Moldova vs. Trans-Dniester

It all started with the breakup of the Soviet Union and Moldova getting its independence. One of the first acts of the Moldovan government to distance itself from Russia and the Soviet Union was the re-establishment of the Romanian language and the Latin alphabet. Romanian was proclaimed the official language of the country and it was decided that all the official business from then on should be conducted in the official language. All those who lived in Moldova and didn't know Romanian were required to learn it within a period of seven years (it's quiet a long period of time compared to the one night all Moldovans had, to start speaking Russian in 1944). The breakup of the Soviet Union and all of the language changes really upset and scared a lot of Russians. They didn't want to learn Romanian, because they felt pretty comfortable speaking Russian all the time. They simply didn't see any reason (or may be they didn't want to) why they should learn Romanian of a sudden. Even scarier were the talks about the reunification with Romania. Russians felt threatened by the wave of rising nationalism; they were afraid they would become second-class citizens if Moldova reunites with Romania. (However, this wasn't the case. Neither Moldova nor Romania were ready for that yet. The number of those who favored unification was almost equal to the number of those who didn't favor it. On January 2, 1992 the New York Times published the results of a private opinion poll from November, which showed that 44 percent of the Romanian population favored union with Moldova as soon as possible, while 45 percent did not favor unification in the near future and 11 percent were undecided. In an interview to New York Times ("Moldovan Conflict Worries Romania" by M T. Kaufman, July 6, 1992) a historian, Dinu Giurescu, said: "I fully agree this is part of Romania. The Russians took it away in 1812 and again in 1940. But we can't just stick to emotional, patriotic issues. We have to accept new realities. Our ultimate goal should be reunification if the Romanians of Bessarabia want this, but there's plenty of time"). As you can see, the reunification was still far away. Nevertheless, according to the book "Ethnic Relations: Cross Cultural Encyclopedia"(D. Levinson, 1994) these were the two causes: "the change in language" (the language didn't change, only its name and alphabet did) and "the fear of reunification with Romania" that led the Moldavian Russians on the left of the Dniester River to create the Trans-Dniester Republic as an autonomous republic. Unfortunately, in less than a week the story turned into a bloody-soaked tragedy.

"In the Trans-Dniester region, where Ukrainians and Russians comprised 26 percent and 23 percent of the population respectively" (there is a mistake someplace, because according to 1989 census ethnic Russians comprise 13 percent and Ukrainians-14), "a full-scale separatist movement developed. The conflict also has irredentist overtones because the Trans-Dniester region was historically part of the Ukraine, not Moldova, and therefore the indigenous population was Slavic and not Romanian. The region is of considerable economic importance. Although comprising only about 10 percent of the land mass of Moldova, 20 percent of Moldova's industrial output flows from the Trans-Dniester region, and much of the energy for the republic is produced there as well." ("Ethnic Relations: Cross Cultural Encyclopedia" by D. Levinson, 1994)

The conflict between Moldova's Romanian majority and the Slavic minority east of the Dniester River has deep and bitter roots. Russia was looking at this territory long before the Russo-Turkish war. What they wanted and needed for centuries were the Dardanelles. As Alexander told Napoleon at their meeting in Tilsit in 1807, this was "the key to his house". Between 1700s and 1812 the Ottoman Empire loses Moldova to Russia and then recaptures it five times. In 1812 Russia again seizes control of the region. In 1856 the Treaty of Paris awards the region back to Romania, but not for too long, because in 1878 it is retaken once more by Russia. In 1914 Romania enter World War I in order to get back Moldova and in 1918 takes place the Great Unification. However, in 1924 Russia again takes control of the region and forms the Autonomous Soviet Moldavian Republic. Romania regains the area during World War II, but it again becomes part of the Soviet Union in 1945. In 1947 Moldova was truncated, with a segment added to Ukraine (the exit to the Black Sea), and a small strip added (the Trans-Dniester region) to what was later called the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. (These divisions of territories were well thought Russian strategies aimed at reducing the percentage of the national population to 65 or less, and implemented in almost all the republics).

The actors in this conflict were the governments of Moldova and Russia. The government of Moldova wanted Trans-Dniester to remain part of Moldova, because almost all of the republic's industry is concentrated there and because the majority of the population is still comprised by Romanians. Russia, on the other side, wanted Trans-Dniester to become an autonomous republic. It claimed it was its duty to "protect ethnic Russians left outside its borders since the Soviet Union's breakup" (St. Louis Post Dispatch, "The Molding of Obedience in Moldova...", March 11, 1994). At that time and even now, Russian officials were thinking about ways of reforming the Soviet Union back. With Trans-Dniester being an autonomous republic under their control, it would have been no problem to draw Moldova back in the USSR. This is one of the reasons that explain why Russia was involved in this conflict from the very beginning. "When Moldova's government reaffirmed its independence a year ago, Russia stepped up the pressure. First it staged military exercises, choosing a region of Trans-Dniester where most of the residents were ethnic Romanians. Then it threatened to turn over the 14th Army and its considerable equipment to secessionists in Tiraspol."

Trans-Dniester was the perfect place to escape for Russians who longed after the live in the old Soviet Union. Nothing has changed there since the collapse of the USSR: "Lenin stands guard at the major squares and intersections, giant slogans on factory walls still exhort workers, "Onward, to Socialism!", an obelisk at the town's entrance still bears the emblem of the Soviet Union." "Nowhere is the ideology of the bad old days more deeply embedded than here along the east bank of the Dniester River" (Washington Post, March 25, 1994). "The Russian troops had been there for decades and had no interest in leaving. They were only too willing to support a secession movement, led by hard-line Communists in the name of "imperiled" ethnic Russians."

Russia seems to be very interested in Moldova. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an interview with the commander of Russia's army in Moldova, Col. M. Rergman, who stated:

"Moldova will "never" rejoin neighboring Romania.

Russia will "always" strongly influence Moldova.

The Russian army will "never" leave."

Unfortunately, this are not only the interests of the commander of the Russian army in Moldova, but also of many Russian officials. The foreign minister of the so-called Trans-Dniester republic, Valery Itskai, said: "In Moldova, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union, Moscow has given its commands virtually free rein in political and diplomatic matters. There are differences from one area to the other, but what unites them is the lack of division between political and military authority. In the Asian republics, in contrast to here, Russian generals shoot people - but they don't appear on television. In the Baltic states, where the level of civilization is a bit higher, the Russian generals have exchanges of diplomatic notes. The Trans-Dniester republic is somewhere in the middle. The Russian commanders have stopped shooting, generally, but they have a long way to go before accepted diplomatic standards are reached and they stop meddling in politics" ("St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The Molding of Obedience in Moldova..." by J. Sawger, March 11, 1994).

In order to succeed in influencing people in the Trans-Dniester region, Russia's strategy was to keep them in fear, especially those who had a different point of view. As you can see from the next report of the Washington Post they seem to have reached their goal. "A leader of the minority Moldovan community in the Dniester region said: "I am afraid to talk to you. This is genocide; surely that tells you everything." The man, who pleaded that he not be identified for fear of reprisal, punctuated his words with cautious glances toward the door. His jaw was still swollen from what he said was a beating by Dniester security.

'They're waging a campaign to scare people and to create a psychology of terror, ' Danilov said. 'Of course, it is all controlled by the Dniester leadership with the ringleaders in Moscow.'

'Here we are all afraid to say what we think, because if you say what you think they will kill you.'

Several Republican Guardsmen interviewed made no effort to dispel the Moldovans' accusations. Viktor Kusenko, 37, a Ukrainian mechanic-turned-militiaman, patrols the roads of the Grigoriopol region. Cleaning his sub-machine gun with red, weather-beaten hands, he declared that the region is full of 'secret enemies' who must be purged.

'The fifth column is now setting quietly,' said his fellow militiaman, Misha Russky, 30, a tractor driver with a broad, tanned peasant's face. 'We isolated those who spoke openly against us. We sent them to Kishinev.' "

A darker side of this conflict was the "civil war", which started a week after the proclamation of the Trans-Dniester republic. As a result, according to the official reports (New York Times, July 1994), 500 people died and more than 1000 were wounded. In reality this figure is higher, but due to circumstances it is difficult to estimate how big it is.

In June, 1992, as the death toll mounted to the hundreds, Russia intervened formally. The Washington Post reported a couple of days later: "tanks and troops of the former Soviet 14th Army, now under the command of Russia, were seen by this reporter (Chrystia Freeland) moving into this strategic town, helping the separatists take control.

As heavily armed troops from Russia's 14th Army, based in Moldova, openly provided military support to their separatist brethren in the continuing battle for control of the city of Bendery, Moldovan President Mircea Snegur accused Russia of having begun an 'undeclared war' against Moldova. "We have to call a spade a spade - we are at war with Russia, Snegur said, according to the Russian Tass agency.

Local journalists estimated that the former Soviet 14th Army has a force of 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers to support the Russian minority in Moldova, but the question is whether Romania will provide support for the other side. In Bucharest, the Romanian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the Russian moves into Moldova are 'a deliberate policy of undermining the legitimate government of the Moldovan republic, of halting democratic processes underway in this state.'

News reports from Bendery and other cities in the breakaway republic told of Romania sending heavy military equipment to bolster Moldova, with which it has linguistic, cultural and historical ties.

Fighters under the command of the Russian army today showed reporters what they said were Romanian weapons taken from Moldovan troops.

'Even the support of Romanian divisions will not be enough for Moldova,' said Valeri Litskoi, who is secretary of state of the Trans-Dniester enclave. 'Together with the 14th Army, we, volunteers and home guards, are 200 percent adequate' " (Washington Post, June 23, 1992).

The conflict in Trans-Dniester had ominous international implications. George J. Church says that "what is happening in Moldova is of global concern, because it is a typical example of one of the two main trends vying to shape the post-cold war. One is the move toward uniting once jealous sovereignties in economic groupings that also have political ties, like the 12-nation European Community. The contrasting trend is toward splitting up existing states into smaller ethnic nations, some of which then go on to divide amoebae-like into ever smaller pieces" (Time, July 2, 1992).

The British military analyst, Jonathan Fyal, wrote for the Independent: "It would be comforting to believe that Moldova was a special case. Unfortunately, the fate of this small republic conforms to a pattern. Everywhere ethnic conflicts begin and stop miraculously-precisely when Moscow wants them to. To each case Russian forces are directly involved, and in each Russia also claims to be impartial arbiter" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July, 1992). He seems to be absolutely right. Not even US. and UN. were able to influence Russia's behavior.

On June 23, 1992 the US. called on all parties to the fighting in Moldova to stop immediately and resolve their disputes by peaceful means. Tutwiler called on the Russian government 'to Yeltsin's earlier agreement to withdraw the 14th Army from the area.' Reports from Moscow raised doubt about the seriousness of Yeltsin's withdrawal promise, which was made during a public appearance on a tour of Siberia. However, talks between Moscow and Kishinev on withdrawing the 14th Army have gone nowhere. So, "State Department officials conceded there is little the United States can do at this stage other than counsel patience and caution" (The Washington Post, June 23, 1992).

The New York Times Newspaper reported on June 29, 1992: "Gun and artillery fire prevented a three-member United Nations fact-finding delegation from entering a separatist region of Moldova today. As the automobile convoy flying the United Nations flag and escorted by Moldovan Government representative entered Bendery in the Trans-Dniester region, a volley of shots was fired from about two blocks away. Two-thirds of the industrial city 130,000 is being held by separatists." A couple of days later the UN Sec. General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has reported his concern over the violence in Moldova and called for an end to the 'senseless fighting' in the area.

The US and UN thought they would influence Russia without getting too much involved. However, it didn't seem to work. Russia paid no attention to their pleads of settling the conflict and withdrawing the 14th Army. As there wasn't any threat coming on, Russia continued pursuing its goal, which was in the opinion of an Western diplomat, for "Trans-Dniester to be a Russian base." Lebed, the General of the 14th Army, dismisses such Western suggestions that his army is proof of Russia's determination to maintain a strategic output on the threshold of the Balkans. 'This army has been here for 50 years, since 1944, ' he said. 'It's very important not to be in a hurry to leave.' "He's not particularly bothered by the fact that most of the world considers his 9,000-man force to be an occupying army on the territory of Moldova, which has repeatedly invited the Russian general and his troops to leave. In his view, the 14th Army is keeping the peace here in the self-proclaimed 'Trans-Dniester Republic" (The Washington Post, June 22, 1992).

"Only 30,000 citizens remained in the city of Bendery, Moldova. Approximately 100,000 of the city's citizens fled due to the constant fighting."

At a long last, Russia realized it was time to stop the fighting. "Here, and in other regions of the former Soviet Union, Russia has asked the world to endorse its role as peacekeeper. Russia has talked about "stabilizing" new countries and easing murderous ethnic tension. That's the theory of Russia's new role in its "near abroad." The reality is Col. Rergman and his Russian army of occupation."

"The Commonwealth of Independent States recently approved a peace-keeping force and Moldova said it will allow 2,000 peace-keepers. Mr. Snegur, the President of Moldova, who has previously accused the Russian Army of backing the Slav separatists, appeared on July 6, 1992 to welcome the prospect of a peacekeeping force. "I think that with joint efforts and through Parliament we will find a way out of this situation, " he said, "a way to maintain a cease-fire, introduce buffer forces and work calmly in Parliament to find a compromise" (New York Times, "Yeltsin Plans Peacekeeping for Moldova" by M. S. Schmemann, July 7, 1992).

But President Levon Ter-Petrosyan of Armenia, whose country has been ravaged by a four-year struggle with neighboring Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, reacted bitterly when asked his reaction. "To my regret, I must state that the Commonwealth has no mechanisms to resolve inter-ethnic conflicts, and all these statements remain mere words," he said (New York Times, July 7, 1992).

"On July 21 Moldova and Russia agreed to send a joint peacekeeping force to try to stop the fighting in Trans-Dniester region of Moldova and outlined guarantees for the future of the area. Moldova agreed that the Slav-dominated region on the eastern side of the Dniester River could decide its own fate should newly independent Moldova reunite with Romania in the future" (New York Times, "Russia and Moldova Reach Accord on Dniester region" by Reuters, July 22, 1992).

Although the fighting has stopped quite a long time ago, the situation is still undetermined. In spite of the fact that Moldova has not reunited with Romania, Trans-Dniester is operating as an autonomous republic. It got its own government, military force, language, currency, TV station, etc. "According to Lebed and his aides, whose views are shared by Western diplomats and analysts, the separatist republic has become a leading venue for arms trafficking, drug running, money laundering and the illegal export of raw materials and other goods from the former Soviet states. Accompanying that underworld skullduggery has been a crime wave of murders, kidnappings, extortion and terrorism that is giving Trans-Dniester something of a bad name. 'It's as if Al Capone had declared Chicago an independent republic,' said Mark Almond, a British scholar who visited not long ago" (The Washington Post, "In Moldova's East Bank, Separatists Still Cling to the Bad Old Days", March 25, 1994). A sad fact is that Russia still hasn't withdrawn the 14th Army, regardless of all the promises it has made.

It's quiet difficult to predict what might happen in the future or how the conflict is going to be solved. Clearly, it's very difficult, if possible at all, to find a solution that will satisfy both parts. Right now the system in Balkans looks very much like the system in 1914, which means that we should rely on realism. According to it, war is inevitable and the undefined situation we are now in can be regarded as a "preparation" for war or simply as the waiting for a pretext. However, there is a possibility of a much better outcome, too. It might seem less probable, because it requires a drastic change in people's minds. Hull says: "the truth is universally recognized, that trade between nations is the greatest peacemaker and civilizer within human experience." A health economy would allow "settlement among nations of any political questions" ("The Origins of II World War" by R. J. Overy, 1993). Who knows, may be this is indeed the solution.

In my opinion, the right thing to do is: withdraw the 14th Army, proclaim Romanian the official language in Trans-Dniester region, and let the same laws rule the whole country. If someone doesn't want to respect and obey the laws of the country he is living in, then he is free to leave and return to Russia.

Zhidas Daskalovski, American University in Bulgaria, Blagoevgrad

Works Cited:

1. New York Times ("Moldovan Conflict Worries Romania" by M T. Kaufman, July6, 1992)

2. "Ethnic Relations: Cross Cultural Encyclopedia"(D. Levinson, 1994)

3. Washington Post, March 25, 1994.

4. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The Molding of Obedience in Moldova..." by J. Sawger, March 11, 1994.

5. New York Times, July 1994

6. Washington Post, June 23, 1992

7. Time, July 2, 1992.

8. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July, 1992

9. The Washington Post, June 23, 1992

10. The Washington Post, June 22, 1992

11. New York Times, "Yeltsin Plans Peacekeeping for Moldova" by M. S. Schmemann, July 7, 1992.

12. New York Times, July 7, 1992

13. New York Times, "Russia and Moldova Reach Accord on Dniester region" by Reuters, July 22, 1992.

14. The Washington Post, "In Moldova's East Bank, Separatists Still Cling to the Bad Old Days", March 25, 1994.


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