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Putting the Squeeze on Transdniestr

by soj Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 04:41:14 AM EST

I see that the western press is almost completely ignoring the developing situation in Transdniestr, despite the huge ramifications involved.


First a little background:

The country now known as Moldova was formerly part of (Greater) Romania, known as the region of Bessarabia. It was annexed during World War II by the Soviet Union and later became the Moldovan SSR. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Moldova became an independent nation and shortly afterwards there was a brief but vicious war between Moldovan forces and Transdniestr.

Transdniestr (sometimes spelled Trans-Dniester in English) is a self-proclaimed independent country, although it is not recognized as such by any other nation. It has its own government, police, customs, border patrol and military, not to mention its own official "state" run media. Due to a number of factors, it is also home to most of the industrial capabilities of Moldova, and therefore despite its small size and awkward geographical layout, it is financially better off than Moldova proper.

The population of Transdniestr is about half Romanian, with the other half mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. The political power structure however is completely run by Russians, including the "President" of Transdniestr, Igor Smirnov. Transdniestr fended off Moldovan attacks to become independent/autonomous largely thanks to Russian military help and the country has survived entirely thanks to Russian patronage. Indeed, most Russian citizens of Transdniestr carry Russian passports and the Russian ruble is the currency used in Transdniestr.

Unfortunately for Transdniestr's leadership, the autonomy does not have any borders with Russia itself. Instead it is wedged between Moldova proper and Ukraine. In former, perhaps happier times for Transdniestr, Ukraine was considered an ally and critical rail links with the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol were a lifeline for Transdniestr's economy.

With the election of Viktor Yushchenko in early 2005, Ukraine has steadily allied itself with the west, including the United States. And the west believes that Russia is illegally maintaining military bases in three autonomies in Europe, including Transdniestr, which is the primary stumbling block towards the signing and ratification of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. To put it bluntly, the west wants Transdniestr to do what Adjara did in 2004 (in Georgia), which is acquiesce to Moldovan central government, perhaps in the form of some lind of limited autonomy in a federation.

This issue shifted last week when Moldova and Ukraine implemented new customs regulations, requiring all Transdniestr goods (that are being exported) to carry a Moldovan tax stamp. In other words, Transdniestr must pay taxes to Moldova to export its goods, which of course angered the Transdniestrians. At first Igor Smirnov believed that Ukrainian president Yushchenko must be "poorly informed" on the new regulations, implying Yushchenko would never implement them if "only he knew" about them.

Well Yushchenko knows about them darn well and as a result of the new rules, all exports from Transdniestr to Ukraine have stopped. Just to reinforce his awareness on the issue, Ukraine beefed up its troop presence on the border with Transdniestr just to keep Smirnov from getting any ideas.

Russia responded angrily, saying that the new customs rules could lead to a humanitarian disaster, saying that the enforcement of customs rules is actually an imposition of economic sanctions. Transdniestr's econonomic "minister", Yelena Chernenko, said the autonomy had already lost 20 million dollars after one week of the new rules. Meanwhile Ukraine says that Transdniestr has only itself to blame after Transdniestr banned all automobile imports from Ukraine.

Perhaps most ominously, a Russian MP named Sergey Shishkarev stated that Russia could formally recognize Transdniestr as an independent country. I sincerely doubt that will happen at this juncture but it's adding fuel to the fire.

As far as Russia is concerned, Transdniestr is an independent country even if it doesn't say so on paper. And it isn't going to let Transdniestr get put into an economic stranglehold. There are five self-declared autonomies slash de facto nations in Europe and the CIS - Transdniestr, South Ossetia (Georgia), Abkhazia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) and Kosovo (Serbia). Russia backs the independence of the first four while opposing the last one.

Yet Russia and others in the region cannot help but notice how close Kosovo is to becoming an independent country, backed by all the western nations. This seems patently unfair compared to the other four, where there are equally as many valid reasons to justify international recognition as independent states. Therefore the loss of Transdniestr touches on bigger issues, such as Russia's influence in the world versus that of NATO/the west.

Russia will try twisting Ukraine's arm on this issue to get some kind of compromise worked out. But if that doesn't work out, I don't know what the next step will be. Transdniestr cannot survive if they cannot export goods via Ukraine or Moldova and it seems extremely unlikely that they will acquiesce to Moldovan customs oversight as that would be political suicide for the Smirnov clan.

We'll have to keep a sharp eye on this situation, that's for sure.

Peace

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Great diary Soj, thanks for this information.

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 04:51:24 AM EST
Wiki'd.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 05:03:52 AM EST
PmWiki can't process your request

Cannot write page to Main.PoliticsAndPolicyByCountry (wiki.d/Main.PoliticsAndPolicyByCountry)...changes not saved

We are sorry for any inconvenience.

Hey, Colman, what's up?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 05:18:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Shoudl be better now.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 01:57:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 04:06:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]

The population of Transdniestr is about half Romanian, with the other half mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

I think even now most Moldovans will disagree with assertion that they are Romanians. Population census of 2004 puts population of Transdniestr at 555,500 (compare with 679,000 in 1989) with  31,9% Moldovans, 30,3% Russians and 28,8% Ukrainians.

>70,0000 carry Ukrainian passport. Interestingly enough, in presendent's elections they voted overwhelmingly against Yushchenko. This year Ukraine decided not to open polling stations in Transdniestr for parliamentary elections.

by blackhawk on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 05:34:10 AM EST
Ah well I get it from both sides.  If I say they're Moldovan all the Romanians jump on my back ;)

Technically speaking, yes they are "ethnic" Moldovan, although if that's an ethnicity so is Moldavian, Maramuresian and Crisanan.

I guess the best delimeter is the language spoken and yes Moldovan is considered a separate language than Romanian, although it is virtually identical.

Pax

Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 10:24:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Apparently Moldovan is essentially the same language as Romanian, except that the name of the language in Moldova is Moldovan. Sort of like in Spain, where (two very close dialects of) the same language is called Catalan in Catalonia and Valencian in Valencia, and this is codified in the Statutes of Autonomy for the respective Autonomous communities.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 11:42:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Gosh I'm an idiot... the port that they depend on isn't Sevastopol, it's Odessa.  I was thinking of the Russian Black Sea naval port.  My mistake!

Pax

Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 10:27:28 AM EST
I recall you did some great posts on Transdniestr on your site. You might mention who Smirnoff is and where he comes from. Or if his son continues to be the only person who has an export license.

Transdneistr appears to be very much a family affair, just like Lukashenko in Belarus.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 11:27:43 AM EST
Thank you, soj.
by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Sun Mar 12th, 2006 at 11:59:36 AM EST
The Transdniestrian situation seems really scary. I can't imagine how is it possible that there are independent self-proclaimed regions in Europe and at the same time we are talking about a united Europe (which I completely support- don't get me wrong).

Probably one of the reasons why the western press is ignoring the issue in Transdniestr is because Moldova, as a whole, is not a really influencial actor on the european podium. Unfortunatelly, it just do not have the capacity to be since it is still the poorest country in Europe.

I just hope everything will settle soon because both Transdnistrians and Moldovans are having hard time now.

by Denny on Thu Mar 16th, 2006 at 04:41:24 PM EST
Moldova is a black hole in European awareness: even more forgotten than Belarus.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 16th, 2006 at 05:25:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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