Transnistria: Moldova’s "Black Hole"

In 1992 Moldova experienced a brief but bloody conflict over the territory lying east of the Dnestr River, the region known to Romanian-speakers as Transnistria and to Russian-speakers as Pridnestrov’ia. The thin strip of land, less than 30 kilometers wide and only 4,118 square kilometers in area, had once been part of the Moldovan autonomous republic in the interwar period but was joined with Bessarabia to form the M[oldovan]SSR after the Soviet annexation in 1940. The separatist conflict that erupted there in the late 1980s, and sizzled until the outbreak of large-scale violence in the first half of 1992, left over 1,000 dead or wounded and produced 130,000 internally displaced persons and refugees who flooded into Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of Moldova. For the government in Chisinau, it remained the state’s foremost security problem, since the area along the Dnestr functioned as a de facto separate state, the Dnestr Moldovan Republic (DMR). It was also the first post-Soviet conflict in which the Russian military actively intervened with the ostensible goal of stopping the violence, and a conflict that launched the career of Alexander Lebed’, who as commander of the Russian Fourteenth Army stationed in Transnistria repeatedly affirmed the need to protect local Russians against the “genocidal” policies of the Moldovan government.

Despite the active involvement of the international community, primarily via the presence of the long-term mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Chisinau, the dispute remained unresolved throughout the 1990s. There was no serious outbreak of violence after 1992, but the standoff between the two sides settled into what seemed an uneasy acceptance of the permanent division of the Moldovan state. Transnistria became another of the many “black holes” throughout the former Soviet Union, regions such as Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia where no long-term settlement had been reached but where the writ of central governments no longer ran. By the late 1990s, the Transnistrians still maintained a large force of men under arms, a force far better equipped than Moldova’s own tiny army. A multinational peacekeeping contingent remained deployed to keep the two sides apart.

The sources of the violence and the reasons for the long stalemate are not simple. Transnistria was often portrayed in both Russia and the West as an ethnic war between nationalists in Chisinau bent on union with Romania and ethnic Russians in Transnistria fearful of being swept up in an enlarged Romanian state. Things on the ground, however, were never that straightforward. It is the multifaceted origins of the Transnistrian conundrum, as well as the political and economic interests spawned by the war itself, that have made the dispute so difficult to resolve.

SOURCE: The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, by Charles King (Hoover Press, 2000), pp. 178-179

The Head Heeb has more on Moldova’s “Black Hole” and human trafficking in Moldova itself. Jonathan also points to an article by Charles King in NYU School of Law’s Fall 2001 issue of East European Constitutional Review about Eurasia’s Nonstate States:

Since the end of the fighting, Russian policy has been schizophrenic. There has, in fact, been a set of policies, rather than a single policy, in each of the disputes, depending on which portion of the Russian establishment one is considering. The Russian presidents, both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly affirmed that Russia respects the territorial integrity of its neighbors. At the same time, the State Duma has passed resolutions calling for Russia to support the interests of the separatist elites and their populations against what is perceived as the march of nationalism in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova….

The Russian factor is indisputable, and officials in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova frequently point to Russia as the key source of support for the unrecognized states. But Russia has not been the most serious obstacle to resolution. Today, the most vexing reasons for the disputes’ intractability have very little to do with what happens outside the states afflicted by territorial separatism and a great deal to do with the interests within them–in two crucial senses.

First, there is a political economy to Eurasia’s unrecognized states that benefits almost all sides. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova are extraordinarily weak states, with state revenues too low even to ensure many of the most basic state functions. In the lives of average citizens, the state is often conspicuous by its absence. Where it does intrude, it is usually in the form of a corrupt police officer soliciting a “fine” for an obscure traffic violation. That very weakness, though, is of untold benefit both to the unrecognized regimes as well as to the legitimate state institutions that are supposed to be looking out for the states’ interests. Exports can be channeled abroad through the separatist regions, thereby avoiding state tax inspectors. Imports can be brought in through the regions and distributed on the wider national market. Untaxed agriculture and industry–hazelnuts in Abkhazia, steel in Transnistria–can likewise be sources of profit, both for the unrecognized governments as well as for their collaborators in central institutions. Smuggling of illicit goods, from Afghan heroin to Russian vodka to prostitutes and illegal migrants from as far afield as Southeast Asia, have also become sources of profit.

Second, the process of informal state building has gone on for so long that distinct societies have begun to emerge in the rebel areas. Children who were not born when the conflicts began are now almost teenagers, and thanks to the creation of educational systems separate from those run by the legitimate governments, they have been schooled in the idea that their homeland is a place called Pridnestrove or Artsakh–not Moldova or Azerbaijan. The same may be said of other members of the cultural elite, such as the writers, artists, and poets who have spent the last ten years creating panegyrics to the real but unappreciated statehood achieved through the sacrifice of the best sons of the fatherland. What looks to the outside world and the central governments like a separatist conflict looks to many inside the conflict zones like a heroic war of independence, a war that has, moreover, become mythologized in the consciousness of the average citizen.

It seems to me that international social work alone is not sufficient to deal with these issues. Better international police work–in fact, remedial state-building–is also needed in order to reduce corruption as well as violence. The UN bureaucracy is simply not capable of quelling either corruption or violence. Quite the reverse, it seems. Nor can any single great military power act as the world’s policeman–not Russia, not China, not even the U.S. So, who is to do what must be done?

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania, Ukraine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.