After Crimea, is Transdniestria Next?
Transdniestria is one of the more obscure places in Europe. Officially this impoverished and tiny entity does not exist, being recognized by basically nobody; even its Russian client does not formally regard it as a state, though it does maintain diplomatic relations. Transdniestria – officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or PMR, as it styles itself in English – came into existence in 1992, after a brief conflict between Russian troops and Moldova, to which the PMR legally belongs. As such, it is a “frozen conflict” without obvious resolution. Its half-million population, which is aging and dropping fast, is about a third each Moldavian (i.e. Romanian), Russian, and Ukrainian, and the pseudo-country has a garrison of about a thousand Russian troops, ostensibly there as peacekeepers.
Tensions are rising in the PMR as neighboring Ukraine writhes in its Kremlin-induced crisis, not helped by the fact that the legitimate economy is weak while smuggling is rampant; the PMR has a reputation for corruption and lawlessness considered impressive by the high regional standards. But it is strategically significant, since it is connected to Ukraine, and thanks to the Russian population there, the PMR is considered “theirs” by the Kremlin, regardless of what Russia’s official position may be. If Vladimir Putin decides to take over much of Ukraine – and it may be a matter more of when than if now – his forces will wind up absorbing the PMR too.
Strong hints of where this conflict is headed were provided yesterday in a detailed piece by Vladimir Solovyev in the Moscow daily Kommersant, which is pro-Kremlin. Revealingly titled “The Crimea of the Fatherland is sweet and pleasant to them: Authorities in Trandniestria are prepared to repeat the fate of the peninsula,” it explains how far along planning actually is for incorporating the PMR, in Crimean fashion, into Russia. It begins forthrightly:
The situation around Transdniestria as taken a turn for the worse. Kommersant has learned that talks on a settlement of the Dniester conflict scheduled for 10-11 April have been derailed. Authorities in the unrecognized republic have declined to take part, accusing Moldova of sanctions, and Ukraine of a blockade. Transdniestria, inspired by the example of Crimea, wants a definitive divorce from Kishinev [the Moldovian capital, Chișinău in Romanian] and annexation to Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, is expressing a readiness to use force against those offending Transdnistria and to “enforce peace on any aggressor”.
The article explains that PMR authorities have decided to cease internationally-brokered parley with Moldovan authorities and have latched onto a border question:
The scuttling of the negotiations was new confirmation of the exacerbation of the relations between Kishinev and Tiraspol [the PMR “capital”]. The reason lies not only in the lack of economic agreements. A territorial dispute affecting several villages of Moldovan jurisdiction, which Transdniestria considers its own, has flared up with new force between the parties to the conflict. On Friday, residents of the village of Dorotskoye held a meeting, raising the question of a transition to PMR jurisdiction. The proceeding all but ended in the Moldovan flag being torn down from the local council building, but in the end it was decided to meet on 10 April to settle whom to live with in the future – Moldova or Transdniestria.
Unsurprisingly in the current regional situation, the PMR is having problems with Ukraine too:
Tiraspol is in conflict not only with Kishinev but also with Kyiv, which more than a month ago tightened procedures for the crossing of the Ukrainian border for citizens of the Russian Federation. In Transdniestria, however, which is squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine, almost one out of every two residents has Russian citizenship, and Kyiv’s actions were seen there as a blockade. “In March [Ukrainian authorities], barred more than 200 residents of the PMR, who had Russian passports, from crossing the border. Approximately 200,000 citizens of the Russian Federation reside in our republic, a further 100,000 almost have Ukrainian citizenship, many have family connections in the neighboring countries, and these measures are inflaming tension,” PMR leader Yevgeniy Shevchuk complained.
Ukraine has described its tensions with the PMR as an internal matter, a view which is rejected in Tiraspol and – of course – in Moscow too:
Moscow’s increased attention to Transdniestria is putting Ukraine on alert. “There are reports that the Russian Federation peacekeeping contingent in Transdniestria is planning to conduct military exercises. Do you know the scenario? Escorting humanitarian goods to the PMR! Never before have exercises been conducted based on such a scenario. That a military component is being plugged in suggests that since there is a blockade, it needs to be eliminated, broken. And with the involvement of armed forces, possibly,” complained Ambassador Pirozhkov [Ukraine’s ambassador to Moldova].
Whereas Russian peacekeepers only intend to conduct exercises, the PMR military is already training vigorously. Last week the defense ministry of the unrecognized republic announced live gunnery for tank crewmen, artillerymen, anti-aircraft crews, and anti-tank men, and also exercises for combat engineer units, which practiced laying of a floating bridge across the Dniester. The PMR Defense Ministry emphasizes that all the exercises are planned, their explanation is: “defense against an aggressor”.
Russia also is prepared for the defense of the Transdniestira, it would appear. Commenting on the situation surrounding the unrecognized republic on the Russkiy Vopros program on the Center TV channel, Deputy Premier Dmitriy Rogozin said: “We will employ the entire arsenal of political, diplomatic, economic, and, if need be, power, pressure against any aggressor to enforce on the aggressor peace, tranquility, and the observance of democratic standards.” This statement was relayed to Transdnistria instantly.
At this point Kommersant drops any subtlety and explains what’s likely to happen next, à la Crimée:
Authorities in Tiraspol, inspired by the way in which Moscow settled the “Crimea question,” are making no secret of the fact that they would like to share the fate of that peninsula as soon as possible. And they are looking to Russia. “The residents of Crimea decided their fate in the most democratic fashion – at a referendum. Transdniestria supports the position of the leadership of Russia in defense of its citizens – this is how all civilized countries behave. At the PMR referendum in 2006 more than ninety-seven percent of the electorate supported independence with subsequent annexation to Russia. We believe that, considering the rapidly changing situation in the world, our international partners who are involved in a Transnistria settlement will arrive at the opinion that a just solution is possible only via the wishes of the people here,” Yevgeniy Shevchuk is convinced. Transniestria is thus prepared to become part of Russia. Yevgeniy Shevchuk will today be addressing the people – it is not inconceivable that he will talk about this too.