by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security”, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.
Transnistria (Transdniester Moldovan Republic/TDMR or in Russian, Pridnestrovskaya Moldovskaya Respublika/PMR) – popularly referred to as a Soviet open air museum, is a strip of land holding de facto independence sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine in Eastern Europe. Not recognised by any sovereign state, it has split from the Republic of Moldova and operates with its own government, police, and military forces. Transnistrian citizens even hold their own passports, albeit only being able to use them internally. However, Transnistria would not be able to maintain its political bargaining power without heavy support from Big Bear Russia. In light of recent events in Crimea, and in Ukraine, Transnistria becomes an interesting historical case to explore how Russia’s strategic interests are injected into vulnerable territories.
Brief history: Lost without the hammer and sickle
The name Transnistria (literally translating to ‘over the River Dniester‘) was born out of an armed conflict in 1992. Before this time, the identity of ‘Transnistrian’ people did not exist. The crumbling of the Iron Curtain left Moldova divided. The right side of the bank felt that the end of the Soviet Union corresponded with deprivation and humiliation. Split into mainly three nationalities (Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan), no group prominently stood out in society. Seeking to preserve the ideals of the Russian powers, the Moldovan declaration of sovereignty in 1990 made the Transnistrian leaders weary. They feared that Moldova, previously a region of Romania, would reunite because of common historical and linguistic roots. In response to the declaration, a separate congress convened declaring a ‘Transnistrian Republic’.
The approximate four month war in 1992 is a ‘sacred’ event in Transnistrian history. The war is viewed as the justification for its separation from Moldova and a collective memory is perpetuated in society as “a war for truth, justice and independence“. This, with a combination of economic instability, military invasion and the Romanian issue, has been the official reason for violence. But behind the curtain, certain leaders at the time wanted to make the communist ideology thrive, entrenched in opposing democratic reform, an impetus for keeping the status quo dominated.
The 14th Soviet Army based in Transnistria at the time intervened, defeating Moldovan forces, and initiating a Russian brokered peace. From this point on around 1.000 – 1.500 peacekeepers have kept permanent positions securing borders between Chișinău and Ukraine. This allowed a continuation of Russian support in all areas of Transnistrian life – politics, economics and law enforcement systems. A type of Russian satellite state was born.
Interestingly, however Transnistria remains international. Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans, all take roughly a third of the population pie. At the time of ‘independence’, the urban population in Tiraspol was heavily Russophone. To take a sample, the birthplace of parliamentary deputies from the 2005-2010 legislatures shows this split. Out of the 42 officials, 11.9% were born in Moldova, 30.95% in Transnistria, 21.45% in Russia, and 19.05% in Ukraine. Even with its proclaimed ‘independence’, Transnistria remains unrecognised by the international community and is still part of the Republic of Moldova formally.
Transnistria’s quest for sovereignty strengthens Russia’s strategic interests in Eastern Europe. A valuable base in the region, close to allies Serbia, and the Black Sea watching over Ukraine from two sides, Transnistria offers a position of power.
Russia has sponsored the birth of a regime by building parallel state structures and institutions – a dream come true for those leaders in Tiraspol. From economic, political, and military support, the region has experienced the luxury of operating as a separate entity. Big Bear has provided this cub, a ‘state’, but also the existence as a recognised ‘compatriot’ of the Russian Federation. In return, Transnistria can only offer its loyalty, adopting a Russian educational curriculum, where generations have been conditioned to see their region as part of a Slavic civilisation.
The military interventions carried out by Big Bear in the post-Soviet space do not intend to achieve clear victories, but to keep breakaway regions in a state of limbo. Transnistria is one of many regions where the Russian Federation has involved itself to maintain international presence and power – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Crimea. As an important foothold in the region, Russia has no intention of recognising Transnistria as its own state.
The economy of Transnistria has been sustained solely through the heavy support of Russia. Russia has granted privileges to businesses, allowed concessions for energy and gas consumption, and paved the way for strategic privatisation – but this has also comes with a price for Transnistria. The installation of political aides, and replacing local elites with the direct management of Russian intelligence forces has given Russia a direct hand into the operation of the region. The process of privatisation began in 2000 centred on the main beneficiaries being Russia. Everyone is a winner! Russian oligarchs buy local Transnistrian enterprises, they benefit from Russian subsidies to enrich themselves, and at the same time boost their profile by supporting ‘compatriots’.
While arbitrarily both sides seem to profit, a grim picture prevails for those that do not hold power. With over two decades of isolation, no scrutiny, and no public rights and freedoms, an economic and military conclave run by corrupt leaders with almost no counterbalancing measures has been created. If Transnistria is an example to go by, the conflicts of 2014 could fall into the very same black hole.
The Ukrainian relationship
The borders of Transnistria are infamous for their fluidity. Organised criminal groups and cunning leaders and business people exploit this loophole to smuggle goods and people to various places. It is used as a trade point into Western Europe from places such as Ukraine, through to Romania, and then to Turkey. Transnistria also gains counterfeit products from Ukraine, as well as being known to allow contraband in through the Ukrainian port of Illichivsk. Ukraine has made use of Transnistria to ship weapons for decades, and throughout the 1990s, Ukrainian weapons intended for illegal or politically sensitive markets were either airlifted to their destinations, or shipped from Odessa under Transnistrian custom seals.
However Ukraine’s stance on Transnistria changed after Viktor Yushchenko came into power following the Orange Revolution in 2005. Tough custom controls and new custom posts were put in place, which Transnistrian officials condemned as economic blockades or embargoes. Manned by Ukrainian and Moldovan officers, a deal was initiated which required Transnistrian companies to have official Moldovan stamps before exporting goods.Ukraine is increasingly aiming towards joining the European Union, changing its foreign policy approaches to Transnistria accordingly. It is known for taking a stance of benevolent neutrality, and decisions towards Transnistria are dependent on if the government of the day is pro or anti-Russian. For example, relations between Ukraine and Transnistria relaxed when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych assumed office in 2010. However, Ukraine has its intent clear on preserving Moldova’s territorial integrity. A few months into the Orange presidency, the ‘Yushchenko Plan’ was proposed as a solution to resolving the disputes in the Moldovan Republic. Interestingly, the plan did not mention the military presence of the Russians specifically, but it did suggest that the ‘peacekeeping’ forces presently stationed be replaced with an international force of military and civilian observers. It also did not directly allude to the federative status of Transnistria, and advised that the part of the territory be reintegrated with the same level of autonomy as previously done with Gagauzia.
More recently, Ukraine has seen Transnistria as a security threat. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, and the outbreak of conflict in Eastern Ukraine by the pro-Russian ‘Donetsk People’s Republic‘ (DPR) movement have left Ukrainian officials weary about the Russian forces manning the border with Transnistria. Fears of potential Russian infiltration from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine through Transnistria could cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea and destabilise the region. In response to this uncertainty, Ukrainian defence forces have been deployed to the Odessa region. As a result, Transnistrian officials now travel abroad through Chisinau in the Moldovan territory, rather than Odessa as done previously. It is uncertain what approach Ukraine will take towards Transnistria, but it seems likely they will continue to use economic cooperation and diplomacy to leverage their influence in the region.
The place to be for ‘conflict experts’
An interesting way to examine the roots and importance of what is happening currently in Eastern Europe is by investigating some of the leaders in the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. The following Russian officials have had some form of involvement with Transnistria. Mapping their movements to different regions of Europe which correspond with Russia’s strategic interests reveals some quite remarkable networks.
Igor Girkin or ‘Strelkov’ is a man with a history of taking part in secessionist military operations. He has participated in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, as well as Transnistria. From 1996 until March 2013, Girkin was in the FSB as a reserve colonel and intelligence officer. Involved in the annexation of Crimea, Grikin is also an assistant on security issues to self-proclaimed ‘Prime Minister’ of the ‘Republic of Crimea‘, Sergey Aksionov.
As one of the military leaders responsible for the insurgency of the Russian separatists in Ukraine, revelations of his thoughts were leaked through hacked emails. In 2010, Girkin mentioned that some of his friends were engaged in the ‘Ukrainian project’ and if they put in the effort, a Transnistrian scenario would be possible – referring to an option of secession without annexation. Girkin was the ‘DPR Minister of Defence’ from May until August 2014.
Alexander Borodai is the first ‘Prime Minister’ of the self-declared ‘DPR’, Borodai went over from Russia in the 1990s to fight in Transnistria’s war to safeguard the ethnic Russian population. He fought alongside with Girkin, and both of them have been closely tied with Shevtsov since the conflict. Before joining East Ukraine, he was a pivotal political strategist involved in the annexation of Crimea.
Olga Kulygina is also an interesting character to note here. A close personal friend of both Girkin and Borodai, she is a Russian agent who was involved in secret services operations in places such as Transnistria and Georgia, and was involved in the planning of the Ukrainian insurgency, as well as personally fighting in Sloviansk.
Aleksandr Karaman is currently the ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ for Social Issues of the ‘DPR’. Working closely with Shevtsov, Karaman was the ‘Vice-President’ of Transnistria between the years 1991 – 2001. He is also the protégé of Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin.
Andrey Pinchuk and Oleg Bereza both associates of Shevtsov, were in the Transnistrian Ministry of State Security. Pinchuk holds the position of ‘State Security Minister’, and Bereza is the ‘Internal Affairs Minister’ of the ‘DPR’. These two ministries were created under Shevtsov, and the pair has recruited former officers working in Kyiv who resigned or defected from positions in Ukraine’s ministries to join the ‘DPR’ movement – they have hired more than 1.000 new personnel to ‘maintain internal order’.
Questions of security: Back in the USSR
Transnistria is not just a concern for Russia and Ukraine, but its activities have potential international impacts on security. Most prominently are the region’s fragile and unmonitored borders. There is a lack of hard evidence, but the production and transport of weaponry in Transnistria has allegedly been supplied to conflict zones in Chechnya, the Balkans, and even to parts of Africa. The largest weapon stockpile left from the Soviet era in Southeast Europe is in fact located in Transnistria. Russian information reveals that the Russian 14th Army stationed in the region has 21.000 tonnes of equipment from such stockpiles.
Moldova’s lack of control over its breakaway region is affecting the country’s progress. There are no external security agencies operating in Transnistria, and INTERPOL has no influence making it an unpredictable stadium for organised crime. Prostitution has become a specific dilemma – it has affected surrounding countries such as Romania and Bulgaria in terms of their European Union membership.
Moldova has been labelled the poorest country in Europe, and the region of Transnistria performs significantly higher economically than the state which legitimately exists. Transnistria is sustained by criminal activities which serve specific leaders. The prime example is former ‘President’ Igor Smirnov’s ‘Sheriff’ firm – this one company owns a chain of supermarkets, gas stations, a publishing house and mobile phone network, and even has its own sports arena costing twice the annual budget of Moldova.
The continual presence of Russian ‘peacekeepers’ is ironically one of the main barriers to fruitful negotiations over resolving what has been termed a ‘frozen conflict’. Transnistria is strategically invested and sustained by Russian Federation economic and political assistance, which without would all crumble. The current minimal level of international monitoring and oversight over Transnistria is worrying. There is a distinct lack of media attention on public opinion, or recordings of how people live their daily lives. The people in the region have different perspectives over the state of their region – to reintegrate with Moldova, to join Russia, or to become truly independent. In 1992, the separatists took over Moldovan police and government buildings to bring about a new regime. This is a similar scenario to what has happened in Crimea and the unfolding situation in Ukraine, and if Transnistria is a case to review, the international community will need to take action before Russia adds another de facto region to its list. For Transnistria, involvement from surrounding states and the European Union will be necessary to reduce Russia’s influence. But in order to change the course of the region’s history, the current military presence and loaded stockpiles will need to be the first thorns removed.