towards Transnistria became more assertive. In 2005, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko signed a deal with Moldova that prevented Transnistrian companies from trading goods across the border without proper documentation from Chisinau, which was angrily denounced by Tiraspol as a “blockade.” In 2015, following the events of Euromaidan, Kiev cancelled the agreement that had allowed Russia to supply its troops stationed in Transnistria through Ukrainian territory.[xiii] For the foreseeable future, Ukrainian objectives in Transnistria will mostly consist of controlling illegal trade across the border and preventing Russia from using the region as a military platform for harassing Ukraine.
European Union: Transnistria is often portrayed by the expert community as a potential source of confrontation between Russia and the EU.[xiv] While the EU does have some role to play in the conflict’s resolution, it is unlikely to directly challenge Russia over a region that has relatively little strategic significance. Since 2005, the EU has operated a Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Moldova and Ukraine, which is designed to harmonize border and customs control, improve cross-border cooperation between law enforcement bodies, and combat illegal migration and human trafficking.[xv] Brussels has also taken a particularly prominent role on the issue of Moldovan-language schools in Transnistria. In 2004, the European Council introduced a travel ban against Transnistria leaders involved in the suppression of the Latin script in these schools, which remains in effect to this day.[xvi] The EU is an observer of the 5+2 Talks, giving it a seat at the negotiating table. However, its efforts are mostly focused on preventing any escalation of the conflict and addressing human rights violations. Unless Moscow were to become more assertive in Transnistria and use it as a means of intimidating its neighbors, the EU probably will not actively push for a final settlement in the region.
[i] “Миротворцам устанавливают границы” (Ukraine and Moldova are preventing Russian soldiers from entering Transnistria), Kommersant, May 25, 2015.
[ii] Aleksandr Rybin, “В Приднестровье все свои” (In Transnistria, everyone is “one of ours”), Gazeta.ru, December 4, 2016.
[iii] Mariya Baranova and Alexander Braterskiy, “Приднестровье хочет в Россию” (Transnistria wants to be part of Russia), Gazeta.ru, September 9, 2016.
[iv] Mădălina Mihalache, “Sondaj INSCOP: Două treimi dintre români vor Marea Unire cu Republica Moldova până în 2018” (INSCOP Poll: Two thirds of Romanians want reunification with Moldova by 2018), Adevărul.ro, July 31, 2015.
[v] “Sondaj socio-politic realizat de FOP la solicitarea ziarului ‘Timpul’” (Socio-political poll completed by FOP at the request of the newspaper “Timpul”), Fondul Opiniei Publice, accessed February 11, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/doc/305812783/Sondaj-socio-politic-realizat-de-FOP-la-solicitarea-ziarului-Timpul-martie-2016#.
[vi] “Moldova’s Dodon Revokes Citizenship Of Pro-Western Romanian Leader,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 4, 2017.
[vii] Valeriu Lazar, “Moldovan president-elect Dodon to Iohannis: Romania threatens Moldova’s statehood,” The Romania Journal, November 30, 2016.
[viii] “История гагаузов” (History of the Gagauz), Gagauzia.md, accessed February 12, 2017, http://www.gagauzia.md/pageview.php?l=ru&idc=98&nod=1&.
[x] “20 лет конфликту в Приднестровье. УНА-УНСО: ‘Погибали украинцы, и мы должны были их защищать.’” (The conflict in Transnistria is 20 years old. UNA-UNSO: “Ukrainians were dying, and we were obligated to defend them”), Segodnya, June 19, 2012.
[xi] Levon Nikolyan, “Transnistria and Ukraine: Allies or Foes?” New Eastern Europe, September 3, 2014.
[xii] Vladimir Tkhorik et al., “Республика Шериф” (Republic of Sheriff), RISE Moldova, June 30, 2016.
[xiii] Joshua Kucera, “With Ukrainian ‘Blockade,’ Drums Of War Sounding In Transnistria,” EurasiaNet, June 4, 2015.
[xiv] Paul Mason, “If Transnistria is the next flashpoint between Putin and the west, how should Europe react?”, The Guardian, April 1, 2014.
[xvi] “Council Decision (CFSP) 2016/1908,” EUR-Lex, October 28, 2016.
On January 4, 2017, a mere twelve days after being elected President of Moldova, Igor Dodon visited the city of Bendery to meet with his Transnistrian counterpart, Vadim Krasnoselsky. This marked the first official meeting between leaders of both sides of the Dneister in eight years.[i] Ahead of the talks, Dodon wrote on Facebook that the meeting was “necessary for intensifying talks on a Transnistria settlement.”[ii] He also discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks later during a state visit to Moscow.[iii] On March 1, Dodon released a statement in which he proposed a public platform for national reconciliation between the two sides of the Dneister.[iv] It would seem, therefore, that the election of Dodon has given new impetus to negotiations over Transnistria’s future status. However, these gestures are misleading and unlikely to lead to any significant changes in the conflict in both the short term and the long term.
Short Term: Despite Dodon’s attempts to strengthen the role of the presidency in Moldova, his position is largely a ceremonial one. Most political power is concentrated in the nominally pro-EU parliament, which has clashed with Dodon in recent months over foreign policy objectives. Last November, Moldova signed an agreement with NATO to open a civilian-staffed liaison office in Chisinau. Prime Minister Pavel Filip has urged his Foreign Ministry to accelerate the project, and it is due to open in April. However, in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe, Dodon referred to the liaison office as a “provocation,” and argued that it would “create impediments in regard to negotiations in the Transnistria issue.”[v] In early March, the Moldovan government decided to replace its ambassador to Russia in what was considered to be a public manifestation of internal tensions between Dodon and Filip.[vi] Around the same time, Dodon proposed amendments to the constitution that would transform Moldova from a parliamentary into a semi-presidential republic.[vii]
Dodon will not be able to carry out his foreign policy agenda without the support of parliament. Although Vlad Plahotniuc and the ruling coalition might tolerate his visits to Moscow in order to get the West’s attention, they will certainly not agree to any substantive changes in Moldova’s relationships with Russia, the EU, and Transnistria. As such, Dodon will focus his attention on next year’s parliamentary elections, in which the Socialist Party is expected to perform well. In the latest opinion poll conducted by CBS-AXA, 32.4 percent of respondents said that they plan on voting for the Socialists, considerably more than for any other party.[viii] If Dodon is backed by a Socialist-controlled parliament, it is indeed possible that he will be able to advance certain parts of his agenda. However, until next November both he and the Kremlin are unlikely to make any controversial moves (including a Russian-facilitated settlement on Transnistria) that would risk alienating the electorate. Therefore, it can be expected that, with the exception of political rhetoric, the Transnistria issue will remain dormant at least until late next year.
Long Term: Even if the Socialists win next year’s elections, the prospects for a settlement on Transnistria are unlikely at best. Although there may be some increased cooperation on day-to-day issues between Dodon and Krasnoselsky, the broader political questions are unlikely to be addressed due to three underlying structural barriers:
- Transnistria’s semi-independent status enables local political and business elites to accumulate wealth and power without much interference from Chisinau or Moscow. In particular, the Sheriff business empire profits immensely from its virtual monopoly over local politics and various sectors of the economy, which is only possible due to Tiraspol’s complete autonomy from Moldova.[ix] Even if Transnistria were to become part of Russia, it is uncertain whether Putin would tolerate the disproportionate influence of local elites. While Krasnoselsky might offer lip service to unification with Russia and the possibility of reconciliation with Chisinau, the reality is that he represents the people who benefit most from the status quo.
- Russia simply does not have the financial or political resources needed to incorporate Transnistria as a federal subject. In recent years, the Kremlin has spent an enormous amount of capital in order to fund the annexation of Crimea, the two separatist republics in Ukraine’s Donbass region, and Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Syria.[x][xi][xii] These budgetary expenses, along with Western sanctions imposed over events in Ukraine, have contributed to the recent slowdown in Russia’s economy.[xiii] Popular anger over worsening living standards and corruption is growing, as demonstrated by the relatively large protests throughout the country against Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev on March 26.[xiv] It would therefore be unwise for the Kremlin to annex Transnistria, a geostrategically insignificant territory that is only accessible through Ukraine or Moldova. The costs of restructuring Transnistria’s economy, integrating it with the Russian mainland, and dealing with political backlash both at home and abroad would greatly exceed any possible benefits.
- For the Moldovan government, any change in Transnistria’s status would be a politically risky move. On one hand, reunification would entail absorbing a large pro-Russian voting bloc that would decisively shift the political balance in Moscow’s favor. While this might seem like a good development for the Socialist Party, it would most likely provoke a strong reaction from the young and active pro-EU segment of Moldova’s population. Furthermore, Moldova would be faced with the prospect of reconstructing Transnistria’s inefficient and subsidy-driven economy. It would also have to finance the region’s costly pension system and gas debt to Russia. Without external assistance, these expenses will lead to worsened living conditions throughout the country and consequently damage the popularity of the ruling government. On the other hand, allowing Transnistria to either gain independence or join Russia would damage the state’s legitimacy and embolden Putin to interfere further in Moldovan politics. As a whole, political elites on both sides of the Dneister are best served by the current status quo.
While a final settlement on the Transnistria issue is unlikely to occur in the near future, Moldova’s Western partners can take two concrete steps to increase their influence over developments on the left bank of the Dneister:
- Under the Association Agreement that Moldova signed with the EU in 2014, Transnistria received the right to tariff-free exports to EU member-states, so long as its exporters adhere to quality standards and other regulations. Since then, the region’s economy has dramatically shifted its focus from East to West. In 2015, 27 percent of Transnistria’s exports went to the EU, while exports to Russia declined by seven percentage points to 7.7 percent.[xv] European leaders should welcome these changes and try to further expand duty-free trade with both Moldova and Transnistria. While increased trade might not necessarily translate to popular support for the EU in Transnistria, it will force politicians on both sides of the Dneister to at least hesitate before entering into new integration projects with Russia, such as the Eurasian Customs Union.
- Although the Western sanctions imposed on Russia over events in Ukraine were not perfect, they did create a tangible disincentive for the Kremlin to use similar tactics in other post-Soviet republics. Over the past few years, however, politicians in Europe and the US have suggested that they would consider lifting the sanctions despite ongoing hostilities in the Donbass region. Doing so would send a signal to the Russian leadership that the West is not prepared to unite against its military interventions, thus encouraging Moscow to become more active in places like Transnistria. While the sanctions should indeed be lifted eventually, it is important that a settlement be reached on Ukraine first.
[i] “Впервые за восемь лет состоялась встреча лидеров Молдавии и Приднестровья” (The leaders of Moldova and Transnistria held a meeting for the first time in eight years), Channel One, January 4, 2017, accessed March 20, 2017, https://www.1tv.ru/news/2017-01-04/317311-vpervye_za_vosem_let_sostoyalas_vstrecha_liderov_moldavii_i_pridnestrovya.
[ii] “New Moldovan, Transdniester Leaders Hold Closed-Door Meeting,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 4, 2017.
[iii] “Путин и Додон на встрече в Москве обсудят урегулирование в Приднестровье” (Putin and Dodon Will Discuss a Transnistria Settlement During Their Meeting in Moscow), RIA Novosti, January 17, 2017.
[iv] “Президент Республики Молдова Игорь Додон представил инициативу создания платформы социального диалога для национального примирения” (Moldovan President Igor Dodon Presented an Initiative for the Creation of a Social Dialogue Platform for National Reconciliation), Presidency of the Republic of Moldova, March 1, 2017.
[v] “Moldovan President: Planned NATO Office in Chisinau ‘Provocation,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 14, 2017.
[vi] “Названа возможная причина отзыва посла Молдавии в Москве” (A Possible Reason Has Been Named for the Recall of Moldova’s Ambassador in Moscow), REGNUM, March 2, 2017.
[vii] Mihai Popsoi, “Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change Via Referendum,” The Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 6, 2017.
[viii] “Doar două partide ar intra în Parlament, dacă ar fi organizate alegeri. PL și PDM, în topul neîncrederii” (Only Two Parties Would Enter Parliament If Elections Were Held, Liberal and Democratic Parties Are the Most Distrusted), UNIMEDIA, February 6, 2017.
[ix] Yulia Botsan and Vladimir Tkhorik, “Бизнес-корпорация ‘Верховный совет’” (The “Supreme Soviet” Business Corporation), RISE Moldova, December 5, 2016.
[x] Ilan Berman, “Paradise Lost in Crimea,” Foreign Affairs, September 8, 2015.
[xi] “Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, International Crisis Group, February 5, 2016.
[xii] Peter Hobson, “Calculating the Cost of Russia’s War in Syria, The Moscow Times, October 20, 2015.
[xiii] Himani Pant, “Russia’s Economy in 2016,” The Diplomat, May 11, 2016.
[xiv] Tom Balmforth, “Navalny, Hundreds Of Others Detained At Anticorruption Rallies Across Russia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 26, 2017.
[xv] “Moldova: Separatist Transnistria Region Reorienting Trade from Russia to EU,” EurasiaNet, May 4, 2016.
Transnistria Expresses Concern Over Moldova-Ukraine Joint Border Checkpoint: After two years of discussions, Moldova and Ukraine have agreed to establish a joint border checkpoint between Kuchurgan and Pervomaisk (villages in Ukraine and Transnistria, respectively). The official goal of the checkpoint, which will become operational in May, is to ease traffic and trade between Moldova and Ukraine.[iii] However, Transnistrian Foreign Minister Vitally Ignatiev recently claimed that the checkpoint will have a negative impact on the Transnistrian economy and potentially lead to another armed confrontation between Moldova and Transnistria. In particular, Ignatiev called attention to the fact that Moldovan troops will be stationed in close proximity to their Transnistrian counterparts.[iv] Over the next few months, the checkpoint could become a new source of tensions between Chisinau and Tiraspol, completely undoing Igor Dodon’s efforts to restart negotiations over Transnistria’s future status.
[i] Mihai Popsoi, “Moldova-Ukraine Energy Deal Upsets Russia by Cutting Transnistria Out,” Moldovan Politics, April 4, 2017.
[ii] Ana Maria Touma, “Moldovan Power Deal with Ukraine Angers Transnistria,” Balkan Insight, April 5, 2017.
[iii] Ana Maria Touma, “Moldova-Ukraine Border Plan Makes Transnistria Anxious,” Balkan Insight, April 26, 2017.
[iv] “Совместный контрольно-пропускной пункт “Кучурган-Первомайск” откроется в конце мая – начале июня” (The ‘Kuchurgan-Pervomaisk’ Joint Border Checkpoint Will Open at the End of May or the Beginning of June), Ava.md, April 28, 2017.
- Natalia Cojocaru, “Nationalism and Identity in Transnistria,” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences 19 (3-4): 261-272.
After interviewing 35 students at Tiraspol University, Natalia Cojocaru demonstrates how “Transnistrian identity” has become distinct from that of Moldova. Cojocaru then explains how this phenomenon would complicate any potential integration efforts in the future.
- Giorgio Comai and Bernardo Venturi, “Language and education laws in multi-ethnic de facto states: the cases of Abkhazia and Transnistria,” Nationalities Papers 43, no. 6 (2015): 886-905.
In this article, researchers Giorgio Comai and Bernardo Venturi discuss the evolution of language policy in Transnistria and compare it to that of another breakaway republic in the post-Soviet region, Abkhazia.
- William Crowther, “Ethnic Politics and the Post-Communist Transition in Moldova,” Nationalities Papers 26, no. 1 (1998): 147-164.
William Crowther is a professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In this article, Crowther explains how moderate politicians eventually triumphed over ethnic nationalists in post-Soviet Moldova, which helped to de-escalate the conflict in Transnistria.
- William H. Hill, Russia, the Near Abroad, and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012).
William H. Hill served as head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova from June 1999 to November 2001, and again from January 2003 through July 2006. This book provides a first-hand account of negotiations on Transnistria, with a particular focus on the failed Kozak Memorandum in 2003.
- Charles King, The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2000).
Charles King is a Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University who has published multiple books related to Eastern European history. In this work, King provides a general overview of Moldova’s identity politics, the causes of the conflict in Transnistria, and its immediate aftermath.
- Moldovan Politics, https://moldovanpolitics.com.
This website, which is maintained by Moldovan political analyst Mihai Popșoi, is an excellent resource to find up-to-date news and commentary about Moldova and Transnistria.