Pridnestrovie: Black Hole or Paradise?
Emergence of the Multi-Ethnic Nation
For every era in history, there is the birth of a great notion. We are sometimes privileged to become players or witnesses to the events following these notions; the civil rights movement, woman’s suffrage, the craftsmanship of idealistic constitutions. There is nothing quite so pure as this initial consciousness of equality, no one quite so energized as those first believers. In 1990, a tiny country was re-born out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t unique in this respect. A number of boundaries were drawn up in 1940 by Stalin during World War II, that were later dissolved by the collapse of the Socialist Republic, such as the splintering of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into smaller independent countries. What is unique about Pridnestrovie, was that in its divorce with Moldova, which remained a communist country, using the tools of self-determination, it crafted a multi-ethnic government.
The people of Pridnestrovie take a great deal of pride in their multi-ethnicity. The tiny country of 550,000 people list thirty-five nationalities, ten religions and a total of three official state languages among its population. In round numbers, a third speak Russian, another third speak Ukrainian, and a third Moldavian. But throughout history the country also received a fair share of immigration from Poland, Germany, Bulgaria, Switzerland and lots of other places … to the point where today, a total of 35 nationalities are represented in Pridnestrovie.
Pridnestrovie considers itself a great melting pot; a free country which welcomes all. In its historic willingness to incorporate foreigners, Pridnestrovie has more in common with the United States than any other country in the world. It is also a country with strong Jewish roots: In 1897, before a Romanian/Moldovan invasion and extermination campaign, 27% of Tiraspol’s population were Jews.
Advertising itself as open and tolerant, it is a multiethnic society with a cosmopolitan outlook. Intermarriage between ethnic groups is common: 15% live in mixed marriages and multilingual households. Xenophobia does not exist: There is no racism or fear of foreigners in Pridnestrovie – and in fact, from the top down, some of the country’s leaders originally came from abroad. Pridnestrovie’s Minister of the Internal Affairs was born in Poland. Others are ethnic Russians and one is from Ukraine. But in parliament and in the government ministries as a whole, the vast majority are locals, having been born in Pridnestrovie. The posts widely represent the country’s varied minority groups. As the OSCE notes, many of the top leaders are ethnic Moldavians.
The country’s constitution, like that of the United States, permits double citizenship. According to the country’s citizenship law, a citizenship of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is obtained by one of two ways: Either by having been born in the country or of Pridnestrovian parents, or else by immigrating to the country and residing legally for a specified period of time. Its laws on citizenship and passports are closely modeled on the similar laws of the United States of America, another country which historically has welcomed immigration and where newcomers — after complying with a time period of fixed and uninterrupted residence — have been able to opt for citizenship. Pridnestrovian passports are only available to citizens, and although double citizenship is allowed under the country’s constitution, it is acquired under strict regulations on the basis within the law for residence and citizenship.
By law, Pridnestrovie affords equal treatment to speakers of all 3 official state languages: Russians, Moldavians and Ukrainians. To avoid a dominance of Russian, the Ministry of Education has made it compulsory for the country’s Russian-language schools to also teach Moldavian and Ukrainian. Children studying in Pridnestrovie grow up with a working knowledge of all 3 languages and an understanding of the cultures behind them.
Due to its historical and geographical origins as the frontline between Western and Eastern civilizations, Pridnestrovie is also religiously diverse. Here, a rich tapestry of faiths peacefully co-exist. Next to Orthodox temples you can easily find Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues. There is no religious or racial discrimation between groups in Pridnestrovie. The rate of interfaith marriages is the highest in South East Europe, as are the number of marriages between ethnic groups. Elected leaders in Pridnestrovie welcome and encourage the multiethnic composition of the republic which in many ways considers itself an example of the new face of Europe.
Struggle for Visibility
In a world where governments call on transparency, Pridnestrovie struggles to become recognized as an independent country, with a sound economic base and equitable laws. According to the article, “A visit to Pridnestrovie: What life is really like here”, this is because most reports on Pridnestrovie are written by people who had never been there and relied on either on recycled information or on a quick two hour morning visit while on their way to Chisinau or Odessa that same afternoon.
Said the article, “They see uniformed border guards who speak a language that they don’t understand, they see a couple of old Lenin statues and red stars which we kept for historic reasons, and then decide that “this must be a Stalinist dictatorship”… This is the quick and sensationalist approach which grabs the headlines. But it is also the wrong approach because it doesn’t square with reality. To fully understand the dynamic civic life of the country, a less superficial style of reporting is required.”
The article suggests that the visitor first learn to speak the Russian language. It claims that in this manner you would be able to read the newspapers, “and see for yourself that there is no censorship in Pridnestrovie and that freedom of expression is indeed completely free. You can also watch our TV stations, both private and public. There, political debates and criticism often fill the airwaves, as in any other vibrant European democracy.
And, most importantly, a working knowledge of Russian will help you talk to the people in the street: ordinary Pridnestrovians who will be happy to tell you the good, bad and ugly of living in Pridnestrovie. There are no restrictions on talking to anyone, anywhere. You can go where you want and talk to whomever you meet. You don’t have a “minder” or a KGB-shadow (they don’t exist in Pridnestrovie), and it is legal to take pictures anywhere in the country except at military installations (a normal rule found in most of the world). Speaking of military installations, you will discover when you visit us that they are few and far between. Pridnestrovie is not a militaristic country. Despite wild scare stories to the contrary, we just have the minimum needed for self-defense, a precaution which we took after being on the receiving end of Moldova’s surprise invasion in 1992.”
In Pridnestrovie alone, there are nearly 600 grassroot groups, NGOs and other civic organizations, dozens of newspapers freely reporting in three languages, several private TV and radio stations, ten religions, and about half a dozen opposition parties. It may be overkill, but at least no one can claim with a straight face that the country does not have an active civil society.
Pridnestrovie has been under the scrutiny of the United Nations and the European Union since accusations surfaced following an invasion into the region in 2002 by Moldova. According to the Moldova reports, Pridnestrovie’s economy is bolstered by drug trafficking, smuggling, sex slavery and militarization. Pridnestrovie sources say that these reports were generated by “a misguided attempt to defend a so called territorial integrity which legal experts say does not exist, the U.S. Embassy in Moldova pays for propaganda by lobbyists who want to turn back the clock on Pridnestrovie’s independence.”
Pridnestrovie claims that following a massacre of nearly one thousand of its citizens, the failed coup of a country ten times its size, resulted in a misinformation campaign designed to view unfavorably Pridnestrovie’s legitimacy as an independent country. Pridnestrovie’s 800+ km of borders are tightly controlled and smuggling has dwindled to not more than in any other country of Europe. A border monitoring mission from the European Union has been checking the transit of goods on Pridnestrovie’s borders since 2005, filing monthly reports on its finding. The result? A “clean” bill of health for Pridnestrovie, confirming similar reports by officials from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) saying that there is no evidence that Pridnestrovie has ever trafficked arms or nuclear material, and that reports on drug trafficking are wildly exaggerated.
Pridnestrovie has already acceded to a number of important UN and Council of Europe conventions on human rights. On September 15, 1992, Parliament of Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica adopted a resolution “On the attitude of the PMR towards international treaties and other documents regarding human rights.”
As per this act, Pridnestrovie ratified and declared in force on its territory the following human rights conventions –
* International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966);
* European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950);
* Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948);
* International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966);
stating that as of the date of the act these are in effective force “on the territory of Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica regardless of whether the PMR is or is not member of the corresponding international organizations.”
Pridnestrovie assertions that Moldova is actually the country involved in the highest percentage of drug trafficking and human slavery is backed by The World Fact Book. According to a CIA report, “Moldova is a major source and, to a lesser extent, a transit country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation; Moldovan women are trafficked to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe; girls and young women are trafficked within the country from rural areas to Chisinau; children are also trafficked to neighboring countries for forced labor and begging; labor trafficking of men to work in the construction, agriculture, and service sectors of Russia is increasingly a problem; according to an ILO report, Moldova’s national Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were likely over 25,000 Moldovan victims of trafficking for forced labor in 2008.”
The report further states, “The Government of Moldova does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so; despite initial efforts to combat trafficking-related complicity since the government’s reassessment on the Tier 2 Watch List in September 2008, and increased victim assistance, the government did not demonstrate sufficiently meaningful efforts to curb trafficking-related corruption, which is a government-acknowledged problem in Moldova; the government improved victim protection efforts, deployed more law-enforcement officers in the effort and contributed direct financial assistance toward victim protection and assistance for the first time (2009)” and the appraisal on drug trafficking was, “limited cultivation of opium poppy and cannabis, mostly for CIS consumption; transshipment point for illicit drugs from Southwest Asia via Central Asia to Russia, Western Europe, and possibly the US; widespread crime and underground economic activity.”
Declaration of Independence
Before the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina and the creation of the Moldavian SSR in 1940, the Bessarabian part of Moldova, i.e. the part situated to the west of the river Dniester (Nistru), was united with Romania (1918–1940). The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany, that led to the events of 1940, was later denounced by present-day Moldova, which declared it “null and void” in its Declaration of Independence in 1991. However, after the break up of the Soviet Union, the territorial changes resulting from it have remained in place.
Before the creation of the Moldavian SSR, today’s (Transnistriam) or Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica was part of the Ukrainian SSR, as an autonomous republic called the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, with Tiraspol as its capital (1924–1940). It represents slightly more than one tenth of Moldova’s territory.
On 31 August 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR enacted two laws. One of them made Moldovan the official language, in lieu of Russian, the de facto official language of the Soviet Union. It also mentioned a linguistic Moldo-Romanian identity. The second law stipulated the return to the Latin Romanian alphabet. Moldovan language is the term used in the former Soviet Union for a virtually identical dialect of the Romanian language during 1940 – 1989. On 27 April 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR adopted the traditional tricolour (blue, yellow and red) flag with the Moldavian coat of arms and changed the national anthem to Des,teapta(-te, române!, the national anthem of Romania before 1946 and after 1989. Later that year (1990) the words Soviet and Socialist were dropped and the name of the country was changed to “Republic of Moldova”.
These events, as well as the end of the Ceaus,escu regime in neighboring Romania in December 1989 and the partial opening of the border between Romania and Moldova on 6 May 1990, led many in Transnistria and Moldova to believe that a union between Moldova and Romania was inevitable. This possibility caused fears among the Russian-speaking population that it would be excluded from most aspects of public life. From September 1989, there were strong scenes of protests in the region against the central government’s ethnic policies. The protests developed into the formation of secessionist movements in Gagauzia and Transnistria, which initially sought autonomy within the Moldavian SSR, in order to retain Russian and Gagauz as official languages. As the nationalist-dominated Moldovan Supreme Soviet outlawed these initiatives, Gagauzia and Transnistria declared independence from Moldova and announced their application to be reattached to the Soviet Union as independent federal republics.
In December 1991, the Moldovan authorities arrested Lieutenant-General Yakovlev in Ukrainian territory, accusing him of helping the PMR forces to arm themselves by using the weapons stocks of the 14th Army. At that time, General Yakovlev has been both Commander of the 14th Army and “Head of the National Defence and Security Department” of the PMR. The government of the Russian Federation interceded with the Moldovan government to obtain the release of General Yakovlev in exchange for 26 policemen detained by PMR forces at the start of the fighting in Duba(sari.
On 5 April 1992, Vice-President Rutskoy of Russia, in a speech delivered to 5,000 people in Tiraspol, encouraged the Transnistrian people to obtain their independence.
Transnistria received more support than Moldova did during the conflict. The Transnistrian army was supported by Russia and Ukraine. Russia had its 14th army stationed in Transnistria, and was ordered to aid the Transnistrians during the conflict. Russia and Ukraine each sent a force of volunteers to fight alongside the Transnistrians. Romania was the only state to aid Moldova during the conflict. Moldova received weapons, military vehicles and a force of volunteers and military advisers from Romania.
The armed conflict lasted from 2 March to 21 July 1992, in three areas along the Dniester river. The start date of the conflict, 2 March 1992, was the same day when Moldova was admitted as a member of the United Nations, i.e. received full international recognition of its August 27, 1991 declaration of independence.
The first fatalities in the emerging conflict took place on 2 November 1990, on the two-month anniversary of the PMR’s 2 September 1990 declaration of independence. Moldovan forces entered Duba(sari in order to separate Transnistria into two halves, but were stopped by the city’s inhabitants, who had blocked the bridge over the Dniester, at Lunga. In an attempt to break through the roadblock, Moldovan forces then opened fire. In the course of the confrontation, three Duba(sari locals, Oleg Geletiuk, Vladimir Gotkas and Valerie Mitsuls, were killed by the Moldovan forces and sixteen people wounded.
A second Moldovan attempt to cross the Lunga bridge took place on 13 December 1991. As a result of the fighting, 27 PMR troops were taken prisoner and 4 Moldovan troops (Ghenadie Iablocikin, Gheorghe Cas,u, Valentin Mereniuk and Mihai Arna(ut) were killed without Moldova being able to cross the bridge. After this second failed attempt, there was a lull in military activity until 2 March 1992, considered the official start date of the War of Transnistria.
It is estimated that in total nearly one thousand people were killed in the conflict, with the number of wounded approaching 3,000. Unlike many other post-Soviet conflicts, IDP’s (internally displaced persons) did not reach large numbers in the war of Transnistria.
Days after the truce had been agreed upon, a military confrontation between a local self-defence unit and the Moldovan army, took place in Gîsca (Gyska), a village with an ethnic Russian majority near Bendery. At least three villagers were killed. During the combat, civil buildings were damaged or destroyed by artillery fire. Later reports of ceasefire violations have been brought under control with no known loss of human lives.
The Russian 14th Army’s role in the area was crucial to the outcome of the war. The Moldovan army’s position of inferiority prevented it from gaining control of Transnistria. Russia has since disbanded the 14th army and reduced troop strength in Transnistria to a corps of around 1,300 men who form part of the JCC.
With the PMR’s overwhelming military superiority, Moldova had little chance of achieving victory and the fighting was unpopular with the skeptical Moldovan population.
According to eye-witnesses in Russian media, the Moldovan troops were firing at houses, courtyards and cars from heavy machine-guns mounted on armored vehicles. It was reported that in the daytime, June 20, Moldovan troopers were shooting at civilians who were hiding in their houses, trying to flee the city or help wounded (PMR) national guards. Eye-witnesses testified that, on that day, a group of unarmed men, having gathered in a downtown square on the call of the pro-PMR Executive Committee, were fired at from machine-guns. Eye-witnesses in Moldovan media testified and produced similar accusation directed at the other side.
On many occasions, fire was opened at ambulance cars. The sides accused each other of such actions. Doctors testified in Russian media that heavy fire from the positions of Moldovan forces, June 19–20, prevented them from giving help to the wounded.
A Chance to be Heard
Pridnestrovskaia doesn’t pretend to be paradise. Like its neighbors, Pridnestrovskia suffered economically with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The country is poor, but the people claim no one goes hungry. They have free education and free medical care. They have a ten percent flat tax base on all incomes. It claims that while poor, it is still more industrialized than Moldova. With a territory just 12% of Moldova’s, upon independence Pridnestrovie nevertheless produced 40% of its GDP and 90% of its electricity. In gas, Pridnestrovie is the region’s leader: During the first 15 years of independence, the nation’s government doubled the length of gas lines to 3,376 km. Exports go to a total of 99 countries. Just one of the privately owned companies, the steel works in Rybnitsa, exports 2,000,000 tonnes of steel per year and has a Lloyds of London certification. Annual turnover exceeds USD 500 million. Today, the USA is the #1 customer for the country’s steel exports. With more than 3,530 trains, the rail system carries over 10 million tons of goods per year. Pridnestrovie’s large hydroelectric plants, M.GRES and Dubossarskaya GES, generate and export electricity to its two neighboring countries, Moldova and Ukraine. These numbers show the importance of Pridnestrovie and underscore the importance of future integration in European cross border trade flows.
Although supported by Russia in its efforts, Pridnestrovie continues struggling to be recognized as its own country. Although a small country, it is larger than Belize with a greater population than Iceland. Pridnestrovie has already acceded to a number of important UN and Council of Europe conventions on human rights. While still not a perfect record, human rights groups who are active in the country report that Pridnestrovie has been making substantial advances in the field. The nation itself was founded on minority rights at a time when ethnic minorities were being mistreated, beaten and tortured as a result of government-sponsored hate language.
The President of Pridnestrovie states that the twenty years of PMR’s existence have not been in vain. “Over the 20 years, we have proved to the world that Transnistria does exist. I am grateful to Russia thank to which there is no bloodshed here. And recent changes in Ukraine are inspiring hope that it is possible to make something for improving the people’s lives without cringing before the European Union”, said Igor Smirnov, the country’s chosen leader.
In his words, no one can force the Transnistrian people into living a different life “because it is impossible to combine the incompatible. We have Slavic roots, and we shall be always with Russia. The people residing in Transnistria have a mentality totally different from that in Moldova, Bessarabia, Romania”. Smirnov thus hinted that Transnistria’s integration with Moldova is impossible.
Asked what he believed was Transnistria’s main achievement and main blunder over the 2 decades concerned, Smirnov said, “Our main achievement has been that we have preserved in Transnistria the Moldovans, and the Russians, Ukrainians, Jewish people, Bulgarians, the Gagauz people etc. And our chief mistake was that we had believed too long that somebody would care about our problems and grievances”.
Western European press coverage of Pridnestrovie is not favorable. A 20 March 2010 coverage by BBC News refers to it as an unrecognized, self-declared statehood, often portrayed as a hotbed of crime. It criticizes the continued occupation of Russian troops within the province, stating that this has been a stumbling block in peace talks and the West is concerned about the Soviet-era arsenal in the territory. A pull-out began in 2001 but was halted when Trans-Dniester blocked the dispatch of weapons. Subsequent agreements to resume failed to reach fruition.
Maxim Belinski from the Helsinki Committee claims that when he tried to supervise a trial in Transnistria, three men kidnapped him at gunpoint. He was badly beaten and narrowly escaped being killed. Dissidents describe how they were forced into exile. “It was said quite clearly; ‘if you stay here, you will properly be dead by tomorrow’”, recalls Sergei Ostaf. The police are believed to be involved in trafficking and Transnistira gives sanctuary to known criminals.
Yet the people of Pridnestrovie say this isn’t so. In a 2006 election, there was a ninety-six percent voter turn out with ninety-four percent voting for the independence and development of PMR. The people of Pridnestrovie invite visitors into their region and encourage an examination into their domestic affairs. To all appearances, they comply with the Conventions of Human Rights. They promote democracy and multi-ethnicity.
It leaves one to wonder why the European Union and the world at large has refused to recognize Pridnestrovie as its own country. Although the ongoing explanation is that PMR is seeped in corruption, there is virtually no evidence that the country that wishes to annex the state into its own province has a better record. Is it possible that in this current society where people are measured in numbers instead of as individuals, Moldova has the larger voice simply because it’s the larger and has been established longer as a country? Maybe the reasons go deeper than that. On many fronts, within the United States and in Europe, the dream of multi-ethnicity and democratic union has fallen way to bitter religious and ethnic hate campaigns. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable that a country, whose main support is Russia, is purporting to represent a form of government more democratic, more elastic in its diversity that what our current corporate driven society has been able to project. Perhaps this type of idealism simply isn’t convenient.
What is certain is that Pridnestrovie has the right to try. It has the right to enter the modern world and present its perspective. Only by listening to the viewpoints of all cultures, can we truly enter the era of multi-ethnicity understanding. The legitimacy of PRA should not be questioned. It is the agreement of a region of people who retain close ties with Russia and Ukraine, as well as containing a population of native Moldovians. It is the efforts of a united citizenry to recognize a diverse state with three different languages, thirty-five nationalities and ten different religions. It has the right to be heard.
By: Karla Fetrow-The progressive step into the new era is one of multi-ethnicity understanding and religious tolerance. We should welcome the birth of a great notion.