Carl Thomson: Russia and the West should find common ground on the future of Transnistria
“Everyone knows the Soviet Union didn’t occupy Eastern Europe. We liberated it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying”. It crossed my mind that millions of people in the countries which had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain might take a different view, but it didn’t seem sensible to argue. Our elderly taxi driver had taken his hands off the steering wheel and turned around to emphasise his point. We had already started to drift onto the wrong side of the road. It was only our impact with a large pothole that brought his attention back to the oncoming traffic.
We were on the road from Transnistria, one of several breakaway states that form the legacy of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Although formally part of the Republic of Moldova, this sliver of territory, which straddles the Dniester River on the border with Ukraine, has its own president and parliament, national anthem, flag, currency, army and police force, but its independence is not recognised by any other country. Its population of half a million is divided roughly equally between Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and Moldova became independent, the people of Transnistria feared their culture and language rights would be diluted in a state where they were a minority. When it was announced that Romanian would be Moldova’s sole language, and radical elements in the ruling Popular Front started to call for the deportation of Russian and Ukrainian speakers, a separate Transnistria republic was proclaimed.
I had expected that getting into Transnistria would be difficult. The border has a notorious reputation for corruption, and there are horror stories of foreigners having their passports confiscated until a bribe is paid. It was therefore surprising when we were duly waved through with minimal scrutiny. The Transnistrian authorities have gone to some length to clean up their border controls, including setting up a telephone hotline and email address to report dishonest officials.
A visit to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, can best be described as a journey back in time to a provincial Soviet town. Our bus had dropped us off at Lenin Street, where the walk to the main thoroughfare (elegantly titled “25th of October Street”) took us past Karl Liebknecht Street, Karl Marx Street and Rosa Luxembourg Street. A large statue of Lenin watches over the Transnistrian parliament, and a smaller one sits outside the city hall, known as the House of Soviets. There is the obligatory memorial to those who fought in the Second World War as well as a more recent display commemorating victims of the war between Moldova and Transnistria.
Although Transnistria is often categorised alongside Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, its final status is in no way as intractable a problem. Unlike other separatist conflicts in the former Soviet Union, the war in Transnistria was a relatively limited affair, with casualties in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands. There were no pogroms or ethnic cleansing, as seen in the Caucasus, and while any discussion on the disputed regions in Georgia and Azerbaijan arouses nationalist fury, the campaign to take back Transnistria never had the full and unwavering support of the Moldovan people.
While Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain largely blocked to Georgians, and few Azeris remain in Nagorno Karabakh, Moldovans make up the largest ethnic group in Transnistria. The Transnistria border is open, and most Transnistrians hold Moldovan passports. Our companions on the Moscow to Chisinau train were an illustration of how the Transnistrian dispute is becoming less problematic in the region: a Moldovan married to a Russian from Transnistria, both of them held Moldovan, Transnistrian and Russian citizenship and had recently purchased a home in Tiraspol.
Moreover, any fears that Transnistrians may have had about discrimination and ethno-nationalism in post-Soviet Moldova have largely failed to materialise. Radical elements in the Popular Front were marginalised in the early days of independence. Moldova’s 370,000 Russian speakers are well integrated and face few restrictions on the use of their language. Russian and Ukrainian are recognised as minority languages, although Russian dominates in the print and broadcast media and is commonly used by young people.
At the same time, there are many in Transnistria with a vested interest in keeping the region a legal black hole. It is known as a hub of smuggling activity through which tobacco, drugs, alcohol and arms pass from the former Soviet Union into the rest of Europe, although a recent EU report suggests the scale of this may have be exaggerated. As Transnistria is unrecognised, it does not belong to Interpol and has no extradition treaty with other countries.
Much of Transnistria’s economy is in the hands of a company called Sheriff, which was founded by former members of the KGB and wields considerable influence over Transnistrian politics. Sheriff’s interests include petrol stations, supermarkets, a TV station and publishing house, construction, car dealerships, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, the biggest mobile phone network in Transnistria, and the recently completed Sheriff stadium, the largest in Moldova. There is speculation that Transnistria’s long-time president, Igor Smirnov, has a controlling stake in Sheriff, and that the company is a front for less reputable activities such as money laundering.
From a political point of view, a resolution should be easy to find. Russia does not recognise Transnistria as an independent state but has suggested that it should enjoy broad autonomy with Moldova and a veto over any constitutional changes. A similar compromise has been successfully deployed in Gagauzia, another region of Moldova that threatened to break away in the early 1990s. The EU has argued for wider regional integration through the Eastern Partnership as a solution, but does not see the need for Transnistria to hold any official status within Moldova.
In 2004 Moscow negotiated a political settlement in which Transnistria agreed to form a federation with Moldova. This was eventually vetoed by Moldova under pressure from the United States, as it entailed Russian forces remaining in Transnistria until 2020. Moldova’s constitution excludes the possibility of foreign troops being stationed on its territory, although Chisinau currently engages with the Russian army through the joint commission. It has been suggested that Russian troops might be replaced by a multinational peacekeeping mission, but from a legal perspective this would also be considered problematic for Moldova and has been rejected by Transnistria, which sees the Russians as guarantors of security in the region.
Daniel Hamilton has suggested on ConservativeHome that a unilateral Russian withdrawal from Transnistria would ensure the region’s speedy integration with the rest of Moldova. However, it remains a sad fact that without the mediation and monitoring provided by Moscow and the OSCE, an escalation of the conflict and return to violence remains a possibility.
The most desirable outcome would be for Moldova and Transnistria to form a union in which Tiraspol has considerable autonomy. The OSCE should prevail upon Moldova to accept the legitimate concerns of Transnistrians who seek control over their own affairs and the need for foreign intervention to keep the peace. Moscow should use its influence with the Transnistrian authorities and press for them to support the replacement of Russian forces with a multinational contingent that would be seen by all sides to operate in a more neutral fashion and ensure proper control of Moldova’s borders. Russia should also impress on Tiraspol that an independent Transnistria is not a realistic prospect, nor would it be accepted by the international community.
The status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a source of friction between Russia and the West, as does the recognition of Kosovo, and yet Transnistria’s legacy is not nearly so bloody, nor are its problems so seemingly insurmountable. There is common ground over the need to find a lasting settlement in Transnistria. Both sides should take the opportunity to put to rest one of the remaining legacies of the Soviet Union.