Updated: Dec 18, 2019
By: Šárka Humlová
Bessarabia and Transnistria are the two constituent parts of today’s recognized Moldova. Although Transnistria was and still is partly populated by ethnic Moldovans (about 30% of the total population), it was not a part of Moldova’s predecessor - The principality of Moldavia (ICG 2003: 2).
Historically, Transnistria was under the control of the Kievan Rus and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while Bessarabia was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
Still, as a consequence of numerous wars and annexations by the beginning of the 19th century the Russian Empire encompassed both Bessarabia and Transnistria, although under different administrations (Isachenko 2012).
However, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bessarabia constituted itself as a ‘Moldavian Democratic Republic’ (MDR) - an autonomous republic within the proposed Russian Federation; it declared independence and united with Romania shortly thereafter.
The Romanian rule over Bessarabia, was however not recognized by the newly founded USSR, which considered Transnistria to be a part of the USSR (ICG 2003: 2).
Following numerous unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to reclaim the territory, USSR formed the ‘Moldovan Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic’ (MASSR), an autonomous republic located within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR) (Isachenko 2012: 48).
The Transnistrian region was one of the main components of the MASSR, with Tiraspol as its capital.
In 1940, the USSR annexed Bessarabia and formally integrated it into USSR - the southern part of Bessarabia was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR; the rest was joined with the MASSR to create a ‘Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’ (MSSR) (De Waal 2018: 36).
Hence, the MSSR comprised of territories on both sides of the Dniestr river, which meant that these two regions shared the administrative structures for the first time in their history.
Still, throughout the Second World War, the regions of the MSSR were under two different jurisdictions - while Bessarabia was formally reintegrated into Romania, Transnistria was only under Romanian occupation (ICG 2003: 2).
These different historical backgrounds contributed to the fact that in the post-1945 era, “in demographic and economic terms, the [MSSR] gradually developed as two republics in one: a largely rural, Moldovan, and indigenous population in Bessarabia employed primarily in agriculture and light agro-industry; and a more urban, Slavic, and generally immigrant population in Transnistria working in Soviet-style heavy industry” (King 1999: 100).
The divide was developed further by the disproportionate settlement of Russian speakers in Transnistria as opposed to Bessarabia (up to 300,000 settled in MSSR in the period of 1944- 59) (ICG 2003: 2).
Despite the fact that the wider population of the MSSR “still had much in common” (De Waal 2018: 37), the republic saw the emergence of two competing elites.
The right-bank elite spoke ‘Moldovan’ (Romanian written in the Cyrillic script), while the left-bank prioritised Russian, supported Russification and exercised disproportionate political influence since it dominated state and party structures along with the economy (ICG 2003: 2). This divide became an increasing source of tension during the 1980s.
At the height of Gorbachev’s reforms, the two elites adopted different strategies, while the anti-Soviet elite “asserted their Moldovan identity and loosened ties with Moscow”, the other elite declared its autonomy and reaffirmed its loyalty to Moscow (de Waal 2018: 37).
The adoption of language law, which established Moldovan (in Latin script) to be an official language; along with the democratisation process that resulted in the de-Russification of politics, meant that in 1991 nearly 90% of leadership positions were in the hands of ethnic Moldovans (ICG 2003: 3).
In spite of the success of this Moldovan national movement, from its outset it has faced opposition from the other ethnic groups including the Russian-speaking population in the industrial centres located in Transnistria (ibid).
The Union of Workers Collectives (OSTK - Ob’edinennyi sovet trudovykh kollektivov) - a top-down pro-Soviet Russian organisation; initiated a policy of separation, which in 1990 cultivated in the declaration of the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic’ (PMSSR) as a constituent part of the USSR (Isachenko 2012: 52).
The PMSSR was; however, not recognized by the authorities in Moscow nor Chisinau. When Moldova declared independence from the USSR in 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Transnistria adopted its own constitution and before the end of the year held a referendum that approved its independence and elected the first president of the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ (PMR) - the official name of Transnistria.
During the winter of 1991/1992, Transnistrian militias together with paramilitary forces attempted to overthrow local authorities in Transnistria that have remained loyal to the Moldovan government, this eventually escalated into an outright war.
The intervention by the Soviet 14th Army on behalf of Transnistria in 1992 not only helped to secure Transnistria’s de facto independence, but also a ceasefire agreement that introduced a joined Moldovan, Russian, and Transnistrian peacekeeping force (ICG 2003: 4).
Even though the war was shorter and caused less bloodshed than the ones in Abkhazia or Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), it nonetheless “caused deep traumas in a small region” (De Waal 2018: 39).
Even though the two regions are ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous with reasonably warm relations among the two populations as well as a “shared history longer than that of many states in existence today”, the conflict has proven to be “anything but transient” (ICG 2006: 1).
Today, Transnistria is considered one of four post-Soviet 'frozen conflict' zones and an unrecognized country.
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