John O’Loughlin, Vladimir Kolossov and Andrei Tchepalyga1

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National Construction, Territorial Separatism and Post-Soviet Geopolitics: The Example of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic

John O’Loughlin,

Vladimir Kolossov


Andrei Tchepalyga1

In the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, numerous conflicts have occurred on the margins of this multi-ethnic state, especially in the Caucasus region and central Asia. In the European part of the former USSR, violent conflict has been less frequent but nationalist dilemmas are no less intractable. The continuing debates about the national rights of the Russian populations of Latvia and Estonia and the unresolved question of the specific roles of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) lend urgency to a search for solutions that accommodate the differing aspirations of the states and nations of the crush zone of east-central Europe. The geopolitical context is changing rapidly as a result of the expanding role of the West in the region, in the guise of NATO and the European Union, and the relative decline of Russian influence.

Almost overlooked in the contemporary geopolitical landscape is the tiny “pseudo-state”2 of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic (TMR), a breakaway region of Moldova, one of the former Soviet republics that declared independence in 1991 (Figure 1a). With a population of 670,000 and an area of 4163 square kilometers, the TMR lies east of the Dniester river and is land-locked between Ukraine and the rest of Moldova. The short violent war between Moldova and the forces of the breakaway TMR, supported by volunteer Cossacks from Russia and Ukraine, that peaked in June 1992 received little attention in the West, perhaps because of the coincidental crisis in Bosnia and the Croatian-Serbian war in eastern Slavonia. The indeterminate status of the TMR offers many lessons for the post Cold War world as ethnic tensions, long hidden in the Soviet times, have erupted to violence and produced a dizzying array of new political arrangements. The experiences of a small place can indeed contain lessons for the wider geopolitical environment3.

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to claim that most of the post Cold War geopolitical uncertainties of the former Soviet Union can be illustrated by the TMR-Moldovan conflict. Economic, political, national, military, and social problems, consequent on the end of the Soviet Union, combine to hinder solutions to the TMR situation. Although all of the post-Soviet conflicts have historical antecedents, it is only in the light of the ‘glasnost’ of the Gorbachev years in the 1980s that they began to emerge on the geopolitical radar. Already in the last two years of the Soviet Union, the Moldovan nationalist revival, focussed on language rights, closer relations with Rumania and the replacement of the Communist party by populist leaders, was generating a backlash in the mixed ethnic region across the Dniester. The military conflict that then began in 1991 and lasted through summer 1992 was a result of the newly-independent Moldova’s attempt to implement state control up to the border with Ukraine (King, 1994, 1995). The resulting stalemate has continued to mid-1998 despite the efforts of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to mediate an agreement between Tiraspol (the TMR capital) and Chisinau (Moldovan capital) and despite the changes in Presidential and parliamentary leadership in Chisinau.

Study of the TMR crisis sheds light on the different kinds of chaos found in most post-Soviet puzzles. First, the changing geopolitical strategy of Russia with respect to its “Near Abroad” and to the protection of Russians in the former republics is clearly illustrated by the evolving role of its 14th Army and its commanders in the TMR (Selivanova, 1996). Second, the difficulties of the switch from the command economy of Soviet times, with its state allocations and guaranteed markets in the wider socialist bloc, to the chaos of privatized international markets with continued prominence of “kolkhoz” (collective) and “Sovetz” (Soviet) enterprises at home, has plagued the TMR. Food rationing and hyperinflation in the TMR and for Moldova, the difficulty of adjusting to the loss of its industrial region, have been prominent features of the economic crisis. Third, on the ethnic-cultural front, the creation of a new national identity for the TMR has been a high priority for the TMR leadership since no ethnic majority exists in the region. (Russian, Ukrainians and Moldovans each constitute about one-third of the total TMR population). An emphasis on “civic” ideals rather than ethnic-based nationalism is a feature of the state-promoted activities emanating from Tiraspol, with a notable nostalgia for the Soviet ideology of a civic identity superseding individual national loyalties.. Fourth, the confusion surrounding the struggle for the new state apparatus and the activities of the new state in the TMR has given rise to claims and counter-claims about the legality of government actions, the nature and scale of corruption, the treatment of ethnic groups and the implementation of human rights, the interest in reaching a permanent settlement to the crisis, and the extent to which the Dniester Republic is democratic. Though regular elections have been a feature of both Moldova and the TMR since 1991, the nature of civic participation and social movements is still uncertain. The question raised by Zakaria (1997), has formal democracy resulted in the formalization and vindication of the victory of anti-democrats in many post-Soviet regions, is still open.

The absence of overt conflicts in the Moldovan socialist republic prior to 1989 distinguishes this case from other post-Soviet conflicts in Abkhazia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya. In the three Caucasian examples, ethnic conflicts date back for several decades and even centuries, histories that exacerbated the post-1990 situations. In the case of Moldova, it was the disappearance of the Soviet Union that engendered the conflict; in the other three cases, the end of the USSR merely defrosted the existing divides. The crisis phase in the TMR conflict was started by a legislative act of a new Moldovan government instituting a nationalist agenda (Kolstøe et al., 1993). Arguing about who took the first step is pointlesss, since each successive response amounted to an escalation of the conflict. The ground was already prepared, with prevailing double perceptions of menace, the necessity to mobilize all the forces of the new states to confront the perceived menace, and the lack of time for a reasoned response. These conditions all contributed to create the right environment for an explosion of hostilities (Kaufman, 1996; Chinn, 1997).

We have three aims in this paper. First, we examine the economic, political and military crisis and update and evaluate the possible solutions in light of the unyielding positions of the protagonists. Second, we wish to analyze the options and strategies that are available for new regimes in zones of ethnic conflict for constructing a national identity and an effective state apparatus. Finally, we wish to consider the wider significance of the TMR example for the geopolitical environment of the early 21st century. We contend that unstable and uncertain political territories will mark the new century, and thus, hark back to the early stages of nation-state formation in the nineteenth century. The TMR might therefore be an early example of a new kind of post-modern geopolitics, one that is difficult both to evaluate and to predict and that should be examined through the geopolitical perspective of the relevant parties, both internal and external.

Our source material consists of official economic and population data from the TMR and from Moldova, detailed interviews with the state officials of the TMR and with local elected representatives of Bendery (the town at the center of the military conflict) in September 1997, the first atlas of the TMR published in 1997, our observations from field-work in the region, and Russian and Western newspaper accounts of the day-to-day developments since 1991. It is evident that opinions vary greatly and remain strongly correlated with the ideology of the protagonists and whether the observer believes that self-determination or protection of existing state borders should be paramount in the making of the post-Soviet territorial delimitations. As is usual in these murky circumstances, both sides have made accusations of genocide and mass murder but the U.S. State Department (1993, 849) concluded that while there were some human rights abuses on both sides, press reports have exaggerated the nature and the extent of the brutalities.

The Geopolitical and Historical Context

The territory of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic extends along the east bank of the Dniester : the length of this narrow band is approximately 200 km, with an average width of only 20 km. The enclave surrounding the town of Bendery on the Dniester right bank dates to the aftermath of World War II, ensuring economic integration into nearby Tiraspol’s sphere, as well as the concurrent domination of the Russian and Ukrainian populations in the city (Figure 1b and Figure 2a). The historical development of Transniestria has long been tied to the Slavic world, especially Russia, so that 1991 aspirations for a reunification with Rumania by the Moldovan nationalists in the Popular Front was at odds with the historical ties of the Transniestrian population. Such an orientation also threatened long-standing economic integration with other countries of the CIS, as well as the dependence of the TMR economy on Eastern markets. In 1990, for example, 95% of all Moldovan enterprises were still controlled from Moscow (Kolstøe et al., 1993, 979).

Of the post-Soviet conflicts, the Moldovan one is the most internationalized. In Soviet times, the zones of fighting in the Caucasus were peripheral, hardly registering on the national consciousness in economic or political terms. By contrast, the Transdniester region played a significant role in the Soviet planned economy. After 1990, the number of external actors actively involved in the struggle grew to include Ukraine, Russia, Rumania, the OSCE, as well as the central parties of Moldova and the TMR. The Caucasian fighting involved only Russia, the immediate parties and some regional interests but remained outside the geopolitical reckoning of non-Soviet states. In all cases, however, the fighting has erased any clear distinction between domestic and international actors. In Transniestria, economic issues have played a significant role, with the desire of the pseudo-state leadership to take advantage of the TMR’s relative economic power vis a vis the rest of the country.

Moldova lies in the zone of contact between diverse geopolitical worlds (Roman, Slavic, Turkish), a zone contested by empires for centuries and in which political borders have shifted repeatedly according to the prevailing power-political configurations. The Moldovan territory is quite varied and can be divided into several sub-regions differentiated by constituent national population(s), historical experience and traditions, as well as level of economic development. In fact, 18 separate linguistic zones have been identified in Moldova (Argumenty i Fakty, N 24, 1992) and the multi-national nature of the state belatedly led to a change in state identity from an ethnic definition to a civic one over the past 5 years, as support for the Popular Front dwindled (Chinn, 1997).

The southern areas of Transniestria belonged to the Crimean Khanat, the vassal state of the Ottoman Empire but prior to the absorption of this region by Russia at the end of the 18th century, this frontier was not characterized by any permanent authority. According to the terms of the Iasi peace treaty between Russia and Turkey in 1792, the Ottoman Empire agreed to cede control to Russia over the steppes lying between the Bug and the Dniester (Figure 1a). The ensuing war between Turkey and Russia (concluded by the treaty of 1812) additionally gave Russia control of Bessarabia (the areas between the Dniester and the Prut, up to the delta of the Danube) (Figure 1a). Transniestria thus lost its frontier status and was incorporated into the Kherson province of the Czarist empire. Bessarabia remained within the Russian Empire following further victory over the Turks in 1878, but after 1918 and the defeat of Russia in World War I, Bessarabia joined the new Rumanian state. Transniestria had once again become a frontier zone (Kolstøe et al, 1993; Crowther, 1991).

The territory of the TMR is heir to the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova (ASSRM), created in 1924 by Stalin within the Ukrainian republic, based on the hope of eventual return of the areas lost to Rumania at the end of World War I. The capital of the ASSRM was first established in the small town of Balta, but was later transferred to Tiraspol. The creation of the ASSRM was orchestrated in large part to show that the Moldovan population had its own state within the Soviet Union and that they differed significantly from the Rumanians. While Ukrainians were certainly the dominant ethnic group in the ASSRM (48.5% of the population), the Moldovan population was also sizeable at 30%. In 1940, after the Ribbontrop-Molotov Pact, Bessarabia was incorporated into the USSR. In the new Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, six of the prior seventeen administrative districts (rayoni) of the ASSRM were now included within the new Moldovan republic, and the other eleven rayoni remained within Ukraine, subsumed into Odessa oblast. Contemporary Transniestria is thus made up of six districts emerging from the pre-war autonomous administrative unit, the city of Tiraspol, and the enclave of Bendery on the right bank of the Dniester (Figure 1b). In delimiting the new boundaries, Stalin’s intention was to compensate the new Moldovan Republic for the joint loss of southern Bessarabia (transferred to the Izmail oblast and later subsumed under Odessa oblast) and northern Bukovina, now part of the Ukrainian oblast of Chernivitsi. Much of the Moldovan intelligentsia emigrated to Rumania between the wars and the remainder were deported by Stalin, to be replaced (after 1945) by Russian and Ukrainian cadres. This emigration and deportation was one of the key reasons cited by Moldovan intellectuals in 1991 for reunification with Rumania. Only in the years, 1941-44, was the TMR territory part of Rumania, a wartime ally of Germany.

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