Frozen conflicts 2: Some More About Transnistria

Various things about Transnistria that didn’t fit in the previous post. If you don’t find this sort of thing interesting, don’t hit that link.

1) Transnistria is qualitatively different from the other frozen conflicts, because it’s not really an ethnic thing.

Oh, there’s an ethnic element. Transnistria is dominated by Russian speakers, while Moldovans/ethnic Romanians are at the bottom of the pecking order. But that’s secondary. At root, the conflict is about politics, money, and — whisper it — class.

See, back in Soviet times, Transnistria totally dominated the old Moldovan SSR. Moscow very deliberately put all the heavy industry on the east bank of the river, while leaving the rest of the republic a relative backwater dominated by agriculture and food processing. Industry had more cachet than agriculture, and attracted more investment, so by the 1980s Transnistria was a lot richer than the rest of Moldova. That’s one reason it’s so multiethnic; Russians were sent from Russia, while Romanians drifted east across the river.

Transnistria was also politically dominant. There was a saying in the old days, a little almost-rhyme: “To be a Minister, you must be from over the Dnistr”. It was true. Despite Moldova having 80% of the population, there wasn’t a single Republic-level Minister from there until the 1980s. The Republic’s Party Secretary was always either a Transnistrian or an import (Leonid Brezhnev served for a while in the 1950s). Transnistrians dominated the local Soviet, the Party apparatus, and the bureaucracy.

Human nature being what it is, this led to a geographic class division that cut across ethnic lines. Transnistrian Russians looked down on Moldovan Russians as dopey country cousins; Transnistrian Romanians and Ukrainians did the same.

This began to fall apart when the Moldovan SSR held free-ish elections in the spring of 1990. The elections produced a Supreme Soviet dominated by Moldovans. Some were conservative, some were nationalist, some were still Communist, but the key point was, Transnistria was suddenly outvoted. The fact that the Soviet immediately selected a non-Transnistrian (Mircea Snegur) as its Chairman was just icing on the cake. The formerly dominant Transnistrian elite saw that, in an independent Moldova, they’d no longer rule the roost. So they seceded.

Transnistria’s defenders like to point out that some Moldovan/Romanians fought on the Transnistrian side in the ensuing war. And that’s true. They were a small minority, but there were a few. That’s because Soviet Transnistria was relatively race-blind, and a few ethnic Moldovans had ascended to the elite. But the backbone of the revolt was always Russians and Ukrainians… not because they were anti-Romanian, but because they had the most to lose.

2) This goes a long way to explain why Transnistria is illiberal and oppressive even compared to other unrecognized states. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh or the Albanians of Kosovo have ethnic identity and a sense of outside threat to keep them united. Transnistria has nothing like that. It’s ethnically mixed, it has no previous history of statehood, Moldova is no kind of threat, and there’s no uniting ideology beyond “the guys on top want to stay that way”. So, a free press or toleration of dissidence are not on the menu.

3) This is not to say that Transnistria lacks an opposition. It has one, and it’s very strange.

Transnistria’s economy is dominated by heavy industry, most of which is now Russian-owned. But there’s a huge local company called “Sheriff Group” which owns pretty much everything else — supermarkets, filling stations, construction, publishing, its own TV and radio, the football club.

Sheriff Group was founded in 1992 by a couple of former secret police. It grew rapidly, with the blessing of President Smirnov and his clan; after all, they couldn’t own everything, and the Sheriff guys turned out to be good businessmen. Today Sheriff is the second largest employer, and is by far Transnistria’s largest local business. It employs aroud 3,000 people and has an estimated value of $2 billion.

And it has become something of an over-mighty subject. Sheriff founded a political party, Renewal, which in 2005 won a majority in Parliament. To President Smirnov’s surprise and irritation, Renewal promptly moved to reduce his powers. The attempt failed, but it was clear that Sheriff was no longer content to simply run the supermarkets and mobile phones.

Sheriff’s current relationship with Smirnov and his clan seems to be one part continued cooperation, one part jockeying for position, and two parts waiting game. Sheriff can’t hurt Smirnov — he’s too entrenched, and he controls the security services. But Smirnov can’t hurt Sheriff — they’re too rich and too vital to the economy. So it’s a stalemate.

It’s not clear what Sheriff is really after. One commentator has suggested that it wants a “business state” as opposed to the current “security state”. It’s possible that Sheriff might be more open to reunion with Moldova, if it could get to keep its privileged position. Meanwhile, though, it has no more interest in liberal politics than Smirnov ever did; Sheriff’s media outlets mostly follow the party line, and give no time to dissidents or other troublemakers.

4) I said Sheriff was the second largest employer. The largest is the Rybnitsa steel works. Rybnitsa employs over 10,000 people, and single-handedly produces almost half of Transnistria’s GDP.

Rybnitsa is owned by Russia’s Metalloinvest, which in turn is owned by Alisher Usmanov. Arsenal fans will instantly recognize the name. For the rest of us, he’s a Russian oligarch and multibillionaire with a reputation that’s uunpleasant even by the low standards of that group.

Rybnitsa took a hit in 2004 when the EU — after much foot-dragging — announced that it wouldn’t accept Rybnitsan steel without a Moldovan customs stamp. That hurt, but Rybnitsa was able to reorient its exports towards Russia and China. Rybnitsa remains profitable; it’s a reasonably modern facility, built in the 1980s, and it benefits from free energy. (One does not charge Alisher Usmanov for gas.) As long as Rybnitsa stays competitive, Transnistria can stagger on.

5) One of the reasons Transnistria’s revolt succeeded was because it had the support of the Soviet Fourteenth Army. One thing that doesn’t get asked enough: why was the Fourteenth Army there in the first place?

The answer seems to be, to keep Ceausescu’s Romania honest. The Fourteenth Army was tasked with invading Romania, should the need arise… whether because of World War III, or a Prague-style intervention if Ceaucescu should finally go too far.

6) Apropos of whom, no discussion of 1990-91 is complete without taking Ceausescu’s fate into account. His swift trial and brutal execution reverberated throughout the Communist world, but nowhere more than in Moldova. Party elites — ethnic Russian and ethnic Romanian alike — were severely freaked; suddenly this wasn’t just about losing power and perks, but about ending as a torn and bloody corpse on a concrete floor. Before long, it would be clear that Ceausescu’s death was a one-off; nobody else died, and most of Romania’s Communist elite segued smoothly into power under a new government. But in the short run, it did much to ramp up the general atmosphere of hysteria.

7) Finally — bouncing back to the present day — it’s interesting to note that the EU has imposed sanctions on Transnistria’s leadership, including the President and most of his ministers: they’re not allowed to travel to the EU. Of course, they can still travel to Ukraine and Russia. So that’s no great hardship. Still, it’s a rare example of Brussels taking a formal stand on one of the frozen conflicts.

And that’s probably enough about Transnistria for now.

7 thoughts on “Frozen conflicts 2: Some More About Transnistria

  1. One important note: the point of the former 14th army staying in Transnistria is to protect a huge arsenal which is stationed there. In the dying months of Soviet Union they’ve got loads of ammo from all over Eastern Europe. And a larger part of this arsenal is still to be sent to Russia as Transnistrian leaders are reluctant to give it up. The existence of this arsenal gives suffice to the talks about the arms smuggling.

  2. “Tom Clancy novel”

    Well, the guy who’s been running State Security for the last 15 years is wanted for questioning by Interpol in connection with a murder.

    Doug M.

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