Frozen conflicts: Transnistria

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.

75 thoughts on “Frozen conflicts: Transnistria

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Waiting in the PMR

  2. Well, i just came back from a three day visit to Tiraspol (23-25 september). And yes, you will find it boring overthere, if you was looking for a corrupted mafia state that is. I was travelling with a friend, who has a long record of doing business with eastern european countrys, and we both came to the conclusion that we never felt more save in any eastern european country than in Pridnestrovie. The city was clean, and the people were relaxt. During our short visit was everybody (including the officials) acting correct towards us. This in contradiction with the Ukraine, where we encountered several cases of corruption. Also in contradiction with the Ukraine, i noticed no beggars. Although my visit was rather short, i spend a lot of my time in downtown Tiraspol. But if only half of the negative propaganda about Pridnestrovie was true, i must have seen a lot of unhappy people and corrupt officials. But the people seems to be happy instead. My advice is: dont believe stories about Pridnestrovie from people or organisations who have a politic agenda. And obvious, dont take opinions seriously from people who haven’t been there, for they have formed their opinion upon politic poisoned data.
    Best thing to do: go visiting Pridnestrovie yourself!

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  4. Michael Averko is a propaganda “journalist” of the mafioso regime who controls the so called republic. Do not trust the opinions of a benefiter of a criminal gang who is the center of drug and arms trafficking in that region.

  5. Pingback: Hier spricht Radio PMR: Nachrichten aus Transnistrien. Links | Kollektiv Fischka


    Transnistria was a large, short lived, Romanian occupied territory, that existed during WW2 from august 1941 till January 1944. It was surrounded in the east and north by the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, in the south by the Black Sea, and in the west by Romania. Its capital was Odessa. Although the Romanian fascists may have done some good in the region during this time, they are mainly notorious because of their large scale killing of innocent people, of which many were Jews. Officially the head of the Romanian state was responsible for those massacres. During that period, the head of the Romanian state was the young king Michael 1. However, practically the power was in the hands of field marshal Ion Antonescu. Officially, the Romanian military have sworn an oath of loyalty to their king. After the Russian victory at Stalingrad, king Michael decided to put that loyalty to a test. At 23 august 1944 he ordered Antonescu to make an armistice with the allies. But Antonescu refused, so king Michael let him been arrested. When the Romanian generals Dumistrescu and Steflea told the German command that they decided to stay loyal to their king, Hitler went furious and ordered the bombing of Bucharest. As an reaction upon Hitler’s bombing, Romania declared war against Germany at 25 Augustus 1944. Although king Michael became a medal from Stalin, he was forced by the communist to abdicate in 1947, just like all the royals east of the iron curtain.
    Time went by, and Stalin and Hitler are both already a long time dead and gone. And so are the once so powerful systems the had developed; Stalinism and Nazism. But the (ex)king of Romania and Transnistria did not die. Its seems that God in his mercy let Michael live long enough to see all his enemies gone to their graves, and all of their empire’s falling to pieces. After the fall of the communists, Michael returned to Romania, where he still lives. However, Romania has never gave him back his crown.

    Is Michael guilty to all the massacres his fascists army made in Transnistria? This is a difficult question, and I am not the most suitable person to judge. But i want to focus on some pro’s and con’s. First of all, Michael was very young at the time. At the beginning of WW2 Michael was still in his teens. Also he has the facto little power. The main power was in the hands of Ion Antonescu. And in the end, Michael did get rid of Antonescu, and started to oppose the fascists powers to which his army, till his interference, belong to. But on the other hand, he was the official head of the Romanian army. And therefore responsible for the acts of cruelty his army did in Transnistria. He always had the choice to abdicate when he heard about the massacres made in his name. Taking all this into account i think he has deserved it to lose his crown. But due to his brave actions later in the war, the one’s who are willing to forgive, are able to do so.
    Pridnestrovie is not Transnistria.
    It are two different regions existing in two different era’s. Pridnestrovie’s territory occupies only about 25 % of the most eastern part of former Transnistria. For most people in Pridnestrovie, the history of WW2 would be the same as it is for me (and I am not a young person), its something from long ago, something from the history books, from the black and white era. Most people in Pridnesovie are probably not even aware of the fact, that the man who is officially responsible for the fascist cruelty’s in their region is still alive.
    But WW2 is not forgotten in Pridnestrovie. When you would travel through the country, you will notice many well maintained monuments to remember those who gave their lives in the great patriotic war (WW2), fighting against the fascist forces.
    Nowadays Pridnestrovie is not anymore fascist or communist ruled. Most inhabitants are cristians. One of the most important qualities of an cristian is the ability to forgive. Because if a cristian is not prepared to forgive an other human, how can he ask God to forgive himself?
    Therefore it will maybe a good idea for the Pridnestrovian Government to send an invitation to the former king of Romania and Transnistria, to be present at the next celebration of the end of WW2. For the former leader of the fascist Romanian army it will be a chance to speak out his regrets for the wrong his army did. For the old inhabitants it would be an opportunity to forgive and come in peace with the past. And for the young, it would make them part of this history, so it won’t be forgotten.

  7. How dare you? Moldova is a former romanian territory and it should unite with Romania and with time there will be no russians left in Moldova. They do not respect our language, culture, history and should leave this land. Those that respect us will stay here. After occupation from 1812-1918 and 1944-1991 you want us to respect them? Don’t be ridiculous, please.

  8. Pingback: A Fistful Of Euros » Blog Archive » Why you shouldn’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh (and why you might one day have to)

  9. Pingback: Frozen Conflicts 3: Welcome to South Ossetia | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  10. Pingback: Human Goods » Breakaway states; or, Who knows what Transnistria is?

  11. Pingback: Transnistria: a solution in the air? | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  12. Pridnestrovie is not an recognised state, also it is not of much economic or strategic importance. As a result the media (especially the western) don’t give it much attention. Now there is taking place a catastrophe in the region; a big flood. But only Romania, the Ukraine and Moldova are mentioned, there is silence about the faith of the unrecognized republic. But Pridnestrovie borders the Dniester river, which overflow causes a big flood. I am wondering if Pridnestrovie will receive any of the international aid. For photo’s;

  13. Pingback: Transnistria: underwater? | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  14. Pingback: Transnistria: underwater? - Untrue Media

  15. Pingback: How Frozen is Your Conflict? | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  16. The energy situation in Pridnestrovie keeps worsening. Only in the north of the country, which receives its gas from another Ukrainian gas-tube than the rest of the country, is the gas supply (partly) restored due to recent negotiations. But in the rest of the country including its capital Tiraspol, the gas supply has not been renewed. Purely theoretical Pridnestrovie has still enough energy, for it’s the region’s biggest exporter of hydro-electrical power. But the local distribution systems of electric power are not suitable to carry the extra load, now everyone begins to heat their homes with the use of electrical power.
    Even when the Russians will renew its gas supply through the Ukraine, it will take several days before the gas will arrive at the western side of the Ukraine.


    Good news for Ukraine because they find out who is to blame for the gas-blockade, it was because of the gas-stealing Pridnestrovians that Ukraine was forced to close one of their pipe-lines into Europe! Even after closing down the Ukrainian gas-supply, Pridnestrovian citizens tried to penetrate onto the territory of Ukraine to restore the gas-suply.

    But wait a moment…..stealing Ukrainian gas?? Was it not Russian gas that entered into Europe through these pipes. And didn’t TiraspolTransGaz-Pridnestrovie and Gazprom have a normal contract about the deliverance of gas?
    Anyway, PMR’s Foreign Ministry insists that Ukraine’s announcement of its siphoning off natural gas was erroneous, The ministry is now asking Ukraine’s officials to either confirm or deny any such announcements by governor Serdyuk.

    The good news for Pridnestrovie is that Wednesday in the afternoon, the Ukraine has renewed gas-supply to Pridnestrovie (not full-supply, but only on a minimum level).
    Strange detail is that this decision is made by Nicolai Serdiuk, the same Odessa governor who made the accusations about the gas-stealing of Pridnestrovie.
    Remember this a gas-war, and as in any war the truth is the first to die.

  18. Dispute between pridnestrovie and Ukraine ended!
    The gas-dispute between the PMR and Ukraine (see my former comment) has ended. The politicians of both country’s showed some common sense, and decided to downplay this conflict. In good Dutch; Ze hieven het glas, ze deden een plas, en alles bleef zoals het was.

  19. 20 years ago, on 2 September 1990,the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic declared its independence. I guess that today there will be held some celebrations in downtown Tiraspol. For anyone who want to witness those, I give a link to some webcams covering the centre of this unrecognized European capital.
    na zdorovje!

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