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Moldova: Transdniester Conflict Was Long In The Making

A Tiraspol street festooned with campaign posters during the December legislative elections (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The problem of Transdniester came into being in 1924, when the then-Soviet authorities created the so-called Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the left bank of the Dniester (Nistru) River, alongside the eastern border of Romania. The Soviet "autonomous Moldavia," carved out of the Ukrainian SSR, had an area of 8,300 square kilometers and a population of some 500,000.

Pre-World War II Soviet Moldavia included what is today known as the Republic of Moldova's secessionist region of Transdniester (4,160 square kilometers), plus an additional chunk of Ukraine of an approximately equal area.

Nation Building

According to a Soviet census of 1926, Romanians accounted for some 30 percent of the population of the Moldavian Autonomous SSR, while Ukrainians made up some 49 percent and Russians 8 percent. The capital of this republic, originally set in Balta (now in Ukraine), was moved to Tiraspol in 1929.

It is hard to imagine many Transdniestrians will hesitate on September 17 when it comes to choosing between "independence" with a rich Russia or "loss of independence" with a poor Moldova.

Apparently, the Moldavian Autonomous SSR was created by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to induce Romanians living in eastern Romania -- the so-called Bessarabia, or the eastern half of the historical Principality of Moldova -- to campaign for incorporation into the Soviet Union. Bessarabia belonged to tsarist Russia from 1812-1918, and the Bolsheviks after the 1917 October Revolution refused to recognize officially the region's unification with the rest of Romania.

In June 1940, the Soviet Union -- following the secret deal made with Nazi Germany in the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact -- occupied Bessarabia and shortly afterward created the Moldavian SSR, which included most of Bessarabia and the strip of land known today as Transdniester. The other half of the erstwhile Moldavian Autonomous SSR was returned to Ukraine.

Artificial Construct?

Thus, the Moldavian SSR -- which in 1991 became the independent Republic of Moldova -- was a fairly artificial formation, consisting of most of Bessarabia -- a historically and ethnically Romanian territory -- and Transdniester, which was predominantly Slavic in its ethnic composition and throughout history remained beyond the Principality of Moldova's political borders.

The Moldavian SSR, like many other Soviet republics, was subject to vigorous programs of Sovietization and Russification and underwent some significant demographic changes as well.

For Moldova in general and Transdniester in particular, the Soviet period was marked by an inflow of mostly Russian and Ukrainian migrants, primarily well-educated managers, skilled industrial workers, and party functionaries. Ethnic Romanians (Moldovans) during the Soviet era remained overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. They were also socially less mobile and had less formal education than Russians and Ukrainians.

Click here to view archives of RFE/RL's coverage of the conflicts in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, and Transdniester.

In Transdniester, Soviet-era migration modified the ethnic makeup of the area, making it "more Russian." According to a local census in 2004, Transdniester had 555,000 inhabitants (31.9 percent Moldovans, 30.3 percent Russians, and 28.8 percent Ukrainians). The percentage of Moldovans remained virtually the same as it was in the Moldovan Autonomous SSR, but the percentage of Ukrainians considerably decreased and that of Russians considerably increased.

Social Engineering

Although no reliable sociological data are available in this regard, it appears that Transdniester residents -- Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans alike -- did not develop warmer feelings toward the Moldovan (Romanian) culture and language during the Soviet era.

Russian in the Soviet Union was the language of cultural and social advancement. There is no good reason to believe that Moldovan peasants, joining the ranks of industrial workers in Tiraspol and their more successful, Russian-speaking urban milieu, cared very much about preserving their native tongue or nourished the idea of an independent Moldovan statehood.

Thus, Transdniester became an exemplary place where the cultural uprooting of newcomers (Russians and Ukrainians) and the sudden urbanization of socioeconomically inferior natives (Moldovans) contributed to the formation of a Soviet-minded society. A similar result, but on a considerably larger scale, was achieved by the Soviet authorities in the Belarusian SSR.

Pro-Russian, Or Pro-Soviet?

The current Transdniestrian leader, Igor Smirnov, has expressed confidence that all nationalities taking part in the referendum will overwhelmingly back secession from Moldova and a potential merger with Russia. Explaining his conviction, he said this week that all Transdniestrians have a "pro-Russian mentality."

This may in part be true, particularly since the Russian troops in Transdniester are officially portrayed as the guarantor of peace and interethnic harmony in the region, while continuing Russian political and economic assistance is presented as a sine qua non for the region's survival.

But a no less important part of the truth may be that many Transdniestrians have also developed a "pro-Soviet mentality" that is more interested in perpetuating the atmosphere of the Soviet Union than developing Transdniestrian national aspirations.

The Money Factor

Economic considerations also seem to play an important role in the Transdniestrans' desire to break away from Moldova. The Republic of Moldova has actually failed to introduce any meaningful economic reforms in the post-Soviet period and is the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at $900. Ukraine's GDP, by comparison, is $1,700; Lithuania's is $7,500; and Poland's is $13,000.

On the other hand, the regime in Tiraspol claims that Transdniester "on a per capita basis... is richer and more industrialized than any of its neighboring countries" (, even though it cites no specific figures. But, perhaps, no specific figures are needed for Transdniestrians to prove their economic superiority.

Confronted with an apparent economic disaster in Moldova, which has no natural resources and is heavily dependent on agriculture, it is hard to imagine many Transdniestrians will hesitate on September 17 when it comes to choosing between "independence" with a rich Russia or "loss of independence" with a poor Moldova.

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