Spent a weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh last month.
If you don’t know what or where Nagorno-Karabakh is… well, that’s healthy and normal. Most people don’t. But it’s pretty interesting, in a depressing sort of way.
When the Soviet Union broke up, it left a number of unresolved ethnic and territorial conflicts around its old frontiers. Four of these still survive today. In ascending order of nastiness, they are Trans-Dnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Would anyone be interested in an occasional series on these? Here’s one on Trans-Dnistria below the cut.
Trans-Dnistria, aka Transnistria, is a long sliver of land on the east bank of the river Dnistr, between Ukraine and Moldova. It used to be part of Ukraine, but Stalin grafted it on to Moldova because he wanted all of the lower Dnistr valley to be a single political-economic unit. Partly this was because he wanted to develop the lower Dnistr with all sorts of hydroelectric plants and heavy industry and stuff, and didn’t want two republics arguing over it; partly it was because Stalin had a tidy mind.
The Soviets pushed thousands of ethnic Russians into the new industrial towns. When the USSR broke up, these guys didn’t want to be part of Moldova. (Which is understandable. Even Moldovans don’t much want to be part of Moldova.) So they seceded. There was a brief nasty little war, which Transnistria won.
Since then, Transnistria has been a sort of post-Communist gangster state, notable mostly for human trafficking, money laundering, and privatizations that were corrupt even by post-Soviet standards. It’s run by a group of thugs who are sleazy, crude and dull even by the low standards of provincial Soviet nomenklatura. It survives — barely — on subsidies from Russia.
Visiting Transnistria is a trip back in time to the latter days of the USSR. The streets of Tiraspol are mostly empty of cars. There are red stars and statues of Lenin. People wear drab clothes and stare at foreigners. To some extent this is a look-and-feel issue; much of Transnistria’s business and industry has been privatized, there are opposition parties, and there’s freedom of religion as long as it’s Orthodox. On the other hand, the press is completely controlled by the government, serious opposition is not tolerated, everything that matters is run by a handful of famillies, and the same guy has been President since 1990. So a Brezhnev-era Communist would feel right at home.
Travellers unanimously agree that Transnistria is weirdly fascinating for the first hour or two, then just depressing and boring.
As for the conflict itself… well, it’s not so much frozen as dusty and abandoned. The original reason for it was that ethnic Russians didn’t want to be oppressed by ethnic Moldovans/Romanians. That has half disappeared. Moldova has promised autonomy and good treatment, and those promises are plausible; the Moldovans have treated their Russians inside Moldova pretty well, and have kept promises of autonomy made to their Gagauz. (The Gagauz are Christian Turks. Long story.) Also, while Moldova is still not exactly Switzerland, its prospects are a lot better than in 1991; it now borders the EU, trade and investment are picking up, and while it’s still the poorest country in Europe it’s comfortably more prosperous than Transnistria.
Also, Transnistria lacks other options. The country’s rulers would love to merge with Russia, and much of the country’s population would probably follow them. But Russia lacks enthusiasm for picking up another exclave. Especially one that is (1) hundreds of kilometers south of Russia’s current borders, (2) totally lacking in resources or strategic utility, (3) majority non-Russian, and (4) dirt-poor. Independence doesn’t make a lot of sense; Transnistria is small, ethnically divided, economically dependent on Russia, and geographically ridiculous.
Three things are blocking resolution of the conflict. One is the Moldovan leadership. The Moldovans have been hanging tough lately, because they think they’re in a strong position. They rejected an almost-reasonable offer from Moscow a couple of years back. This torpedoed a promising opening and threw negotiations back to square one.
Another problem is that the Moldovan leadership has shown a distinctly tin ear in relations with Moldova’s Russian and Ukrainian minorities. There are almost no Russians or Ukrainians in government, and the country has been undergoing a slow but steady process of Romanianization; in Chisinau, for instance, all the streets have been recently renamed after Romanian cultural heroes, and Russian signs are getting harder to find.
Second is, of course, Moscow. There are still Russian troops and weapons in Transnistria, Russian businessmen own everything of value, and the territory survives on Russian subsidies. (Its debt to Gazprom alone was more than double its GDP.) Moscow seems to be weary of Transnistria and is willing to consider giving it up. But no Russian politician can be seen as giving way on what has become an issue of “protecting Russians in the near abroad”.
Third is the Transnistrian leadership, especially President Igor Smirnov. Smirnov’s career was founded on ethnic Russian chauvinism, and he has never stopped insisting on Transnistria’s independence. He’s surrounded by a group of like-minded advisors. These guys are never going to surrender. About the only grounds for hope here is that most of them are not young. Smirnov is in his sixties, and most of his colleagues are too. Another decade or so and most of them will have left the building.
One other cause for cautious optimism: demographic change. In round numbers, Transnistria is about 30% each ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Moldovans (Romanians). The Russians are on top, the Ukrainians are half a step down and the Moldovans… well, there isn’t a single ethnic Moldovan minister or member of Parliament. But Transnistria has lost about a fifth of its population since 1990, and most of that loss was ethnic Russians. As Russia’s economy perks up, more and more of them are boarding the overnight train to Moscow. This is a slow process, but it’s going to gradually erode the basis for Russian dominance in the territory.
So, unlike the other frozen conflicts, there’s cause for (cautious, limited) optimism about this one. Transnistria won’t resolve this year, or next year. But in five years, or ten or fifteen, there’s a pretty good chance of a peaceful settlement.
What kind of settlement? That’s hard to say, actually. A loose union with Moldova seems most likely. On the other hand, one can reasonably ask why, when Czechs and Slovaks have separate countries, Transnistrians and Moldovans shouldn’t too. On the other-other hand, as noted Transnistria alone doesn’t make much sense as a country.
Still, of all the frozen conflicts, this one seems the least likely to erupt again into violence. So there’s that.