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In a world of close to 200 United Nations member states, hardly more than a dozen are “outcasts” from this union. According to constitutive – as opposed to declarative – theory, the question of statehood is a matter of context, as the recognition by another international community is more vital than the state is in itself a functioning community. States that are so-called de facto – as opposed to de jure – mean that they in practice function as a state even if they are not legally credited as such. Transnistria is one example of such an instance, being a state neither in the declarative nor in the constitutive sense, but having many of the attributes of a traditional state, such as a military unit, a postal system, and a national anthem.

This does not mean the practice of is unproblematic in the sense that Transnistria as a de facto state functions as an independent utopia; there are political issues related to independence, Russia being a possible decision-making influence. Its official name being the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Moldova claims Transnistria as part of its own territory, a claim that is approved by the United Nations. Transnistria itself, on the other hand, has stood by its Communist legacy, claiming to be a Soviet republic and (as the only country left) having a ‘hammer and sickle’ symbol on its flag.

As one of the few truly unrecognized states, Transnistria being one of mere three instances which is neither a UN member/observer state, nor has the approval of any other UN state (the two others being the republics of Artsakh and Somaliland), three other “frozen conflict” states at least mutually recognize Transnistria: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and aforementioned Artsakh. So some sort of union is in place, even if the comparison with United Nations makes it disappearingly small.

In English, the region is also known as “Trans-Dniestr” or “Transdniestria”. Etymologically, these names are adaptations of the Romanian colloquial name of the region, “Transnistria” meaning “beyond the River Dniester”. The documents of the government of Moldova refer to the region as Stînga Nistrului (in full, Unitățile Administrativ-Teritoriale din Stînga Nistrului) meaning “Left Bank of the Dniester” (in full, “Administrative-territorial unit(s) of the Left Bank of the Dniester”). Transnistria has a total area of 4.163 square km with 475,665 people living there as per 2015 census. The population density is 114/sq. km.

Controlled mostly by the PMR is, the territory coincident with the left (eastern) bank of Dniester. It includes ten cities and towns, and 69 communes, with a total of 147 localities (counting the unincorporated ones as well). Six communes on the left bank (Cocieri, Molovata Nouă, Corjova, Pîrîta, Coșnița, and Doroțcaia) remained under the control of the Moldovan government after the War of Transnistria in 1992, as part of the Dubăsari District. They are situated north and south of the city of Dubăsari, which itself is under PMR control. The village of Roghi of Molovata Nouă Commune is also controlled by the PMR (Moldova controls the other nine of the ten villages of the six communes).

Geographically it is located between Ukraine and the River Dniester. Transnistria is landlocked and borders Bessarabia (i.e., the rest of Moldova, for 411 km) to the West, and Ukraine (for 405 km) to the East. It is a narrow valley stretching in the North-South direction along the bank of the Dniester river, which forms a natural boundary along most of the border with (the rest of) Moldova.The history of Transnistria as a separate unit is rooted in the USSR dissolution. The territory got into conflict with Moldova in 1992, concluded by ceasefire later the same year. In mid-April 1992, under the agreements on the split of the military equipment of the former Soviet Union negotiated between the former 15 republics in the previous months, Moldova created its own Defence Ministry. According to the decree of its creation, most of the 14th Soviet Army’s military equipment was to be retained by Moldova. Starting from 2 March 1992, there was concerted military action between Moldova and Transnistria. Throughout early 1992 the fighting intensified. The former Soviet 14th Guards Army entered the conflict in its final stage, opening fire against Moldovan forces; killing almost 700 people. Since then, Moldova has exercised no effective control or influence on Transnistrian authorities. A ceasefire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992 and has held to the present day.

On the west bank, in Bessarabia, the city of Bender and four communes (containing six villages) to its east, south-east, and south, on the opposite bank of the river Dniester from the city of Tiraspol (Proteagailovca, Gîsca, Chițcani, and Cremenciug) are controlled by the PMR.

Moldova controls the localities on the eastern bank, the village of Roghi, and the city of Dubăsari (situated on the eastern bank and controlled by the PMR) form a security zone along with the six villages and one city controlled by the PMR on the western bank, as well as two (Varnița and Copanca) on the same west bank under Moldovan control. The security situation inside it is subject to the Joint Control Commission rulings.

The main transportation route in Transnistria is the road Tiraspol-Dubăsari-Rîbnița. North and south of Dubăsari it passes through the lands of the villages controlled by Moldova. Transnistrians are able to travel (normally without difficulty) in and out of the territory under PMR control to the neighbouring Moldovan-controlled territory, to Ukraine, and on to Russia, by road or (when service is not interrupted by political tensions) on two international trains, the year-round Moscow-Chișinău, and the seasonal Saratov-Varna. International air travellers rely on the airport in Chișinău, the Moldovan capital, or the airport in Odessa, in Ukraine.

The Transnistrian elites chose a presidential form of government with a constitutionally strong president. They combined this constitutional choice with an electoral system for parliamentary elections based on single-member districts (SMD). Parliamentary representatives were thus to be elected in territorial districts on the first-past-the-post principle. Neither electoral laws nor legislation regulating the activity of political parties included any provisions that could stimulate party growth and institutionalization such as, for example, budget funding or public subsidies for political parties. This initial choice of institutions proved to be rather stable over the last twenty years or so, which is the entire period of the existence of the unrecognized Transnistrian state.

The majority of the region’s population consists of three ethnic groups that are roughly similar in demographic terms: Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians. There has not been much ethnically motivated tension and the boundaries between these groups, especially between Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians), have been absorbent. Yet the groups maintain their distinct identities and a degree of internal coherence.

A newly met friend Ania who is a native Transnistrian and studies Bachelor’s programme ‘Fundamental and Computational Linguistics’ at Higher School of Economics, Moscow says, “Time has stopped here. Most had remained the same since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Different people think in different ways. The vast majority of young people want to leave this country to get a better education, find a job. Because in our country it is a really huge problem. The only state university, of course, not so bad, but for students lack an opportunity to further growth. Students that have above the average level of education choose to receive education in countries of the near board. It is like a vicious circle. There is no development, no professional (because of all migrate).  Life here is really hard. Low salary, no work, bad government. But many people cannot change it and just get used to. They have lived in Transnistria so long, and any changes seem impossible to them. They just hope for the best. Mainly old people have this point of view.  On the other hand, Transnistria is a very peaceful republic. The crime rate is very low. People grow their food because most of them have farmlands. There are some small factories but in general, Transnistria keeps the power because of Metallurgical Plant.  And one more benefit is Transnistria’s outstanding nature. It’s very precious to me. Many forests, one big river, and astonishing landscapes. It is an actually pretty place for peaceful retirement. Of course, recognizing our republic would have solved many problems here. Some people want to be part of Russia, Moldovian government believes that Transnistria must be part of Moldova. Discussions continue to this day. It is hard for people. But, the resilient people of Transnistria don’t lose hope on possible to have a bright future.”

Russia has been providing constant financial support to Transnistria and many people perceive it as the peacekeeping force of the region. Russian soldiers came in 1992 to resolve the Transnistrian War and have been stationed here ever since. Russian TV channels are broadcast here, kids in schools learn from Russian textbooks, and many pensioners even receive Russian pension. Transnistria is not perceived as a self-sufficient state. It still largely depends on support from Russia.

As it has been correctly said by a few scholars of political science that despite the challenges unrecognized states pose to the principle of the territorial integrity of established states, they are not trying to undermine the system of sovereign states or create alternative forms of statehood; they are rather seeking a place in a system that does not accept them as a constituent members. There is no such system in place to take the unrecognized state to the status of a recognized state after all such a mechanism would logically require established states to agree upon principles that could result in their own territorial dilution.

In more than two decades of its de facto status, Transnistria has witnessed many changes happening in its territory and globally, however things have remained more or less constant for it. As the time passes by, we will see how it deals with the new challenges posed to it; and whether the question of statehood and international recognition becomes stronger.

(With inputs from Kristoffer Tangård)

Ashish Kumar Singh is a Doctoral Candidate of Political Science at Higher School of Economics- The National Research University, Moscow, Russia. He can be contacted at: ashish.tiss@gmail.com

2 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The autonomy of Transnistria must be protected and its independence should be recognised by united nations