In August 1989, the Moldovan parliament adopted an amendment to the Constitution of the Republic stipulating that the Rumanian language would become an official state language and would be written in Latin script. The Soviet Union had worked assiduously to separate Moldovan and Rumanian and to stress script (Cyrillic and Latin) and dialectical differences, while encouraging Moldovans to promote their own identity. In the new parliament that was elected democratically in March 1990, the nationalist forces, claiming to be the “true” democrats and opponents of the Communist regime, proclaimed the sovereignty of the republic and adopted citizenship and language laws that were considered discriminatory by the Russophone population. Though the new laws promoted “romanization” in social and economic life, they were much more lenient than similar laws adopted at the same time by the Baltic republics. Russophones in certain occupations would thus be constrained in the new Moldova to learn the new official language of Moldova, now with Latin script. (Chinn, 1997). The government also acted to replace officials of Slavic origin with representatives of the titular population, a move perceived as a threat to the status of Russians and Ukrainians. Despite the attempt, the percentage of Moldovans in government posts in the country (50.6% in 1990, 54.9% in 1992) continued to remain lower than their share of the total population.
In the course of the academic year, 1991-1992, the percentage of Russian-language secondary schools dropped from 51.3% to 43% (International Interim Report, 1992). In normal times, such a decrease could be interpreted simply as a necessary adjustment of the school system to reflect the demographics of the population since during Soviet times, a considerable number of Moldovan parents wanted their children to attend Russian-language schools in order to help their career prospects. In 1992, however, following the declarations of the top echelons of government officials as well as those of the Popular Front that held power in Chisinau, the precipitous drop only acted to worsen the crisis.
The central authorities in Chisinau ignored the protests against the language policy that were largely concentrated in Transniestria and which later transformed into mass strikes. The workers of the large industrial enterprises east of the Dniester elected strike committees in August 1989 that, in turn, came together under the auspices of the United Council of Work Collectives (UCWC) to oppose the policies coming out of Chisinau. It is these strike committees that began the movement that eventually led to the TMR. In January 1990, a referendum in the region approved the autonomy of Transniestria (more than 90% support in Bendery and Tiraspol) and on September 2, 1990, the UCWC proclaimed the creation of the TMR. This proclamation, however, did not immediately amount to Transniestria effectively leaving Moldova. In March 1991, more than 93% of the TMR voters supported the continuation of the Soviet Union. In August 1991, the leaders of the TMR lent their support to the coup in Moscow, partly because of shared ideological orientations but also in hopes of obtaining the support of the old Communist elite in the fight against Chisinau. By contrast, the Moldovan leadership backed Boris Yeltsin. On August 27th, 1991, after the failed putsch in Moscow, Moldova declared independence from the USSR.
At the same time, the situation was also deteriorating in Gagauzia4, another of the self-proclaimed republics of Moldova. The two recalcitrant republics lent each other more than merely political support with Transniestria lending armed support to Gagauzia when the latter was threatened with impending invasion from Chisinau. Unlike Transniestria however, Gagauzia is made up of the rural and largely poor lands of the Budjal in the south of Moldova, while its Turcophone population is not numerous and lacks key urban centers, factors rendering it more dependent on the Chisinau authorities. Since the early 1990s, the Gagauze have been consistently promised a measure of autonomy (Chinn, 1997).
The important steps in the escalation of the conflict occurred in Autumn 1991, when the paramilitary wing of the UCWC transformed itself into the “guardians of the Dniester” and Tiraspol called up “worker militias”. Such paramilitary structures could not coexist peacefully with the security forces of a Moldovan state that was attempting to enforce the laws made in Chisinau. Bloodshed began in November of 1991, when “worker militias” attempted to take control of police forces in Dubossary, an event that triggered the conflict between Moldova and the TMR several weeks later and intensified in May of 1992. (Table 4). Another key episode in the conflict occurred in the TMR exclave of Bendery on June 19th, 1992, when armed convoys from Chisinau attempted to take control of the town. Between 500 and 1000 people were killed and 60,000 – 100,000 refugees are estimated to have fled over the Moldovan frontier into the Odessa oblast of Ukraine following the bloodshed of mid-1992 (Izvestia, June 25, 1992; International Interim Report, 1992). After some initial hesitation, the TMR was openly supported in its struggle by the Russian 14th Army stationed in Transniestria and it is widely believed that the use of 14th Army tanks in the battle for Bendery turned the tide (Gray, 1992; Kolstøe et al., 1993, 988). Russian forces had provided the TMR fighters with artillery as well as tanks and openly took sides after the assumption of 14th Army leadership by General Alexander Lebed. Most of the 14th Army soldiers were local recruits and could see themselves as defending their homeland. Chisinau, on the other hand, was undoubtedly aided in its efforts by Rumanian arms exporters as well as by external military advisors.
In July 1992, Russia and Moldova signed a treaty that called for the separation of the armed forces of both sides within a period of seven days, and created a trilateral governing commission made up of Moldova, Russia and Transniestria. This commission had at its disposal armed forces furnished by all three countries. Following the terms of this treaty, Russia sent in special peacekeeping forces (separate from the 14th Army) into the conflict zone. The neutral status of the 14th division was, again, reasserted, with its status and time of departure to be negotiated by Moldova and the Russian Federation.
Though the treaty signed in July 1992 put an end to open hostilities, the conflict continues to simmer as a “cold war”. In 1994, Moldovan parliamentary elections showed the profound transformation in the balance of political power in Moldova. The Christian Democratic Front that united the nationalist forces was dealt a severe loss dropping to less than 15% of the seats in the new parliament. The Agrarian Party, whose electoral campaign was largely supported by the organizational infrastructure of the old Communist party bureaucracy and the economic nomenklatura, including the agriculture departments of the rural districts and the directors of the large agricultural kolkhozes, as well as the Social Democratic Party (“reformed” ex-communists), swept to an overwhelming majority in the new legislature. These parties represented the interests of the economic elites who were well aware of the vital importance for Moldova of multilateral cooperation with the CIS, and bilateral trade with Russia. In mid 1994, Russian share of Moldovan trade was 62%, with another 6.5% with Ukraine, 2.3% with Belarus, with the total for all CIS countries at 75% (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 17, 1994). Moldova receives about 70% of its fuel from Russia and the other 30% from the Ukraine (Moscow News, August 15, 1993).
Approximately 80% of Moldovan voters voted against unification with Rumania, decided in a referendum held on the same day of the parliamentary elections. The results merely confirmed that one could not ignore the legacy of almost two centuries of historical development that had placed Moldova squarely within the geopolitical space of the former USSR, and certainly not within Rumania’s. The personal experiences of a great number of Moldovans following the opening of the borders only served to certify the wide gap between living standards that existed between their country and Rumania. The attitude of some Rumanian nationalists who treated the Moldovans as “second-class Rumanians” further polarized the situation. Paradoxically, the referendum weakened the positions of both the Popular Front in Chisinau, who tried to avoid the referendum and the Tiraspol authorities, who could not play on the fears of Transniestrians becoming a small minority in a unified Rumanian world. The Moldovan elections served to advance negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, which were also fostered by the economic difficulties on both sides. In April 1994, a meeting between Presidents Snegour (Rumania) and Smirnov (TMR) in Tiraspol resulted in economic rather than political contacts. The National Bank of Moldova opened an office in Tiraspol to facilitate money transfers and agreements were drafted between institutions responsible for road transportation and infrastructure. The police forces of both sides agreed to cooperate against organized crime.
In the TMR, the commander of the 14th Army, General Alexander Lebed, widely known in Russia for his role in the Afghan war and through his many interviews with the media, was often cited as a savior of Bendery and Transniestria. By 1994, he was in conflict with the TMR authorities whom he accused of corruption (Petersen, 1994; Sawyer, 1994). By August 1994, Moscow announced the restructuring of the 14th Army (whose size had been reduced to less than one division) and, under this pretext, removed Lebed from his post as commander.5 In a March 1995 referendum, 93 % of the TMR voters supported the presence of the 14th Army in the territory and it was clear that it would be very difficult for Russia to withdraw its armed forces in the face of such perceived dependence on them by the Transniestrians.