Transdnestr Republic: The “mini-Russia” between Moldava and Ukraine
by John-Henry Hill, M.D.
March 4, 2014
A little-known “nation” located between Moldava and south-western Ukraine could pose a huge problem for any settlement of the U.S.’s coup d’etat in Ukraine: it is called the Transdnestr Republic (also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR). It comprises the area east of the Dniester River up to the western border of Ukraine. Its capital city is Tiraspol, located a mere 101 Km (63 miles) from Odessa, Ukraine and 77 Km (48 miles) from Chisinau, the capital of Moldava. Transdnestr is recognized by Russia as independent, while the European Union and the U.S. view it as part of Moldava. Having passed through there several years ago on my way from Odessa to Chisinau, I think it can be best described as “fiercely independent and extremely well-armed”, giving one the feeling of being in a Wild West town where a gun fight between rival gangs may break out at any minute. The tension is palpable, but the gun fights never seem to come to pass.
Transdnestr’s population of about 550,000 is evenly split between Moldovans (32 percent), Russians (30 percent) and Ukrainians (29 percent). The two main cities worth are Tiraspol and the smaller Bender. Despite the three ethic groups, large numbers of people travel daily between Chisinau and Tiraspol daily, without apparent conflicts. In fact, Tiraspol has experienced only political conflicts and never any inter-ethnic conflicts – the view of life there is summed up by the saying, “A person is valued according to his trade, neighborliness and human qualities.” The unofficial border is patrolled by Moldovan soldiers and Transdnestr soldiers, as well as Russian peacekeepers; but there are never any disputes among them. It is “live and let live”, probably because there is not much to fight over. Chisinau is a “two-bit” town with dirty streets and a few scattered multi-story buildings; Tiraspol is only slightly better. In short, Transdnestr functions as a separate state, with its own government, currency, passports, police and army (supported by 1,200 Russian troops).
Tiraspol (population of 144,000) was founded on the same day as Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on Oct. 14, 1792. Transdnestr’s strong links to Russia date back to 1792, when Tiraspol became an outpost of the Russian empire following the Russo-Turkish war. The region was subsequently settled by an eclectic mix of ethnicities including Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Jews and Germans. In the 20th century Transdnestr served as a strategically important military base for the Soviet Union’s 14th Army.
As the Soviet Union fell apart and Moldova swiftly promoted its own non-Soviet national identity and language, the mainly Russian-speaking diaspora to the east of the Dniester River formed Transdnestr. The Soviet army left behind vast quantities of arms, including heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks – so the Transdnestr military even today is no “Mickey Mouse” outfit to be easily brushed aside. The Transdnestr people feared alienation and consequently declared the region’s secession from Moldova in September 1990. A military conflict followed involving tens of thousands of people and costing about 700 lives. A cease-fire took effect in 1992, and since then the region has remained one of several post-Soviet frozen conflict zones manned by heavily armed Russian peacekeepers. Of great geopolitical importance is that in a 2006 referendum, the population of Transdnestr overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence from Moldova and an eventual union with Russia.
Transdnestr survives on financial assistance from Russia, which still maintains a 1,200-member peacekeeping mission there, acting as the region’s main protector, providing subsidies and a counterbalance to the EU’s backing of Moldova. Local GDP in 2012 reached about $1 billion, or about $2,000 per head, equivalent to neighboring Moldova. The Russian connection is particularly evident in Tiraspol, where ethnic Moldovans are a disproportionate minority forming only 15 percent of the population. The people of Tiraspol remain strongly attached to Russia: a statue of Lenin dominates the main square near the Soviet-style presidential palace. And posters and emblems featuring the old Communist hammer and sickle, along with the old Russian coat-of-arms are still commonly seen on buildings. The 2006 referendum in Transdnestr in favor of independence from Moldova and an eventual union with Russia is still very much on peoples’ minds. On September 2, 2011 Transdnestr again officially proclaimed and affirmed its independence.
The important question is, if Russia, takes control of the heavily pro-Russian city of Odessa and the rest of southern and eastern Ukraine, will it also add Transdnestr to its domain, as the people of Transdnestr overwhelmingly voted only 8 short years ago?