Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 228

The leadership of Transdniester is now marking–though not exactly celebrating–the tenth anniversary of its secession from Moldova and acquisition of the trappings of statehood. Those trappings, of which its security apparatus is the centerpiece, Tiraspol received from the hands of the moribund Soviet authorities and their Russian Federation successors, during the transfer of power in Moscow ten years ago.

In December 1991, Transdniester staged a referendum and a presidential election simultaneously. The referendum resolved that Transdniester would continue to form part of the Soviet Union–a proposition by which Greater Russia soon came to be meant, in practice as in the mindset. The presidential election made Igor Smirnov president. In 1992, Russia’s Fourteenth Army and the Transdniester forces–themselves composed of Fourteenth Army elements handed over–defeated Moldova in an operation commanded by General Aleksandr Lebed, cementing the secession and, with it, the position of the ruling group in Tiraspol. Thus was born that which passes for the status quo today, complete with Russian “guarantees.”

On December 9, 2001, Igor Smirnov was reelected president of Transdniester with–according to Tiraspol’s data, released yesterday–86 percent of the votes cast, in a 65 percent voter turnout. The two losing candidates–ideologically indistinguishable from the victor–cried, plausibly though irrelevantly, fraud. All legitimate international authorities and parliaments refused to send observers to the election. Only some red-brown members of Russia’s Duma–Viktor Alksnis and Georgi Tikhonov, among others–were on hand, along with a few Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada deputies, their Belarusan colleagues in the Panslavist interparliamentary club ZUBR, and sympathizers from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh.

Transdniester’s 700,000-strong population is larger than the combined population of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh. Seen in that perspective, Transdniester’s potential for mischief is considerable. It has not, thanks to Moldova’s resigned passivity, taken dangerous military form. Yet Transdniester poses a unique set of problems to Europe as a whole, to Western institutions and indeed to international security in the Euro-Atlantic area, the collective attention of which has been slow to turn to this running sore of Europe. The challenges arise in the spheres of economics, democracy and international security.

Transdniester is Europe’s single largest “black hole.” Its security apparatus controls a 400-kilometer sector of the Ukraine-Moldova border. There, massive flows of contraband–oil products, cigarettes, a wide range of industrial and agricultural goods and light weapons–as well as illegal migrants are moving from Russia and Ukraine to Europe and vice versa. This traffic embraces the space from Russia and Ukraine to Germany, and branches off into the Balkans. Transdniester’s customs service, headed by Igor Smirnov’s son, functions as an indispensable nexus in those operations. These operations have also corrupted some officials in Ukraine and Moldova. Thus the Transdniester system is not only operating successfully through the years, but has also shown its potential to spread.

The Russian government has directly and indirectly favored this system. Moscow prefers to see Transdniester self-financed, rather than dependent on Russian cash injections. Russia has therefore insisted that Moldova grant Transdniester the authority to trade directly with foreign partners. Moldova has gone along with this from 1996 until this year, when the new President Vladimir Voronin–a Communist and Transdniester native–is trying to curb the contraband. For now, official Kyiv openly refuses to cooperate with Moldova’s effort. Instead, it has begun trading with Transdniester directly, bypassing Moldova, and accepting the invalid customs seals, stamps and forms Transdniester uses. Ukraine provides the main routes for both the registered and the much-larger unregistered trade, both westbound and eastbound. Russian officials almost certainly encourage Kyiv to provide Transdniester with this lifeline.

Russia subsidizes Transdniester indirectly. For gas deliveries alone, Transdniester owes more than US$600 million to Gazprom. Meanwhile, the Russian company Itera has unlawfully privatized the Ribnita Steel Works, which is by far the largest industrial enterprise in Moldova on either bank of the Dniester. The plant, a profit-making exporter on Western markets, provides singlehandedly approximately half of Transdniester’s revenue from business taxes. Two years ago, Itera purchased some 75 percent of the Ribnita Steel Works’ share, without any known legal enactment, either by the Moldovan government–as recognized sovereign authority and legal owner–or by the Transdniester authorities as unrecognized claimants to sovereignty and ownership.

In the area of democracy and human rights, Transdniester has earned the reputation of the last Soviet enclave in Europe, a “Soviet theme park” in terms of visual symbols and the typology of its officials. Behind that official facade, the plight of Transdniester’s population is being widely ignored, not least by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Transdniester represents a unique case of minority rule in contemporary Europe. Political authority and security functions are being exercised by non-native Russians, citizens of the Russian Federation. The nonnative leadership stratum itself represents only a part of Transdniester’s Russian population, portions of which are native to the area.

The last census (1989, widely accepted as valid and in any case a working instrument) found Transdniester’s population to be 41 percent Moldovan, 28 percent Ukrainian and 25.5 percent Russian. There have been no notable inflows or outflows of population since then. Many among the Russians are settlers of the Soviet era. The Ukrainians divide about equally in two groups: Ukrainian-speaking rural inhabitants, native to the area, and Russified urban residents, resettled here from cities in Ukraine. Outside visitors to Transdniester typically focus on the Russified city, ignoring the natives in the countryside.

The Soviet social structure remains, a mix of kolkhoz socialism and feudalism. It resembles a feudal pyramid: Moldovan and Ukrainian peasants, unenfranchised and enserfed in the kolkhoz economy, at the bottom; mainly Russian rulers and military officers at the top, exercising an equivalent of the mediaeval “monopoly of arms,” along with the informal, predatory “customs” system also reminiscent of the feudal system; and an amorphous middle stratum of state clerks and private traders, the latter existing on privileges by grace of the rulers. One major Soviet excrescence persists on this system: the industrial working class, concentrated in the Russified cities of Tiraspol and Ribnita, and slow to abandon Soviet values (see the Monitor, May 22, July 16, August 2, 8-9, September 7, November 21, 26, 28).