The separatist region of Transnistria has long been a disputed territory and as is the case with many other former constituents of the Soviet Union, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, it remains to this day a ‘frozen conflict’. Similarly to other enclaves formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria’s status remains ambiguous due to a lack of political will and a complete absence of constructive negotiation. Often these regions are an unfortunate mix of ethnicities that comes about as a result of mass deportation of the local population and sovietisation through Russian settlers. As such, these states have been left with an imbalanced ethnic legacy that makes it effectively impossible to reach consensus.
With a population of 530,000 and covering an area of 4,000 square km, the strip of land is separated from its western neighbour, the Republic of Moldova – an aspiring EU candidate and former constituent part of Romania – by the Dniester River, a long-standing dividing line of ethnicity, culture and nation. To its east is the Ukraine – whose own history of alternating independence from and domination by Russia is well-documented. Historically, the control over the region has been determined by ethnicity and the geographical proximity to the Soviet Union, which made it a contentious territory for both the majoritarian Moldavian-speaking population and the Soviet-backed Russian minority. In recent years, however, Transnistria’s political affiliations have unsurprisingly been scrutinised and reevaluated.
In 1990, following the fall of Dictator Nicolae Ceasescu in Romania and the political changes brought about by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, the region experienced fierce opposition between Moldavian nationalist movements that expressed a desire for unification with Romania, and Russian minorities. The armed conflict began in November 1990, but fighting intensified two years later between the Russian-backed Transnistrian Republic Guard and Moldavian troops and police, who received military support and army volunteers from Romania. A ceasefire agreement was signed in July 1992, but the status of the region has yet to be clarified in an international context.
As is the case with many de-facto independent states, Transnistria has failed to put its case forward to the United Nations and has only gained recognition from other territories of ambiguous political status, namely Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. International bodies continue to consider it a part of the Republic of Moldova, although the situation on the ground contradicts the unwillingness of the UN to recognise Transnistria’s independence. For more than 20 years, Transnistria has effectively sought to distance itself from the Republic of Moldova and as a result, both from a political and social point of view they act as two separate entities.
The reluctance of the UN is due to the diplomatic tensions to which such a decision would give rise, given the political and social instability in former Soviet states. The ethnic constitution of the region makes it effectively impossible to consider a one-state solution, with Transnistria being absorbed and administered by Moldova or Russia. Granting recognition and independence would create a domino-effect in the region that would see more and more enclaves seeking the same treatment, despite displaying far more political volatility than Transnistria.
However, since declaring independence in 1991, the region has established its own government led initially by President Igor Nikolaevich Smirnov, and since by Yevgeny Vasilyevich Shevchuk who won a landslide victory against Smirnov, after the West dismissed Smirnov’s election victories as fraudulent.
The new president was praised in the local press as thing of a reformist for pledging to bring ‘an end to corruption, to the Smirnov family monopoly and nepotism’. Despite this, Transnistria’s former government has essentially created an economy that would not survive on the international market and the reforms needed to improve the crediting prospects of the country would require decades of strict economic and social policies. Shevchuk claimed in an interview with PressEurop that although the goal was to gain independence, he hoped that by improving Transnistria’s economic prospects and by ensuring the well-being of its citizens, the region would attract recognition from the international community. ‘The question of independence is imperative. But for 20 years, there has not been any constructive development in that sense, which is why I believe it is more important to ensure the well-being of the population’ he said.
However, despite President Schevchuk’s non-belligerent foreign policy and his reformist ideals, Transnistria continues to be plagued by poverty and an underdeveloped economy. According to Radio Iasi, inflation rates in Transnistria for 2011 had reached 16%, thus exceeding the initial prognosis by more than 4%, while the prices of food and industrial products have both increased rapidly within the course of a year. Foreign liquidity is also running short due to the unrecognised local currency that cannot be traded on the international market and the rampant corruption that washed-out Transnistria’s foreign reserves during Smirnov’s 20 year-rule.
Since becoming president, Mr. Schevchuk has sought to implement a series of policies by leading a campaign against the cronyism of former leader, Igor Smirnov. With the help of Russian authorities, Schevchuk has been leading an investigation into allegations brought against Smirnov of misappropriating aid funds from Russia. Schevchuk’s cabinet is currently engaged in anti-corruption and gun-trafficking control programmes.
In spite of this, the economic situation continues to prevent Transnistria from being seen as a trustworthy candidate for autonomy. In an interview broadcast at the end of last year on Transnistrean TV, President Shevchuk admitted that the country’s foreign assets amounted to only $49,000 and that 90% of the initial reserves appeared to have been transferred to other accounts, although he did not mention who was responsible for the shortage.
Despite deteriorating relationships between Russia and Moldova, the Transnistrian government has engaged in more peaceful discussions mediated by OSCE. In contrast to other similar independent states, Transnistria has sought to begin negotiation and build a relationship with the West. In February this year, OSCE Chairperson and Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, expressed his satisfaction at the way that talks were being carried out in relation to a Transnistrian settlement. After a stalemate that lasted more than six years, Europe has welcomed the renewed negotiations but remains reserved on what the future holds for the region.