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Transnistria, the Ghost of Post-Soviet Europe

It is the year 2012, and all of Europe enjoys market economies, right? Wrong. One country of irreducible communists still resists the capitalist invader. No, not Belorussia (which almost fits the criteria) but Transnistria. Transnistria is unknown to all for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist, or at least is not recognized by the international community, which explains its absence from European maps.

Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a slim enclave of 4000 square kilometers stuck between the Ukraine in the East and separated from Moldavia in the West by the Dniester River. Transnistria has its own flag, its own army and its own Parliament with absolute power. Transnistria possesses all the criteria worthy of an independent state.However, in order to understand its nearly non-existent present, one must first consider its complicated past.

Transnistria has belonged to the Russian Empire since the 18th century. The Dniester River acts as the border with Romania which, back in the day, encompassed today’s Moldavia. In 1924, Stalin’s USSR created an autonomous socialist republic and called it Transnistria, or rather a military zone on Romania’s border. This was done in an attempt to take over the region of Moldavia located on the other side of the Dniester, on Romanian ground.

In 1940, the USSR invaded Moldavia and united both regions into one territory, the socialist Republic of Moldavia, without taking into account the region’s ethnic differences. Russian-speaking Transnistria had always been a part of the Russian Empire and Moldavia had always been ethnically Romanian. However, the fall of the iron curtain caused the Soviet Bloc to break into pieces, and the region did not remain intact.

Driven by a nationalist impetus, the Moldavian Parliament adopted Moldavian as the official language in 1990 and confirmed the country’s separation from the USSR. Transnistria, perplexed by these decisions, feared an eventual reunification with Romania. It thus claimed its independence from Moldavia in 1990 as the latter separated from the USSR.

What followed was a bloody war between Transnistrian secessionists who were supported by Moscow, and the Moldavian army. The war ended in a cease-fire without an agreement being reached, similar to the Korean war where both belligerents are still technically at war and it is a frozen conflict. But, contrary to North Korea, Transnistria is not recognized internationally, not even by Russia. Officially, Transnistria is a part of Moldavia, but the Moldavian government has no power further than the Dniester River and must simply watch the region disintegrate.

A State Run “The Soviet Way”

Life, however grim, goes on for the 500,000 inhabitants of the region. Until the end of 2011, they were under the control of Igor Smirnov, a rich entrepreneur who took command of the country in 1990. Autocratic and nepotistic, he and his sons led the country with an iron fist, much like the Soviet model: cult personality, omnipresent police, corrupted justice system, monopoly of the enterprise in the name of Smirnov and army support. The country being officially nonexistent has the added caveat of the lack of applicable international laws. The region has been hit hard by organized crime, from arms trafficking (rifles and Soviet missiles) to prostitution.

Change on the Horizon?

However, not all is as dark. On December 30th, 2011, a young reformist called Yevgeny Shevchuck was elected President of Transnistria, to the surprise of many. His rise to power is certainly the fruit of an anti-corruption and pro-democracy campaign, but also due to the unpopular fall of Smirnov, who lost all support from Moscow. Upon his rise to power, Shevchuk initiated a process of “destalinization”, and removed Smirnov’s clique from key positions. Furthermore, the Moldavian government is now ready to negotiate with Shevchuk on eventual agreements and the opening-up of borders: for customs constraints have closed, until now, the entrance of the majority of Moldavian goods into Transnistria.

However, a tragic incident profoundly undermined the situation’s optimism: a Russian soldier at the Transnistrian border was shot down an 18-year-old Moldavian. Indeed, Transnistria is one of the only European regions where Russian troops are still stationed (the others being Kaliningrad and the Ukraine). The presence of these troops is widely criticized by the Europen Union and even by Washington, who have urged both sides to calm down. The Russian minister of Foreign Affairs defended the incident, claiming that the Russian soldier was not in the wrong.

Thus, the question remains: will Transnistria stay in a post-Soviet quagmire? Shevchuk reminds that, during his term, he will first try to improve the region’s economic conditions and guarantee the state’s stability, before plunging headfirst into international relations. For now, however, and in spite of his efforts, Transnistria remains a ghost, an invisible country that haunts the cemetery of post-soviet Europe.

–  Pierre Bathelemy (translated from French by Matthieu Charriaud)


For further reading on this topic, please see:  The New Face of Transdniester

(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksSugarmelon, Creative Commons, Flickr)

Map by Pierre Barthelemy

About Pierre Barthelemy

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