written by Diane Forey, Sciences Po Toulouse
The violent fighting in Ukraine, supported by Russia, and the annexation of the Crimea by Vladimir Putin in 2014, have highlighted the many tensions that still proliferate in the post-Soviet space. The revival of the debate on “frozen conflicts” has also led the international community to consider the fate of Moldova and the secessionist movements that are undermining its integrity; Indeed, wedged between the left bank of the Dniestr and the Ukraine is a narrow strip of land, self-proclaimed independent more than twenty years ago: Transnistria. (literally ‘beyond the Dniestr’). De facto independent, it is not however, recognized by any State or international organization. De jure, the Moldovan government describes it as “an autonomous territorial unit on the left bank of the Dniester “.
For a long time close to Russia, Transnistria is a region that does not share many elements with Moldova. Several human factors, largely linked to 20th century European governance, mark the unease between the government in Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) and the territory of Transnistria, over which it has lost all control.
A region without stable roots
Historically linked to the Russian Empire, Transnistria, or the Moldavian Republic of the Dniester, has been tossed from country to country during the conflicts of the 20th century. During the division of Europe in 1919 at Versailles, the great powers chose to unite the Moldovan territory and Romania. The latter was to serve as a shield against the Bolshevik threat, to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas in Western Europe.
However, this reunification is far from being unanimous; the incorporation of Moldova, a poor region, into the kingdom of Romania triggered the beginning of hostilities. The conflicts took place mainly in the Dniester region, now Transnistria, where the population is very attached to Russia and its ideals. Cut to the quick by a policy of “Romanisation” led by Bucharest, the Russian speakers became a little more closed in on themselves in Transnistria.
In 1924, the Russian nibbling strategy, hostile to the great kingdom of Romania, proved its worth: in October, the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova (ASSR; it includes the whole of the current Transnistrian territory) was created on the eastern bank of the Dniestr River, the dividing line between Moldova and Transnistria. This divide between a region under Romanian control and another under Soviet control would not be overcome until 25 years later, when Romania was absorbed by the USSR.
The implosion of the Soviet bloc leading to Moldovan independence brings back old memories. Three trends emerged that are still ardently defended today: Moldovan independence, a rapprochement or even a union with Romania, and a still very present attachment to Russia.
Faced with its newly acquired freedom, Transnistria reacted very quickly and proclaimed itself autonomous in September 1990. It was in 1992 that it declared itself independent in response of Moldova’s declaration of independence in 1991. Moldova had only adopted Romanian as its official language and had, according to the separatists, violated their Russian identity. In retaliation, the government of Chisinau launched an offensive on 2March1992. But it came up against the 14th Russian army which came to the aid of the Transnistrian separatists. Faced with a Moldovan army that was still young and poorly trained, the Russians won without difficulty and a cease-fire agreement was signed on 21 July of the same year.
Since then, the situation has remained more or less the same. Transnistria has adapted to this situation by equipping itself over time with all the tools of state power: a constitution, an anthem, a flag, an army, a currency, a government, … All the attributes of a sovereign state, and yet this country still does not exist.
Survival of Transnistria: the essential role of Moscow
This region has been looking towards Russia for a long time. It is therefore difficult to survive without it; in a referendum in 2006, the people voted 97% in favour of independence with future unification with the Russian Federation.
This attachment can be explained by the many investments made by Russia over the last century. In the 1960s, the USSR decided to set up a heavy industry centre there and made Transnistria the economic centre of Moldova (it produces about 90% of Moldovan electricity nowadays).
In addition, it also plays an important part in Transnistrian economic life; the Russian Government sends aid of up to 20 million euros a year which makes up for 70% of Transnistria’s annual budget. This dependence is also expressed through pensions, financed by Moscow, and the provision of free gas.
Finally, Russia is actively involved in the defence of the country. The 14th Russian army, which has been present for twenty years, is still stationed there (it is estimated that one thousand soldiers and twenty thousand tons of armaments are still on Transnistrian territory). V. Putin’s aim is to guarantee security and peace, but the international community considers this to be an illegal occupation of Moldovan territory.
A key territory in the Russian strategy
If Russian President Vladimir Putin injects so much into this region of barely 1,600 square miles, it is because it represents an indispensable tool in his strategy. It allows to encircle the Ukraine on the one hand, but above all it is a means of preserving his sphere of influence inherited from the Soviet Union: Transnistria acts as a Russian shield against the advance of NATO and the European Union in Eastern Europe.
It tries above all to maintain its influence in the Black Sea, which it considers its own. Transnistria is not the only example, since Moscow has begun its reconquest of this region, annexing the Crimea and then the territory of Dombass in eastern Ukraine. Its objective is to connect these different zones to form an ‘umbrella’, facing NATO’s advance in the Black Sea. Despite a budget boosted by almost 20% thanks to the support of Muscovites, the economy is far from prosperous. Transnistria is facing banking sanctions and customs duties on its exports, on top of the decline in Russian investment, weakened by the 2007 economic crisis and recent EU sanctions.
Transnistria has therefore chosen to open up more and more to the West: the European Union.
Opening up to Europe, an unlikely future?
Failed by Russia, the Transnistrian government is trying to move closer and closer to the EU. Despite the many signs and references to the Soviet era (the statue of Lenin in front of the Parliament, itself still called the Supreme Soviet, the hammer and sickle, communist symbols, are omnipresent), its leaders assure it, Transnistria is a secular and democratic state far from communist ideology, ready to comply with the market economy and European ideals.
Through Moldova first, whose relations with the EU are based on the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)*. Thanks to the ENP, the government in Chisinau became part of the member states that signed the Eastern Partnership in 2009, with the aim of strengthening its ties with the EU. Then in 2014, the Moldovan government continued its efforts and decided to sign a more binding Association Agreement, deepening trade and political relations with the Union.
But Transnistria, Moldova’s most dynamic region, has also chosen to go it alone by increasing trade with the European Union. Following the implementation of a very protectionist policy in Russia, Transnistria has no choice but to export to the EU. Around 70% of its products are sent there, mainly textiles, where the major European brands take advantage of low wages: 3,500 Transnistrian roubles per month or 180 euros. Transnistria is a serious contender for the title of Europe’s new China.
However, if the trade relationship between the EU and Transnistria is real, it seems very unlikely that it will develop favourably. This is due to the EU’s high standards in terms of human rights, respect for fundamental values, democracy… A whole series of conditions necessary for entry into the European community and which are sorely lacking in Transnistria. The official Moldovan delegation to the EU has even described Transnistria as the “black hole” of Europe, referring to the numerous traffics (of arms, human beings, money laundering,…). The illegal economy accounts for more than 60% of Transnistria’s GDP. In a quasi-state where opinion is still very muzzled and freedom of expression very relative, it seems impossible today to imagine the strengthening of links between Transnistria and the European Union.
An endless status quo
However, local institutions seem to have come to terms with this invisible status; Alexender Schcherba, President of the Transnistrian Parliament, argues that there are several different forms of recognition: de jure or de facto. And that technically, many international structures, public or private, have entered into trade relations with the region.
But will Transnistria one day see itself become a fully-fledged country recognized by the international community? Not very likely, because to do so it would need the support of Russia, which has no interest in the independence of a region with which it has no common border. This scenario could become reality in the long run if Moscow succeeds in gaining control over new regions. Then the Novorossia* or New Russia project could expand to include the Dniestr Republic of Moldova.
*Novorossia or Union of People’s Republics is a project dating back to the fall of the USSR that seeks to unite the two breakaway regions of Ukraine: the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk (in dark green) in the controversial 2014 referendum. Nevertheless, the leaders of New Russia are claiming a larger part of Ukrainian territory (in light green) including the port of Odessa, which could eventually join Transnistria.
The most favourable hypothesis for Moscow would be the takeover of Moldova as a whole. The Russians then have two possibilities, one of which involves the election of a pro-Russian Moldovan government favourable to a close rapprochement, or even to a federalisation of Moldova with its historical ally.
The other, less democratic scenario, consists of the destabilisation of the country by Moscow: economic blockade, blackmail on gas supplies, etc. It should not be forgotten that Moldova is heavily indebted to Russia, especially via Gazprom, the leading company on the Russian gas market, with a debt of 5.2 billion dollars.
The country has become caught up in a constitutional crisis and remains very unstable; Moldovans have had five governments in less than two years.
The parliamentary elections of 2019 did not help matters, since they led to the formation of a coalition government between pro-Russian and pro-European parties, which makes it very difficult to govern a two-headed executive, especially when the heads of state are diametrically opposed.
In conclusion, this status quo between Moldova and Transnistria seems to be dragging on. On the one hand because the interests of a politically and economically uncontrolled zone are far too numerous (Transnistria is one of the most active regions in Europe in terms of arms trafficking). On the other hand, the balance of power between the European Union and Russia over this region lacks firmness. So, while waiting for a sign from these powers, Transnistria seems condemned to a painful uncertainty.
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SOURCES : MAP: (1) :https://www.infoplease.com/atlas/europe/moldova-map (2) :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles#/media/File:Map_Europe_1923-en.svg (3) https://euneighbours.eu/en Carte 4 : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nouvelle-Russie_(projet_d%27État) (4)
Diane Forey is an undergraduate law student in Toulouse, France where she studies French and English law. Curious about major societal issues, both historical and current, she is interested in geopolitics, particularly the ones concerning Russia and its sphere of influence. She has been part of European Horizons for two years now in two different chapters: Toulouse and Sciences Po Paris. What she loves the most about this adventure is that it also allows young people to meet from all over the world with whom she thinks it’s a pleasure to work and exchange thoughts. Also according to her, EuH is a wonderful platform to deepen, write and publish what we are passionate about.
Originally published at https://www.europeanhorizons.org on July 25, 2020.