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Transnistria and Donbass: Historical Parallels and Possible Similar Scenarios for the Future

On January 4, President Igor Dodon of Moldova met with Vadim Krasnoselskiy, the head of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (Transnistria). The meeting took place in Bendery, on the right bank of Dniester river, on the territory of the Transnistria. It was initiated by the president of Moldova.

Igor Dodon was elected Moldovan president on November 13 on a platform advocating improved relations with Russia.

During the meeting, both sides established a good contact and expressed openness and willingness to compromise. Concrete decisions have been taken to improve relations between Moldova and Transnistria. “Citizens on both sides of the Dniester River (which runs through the territory of Moldova and the right (eastern) border of Transnistria) should see the concrete results during 2017,” stated President of Moldova Igor Dodon .
The president of Transnistria Vadim Krasnoselskiy stressed the importance of compromise with Moldova for people living on both sides. “We must create the conditions so that people are not held hostage to politics, so that decisions taken by politicians are for the benefit of the people. We must respect the people of Moldova and Transnistria and find a compromise in any case”, stated Vadim Krasnoselskiy.

During the meeting, the first in eight years, the presidents of Moldova and Trasnistria discussed a whole range of practical issues that have accumulated in recent years, including problems in education, registration of vehicles, communication, movement of citizens, rail transport, recognition of diplomas and car plates.

At the same time, political issues were not discussed. Recognition of the independence of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) by Chisinau remains the main bone of contention between the two republics. Chisinau designates PMR as the Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status. PMR is not recognized by any country, member of the UN, while the UN itself considers PMR to be part of Moldova.

PMR emerged as a reaction of the mostly Slavic population of this territory to the rise of pro-Romanian nationalism among ethnic Moldovans in the late 1980s, the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in Russia. The most prominent movement formed at that time, the Popular Front of Moldova, formulated three main demands: that Moldovan be declared the only state language, that the Moldovan language switch to use of the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic one, and that Moldovan ethnic identity be recognized as identical to Romanian one. The radical factions of the Popular Front called for minority populations, particularly the Slavs (mainly Russians and Ukrainians) and Gagauz, to leave or be expelled from Moldova.

The Supreme Council of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic followed through on main three demands: on August 31, 1989 it adopted Moldovan as the only official language, while retaining Russian for secondary purposes; it introduced the Latin alphabet; and it declared a shared Moldovan-Romanian linguistic identity. The publicly stated intentions of the Moldovan authorities to bring the country closer to Romania, as well as the ethnocentric rhetoric of the Popular Front, provoked serious concerns of ethnic minorities in the country. Transnistria’s population was predominantly Slav – 60% were Ukrainians and Russians, while less than 40% were ethnic Moldovans. The overall majority of the population, including some ethnic Moldovans, spoke Russian as their mother tongue.

The nationalist Popular Front won the first free parliamentary elections in the Moldavian SSR in the spring of 1990. On 2 September 1990, the Second Congress of the Peoples’ Representatives of Transnistria proclaimed the creation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Violence escalated when in October 1990, the Popular Front called for volunteers to form armed militias to stop an autonomy referendum in Gagauzia. In response, volunteer militias were formed in Transnistria.

Limited armed clashes between Transnistrian militia and Moldova started in November of 1990. Volunteers from Russia came to support Transnistrians.In early 1992, the fighting intensified. The former Soviet 14th Guards Army, stationed in Transnistiria, which remained neutral throughout the fighting, entered the conflict in its final stage, swearing allegiance to Transnistrian authorities and opening fire against Moldovan forces. A ceasefire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992 and has held to the present day.

The history of the emergence of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic holds several striking similarity with the current conflict in Ukraine. There, the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine rebelled against the nationalist rhetoric of the Euromaidan movement and the government brought to power through a coup d’état on February 21-22, 2014. One of the first steps of that government was to abolish the existing law on languages in Ukraine granting Russian a special status in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Ukrainian is the only official language in Ukraine. Changes to the language law in 2013 granted Russian a special status in areas of majority or large minority Russian speakers, but the law was bitterly opposed by Ukrainian nationalists.

Another similarity is the linguistic profiles of Ukraine and Moldova. Like Transnistria, where the majority of population speaks Russian, Donetsk and Lugansk regions are the only regions of Ukraine, where Russian language is spoken by the large majority of the population. Population of these regions of Ukraine has always been close to Russia culturally, as with the population of Transnistria. Russian volunteers poured into Transnistria to help locals to defend their rights against Moldovan nationalism; in the same way 20 years later, Donetsk and Lugansk received the support of volunteers from Russia in their fight against Ukrainian nationalism and against a forceful integration into the European Union by the coup government that came to power in 2014. They wanted closer ties with Russia. However, Russia has not officially recognized the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, as it has not recognized the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Russia does provide extensive humanitarian assistance to both entities and maintains extensive economic and cultural relations.

Moldova has not officially recognized Transnistria. But at least it stopped waging war against against the breakaway republic, and it has settled into an uneasy coexistence. The relations between Moldova and Transnistria are often characterized as a “frozen conflict”. All attempts to find a formula for political settlement of the unrecognized status of the PMR between the PMR and Moldova have not produced any result.

Since independence in 1991, Moldova, like Ukraine some 20 years later, set out on a course of economic integration into the European Union. Even the so-called ‘pro-Russian’ Moldovan presidents over the years, such as Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009), followed this course very closely. For example, in 2003, Voronin refused to sign a memorandum proposed by the Russian Federation outlining plans for a unification of Moldova and the PMR into a federal state of Moldova. Voronin stated that since Moldova plans to join European Union, such a plan needed the approval of ‘European structures’, beginning with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’, and therefore he could not endorse it.

In the current conflict between Kyiv and Donetsk and Lugansk republics, Russian officials have stated on many occasions that the two republics (comprising the historic industrial region called ‘Donbass’) should be granted a large autonomy within a unitary Ukraine, in spite of the evident desire of the populations of the two breakaway republics to desire to integrate into the Russian Federation.

The ceasefire and political-settlement agreement signed in Minsk, Belarus on Feb 12, 2015 (termed ‘Minsk-2’, text here) with the endorsement of France, Germany, and Russia, outline beginning principles of this autonomy, but Kyiv has been stubbornly sabotaging the agreement.

The new president of Moldova, Igor Dodon, is proving himself a wiser and more mature politician compared to Ukrainian leaders, as shown by his visit to the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic. He declared that Moldova under his presidency will remain a neutral country, not choosing between European Union or Russia. The population of Moldova, like the population of Ukraine, has always been split in its political and cultural sympathies towards Europe and Russia. Most Moldovans and probably a majority of Ukrainians believe the best way to keep their country safe and whole is by preserving a neutral status between the EU and the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union to the east. Dodon has demonstrated a practical approach of compromise and negotiation in the interests of the population of both Moldova and the PMR.

Kyiv should follow Dodon’s example because it is the only path to peace in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the current political regime in Kyiv is unlikely to do that. The news of Dodon’s meeting with the president of the PMR was not even reported by mainstream Ukrainian media.

The recent call of one of the richest Ukrainian oligarchs, Viktor Pinchuk, to make painful compromises with Russia and implement Minsk-2 and return to a neutral status for Ukraine to reach peace in Donbass, has been repudiated by Poroshenko’s administration. Konstantin Eliseev, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, stated that Ukraine will never turn away from integration into the European Union and NATO . (See my Dec 31, 2016 article ‘ Prominent member of Ukraine’s elite issues call for peace in Donbass’.)

But to the ongoing consternation of officials of the Kyiv government, full membership of Ukraine in the European Union has always been treated cautiously and even reluctantly by European Union officials. They have used the idea to foment conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which is not the same as supporting and facilitation it, as Ukrainians are today learning.

Ukrainians blindly mistook a loose economic association with Europe as being a step toward an inevitable, full integration into the European Union. They naively hoped that the European Union will solve the economic disaster that the country became following independence in 1991, particularly following the failed ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2005 in which competing interests among the country’s economic elite fought for domination amidst a backdrop of deep, social protest by ordinary Ukrainians.

This blind, naïve hope has brought further economic disaster and civil war in Ukraine. The official Ukrainian propaganda blames Russia for all of the troubles beginning in 2013 and it refuses to recognize Kyiv’s fault in its unleashing of a so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (complete with its own, catchy acronym—the ‘ATO’) against its own people. Kyiv relied heavily on U.S. support in the conflict with Russia. Now, that support may dwindle if President-elect Donald Trump carries through his various, offhand statements that he is interested in seeking improved relations with Russia.

Kyiv should review its categorical refusal to accommodate Donetsk and Lugansk if it wants to keep Donbass within Ukraine. Otherwise the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics will follow the path of the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic in exercising a permanent autonomy. It is a very plausible scenario, given the fact that the conflict in Donbass has been frozen for more than two years and Ukraine continues to punish the two republics with unceasing artillery fire and a punishing economic blockade.

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Halyna Mokrushyna is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Sociology at the University of Ottawa and a part-time professor. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and MA degree in communication. Her academic interests include: transitional justice; collective memory; ethnic studies; dissent movement in Ukraine; history of Ukraine; sociological thought.  Her doctoral project deals with the memory of Stalinist purges in Ukraine. In the summer of 2013 she travelled to Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk to conduct her field research. She is currently working on completing her thesis. She can be reached at halouwins@gmail.com.

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