Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 15

Twilight of the Transdniester Republic

By Igor Rotar

The People

I bought a glass of fruit juice in a cafe in the city of Tiraspol,capital of the self-styled Transdniester Moldavian Republic (TMR).The waitress brought me my change — several imposing-lookingpiles of Transdniester currency: "That’s only a thousandRussian rubles. Don’t be surprised about how bad things are here.We wanted independence — well, now we have it."

A couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable to hearsuch a remark. At that time, the people of Transdniester werecertain that only complete separation from Moldova could savethem from Romanian fascism. The separatist leaders were real popularidols, their authority unquestionable.

Nowadays, there is no trace of the former euphoria, and only thelazy refrain from cursing the leaders of the self-proclaimed republic.To understand the change in the mood of the local inhabitants,all one has to do is walk the streets of Tiraspol. The store shelvesare empty, and there are crowds of pensioners outside the cafes,begging for leftover food. The average monthly salary in Transdniesteris about twenty U.S. dollars, but even this money is often notpaid on time. In rural areas, people are often paid in vouchersinstead of money. The only place that will take these vouchersis the village store, where the only things on sale are three-literbottles of juice, matches, and unfiltered cigarettes.

A Little Island of Socialism

In essence, the Transdniester Moldavian Republic is one of thelast enclaves of socialism on the territory of the former USSR.The red flag of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic is theofficial symbol of the unrecognized state on the Dniester, andeven its coat of arms is virtually indistinguishable from thatof former Soviet Moldavia. Here, just as before, they carefullyguard all the monuments to the Communist leaders. A majestic statueof Lenin still looms over the former Tiraspol city party committeebuilding, now the seat of government of the unrecognized republic.The street names have remained the same: Sovetskaya, Kommunisticheskaya,Lenina, etc… Ninety percent of the enterprises in theTMR are owned either by the state or by collective-farm cooperatives.Residents of Transdniester enjoy the right to property in landonly within the bounds of their dacha plots.

In Soviet times, Transdniester was one of the USSR’s most prosperousindustrial regions. For example, 40 percent of the Moldavian republic’sindustry was concentrated in this tiny region, which occupiesonly 20 percent of the territory of Moldova. At first, the separatistleaders thought that the industrial potential of the unrecognizedrepublic would guarantee its viability. A special decree was published(and at first, even enforced!) guaranteeing local inhabitantsa salary 20 percent higher than their colleagues in Moldova.

But unfortunately, what was a blessing in Soviet times turnedout to be a curse under the new conditions which prevailed afterthe disintegration of the USSR. Most of what was locally producedturned out to be uncompetitive on the world market, and in addition,the disruption of the economic ties between the former union republicsalso took its toll, and, today, only about 40 percent of the enterprisesin Transdniester are operating, and those at far from full capacity.Last year, the inflation rate was 2,000 percent.

In the Rejected "Mother Country"

The economic collapse of the self-proclaimed republic is especiallynoticeable when compared to the success–modest, granted, butstill evident — of Moldova, the rejected "mother country."Moldova obtained economic credits from the West (which the unrecognizedTransdniester republic cannot count on) and has gradually beenable to stabilize its economy. The average monthly salary hereis about 40 U.S. dollars, the stores are filled with goods, andthe national currency, the lei, is considered to be the most stableof all the CIS currencies.

But perhaps, the most painful thing for the common people of Transdniesteris not even the relative prosperity of their neighbors, but thefact that the predicted "Romanianization" of Moldovadid not come to pass. The once popular Moldovan Popular Front(an organization which advocates union with Romania) now has nosubstantial influence on political life in the republic. Peoplewith an openly pro-Russian orientation — the present Speakerof Parliament and former first secretary of the republic’s CommunistParty Central Committee, Petru Lucinschi, and Prime Minister AndreiSangheli — have taken top roles in the republic. The presentpresident, Mircea Snegur, who flirted with the Popular Front inthe early 90s, now also takes a position which is more "pro-Moscow"than "pro-Romanian." An experienced apparatchik of theold, Soviet school, Mircea Snegur quickly understood that theidea of union with Romania was extremely unpopular with the overwhelmingmajority of Moldovans, and that he needed to distance himselffrom the unionists if he wanted to hold onto power. Today, anoverwhelming majority of the Moldovan leadership has placed itsbets on ties with the former union republics.

And even the ethnic problem, which was rather pressing at thebeginning of the 90s, has virtually disappeared. Although Moldovanis considered the official language, in state institutions, instores, in a word, everywhere, you can get by in Russian withoutany problem. The fears of local Russians that they would be "Romanianzed"by force, or deprived of their jobs, are now almost forgotten.

It is revealing that even the Russians in Moldova (and many ofthem sympathized with and supported the Transdniester secessionistsat first) now thank God that they do not live in the self-proclaimedrepublic.

A Country of Agents

"If you don’t like Transdniester separatism, then sign theUnion Treaty," Anatoly Lukyanov, the Chairman of the USSRSupreme Soviet, told Moldovan president Mircea Snegur in 1991.

Today, in private conversations, even the leaders of the Transdniesterrepublic themselves do not conceal that they acted under the directprotection of the Center. "It wasn’t so much the Communistswho supported us as the derzhavniki [great-power nationalists],people who advocated keeping the empire together. But it wouldbe wrong to think that the Transdniester republic was only anartificial entity, inspired from above. The people really werequite upset about the policy of ‘Romanianization’ which was beingcarried out at the time by Chisinau," state secretary ofthe Transdniester Moldavian Republic, Valery Litskai, told me,repeating several points he made in his speech at a meeting ofthe representatives of unrecognized states in the Hague.

The separatist movement operated on a sweeping scale. At first,it was planned to keep all of Moldova "under control."An "Inter-Movement" was created in Chisinau, and ValeryLitskai, an instructor at one of the universities in Chisinau,became one of its ideologists. But the plan fell through on theright bank of the Dniester. The leaders of the "Inter-Movement"crossed over to Transdniester. Igor Smirnov, the former directorof one of the factories in Tiraspol, became president of the self-proclaimedrepublic. Litskai became state secretary of the unrecognized republic,and, in essence, its "gray cardinal." In 1992, "internationalists"from the Baltic states also moved to the unrecognized republic.Perhaps the most notable of these were "Vadim Shevtsov"and "Nikolai Matveev."

From Prism’s Dossier

In their former, pre-Transdniester, lives, these Balts went underdifferent names. Vadim Grigorievich Shevtsov was known as VadimYurievich Antyufeev, and Nikolai Matveev as Oleg Goncharenko.Both these men worked in organs of the USSR’s Ministry of InternalAffairs in Latvia. During the events of August 1991, Lt. Col.Antyufeev, on the orders of Col. Oleg Goncharenko of the USSR’sMinistry of Internal Affairs, led an operation to seize the headquartersof the Latvian branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Afterthe defeat of the coup leaders, criminal cases were filed againstAntyufeev and Goncharenko, and they fled to Transdniester. Here,Vadim Shevtsov became the head of the unrecognized republic’sMinistry of Internal Affairs and Nikolai Matveev became a MajorGeneral in the police and an advisor to the president of the TransdniesterMoldavian Republic on security issues.

But even in his new place of residence, Goncharenko continuedto think on an all-Union scale. Thus, during the events of October1993, Nikolai Matveev sent a group of well-trained Transdniesterfighters to Moscow to defend the Russian parliament building.It is still Vadim Shevtsov, however, who has been the most activein his new "little homeland." The former policeman hasbecome one of the most influential local politicians, and in theopinion of many, the secret master of Transdniester. "Shevtsovhas compromising information on virtually all the leaders of Transdniester,including Smirnov, and therefore rules there, unchecked. Aboutthree thousand people report to Shevtsov, including his own well-equippedarmed forces, the "Delta" battalion, the border troopsand the customs service. With the help of this force, he can notonly suppress any local uprisings, but also try to fight any peoplein the Russian leadership who do not suit him," says theformer commandant of Tiraspol, Col. Mikhail Bergman.


Only one thing can save the TMR: the Communists coming to powerin Russia. Then, powerful financial infusions might find theirway into the unrecognized republic’s economy.

Unfortunately, reality exceeded the most pessimistic expectations:not only did the Communists lose the elections, the Transdniesterleadership’s main enemy, Aleksandr Lebed, became secretary ofthe Russian Security Council.

Aleksandr Lebed, the former commander of the Russian 14th Army,stationed in Transdniester, is a very popular figure here. Inthe Russian presidential elections, Gen. Lebed won more votesthan any other candidate — 45 percent. The enormous respect thatthe local inhabitants have for Lebed can be explained by the factthat he was the one who stopped the war in the region. This opinionis debatable. First of all, Lebed appeared in Transdniester whenthe conflict had already been almost completely suppressed. Second,it cannot be ruled out that in responding to the attacking Moldovansoldiers with overwhelming force, Lebed was simply carrying outthe orders of the Kremlin, which, until that time, had been slowto take decisive action. But, be that as it may, the general stillhas the reputation of being the region’s bold protector. Eventoday, people remember Lebed’s statement, which has already achievedproverbial status: "The Russian Army is neutral, but thisis an armed neutrality. Anyone thinking of poking his nose inhere (in Transdniester — I.R.) ought to think twice."

There can hardly be any doubt that the new Security Council secretary,well-known for his decisiveness, will try to settle accounts withhis enemies. The most accessible victim is the present commandingofficer of the Operational Group of Russian Forces [OGRF] (theformer 14th Army) in Transdniester, Lt. Gen. Valery Yevnevich,who is closely linked, in Lebed’s opinion, with the Transdniesterauthorities. The visit of representatives of the Chief MilitaryProsecutor’s Office to the Operational Group of Russian Forcesin July is at least one piece of evidence that such an alternativeis being weighed. "It is too early to draw any concrete conclusions.The investigation is still going on," the chief of the commission,Col. Aleksandr Cherenkov, told Prism. But even today, itis already possible to speak of several proven violations. Forexample, it is known that trucks used to make regular trips fromthe OGRF to Moscow often full of construction materials divertedfor building generals’ dachas.

But this exhausts Aleksandr Lebed’s possibilities — or at leasthis official possibilities: the TMR lies outside the boundariesof the Russian Federation and, consequently, the present Transdniesterleaders are outside Moscow’s "reach."

Most likely, the Kremlin will not decide to take any decisiveaction in Transdniester until the November presidential electionsin Moldova. There are three serious candidates for the post: thecountry’s present leader, Mircea Snegur, Lucinschi, and Sangheli.

All three candidates are acceptable to Moscow. Both Lucinschiand the "pure manager," Viktor Chernomyrdin’s friendSangheli, as was said above, are known for their pro-Russian sympathies.And the present president, Mircea Snegur, is completely open todialogue.

Perhaps Moscow’s chief interest in the region is to maintain itstroops there. "Keeping our army here is the key to all theBalkans. You can’t keep a holy place empty: if we pull out ofhere, NATO troops will come in," Aleksandr Lebed told Prismback when he was still the commander of the 14th Army. Moscowpromised the Council of Europe that it would pull its troops outof Transdniester — Chisinau insisted on the inclusion of thispoint as one of the conditions for accepting Russia into the organization.But it cannot be ruled out that the Kremlin will try to repeatwhat it has already gotten approved once in Georgia. It will offerthe Moldovan president a deal: give the Operational Group of RussianForces the status of a military base in exchange for a guaranteeto return Transdniester to Moldova.

It must be said that even Chisinau today is not interested ina harsh integration with the rebellious region. Economic tiesbetween the two banks of the Dniester have been virtually severed,and taking into account the sad state of the Transdniester economycompared to that of Moldova, complete union would be just as muchof a misfortune for Chisinau as the reunification of Germany hasbeen for Bonn. But, unlike Germany, Moldova is not a rich enoughcountry to bear such a burden.

Moreover, as paradoxical as it sounds, union before the electionswould be extremely unprofitable even to the present Moldovan president.About 15 percent of the Moldovan electorate live in Transdniester.In the minds of most of these people, who have endured an armedconfrontation with Chisinau during his term, Snegur, in realitya rather moderate and cautious apparatchik of the old, Sovietschool, is perceived as a radical ultra-nationalist. Naturally,in such a situation, the present president will do everythingpossible not to receive a portion of the electorate so hostileto him until after the elections. And it will be quite easy topersuade Tiraspol to come to terms with Chisinau. Presidentialelections will take place in Transdniester in December. With thehelp of Lebed, the Kremlin will have no trouble securing victoryin the Transdniester elections for a politician able to compromisewith the right bank. People are even saying that the SecurityCouncil secretary will pay a visit to Transdniester before theelections.

But unforeseen complications could dull this optimistic prognosis.There are too many influential figures in well-armed Transdniesterfor whom reunification with Moldova would mean not only an endto their prosperity but also the threat of prison.

For example, the handing over of Shevtsov and Matveev to Latvianlaw enforcement, is a matter of principle for the leadership ofMoldova and for the new secretary of the Security Council of Russia.These people, forced into a corner may feel that they have nothingto lose. Today, Mikhail Bergman announces that "terroristacts in Moscow were organized by people close to Shevtsov in orderto discredit Aleksandr Lebed."

This assertion is more than arguable. There are easier ways tohold on to power in Transdniester. Peace in the region, just asbefore, is fragile and unreliable. In order to shatter it, youdon’t have to carry out a large-scale operation -a small, purelylocal, provocation would be enough. A new conflict would postponethe seemingly-inevitable disappearance of the unrecognized state,and thereby save those Transdniester leaders who feel relativelysafe only as long as the self-proclaimed republic exists.


Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation who writesfrequently for Prism on ethnic and religious conflicts in theformer Soviet Union.