Transnistria: relic of a bygone era

by Richard Humphries

TIRASPOL, Moldova — Think of the end of the Soviet Union as the Big Bang of recent politics. The successor states are the new planets — large or small, and subject to varying amounts of gravitational pull from Russia. And then there are the asteroids, in this case composed of breakaway republics, autonomous regions and disputed territories. Fragmentary relics of a derelict empire, they seem vaguely distant until they threaten to collide with larger bodies.

One such asteroid, bordering the Ukraine, calls itself the Pridnestrovian-Moldovan Republic. Elsewhere, this somewhat unwieldy name is shortened and anglicized to Transnistria or similar variations, meaning “across the Dnestr River.” Transnistria has its own capital, Tiraspol, as well as a national flag, army, police force, currency and parliament. However, it isn’t recognized by a single sovereign state. In fact, the international community recognizes the territory as part of Moldova, one of the Soviet successor states.

Transnistria is no beauty spot. Tiraspol, for example, presents an exceedingly bleak picture of a city whose infrastructure is coming apart at the seams. Large masonry cracks deface public buildings and apartment blocks. Roads, many of them potholed, are not much better. The few shops stock limited supplies of low-quality merchandise. In many ways the city seems frozen in time, with bronze Lenins still watching over parks and offices. The red passport of the former Soviet Union is the “official” one of this self-proclaimed republic and the streets in Tiraspol are still named after such dead communist heroes as Josef Sverdlov and Karl Liebknecht.

The elderly and the infirm await handouts on the streets. The margin of survival for many other of Tiraspol’s 50,000 residents is not much higher. Outside the city’s main marketplace is a flea market, where people lay out family possessions upon blankets, hoping for sales. Some sell shoes but only one of a pair is usually displayed, to prevent potential “customers” from trying both on and then running off without paying.

There are also, of course, corrupt elites that fare much better. In both Moldova and Transnistria the local mafias are doing quite well, thank you. And in Transnistria, described by one diplomat as “an oasis where international law does not apply,” the lines between the mafia and the government tend to get blurry. A Dutch agronomist working in Moldova dismissed the breakaway republic’s authorities, saying, “They aren’t really communist, more like opportunists and anarchists. You name it — arms smuggling, money laundering and drugs — they’re involved.” Exactly how much, though, is difficult to pin down.

Transnistria is a 4,163-sq. km, banana-shaped sliver of land that mostly straddles the east bank of the Dnestr River, and owes its existence to political machinations of the communist era. In 1812, Imperial Russia seized Romanian-speaking Bessarabia, the west bank of the Dnestr, from the Ottoman Empire. After Russia was forced to yield Bessarabia to Romania at the end of World War I, the Soviet leadership created a small Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from Ukrainian territory on the east bank of the river. This was in order to pursue irredentist claims.

After World War II, Stalin recovered Bessarabia, and combined both banks of the river to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic with Kishinev (Chisinau in Moldovan) as its capital. The east bank was favored with industrial development, and by 1990 would produce 40 percent of the Moldovan national product and 90 percent of the republic’s electricity. Just as importantly, Soviet Russia’s 14th Army was based there. Ethnically, the east bank’s population had a Slavic majority (Russian 25 percent, Ukrainian 28 percent) and a large Moldovan minority (43 percent). On the Dnestr’s west bank, Moldovans easily predominated.

During the late 1980s, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika opened a Pandora’s box of nationalistic fervor throughout the decaying empire. In the Moldovan Soviet Republic this became acute as, of all the republics, it was the only one with something of a “homeland” outside the Soviet Union. In Chisinau, some politicians began to agitate for unity with Romania. A few called for Russians to “go home.” A language law was passed in 1989 that made Moldovan (really Romanian) the state language and abandoned the Cyrillic script then used for Moldovan for the Latin one, as used in Romania.

Understandably, these actions inflamed Slavic sentiment on the east bank of the Dnestr. Politicians there declared a separate Soviet republic on Sept. 2, 1990. After the failed communist putsch in Moscow on Aug. 27, 1991, the original Soviet republics, including Moldova, quickly declared independence from the Soviet Union. Transnistria, which had supported the putsch, followed by declaring independence from Moldova. It held local elections in December of that year and Igor Smirnov, a one-time factory manager, became president. He still rules. Meanwhile Moldova, already poor, was not keen to lose its industrial base.

In 1992, local clashes between Moldovan police and Transnistrian militia escalated into a civil war that cost over 1,000 lives. Romanian volunteers joined the Moldovans while Ukrainian Cossacks and elements of the Russian 14th Army supported the Transnistrians. The latter were able to seize two cities (Bendery, Dubossary) on the east bank of the Dnestr. The Russian commander of the 14th Army, Gen. Alexander Lebed, who had blocked armed Moldovan attempts grab Bendery, subsequently assumed a slightly more evenhanded approach and halted the fighting. Now a provincial governor in Russia, Lebed was later quoted as saying, “I told the hooligans in Tiraspol and the fascists in Chisinau — either you stop killing each other, or else I’ll shoot the whole lot of you with my tanks.”

Since then, the ceasefire has continued. Russia, Moldova and Transnistria each contribute 500 soldiers to a Multilateral Commission, based in Bendery, that enforces the peace. Attempts to solve the political dilemma have produced suggested settlement terminology such as “special status” or “a common state,” but have then foundered on what those terms mean in practice to the differing sides.

Recently, however, signs of a potential thaw have emerged. Early this year, Moldovan electors, despairing of their dying economy, voted the Communist Party into power. The party leader and now Moldovan president, Vladimir Voronin, is an ethnic Russian who has been making conciliatory noises toward Transnistria. In return, on May 5, the separatists released three dissidents, held for nine years, who had agitated for a Moldovan-Romanian union. Whether this can lead to more fruitful possibilities is not yet certain.

The institution tasked with promoting dialogue, investigating incidents, and bringing about a comprehensive settlement is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has had an office in Chisinau since 1993 and one in Tiraspol since 1995. Matti Sidoroff, political liaison and Finnish representative, explained at an interview in Chisinau that “We support the borders as they were in the Soviet times and do not recognize the so-called state of Transnistria. Still, they are the de facto authority and so must be taken into account. The OSCE can do this as a whole because we aren’t a single government.”

The OSCE organizes meetings that include the antagonists and interested parties such as Russia and the Ukraine. It also acts an intermediary, with observer status, to the peacekeeping force, whose command structure meets every Tuesday in Bendery. Unfortunately, according to Sidoroff, “These meetings often go nowhere as it was agreed from the very beginning that any decisions required consensus. Consensus, even on the agenda, is very difficult for them to achieve.”

A big problem is that, for Transnistria’s leaders, the present situation is the best possible outcome for their breakaway state. And the economy, however decrepit, is in some ways better off than Moldova’s. A few factories, such as the steel plant in Rivnica, sell to the West and make profits. These industrial goods are exported via the Ukrainian port of Odessa, using Moldovan certificates of origin and customs stamps, but avoiding any Moldovan taxes or other fees.

While the exporters and the connected can operate in a hard-currency environment, most Transnistrians are stuck with the “national” currency, the Transnistrian ruble. For years it has been a severe embarrassment, useless outside the entity, and tumbling wildly even in relation to the Russian ruble. On Jan. 1, the authorities eliminated zeroes from the currency and issued new notes, although the older ones remain in use as small change.

There is some dissonance within ruling circles and Smirnov may face credible challenges in the next local elections. Political variety of this sort, however limited, has not translated into a sufficiently varied and unencumbered local press.

“The situation is not good in Transnistria,” Sidoroff related. “If papers try for independence they are harassed. One, Nova Gazetta, though rather tame, was confiscated and is now published in Chisinau and smuggled across. Another, Dobri Dan was slightly critical of the regime and well written from a journalistic point of view. Dobri Dan was hit with a libel suit and ordered to pay $25,000. Upon appeal that was reduced to $6,000 but that is still a lot of money here.”

The continuing Russian military presence, aside from the peacekeeping contingent, has complicated the political exchange. Since 1992, the 14th Army has been much reduced in size to roughly 2,600, and now calls itself the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRV). Despite local uneasiness, it is due to depart by the end of 2002. For now, the Russians have a very large base complex, complete with airport, in Tiraspol. The biggest difficulty is with the large military stores, estimated at some 42,000 tons, stored at Tiraspol and at another facility in Rivnica.

In 1999, the OSCE extended its mandate ” . . . in terms of ensuring transparency of the removal and destruction of Russian ammunition and armaments . . . ” and offered to provide technical assistance for this to be done. Although much of the equipment is old and some even predates World War II, there is fear of it reaching the open market, especially, as Sidoroff says, “There are in this region certain groups and individuals who sleep better at night knowing a box of hand grenades is nearby.”

For Russia, pulling out the equipment represents a financial burden it can ill afford. They have tried to sell some of it to foreign countries but found no takers. Smirnov, on the other hand, has claimed that the stores belong to Transnistria and that Russia can have them back only after paying $3 billion. Also, Russia has told the OSCE it can have access to the stores to make an exact verification of the amount, but Transnistria has refused to facilitate this.

Whether Smirnov really means what he says and whether Russia is being fully open with the OSCE on this matter is difficult to gauge. Russia is in some ways the ultimate guarantor of Transnistria’s existence. While Transnistria’s cause has received more sympathy in Moscow from people like Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly not averse to increasing Russian influence in the “near abroad,” however distasteful he might find local rulers. Therefore, a settlement of the arms issue as well as an overall resolution of the situation may depend on how close Moldova gravitates toward Russia and what prices are paid for that.

For now, Transnistria and the other self-proclaimed republics that rose from the Soviet detritus rankle at the lack of international recognition. Their egos have been somewhat massaged by their recognizing each other. Today, therefore, Tiraspol is recognized by such disparate “republics” as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, once parts of Soviet Georgia, by Nagorno-Karabakh, formerly under Azerbaijan’s rule, and by Gaugazia, an autonomous republic within Moldova. A regional joke has it that that same Russian acronym used for the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States can also be used to render the breakaway club, again in Russian, as the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States.