Transnistria & Gagauzia

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Kirsten King

The territorial unit of Gagauzia and the unrecognized separatist state of Transnistria, are areas recognized as part of Moldova that have distinguished themselves from the country at large under very different circumstances.

Although both declared their independence in 1990 and 1991 respectively amidst tensions due to Moldova’s disengagement with the USSR, Gagauzia with its high concentration of ethnic minority Gagauz people was peacefully granted autonomy in 1994, but the pro-Russian Transnistria has been in a stalled armed conflict with the Moldovan government since 1990 and remains to this day a post-Soviet “frozen conflict.”

History of Transnistria

Both territories of Gagauzia and Transnistria are contained inside of an area known historically as Bessarabia, of which two thirds belongs to the modern state of Moldova excepting a small section in the north and the southern coastal area Budjak on the Black Sea which belong to Ukraine.

In ancient times, parts of Bessarabia were under Roman governance until the 4th century, Goths in the middle ages, then the majority of the territory came under rule of the Ottomans in the 15th century.

The eastern area (Transnistria) was ceded to the Russian Empire during 1792-1793 and an era of new colonization to this sparsely populated area began spurred by government incentives granting land to Russian, Ukrainian, and many Romanian settlers.

In 1812 following the eighth Russo-Turkish War, the entirety of Bessarabia was annexed to Russia. In the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the area east of Dniester was incorporated into Romania until being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 but briefly reoccupied by Axis powers during WWII and thusly under Romanian rule from 1941-1944.

In the area of Gaugauzia, a wine-growing region of southern Moldova, the origin of the Gaugauz people is still a subject of debate and the etymology of the word remains a mystery. During the late 1800’s it was reported that the term was deemed offensive by the Gaugauz people themselves and who are ethnically Turkic Bulgars and possibly descended from Turkic nomadic steppe tribes.

From 1820-1846, the Russian Empire allocated land to the Gagauz and gave them financial incentives to relocate from eastern Bulgaria and settle in select areas of Bessarabia including the area around the city of Comrat.

Despite a brief independence during the winter of 1906 when the Republic of Komrat was declared, Gaugauzia has existed entirely under first Russian, Romanian, Soviet, and then finally Moldavian rule.

In the East, the modern day border of Transnistria was drawn based on historic lines created during Soviet reconfigurations rather than by areas of ethnic concentrations. Sometimes referred to as

Transdniestria which stems from “trans Dniester” in reference to the river which forms a natural border of the breakaway state, the area to the west of the river was a part of Romania prior to the Soviet era while Transnistria was a part of the Ukrainian SSR from 1924-1940. In 1940, areas of Romania were annexed into the Soviet Union following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was formed including Transnistria along the borders of modern day Moldova.

Current Conflict

During the period of perestroika in the 1980’s leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a nationalist movement began in the Moldavian SSR which would be spearheaded by the nationalist Popular Front of Moldova.

Moldovan (Romanian) was declared the national language rather than Russian, the Latin alphabet was returned, and some radical populist factions even had calls to remove ethnic minorities from the country, predominately the Russian-speaking Slavs and the Gagauz.

On August 27, 1991, the Moldavian SSR formally declared independence and became modern day Moldova.

In the lead up to independence, leaders from both Transnistria and Gagauzia had voted to remain a part of the Soviet Union and many supported the Moscow coup attempt.

Volunteer militias started forming in the predominately Russian-speaking Transnistria in response to the Popular Front in 1990 and the Gagauz people who retain their ancestral Turkic-language felt threatened by removing Russian as the official language which served as a communications medium between ethnic groups.

Three years after Gagauzia declared its independence in 1991, in February 1994, Moldavian President Mircea Snegur granted a degree of autonomy to Gagauzia but denied its independence.

Since then, Gagauzia has struggled to maintain its predominately agricultural economy amid claims of detrimental overreach from the central Moldavian government, and has suffered culturally as the Gagauz language is no longer taught widely in schools and younger generations favor speaking Russian.

On 2 September 1990, legislators in Transnistria proclaimed the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic as a federal state to the Soviet Union; "Pridnestrovie" being the name for Transnistria in Russian. However, neither the government in Chisinau nor Moscow recognized the legitimacy of the breakaway state.

Gorbachev renounced the creation of the PMSSR in December 1990 in an attempt to diffuse tensions after armed clashes occurred between separatists and Moldavian forces in November.

Transnistria had become one of the USSR’s “unrecognized republics” alongside others like South Ossetia and Abkahzia which still exist today.

The conflict escalated during spring of 1992 as nationalist Moldovan police headquarters were raided and fighting broke out in several urban centers including the city of Bendery between PMR (PMSSR) forces joined by Red Army volunteers and the Moldavian forces aided and supplied partly by Romania.

A ceasefire agreement was reached on July 21, 1992 but only after 700 lives were lost in the brief but bloody conflict.

Today, Transnistria retains de facto independence complete with its own currency, police force, president and prime minister, and it remains the only nation in the world still maintaining the hammer & sickle symbol on its national flag.


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Friedrich, Paul

"Ethnicity and power in the contemporary world" Chapter 5, "Dynamics of the Moldova Trans-Dniester ethnic conflict (late 1980s to early 1990s)", Kumar Rupesinghe and Valery A. Tishkov, United Nations University Press, 1996

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