It would be a gross simplification to reduce the conflict between the TMR and Moldovan central authorities simply to ethnic tensions, since Moldovans are the principal group on both sides and in the 1991-92 war, members of the three main ethnic groups (Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians) fought on both sides (Kolstøe et al., 1993, 974). On this point, virtually every commentator on the Moldovan – TMR dispute concurs. But it is also true that, as in Northern Ireland, there are correlations between ethnic-cultural-national heritage, economic status and political-territorial preferences. A further complicating element is that ethnic relations in the pseudo-state of the TMR remain hostage to the larger (inter)national environment. Each group looks to external supporters, who share either an ideological or cultural affinity, for military assistance, economic aid and political voice in the world’s forums.
A key element in the new national consciousness that emerged forcefully in the aftermath of the Soviet Union has been the struggle about history. Key issues include which group was the first to settle in which area, the emphasis on long-vanished territorial divisions, the legitimacy of boundary shifts and the exact delineation of former state boundaries. For separatists, mobilization revolves around the threat to the existence of the cultural or national minority, and the associated risk of its assimilation, dispersion and oppression, as well as the need to mobilize partisan forces to counter oppositional forces. They typically argue for self-determination and compare their efforts to other successful nationalist enterprises, like the creation of Slovenia or Macedonia. For the state apparatus, usually controlled by the majority, adherence to pre-existing borders is crucial, even when it is recognized that the borders were artificially created for short-term political purposes. Fear of the externality effects of one border change (a snowball effect that can influence border decisions geographically removed from the first conflict) persuades most states to adhere to the status quo ante.
Rather than a simple ethnic-based dispute, the TMR is an example of cultural divisions involving several states. Its escalation can be considered quite typical and thus merits more detailed consideration. Kaufman (1996, 125) makes the argument that the TMR leadership used “ethnic outbidding” to increase their power, provoking violent conflict. He believes that the strikes and other manifestations of opposition to Chisinau were provoked and controlled by a cynical TMR political and economic elite that did not wish to give up power to nationalists in Moldova. In his “ethnic security dilemma model”, Kaufman argues that the fear of losing ground to another ethnic group is a powerful motivator for political action and that the TMR leadership played on this fear. In the TMR, mobilization to opposition to central authority “followed a pattern of elite conspiracy…and incumbent Russophone leaders in the Dniestr region used ethnic outbidding to exacerbate mass hostility and the security dilemma in order to increase their own power” (Kaufman, 1996, 125-126). By contrast, Kolstøe et al. (1993, 998) conclude that the evidence for opposition to Chisinau in surveys, elections, and referenda is strong enough to merit territorial autonomy for the TMR.
The flaw in the Kaufman argument is that it assumes a univariate and clear distribution of loyalties according to cultural-national identities. As we will show, identity in the TMR, as in many other post-Soviet republics, is a complicated matter. While nationalists prefer to categorize residents as belonging to one group, many people have affinities for more than one identity. This multiple identity choice is common in regions with significant inter-marriage between groups, as is the case in the European republics of the former Soviet Union where inter-marriage between Russian immigrants and the indigenous population was common. The children and grand-children of these families frequently speak both Russian and the indigenous language and when ethnic-lingual identifications are combined with non-ethnic identity (like the civic identity of a Soviet citizen), a layered and inter-woven set of national markers and orientations can easily result in what Taras (1993) has called “matrioshka nationalism”. A simple equation of a census definition of nationality (the category that a person checks on a census form) with orientation is questionable in the multi-cultural world of the Dniester Republic, and in other former Soviet republics like Ukraine (Pirie, 1996).
It is important to stress the pre-1989 roots of nationalism in the former Soviet Union. As Kaiser (1994, 379) notes, nationalism in the new states and territories that emerged from the former Soviet Union is not the result of a “sleeping beauty” phenomenon, awakening after 75 years of Communism that submerged cultural loyalties to the ideological preference of Soviet citizen. Soviet nationalities policy was instrumental in the making of nations and nationalism (Akbarzadeh, 1996; Beissinger, 1996; Brubaker, 1995; Kolstøe et al., 1993; Laitin, 1996) and as indigenes became more economically and politically mobilized as a result of the growth of an educated indigenous elite, they became more nationalistic and pressed for more control of resources in the territory of the indigenes. In turn, an indigenous national territoriality engendered a reactive national territoriality on the part of local minorities (the so-called third level of nationalism – Kaiser, 1994) as well as an appeal by the (Russian) non-indigenes for assistance. Later, alliances between the Russians and the smaller minorities, such as in Abkhazia, countered the rising nationalisms of the indigenes. As Sack (1986, 34) noted, “territoriality can help engender more territoriality” that tends to be space-filling.
It is easier to build a national identification if it can be shown that there is a correlation between ethnic status and economic status. The elites who try to mobilize national sentiment are likely to be more successful if they can show that there is either active discrimination against the group or that the group suffers from economic neglect. The case is especially strong if the group is regionally concentrated and thus able to mobilize the resources of the region to support their group claims. In Moldova, the Russophone population is concentrated east of the Dniester as well as in the largest cities, including the capital, Chisinau, where the population was about half Russian in 1989. As was typical of the margins of the former Soviet Union, the Russians were more educated, more involved in the industrial and governmental sectors, and more likely to move to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But, it would be misleading to make the case that the rump state of the TMR is simply the attempt of the Russians to carve out their piece of the Moldovan pie in the face of a resurgent Moldovan nationalism. The fact that the TMR regime seems to enjoy wide-spread cross-ethnic support in their autonomous region suggests that other groups are worried about the policies of the Moldovan state, fear the loss of economic status, have been mobilized to support the Russophones or some combination of these motivations. In any case, the TMR situation is not a simple case of majority versus minority nationalisms.