In Moldova, Transdniestria Stands Its Ground

6 MINS READJul 29, 2013 | 10:16 GMT
The leader of the Moldovan breakaway territory of Transdniestria, Yevgeny Shevchuk, at a news conference in Moscow in April.

Neither Russia nor Transdniestria appears ready to resolve the breakaway territory's conflict with Moldova anytime soon, despite somewhat promising statements to that effect. In a July 24 meeting with Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would withdraw weapons from Transdniestria only if Tiraspol and Chisinau agreed on a format for dialogue. However, major concessions from either side seem unlikely.

Transdniestria is small and remote, but its location in Europe's borderlands has made it a highly coveted area for centuries. Eastern and Western powers have long competed for primacy in the area, and Russia and Europe continue that competition to this day. 

Transdniestria is located in the southeast corner of Europe between Moldova and Ukraine. The territory is composed of a thin strip of land almost entirely east of the Dniester River (its name literally translates to "the other side of the Dniester"). With an area of 4,163 square kilometers (roughly 1,607 square miles), Transdniestria is just slightly larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island and boasts some 550,000 residents.

Cultural and Political Evolution

Transdniestria has a complex history, which is best understood through an assessment of the country from which it broke away in the early 1990s, Moldova. Moldova lies just west of Transdniestria between the Prut and Dniester rivers. Historically, the country was known as Bessarrabia. Because of its strategic location between the Carpathians and the Black Sea, Bessarabia was prized territory for centuries, serving as a tributary for the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 16th century until it was annexed by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. During the 20th century, the lands of what is now Moldova were contested by Russia and Romania.

Transdniestria can be seen as an extension of this dispute, albeit a more complicated one in which Moldova, too, became a participant when it gained its independence after the Soviet Union collapsed. What differentiates Moldova from Transdniestria is that the former changed hands between Romania and Russia several times over the last two centuries while the latter remained under Russian control almost exclusively.

In Moldova, Transdniestria Stands Its Ground

Broader Transdniestria Region

This dynamic is reflected most starkly by a demographic comparison between Moldova and Transdniestria. In Moldova, nearly 70 percent of the population is Moldovan; Ukrainians and Russians are the largest minority populations, at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. In Transdniestria, these three ethnic groups are almost equal in population, with Moldovans constituting 32 percent of the population, Russians constituting 30 percent and Ukrainians constituting 29 percent.

Cultural identity complicates the Transdniestria issue. Moldovans are ethnically Romanian, and their languages are nearly identical. Cultural differences between Romanians and Moldovans were virtually indistinct until Russia began exerting its influence in the 18th century. Moldovans then began to speak Russian and use the Cyrillic script; the Russians forcibly repressed the use of the Romanian and Latin scripts. Thus a cultural identity distinct from Romania emerged in Moldova, but this identity had little historical foundation prior to the Russians' arrival.

The collapse of the Soviet Union put Moldova in a unique situation. For the first time in modern history, it was granted its own state, but because it had been occupied or otherwise controlled for so long, it lacked a strong national identity. Many elements within Moldova equated nationalism with a return to Romanian language and culture. Others saw it as a return to Romania itself. This aggravated tensions with Transdniestrians, who began to feel even more alienated from the Moldovan nation — or what it appeared to be becoming.

Their alienation stemmed not just from cultural differences. Under the Russian Empire, and particularly during the Soviet era, Transdniestria was a key hub for industry, much more so than the heavily agriculture-oriented Moldova proper. A disproportionate amount of production of such commodities as metals, chemicals and energy products took place in Transdniestria. Moreover, Transdniestria emerged as a key component of the Soviet defense sector, and the elite Soviet 14th Army was concentrated there. Thus when nationalism came to the fore in Moldova, anti-nationalism likewise rose in Transdniestria.

Ethnic and cultural differences notwithstanding, the economic interests of the Transdniestrian elite were threatened by incorporation into Moldova. Tensions culminated in a full-scale military conflict in 1992. Transdniestrian forces won the war, partly because of Russian military backing and partly because Moldovan forces were divided and inexperienced. Transdniestria achieved de facto independent status from Moldova, unrecognized by the West but fully supported by Russia and bolstered by Russian military personnel (currently around 1,200 strong) and assets.

Russia's Transdniestria Strategy

Transdniestria has retained its de facto independence since the conflict, just as other territories such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia maintain their breakaway status to this day. However, given that Transdniestria and Moldova are located in Europe, not the Caucasus, European powers have paid close attention to the dispute.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe began mediating the conflict in the early 1990s, hoping to persuade Russia to remove munitions and withdraw its soldiers from the breakaway territory. More recently, Germany became involved in mediation in conjunction with the 5+2 process, which comprises Transdniestria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as the United States and the European Union as external observers. Germany has advocated the incorporation of Transdniestria into Moldova as an autonomous state, but Berlin likewise wants Russia to withdraw its troops. And with its historical, cultural and economic interests in Moldova, Romania is particularly interested in these negotiations.

Despite the West's efforts, no meaningful progress has been made toward resolving the conflict. Historical and contemporary factors explain the failure. Transdniestria's resounding victory in the war reinforced its leaders' legitimacy and hardened their bargaining position in negotiations. Moreover, Russia's strategy to maintain a foothold in the region — which it has achieved through military backing and substantial subsidizations — means that Transdniestria does not need Moldova to sustain itself economically.


Moldova Transdniestria map 080612

Meanwhile, Moldova recently has undergone a political evolution. While the Russia-friendly Communist Party ruled the country throughout much of the 2000s, the political upheaval in 2009 and the emergence of the Alliance for European Integration has oriented the country more strongly toward the West, particularly the European Union. Moscow's continued support for Transdniestria is meant to offset Moldova's reorientation.

Last, Transdniestria provides Moscow with leverage over another important former Soviet satellite state with which Russia has a complicated relationship, Ukraine. Coupled with Moldova's political changes, leverage over Ukraine has made Transdniestria all the more important to Russia's position in and approach to the region.

Notably, the internal dynamics of Transdniestria have also shaped the dispute. When Yevgeny Shevchuk succeeded longtime leader Igor Smirnov in 2011, many thought the pragmatic leader would breathe new life into the negotiations. Indeed, Shevchuk softened Transdniestria's harsh stance toward Moldova somewhat by increasing economic cooperation and pursuing better energy and transit links, albeit cautiously. However, Shevchuk has shown no flexibility with regard to Russia's military and security position in the territory because he relies on Moscow's support just as much as his predecessor did.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that peace efforts have failed. Neither the Russians nor the Transdniestrians have much incentive to give any major concessions. The status quo is not likely to change anytime soon.

Its location dictates that Transdniestria will always be important to Russia and to the West. For geographic, cultural and economic reasons, Transdniestria is no more interested in resolving the territorial dispute with Moldova now than it was when the territory broke away in the first place. The enduring support of Russia, as well as Transdniestria's geopolitical position relative to Europe, will continue to constrain rather than facilitate a resolution to the conflict — at least for the near to midterm. 

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