Cossacks occupied the southern lands of the present-day Transniestria until 1812, a time when the Russian frontier ran along the Dniester. After the Cossacks were subsequently transferred to the Kuban in the North Caucasus, their village populations were mostly replaced by incoming Moldovans. After 1812, the protection of the Russian forces allowed for the consolidation of Moldovans (many came as refugees from Bessarabia), as well as Bulgarians in the south of present-day Transniestria. Russian and Ukrainian migrants followed suit and sizeable cities, including Tiraspol, appeared in the mid nineteenth-century.
At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, the population of the TMR was approximately 750,000, comprised of 39% Moldovans, 23% Russians, 26% Ukrainians, and 12% Bulgarians, Jews and others. In the larger Moldovan Socialist Republic, there were 13.9% Ukrainians, 13% Russians and 3.5% Gagauzians, with ethnic Moldovans accounting for just over two-thirds of the total. In the region east of the Dniester, the ethnic Moldovan population was largely concentrated in villages lying on the banks of the Dniester and they constituted 60% of the rural population and only 25.6% of the urban dwellers (Figure 2a). By contrast, Ukrainians were 22% of the rural population and 32.7% of urban inhabitants and Russians were 12.6% of rural and 34.6% of urban populations. In Tiraspol, Russians clearly made up the bulk of the population of the Transniestrian capital - Tiraspol - where they composed 41.9%, as Ukrainians totaled 31.6% and Moldovans accounted for merely 17.7% of the total inhabitants. (Figure 2a)
Over the past 70 years, the population dynamics of the current territory of the TMR show little transformation in national/ethnic composition, with the exception of a notable increase in the Russian population (13.7% in 1926, 23% in 1991). The percentage of Ukrainians has remained largely stable (27% in 1926, 26% at present), while that of the Moldovans has dropped slightly (from 44% to 39%). These changes are explained by the influx of Russians into cities of the present TMR during the period of industrialization promoted by Stalin. A concurrent urbanization of the Moldovan population was also observable during this period, increasing from only 1.4% of the inhabitants of Tiraspol in 1926. However, the Russian populations continue to dominate the urban centers, including Bendery (the second-largest city), where they make up 42.4% of the population. It is important to note, however, that until 1991, Transniestria never witnessed any ethnic-based conflicts with the Moldovans co-existing peacefully with the Russophones.
Demographic Situation since 1991: The political and military conflict in Transniestria directly resulted in a drastic decrease of its population. Before the implosion of the Soviet Union, Transniestria had been a pole of attraction of the Soviet population, even more than the rest of Moldova, due to its favorable climate, the cheap cost of living and the relatively rich consumption basket. As a result of a high natural increase of population as well as net migration, Moldova was one of the Soviet Union’s few republics having abundant, though mainly unskilled, labor. In 1987, Moldova was the fourth-least urbanized of the Soviet republics (Crowther, 1991,184) and clearly fell into the middle category of Soviet republics on 1989 indicators of economic and social well-being (Bradshaw and Lynn, 1994). The republic’s rate of industrialization in the last Soviet decades was high, as several large construction works commenced. The metallurgical plant in Rybnitsa, the Moldovan power station in Dnestrovsk "of all-Union importance" (a Soviet term), the canned food factories and the cotton textile plant in Tiraspol (with 8,000 jobs) all attracted new workers from Russia and Ukraine. Tiraspol is located only 100 km. from the large city of Odessa in Ukraine, which contributed to the development of its cultural attraction and to in-migration. This southwest corner of the USSR area was especially attractive for people returning after many years to the European metropole from the far North and the far East, as well as for retired military officers. These migrants felt comfortable in Transniestria because of the hegemony of the Russian language.
Between 1991 and 1997, the population of Transniestria decreased from 731,000 to 657,000, a drop of 10.4%. A decrease in absolute numbers was registered in all the rayoni (administrative units) of the TMR but was visible especially in the cities because of their concentration of Slavs, many of whom came to the region relatively late and are more educated and more mobile. Since 1991, despite the influx of Russian-speakers population from the rest of Moldova, all the cities and rural districts of the TMR show a negative balance of migration. In 1993, net in-migration occurred, as some of the 30,000 refugees from the Bendery and Dubossary fighting in 1991-92 returned home. The ethnic proportions of migrants are exaggerated by the cultural division of labor established in Soviet times, in which the Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians) performed the administrative tasks and filled industrial jobs and the indigenous population (Moldovans in this case) worked the agricultural enterprises (Chinn and Kaiser, 1996). Given the relative greater decline of the industrial sector, the net out-migration of the Slavs from the region is more evident.
Demographic trends in the TMR also became definitely negative. The balance of natural increase of population was unusually high in Soviet times. In 1990, the figure stood +6.62 per thousand in Transniestria as a whole and +8.30 in its cities. In 1996, mortality exceeded births by 3.2/1000 in all the TMR and by 5.7 in the countryside (Krivenko and Fomenko, 1995). The separation of the TMR from the rest of Moldova interrupted traditional labor migration between the right and the left banks of the Dniester; Transniestria had traditionally experienced a positive balance of cross-river migration.
The future population trends in the TMR clearly depend on the economy, which is, in turn, dependent on the political situation. Privatization of agriculture and large enterprises has not yet begun and bread and fuel prices are fixed. The rationale is that the state does not wish to provoke “social explosion” and wishes to protect the vulnerable sectors of the population, especially the 25% who are pensioners (Interview with V.A. Kondakov, Deputy-Chief of the Department of Foreign Economic Activity of the TMR, September 26, 1997). The reliance on large local enterprises, with ties only to the export locations in the far corners of the ex-Soviet Union and with no local networks, has proven to be the most difficult economic problem facing the region after 1991 (Interview with the Chair of the Bendery City Council of Deputies, F.A.Dobrov, September 25, 1997). Until such links are re-established or alternative markets are found for TMR exports, the population is expected to continue to shrink.
The Economic Base of the TMR
The TMR is located on the fertile lands of the Dniester valley. The gentle landscape with its mild climate and black fertile soils, together with the Dniester’s water resources, have created conditions favorable to irrigated agriculture. At the same time, the region is also endowed with abundant mineral resources, forming the bases of the thriving construction and metal industries of Soviet times.
Transniestria is, certainly, the most economically developed part of Moldova, accounting for 39% of its GNP and 70% of all agricultural production, though its area is merely 13% and its population 17% of the Moldovan totals. In many branches of industry, Transniestria enjoyed an undisputed monopoly within Moldova. The TMR played a key role in energy provision with its Moldovan thermal energy station (a capacity of 2.5 Mwt), as well as the hydropower station in Dubossary on the Dniester (a capacity of 40 Mwt). In the metallurgical industry, the big steel mills at Rybnitsa (700,000 tons of rolled metal a year) was dominant, with other important activities in cement production, as well as various types of mechanical construction, electronic goods, textiles and food processing. In the agricultural sector, the bulk of fresh fruit and vegetable production - as well as the production of canned goods - was similarly concentrated in Transniestria (Tiraspol, Bendery). Thanks to the development of irrigation capabilities, this region had become extremely specialized and a key player in the export markets of all of the former USSR and was especially known for the export of canned fruits and vegetables.
Despite the consequences of the 1991-92 war, the ensuing economic crisis and isolation from traditional markets, the Transniestrian economy was in much better shape than that of Moldova or other CIS republics in the early 1990s. The GNP grew by 4% between 1991 and 1994 at a time of widespread decline elsewhere in the CIS. Home construction in 1993 beat all records in the post-Soviet space due in large measure to the rebuilding of damage in the 1991-1992 war. A large number of “mixed” enterprises created in conjunction with Russian capital were also established (Rossiiskie Vesti, March 17, 1994).
Despite these growth figures, traditional economic links between the TMR and the Eastern partners remained problematic because the absence of a common boundary with Russia makes it very difficult to include Transniestria within the rouble zone. The exclave nature of the TMR economy came back to haunt the region in 1994. In August 1993, the Russian Federation decided to establish its national currency and Transniestria was inundated with old Russian roubles. To avoid an economic disaster, the central bank of the TMR acted quickly to establish its own “semi-currency”: each old Russian rouble was thus stamped with the portrait of the famous General Souvorov. The rate of the “souvorov” vis a vis the Moldovan lei, the Ukrainian coupon and the Russian rouble remained relatively stable but high inflation required frequent escalation of the denominations. In September 1997, an exchange of $300 yielded a shopping bag full of small bills, totalling 26 million TMR roubles, a rate of about 850,000 per dollar.
The principal communication axes and the major gas and oil line that link Moldova with the countries of the CIS also pass through Transniestria. Since almost all of the bridges on the Dniester are also located within Transniestria, the area is certainly well aware of its unique geographical location, a fact certified in 1991 by the railroad blockages enacted by women in the TMR that paralyzed the entire Moldovan state. While there is a chance that the Transniestrian economy can survive without any contact with the rest of Moldova, the latter state, however, needs the cooperation of the TMR for transport and economic communications. Unlike the TMR, which receives no foreign aid, Moldova currently gets over $100 million a year in Western assistance. On the other hand, the International Monetary Fund has rejected the application of the TMR for a loan.
Current Economic Situation: The industry of Transniestria included some unique large plants which were key elements of the needs of the Soviet economy. These included the parachute silk and electric cable plants in Bendery, and a plant in Tiraspol producing explosion-safe electric machines for oil and gas pipes, coal mines, and nuclear power stations (Table 1). The industry of the TMR continues to depend heavily on exports. Despite the economic blockade, the decrease in industrial production in the TMR since the disintegration of the Soviet Union is comparable with Moldova as whole, though the Transniestrian leadership succeeded in delaying economic collapse by partly maintaining fixed prices and supporting agriculture (Table 2). The establishment of the Transniestrian currency in 1995 was marked by a very difficult year for the TMR, but in 1996-1997, the situation stabilized and did not differ significantly from the economy of Moldova as a whole. On the one hand, the region is vulnerable to demand outside its borders but, on the other, it has seen increased incomes in hard currency from exports of competitive goods, especially of rolled metal from the new plant in Rybnitsa.
Unlike the rest of Moldova, Transniestria is an industrial region, with about half of the industrial production concentrated in the capital, Tiraspol (Atlas of the Dniester Moldavian Republic, 1997, 15) (Figure 2b). Seventy-nine percent of the active population is engaged in industry, construction work or the tertiary sector, with industry as a whole specialized in labor-consuming, and non raw material-consuming activities (Table 1). Before 1991, the food industry was the main industrial branch not only in Moldova but also in Transniestria (37% of industrial jobs) with engineering second and the food industry in third place (15%). Half of the industry consisted of large and medium plants, a concentration that proved to be a weakness after the disintegration of the USSR. Among these casualties were the huge can factory, "The First of May" in Tiraspol (the largest producer of vegetable and fruit cans in the former USSR), and the cotton textile plant also located in Tiraspol, which employed several thousand people but has now lost its source of raw materials in Central Asia. Few in the TMR believe that there is a chance of reviving this economic link.
The specialization of the TMR industry made it vulnerable during the transition. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the textile, clothing and shoe industries were uncompetitive after the removal of Soviet administrative limitations and custom barriers, while the engineering sector suffers from lack of investments. The industrial production of the TMR since 1991 has thus fallen by 58.2%, more than in Russia, especially in the 1991-1995 period (Table 2). Industrial enterprises prefer to store their products even when they are not able to pay salaries to workers and, according to official statistical data, the number of industrial jobs decreased in the 1991-1997 period by 12,000, by 5,000 in transportation and by 1,500 in agriculture (Krivenko, 1996).
Within the Moldovan SSR, the TMR produced 38% of vegetables and 23% of fruits. However, as a result of difficulties with falling demand in the CIS countries and lack of investment, agriculture capacity has been seriously undermined, with enormous decreases evident in all food sectors (Table 3). The decrease of production was especially visible in the export-oriented industrial branches of agriculture - vegetables, fruits and sunflowers. Unfortunately for the TMR, its large can plants were supplied with raw materials from neighboring Moldovan districts just across the Dniester. Though the supplies have not stopped completely because the Moldovan side is also interested in exchanges,they have become much more unreliable. In February 1997, Moldova imposed a 20% tax on agricultural raw materials "exported" to can plants in the TMR. Though the decrease of production is mainly due to low demand, the new tariff was one of the reasons why the dairy plant in Bendery dropped its imports from Moldova from 210 tons of milk to 15 tons (Interview with the Chair of the Bendery City Council of Deputies, F.A.Dobrov, September 25, 1997). Another example of post-1991 adjustment is the supply of sugar . There is one sugar plant in the TMR in Rybnitsa, and the TMR was a net importer of sugar and vegetable oil before 1991. After the de facto secession from Moldova, the use of arable lands in the TMR has been considerably changed so that hectares under sugar beet and sunflower have increased and garden plots decreased.
With respect to foreign economic relations, recent data (first half of 1997) show that the TMR had a positive balance of the foreign trade in the order of $20 million, with 54% of total production exported (Interview with V.A. Kondakov, deputy-chief of the department of foreign economic activity of the TMR, September 26, 1997). Continuing the trend of integration into the economic complex of the USSR, the TMR depends heavily on trade with the other CIS countries, especially Russia and Ukraine. In 1996, the share of CIS countries in exports was 76.2% and 83.2% in imports (Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika v 1997). These ratios, though high, are down from 94% and 83% from the respective 1992 figures (Atlas of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic, 1997) so that some diversification in trading relations is becoming evident. Before 1991, about 72% of the goods exported from the territory of Transniestria were directed to the Russian Federation, and even now, Russia remains by far the main destination of Transniestrian exports (61-63%). Among "foreign" economic partners of the TMR, Moldova places second just ahead of Ukraine, with 12% of the totals in 1996.
Currently, the TMR has economic agreements with 38 subjects of the Russian Federation but the orientation to the Russian market inherited from the Soviet times aggravates the economic situation in the TMR, since Ukraine places different obstacles for transit via its territory. Ukrainian custom services charge an insurance payment in hard currency for transit of TMR goods equal to 130% of the cost of the good as a guarantee that it will not be sold on Ukrainian territory and a similar rule has been established in Russia as well. High rail charges, often resulting in a noncompetitive ratio between quality and price, and other bureaucratic obstacles made it difficult for the TMR to export its traditional agricultural products to Russia, especially beyond the Urals, and to the Baltic states. Transniestria imports mainly oil and other fuels, mostly from the refineries in Odessa and Kremenchug (Ukraine) and from Russia, as well as timber, chemicals, consumer goods, meat and grains.
Of course, the official statistics reflects only a part of the Transniestrian reality. It comes as no surprise that the population of this multi-ethnic, narrow strip of land between Ukraine and Moldova survives to a large extent due to the proliferation of "black" (illegal) and "gray" (foreign) trade and smuggling, and to the activity of the so-called "chelnoki" (shuttle traders) who move large quantities of goods across the new international boundaries. Added to these unofficial activities is currency speculation and, even in official exports, barter constitutes about 60% of the total (Interview with V.A. Kondakov, Deputy-Chief of the Department of Foreign Economic Activity of the TMR, September 26, 1997).
Characteristically, the pressure of economic realities pushes both Transniestria and Moldova to cooperation. In 1997, Moldova led among the "foreign" partners of the TMR in trade increase. Since 1995, there have been several meetings between customs officials of the two sides. They have agreed that transit goods for Moldova crossing the Transniestrian territory are accompanied to the border and that Moldovan custom officials and border guards would leave the Ukrainian railway station of Razdelnaya on the main Kiev-Chisinau line (Figure 1b). In September 1997, this station was probably the only border crossing with controls carried out by three sides - Ukraine, Moldova and the TMR -all on Ukrainian territory. In 1998, further agreements on confidence building measures were signed and implemented consequent on an agreement in May 1997 that included reopening of the Dniester bridges.
The TMR has often been labeled, in Western and in liberal Russian newspapers, as "a reserve of communism" or “a communist nest”, an obscure corner of the former USSR where state economic controls are still the norm, where one-party rule continues and where democracy is nothing more than a charade of elections (Sawyer, 1994; King, 1994; Ionescu, 1996). This is a charge strongly denied by government officials (Interview with V.I. Atamaniuk, Vice-Speaker of the Parliament of the TMR, September 25, 1997). It is certainly true that the Transniestrian government was in no hurry to privatize its economy, especially its large industrial enterprises; it continues to support "kolkhozes" (collective) and "sovkhozes ("Soviet") agricultural enterprises, and subsidized consumer prices. By September 1997, most retail trade and services were privatized, and the Transniestrian leadership has started the process of public-private partnerships in some industrial plants. According to their official economic conception, the TMR will try to build a "socially oriented economy", with step by step reforms (Interview with V. Atamaniuk, Deputy Speaker of the TMR, September 25, 1997). The national economy is now divided in three parts. The "strategic", export-oriented subjects (mainly large industrial plants) will be shared with private investors, but majority shares will remain in the hands of the state. The most dynamic, intermediate level of activity will belong both to the state and to private owners but can be mixed; while the third level - retail trade and services – has been allocated to private investors.
Like most regions of the former Soviet Union, both Moldova and the TMR have seen catastrophic falls in the order of 50% or more in the output of industries. It is more difficult to calculate the drop in agricultural production but it is clear that traditional markets have not been replaced by new buyers. The street markets in Tiraspol are certainly more poorly provided in the range and quality of food products than other Russian cities of the European zone and the Tiraspol markets seem more similar to those east of the Urals. It is clear that economic decline has been exaggerated by poor political relations between neighbors and the disruption to local exchanges caused by the political strife. Though the confidence-building measures between the TMR and Moldova are slow in taking hold, it is in the interest of both parties to decrease dependence on external markets. Especially for the TMR, economic dependence on Russia makes the region vulnerable to political pressure from Moscow.