Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Transnistria, also commonly known as Transdniester, comprises a narrow sliver of territory on the east bank of the River Dniester comprising 4,163 square kilometres. It borders Moldova to the west, of which officially it is part, and Ukraine to the east. The official name of the unrecognised republic is the Pridnestrovie Moldavian Republic (PMR).
On 2 September 1990 the authorities in Tiraspol announced the creation of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic (PMR) based on the left bank of the Dniester river and the city of Bender, located on the right bank. In 1992 fighting between PMR and Moldovan forces erupted as a result of fears about the prospects for the Russian language in a Moldova that appeared to be moving towards unification with Romania. Language rather than ethnicity became the defining element in this struggle and Russian-speaking ethnic Moldovans found leading positions in the PMR government. Since 1992, the use of Romanian/ Moldovan has been severely curtailed in the PMR. The fighting ended with a ceasefire in August 1992 and the de facto secession of Transdniester from Moldova.
The Tiraspol authorities demanded that the PMR be granted the status of a state within a Moldovan confederation. In response, Chisinau proposed regional autonomy for the PMR with power distributed along similar lines to the Gagauz agreement. Tiraspol’s negotiating position was enhanced by the presence of the Russian Fourteenth Army in the region. The agreement to withdraw the army (signed October 1994) caused considerable alarm in the PMR. A referendum on the future of the army organized by the Tiraspol authorities (26 March 1995) found over 90 per cent of those who voted were against withdrawal.
Negotiations continued intermittently until stalled in 2003 because of an impasse represented by rival Russian and OSCE-sponsored conflict resolution proposals. While the Russian proposal envisaged the federalization of Moldova and the granting of wide self-government powers to Transdnister gained the support of Transdniester, the Moldovan government promoted a weaker autonomy model proposed by the OSCE. In July 2004, the Moldovan government suspended negotiations.
The de facto republic’s economy is based on several major – but technologically dated – industrial plants established during the Soviet period. These include a munitions factory in Bender, a steel factory in Rybnitsa and a distillery in Tiraspol. Official PMR statistics put unemployment at 16 per cent, although a further 20 per cent are reported as dependent on welfare, reflecting the aging profile of the PMR’s population.
According to a census carried out by the PMR authorities in 2004, the population of the PMR is 555,347, of which Moldavians comprise 31.9 per cent (177,000), Russians 30.4 per cent (168,000), Ukrainians 28.8 per cent (160,000) and others (mainly Bulgarians, Poles, Gagauz, Jews and Germans) 8.9 per cent. This represents a decrease of 170,000 people since the last census was conducted in 1989.
Official statistics claim that 91 per cent of the population adheres to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 4 per cent to Roman Catholicism, 1 per cent to the Baptist creed and 2 per cent to other faiths. More than a third of the population lives in the capital, Tiraspol, and two-thirds of the population is claimed to be urban. Although ethnic Russians form only the second largest ethnic group in the PMR, a cross-ethnic Russian-speaking identity dominates the area and 41 per cent of Tiraspol’s population are ethnic Russians.
Since achieving de facto secession, internal politics in the PMR has been dominated by a pro-Russian orientation reflecting Russian support for Transdniestrian secessionism. This has been reflected in measures to reduce the public role played by the Moldovan/Romanian language and identity in the PMR. According to reports this trend has also included discrimination against ethnic Moldovans in the PMR, including expropriation of land, intimidation of Moldovan/Romanian language teachers, promotion of the Cyrillic rather than Latin script for the Moldovan language and the extension of Russian citizenship to residents of the PMR, although verification of numbers is difficult.
Officially Transdniester is a parliamentary republic with a unicameral 43-seat legislature, known as the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet, although internal politics is heavily dominated by the presidency. Igor Smirnov has been de facto president of the PMR since being elected in 1991; he won subsequent presidential elections in 1996 and 2001 by wide – according to many analysts, fraudulent – margins. Although elections in the PMR have not been monitored by any inter-governmental organization (with the exception of the Commonwealth of Independent States), they have been accompanied by numerous allegations of irregularities in favour of the incumbent president.
Civil society remains isolated and fragmented in Transdniester, and vulnerable to governmental pressure. In March 2006 a presidential decree banned all foreign funding of civil society groups and NGOs, a move affecting both Western-funded democratization groups and Moldovan-funded nationalist groups. Media remains under significant government pressure; broadcast media from Moldova allegedly cannot be received in the PMR. The PMR’s human rights record is highly contested as a result of Moldovan and other foreign states’ interest in portraying the de facto regime in the PMR as illegitimate and authoritarian. Exaggerations notwithstanding, however, there is little doubt that allegations of trafficking, restrictions on freedoms of association and expression, harsh prison conditions and discrimination against Romanian-speakers have some basis in fact.
The Russian Federation continues to maintain a military presence in Transdniester despite Moldovan objections and its own commitment in the 1999 Istanbul Agreement to military withdrawal from the region. Russian political parties, including the Communist party and ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party have established local branches in the PMR.
Shifts in external political alignments have an important impact on internal politics in Transdniester and in its relations with Moldova. The emergence of the pro-Western Yushchenko administration in Ukraine at first appeared to provide a new impetus to the negotiations process. Ukraine has multiple interests in the PMR. On the one hand the stockpiling of weapons at Russian bases and allegations of arms smuggling into Ukraine have been a source of controversy and a motivating factor for Ukraine to become involved in the negotiations process. Another Ukrainian interest lies in the 160,000 ethnic Ukrainians living in Transdniester. Following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine increased Ukrainian assertiveness in imposing a customs regime, and indirectly weakening Tiraspol and by implication Russia’s influence, subsequently contributed to renewed tension in relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau. Although reports of arms-smuggling across the Transdniestrian-Ukrainian border may be exaggerated, the porous nature of this border is undoubtedly a resource for the authorities in Tiraspol. In March 2006 Ukraine imposed a news customs regime on its border with Transnistria, requiring all goods to be processed by Moldovans customs officials. In response, President Smirnov withdrew from the negotiations process with Chisinau.