TRANSDNIESTER AT TEN: SOVIET CONTINUITY IN ACTION.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 229

(Continued from yesterday’s issue) Transdniester is one of only two places in the former Soviet Union–the other is Abkhazia–in which the August 1991 putsch was successful, with the local leaders retaining their power into the post-Soviet era. In Transdniester, that continuity is both political and physical, embracing the entire civilian and military leadership. In contrast to Abkhazia, the leadership of Transdniester is for the most part alien to the region. Yet, for the sake of legal and political appearance, and given that Moldovans form a plurality of the population, Transdniester’s Russian leaders claim to be representing a Moldovan state formation, punctiliously and officially named the “Dniester Moldovan Republic.”

The top holders of power arrived in Transdniester from Russia at the end of the Soviet period, hold ex-KGB or military ranks, are citizens of the Russian Federation and undoubtedly form part of chains of command centered in Moscow. Transdniester’s president Igor Smirnov hails from the Habarovsk Territory in eastern Siberia; he arrived in 1986 in Tiraspol as a Soviet factory director. Transdniester’s would-be foreign affairs minister Valery Litskay comes from Russia’s city of Tver; he worked during the 1980s in Chisinau as an official escort for foreign students and visiting academics–a line of work typically entrusted to KGB agents–and ended up in Tiraspol in 1990 as a “political refugee” from Chisinau. Transdniester’s self-styled defense minister, Lieutenant-General Stanislav Hadziev, is variously said to hail from either Tatarstan or North Ossetia.

The chief of Transdniester’s security apparatus, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Antyufeyev, is considered to be the most powerful individual in Tiraspol and the guarantor of the political leadership under Smirnov. Antyufeyev has held this position since late 1991 or early 1992, when he arrived in Tiraspol from Latvia via Moscow, heading a group of OMON and KGB officers, implicated in violent assaults on civilians in Latvia and Lithuania. This group of Russian officers formed the nucleus of Transdniester’s security apparatus. More recently, Antyufeyev’s wife Galina became chair of the human rights commission of the Supreme Soviet of Transdniester. Local Moldovans hold no power, only the decorative chairmanship and vice chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet.

With the top leaders’ average age close to 60, a generational renewal seems likely soon. But the new generation of leaders may turn out to represent the same forces, interests and values as the incumbent leadership. Two budding successors made an appearance at an international conference in Moscow last month, representing Transdniester’s self-described foreign affairs ministry, and encapsulating Transdniester’s story in their biographies. They arrived in Tiraspol around 1988-1990 as sons of Soviet army officers who had been transferred there from Turkmenistan and from Murmansk, respectively. Monolingual in Russian, yet claiming like the elder leaders a mandate to speak for the Moldovans and Ukrainian natives of the “Dniester Moldovan Republic,” these young representatives exemplified that typical Tiraspol sense of Greater Russian mission in an imperial periphery. “We shall never permit the Latin script in the ‘Dniester Moldovan Republic’,” was their answer to a key question debated at the conference, though seemingly resolved in Transdniester through police measures in the Moldovan/Romanian language schools there.

Transdniester, a polyethnic and polylinguistic area by definition, is the only remaining laboratory in Europe for Soviet policies on nationality and language. The goal is a merger of identities based on linguistic Russification and the fostering of the Russian language and political allegiance to Russia. That desired end result used to be termed “Soviet people” before 1985. In Transdniester today, the desired amalgamation is termed “the Dniester people” or “Dniestrians” (narod Pridnestroviya, pridnestrovskii narod, pridnestrovtsy). That construct, as leaders readily admit, is the local successor to the “Soviet people” construct.

In theory, Transdniester has three official languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan. In practice, the authorities use only Russian as an official language. Moldovan/Romanian and Ukrainian–native languages to three quarters of the population–are completely excluded from government and administration, and relegated to a marginal role in other spheres of public life. The media and the education system are geared to the linguistic russification of the non-Russians.

It is a further distinctive note of Transdniester to host the largest ammunition stockpiles in Europe outside Russia. Some 42,000 to 45,000 tons of that ammunition is deposited at Colbasna near Ribnita. Further amounts are stored at military installations around Tiraspol. Much of this ammunition’s shelf life has expired, making it untransportable. A large part is deposited improperly in dangerous conditions. Western countries in the OSCE plan to finance and build an ammunition disposal plant in Transdniester. Apart from that ammunition, the Russian military sits atop enormous stockpiles of light weapons and other equipment in this same area.

Last month, the Russian military completed the scrapping and/or removal of heavy weaponry from this part of Moldova, in accordance with the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Under OSCE decisions, Russia is now obligated to withdraw all of its remaining 2,600 troops from this area by December 31, 2002. Three dangers persist. First, Russia might seek to retain some troops past the deadline on the pretext of guarding ammunition dumps and light weapons stockpiles. Second, it might insist on receiving a “peacekeeping” mandate for its troops. Or, third, it might make a deal with the Communist leaders in Chisinau for basing rights (see the Monitor, July 16, August 2, 8-9, September 7, November 21, 26, 28, December 12).

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