Transnistria – the country that doesn’t exist

Transnistria, or the ‘Prednistrovian Moldavian Republic’, is a breakaway part of Moldova, that declared Independence in 1990. Although this independence has never been recognised by any country other than other ‘breakaway republics’ across the ex-Soviet Union (North Ossetia, Abkhazia), following the Transnistrian War of Independence in 1992 the situation has been pretty stable.

As an aside, there’s an interesting argument that suggests that neither country should even exist – prior to 1940, ‘Moldova’ was part of Romania and ‘Transnistria’ was a part of the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union; as part of the agreements between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the latter was ‘allowed’ to invade the Southern and Western parts of Bessarabia and incorporate them into a ‘new’ Moldovan SSR. Given that these treaties were subsequently deemed ‘void’, that suggests that the borders should have been returned to pre-war positions, but they weren’t.

Due to the pre-war geopolitics, the majority of Moldova has been culturally and linguistically Romanian, whilst the area on the East bank of the Dnieper River has been culturally and linguistically Russian . When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1990-91, there was a fear amongst the Russian-speaking part of the ex-Moldovan SSR that the new government’s aim was union with Romania, and this would leave them unrepresented and potentially a discriminated minority, hence their initial push for Independence.

Even today that split still exists; the main language of Transnistria is still Russian, and many of the people who live there have family and strong affinities to Russia and Ukraine far more than Moldova; many in Tiraspol choose to go to college etc in Odessa rather than Chisinau. In terms of the future, the general swell of popular opinion is that they ideally would prefer to be a part of Russia, and at the time of my trip there were a few stalls along the street where people could sign petitions to further that aim.

The issue this brings that will come to a head at some point in the years to come will be Moldova’s desire to join the EU. As things stand, even if Moldova’s economy was suitable (it isn’t), the issue of Transnistrian sovereignty would be a sticking point around EU entry. While the Transnistrians don’t really care about the EU and would happily secede in what they would see as a win-win situation for Moldova, and while the average Moldovan seems to feel that the country as a whole would be better off without Transnistria anyway, politically this would be an embarrassment and a climb-down for both the Moldovan government and the EU, whose governments themselves have promoted the inviolability of the post-USSR borders.
Interestingly, given the Russian advance through Eastern and Southern Ukraine, and that Odessa is potentially a ‘flashpoint’ city that’s fairly equal in terms of Russians and Ukrainians (on my visit to Transnistria I was due o pass through Odessa, but a couple of days before there’d been some trouble there and a building had burned down killing 50 or so Russians, many of them with links to Transnistria), were the Russians to take Odessa, they’d be next to Transnistria anyway so would be trivial to take ownership.

When the war came, in 1992, it was after a building series of tensions, however nothing was really resolved after the fighting – both sides were backed by larger powers (Moldova by Romania, Transnistria by Russia), and the war kind of ground to a halt. In effect, Transnistria became de facto independent but neither side has really pushed their point since then. Transnistrian border guards staff makeshift posts along the main roads (but not, apparently, a few of the minor ones), and once you’re in Transnistria, you’re subject to different laws, use a different currency, meet people with different passports etc – it’s Moldova only in official names and maps. And at the moment, and pretty much ever since 1992, the area has been pretty peaceful, but who knows how long that will continue.

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