Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No End in Sight

There are few hopes that Moldova’s bitter 13-year conflict with its breakaway Slav region can be resolved in the near future.
By IWPR contributors

The Republic of Moldova, a tiny nation sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has struggled to cope with the independence it gained when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.


Since then, it has gone from being the “breadbasket and vineyard” of the former superpower to the poorest country in Europe, where 80 per cent of the 4.4 million-strong population lives below the poverty line.


Aside from whispers of corruption and worries over criminal activities such as people-trafficking, the EU also views Moldova with concern because the government there has had no control over 11 per cent of its territory for nearly 14 years.


The breakaway republic of Transdniester, a sliver of land on the eastern, left bank of the river Dniester close to Moldova’s official border with Ukraine, declared independence from the then Soviet republic in 1990 and has remained defiantly separatist ever since.


Around 1,600 Russian troops and 20,000 tonnes of weaponry – the remnants of the Soviet 14th Army – act as a security and police force in Transdniester, which has retained its close links to Moscow.


No government or embassy recognises this breakaway nation, which is now notorious as a haven for those who would traffic people, guns and drugs across the often-porous borders of the former Soviet republics.


Before the Second World War, most of what is now the Moldovan state was part of Romania, but the land was then annexed by the Soviet Union.


In the late Eighties, the largely Russian and Ukrainian population east of the Dniester – who traditionally feel closer to Moscow than to the Moldovan capital Chisinau – grew increasingly concerned that the central government wanted the republic to join Romania.


The adoption of a law naming Moldovan – a language virtually identical to Romanian – as the official state language in 1989 intensified these fears. It prompted Russian-speaking officals across the Dniester to set up their own administration in the city of Tiraspol and declare the area independent.


A short but bloody conflict followed in 1992, resulting in the deaths of more than 700 people in the six months before Russian troops intervened to bring fighting to a close.


Twelve years on, opinions are still bitterly divided as to the root cause of the problems – leaving little hope that the situation can be normalised and the country reunited.


Moldova’s deputy minister for reunification, Victor Postolache, said, "The conflict started because of the desire of a group of former Soviet officials to keep control over Transdniester, a region that should be used as a gateway to the whole Balkan region."


Ilie Ilascu, a former political prisoner who spent nine years in jail in Tiraspol after the conflict, agrees with this assessment. "Russian geopolitical interests were the only source of the war in this region," he told IWPR.


But politicians and analysts on the other side of the river dismiss these claims, insisting that Moldova’s desire to rejoin Romania left them with little choice but to protect the interests of the Russian-speaking community.


Grigory Volovoi, a former Transdniester politician who now works as a journalist, said, "The initial reaction of our leaders to the adoption of the 1989 language law was to demand its amendment, and when this failed, to insist that a free economic zone to be created in the region.


“When these requests were rejected and certain threats followed, a referendum for the region’s independence was organised and a new kind of state was created.”


Five years after the breakaway republic declared its independence - and following intense mediation by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, involving Russia and Ukraine – Chisinau and Tiraspol finally produced a “memorandum of understanding”, which guaranteed a certain amount of autonomy for the region.


This was followed by an agreement signed at an OSCE summit in Istanbul in 1999, during which Russia agreed to end its military presence in the region by the end of 2002. As yet, no timetable for this withdrawal has been established, in spite of the OSCE putting aside 30 million US dollars to help finance it.


In the meantime, plans to deploy an OSCE peacekeeping force have met with considerable resistance in Tiraspol. "If such steps are taken, it would lead to a new outbreak of conflict - including an armed one," Transdniester’s deputy security minister Oleg Gudymo warned recently.


Hopes for a peaceful solution were raised in November 2003, with a proposal drafted by Moscow which envisaged turning Moldova into a federation in which Transdniester would retain its governing and legislative bodies, including control of its own budget and fiscal policy, and would have its own language laws.


Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin, after initially making positive noises about the proposal, went on to reject it following widespread opposition in Chisinau to what was seen as a plan to undermine the sovereignty of the state.


The idea of federalism is viewed with suspicion in the breakaway republic, too.


"Most people [here] are totally against any kind of federal union with Moldova, but they are also aware that economic cooperation between the two sides is still necessary," said Sergey Ilchenko, senior editor of the Dnestrovsky Kurier daily.


Grigory Marakutsa, speaker of the Transdniestrian parliament, said that local officials were still discussing the construction of a common state, in line with the wishes of the international community. “But more and more voices [here] say that these negotiations are useless as it will soon be quite possible to build a totally independent state outside Moldova," he said at a recent press conference.


The republic’s foreign affairs committee announced earlier this month that a new referendum – where citizens would be asked to choose between continued negotiations with Moldova on federalisation, or consolidating independent status – was in the planning stages, although there was no mention of when this plebiscite would be held.


Observers familiar with conditions in Transdniester doubt such a referendum would be credible.


"There is no democratically elected government and those who want to express their political opinions are afraid, as dissidents are followed by the political police," said one Russian-speaking journalist, who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity.


Across the river in the rest of the country, where the majority of the population is of Moldovan origin, the idea of an independent Trandniester fills many with unease.


Stefan Jurja, a former soldier who fought for Moldova during the 1992 conflict, said, "People [in Transdniester] have to put a stop to their aggressive politics and illegitimate actions. Unfortunately, I am afraid that Russia will ultimately succeed in imposing its views in favour of an independent Transdniester."


Relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol were further strained in summer 2004 following Transdniester’s decision to close down schools and kindergartens that taught the Moldovan language using the Latin script. Transdniester has retained the Soviet-era Cyrillic alphabet that was designed to differentiate the language from Romanian, while Moldova has switched to Latin letters.


The heavy-handed school closures outraged the international community, which slammed the decision as “linguistic cleansing”.


This row largely went over the heads of the population on both sides of the river, who had more pressing things to worry about.


"Many citizens have no opinion on the conflict because of poverty,” said Oazu Nantoi from the Institute for Public Policies in Chisinau. “They are looking first of all to their own urgent economical and personal needs, and to the country’s problems after that.


“One survey asked Moldovans how they saw prospects for federalisation, and 80 per cent of those polled replied that they didn't know anything about it and had no opinion either way."


Under such conditions, analysts believe that the only possible solution will involve a continuation of the dialogue between Chisinau and Tiraspol, under close international supervision.


"Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the United States have to find a common stance on the issue of Moldovan federalisation, and organise a meeting between Moldovan and Transdniestran leaders in order to overcome the political crisis," said Andrei Safonov, a political analyst in Transdniester. "There is no other solution if Moldova is to become a stable and prosperous country at the EU's borders."


Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin remains defiant, but concedes that any resolution to this long-running and damaging conflict will ultimately depend on the international community – particularly Moscow.


"The Transdniester regime is and will remain a puppet ruled by Russia and Ukraine," said Voronin recently. "But I will never allow this region – this huge, black and corrupt morasse - to get away."