The Dniester conflict: Between irredentism and separatism

Pål Kolstø, University of Oslo, and

Andrei Yedemskii, Institute of Slavonic and Balkan Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, with Natalya Kalashnikova

Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 45, (no. 6 1993) pp. 973-1000. Uncorrected version



From a formal point of view, the Soviet Union was a confederation of independent states rather than a federate state: In the constitution, all the Union republics were granted a right to secede. As a result of this structure, no new borders were drawn on the map when the state collapsed in 1991. Instead, what used to be internal borders, delineating its constituent parts, were elevated to the status of international boundaries. This invested them with an incomparably greater importance, much more than they had been intended to carry. Many of them had been drawn in a rather casual manner, reflecting compromise solutions between various concerns: the ethnic distribution of the population, historic-cultural differences, economic efficiency, and political expediency.

Not surprisingly, in the post-Soviet debate calls have been made to have these border changed. The arguments marshalled for such designs have been of different kinds. At times, the main desire has been to make the borders reflect the ethnic distribution of the former Soviet nationalities in a more accurate manner. This was for instance the rationale behind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s proposals to conduct oblast-wise referendums in Kazakhstan and Ukraine on the question of political independence of these states.

This idea was supported by, among others, Yeltsin’s former adviser on nationality questions, Galina Starovoitova, but with a somewhat different argumentation: Her motivation was not a desire to create ethnically homogeneous states, but to respect the will of the population. At other times still, demands for border revision have been based on historical claims, such as the Estonian and Latvian campaigns for the return of some areas in the Russian Federation which were parts these Baltic states in the interwar period. In these two cases, the territorial pretensions are not bolstered by ethnic arguments, since the population in the disputed areas is preponderantly Russian (95-98%). Finally, some pretensions, such as the designs for the transfer of the Crimean peninsula to Russian jurisdiction, are backed by both historical and demographic arguments: The Crimea is former Russian territory, and the Russians make up the largest ethnic group in the area.

The political leaderships in the Soviet successor states have vehemently rejected all border changes which might render their territories smaller. They often point to the principle of the inviolability of borders, a principle which, it is claimed, is enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. This assertion is somewhat misleading. In fact, he CSCE documents do countenance the possibility of border changes, but only if they are implemented by peaceful means and based on an agreement between the interested states. Moreover, while the dissolution of the Soviet Union could certainly be justified on moral and political grounds, the way it was brought about represented clear breaches of the CSCE rules for border changes. The USSR was broken up in the face of strong opposition from the Soviet leadership.

The international legitimacy of the post-Soviet border arrangement ultimately derives from two sources : The fact that according to the Soviet constitution the republics were granted a right to secede (a right which Gorbachev tried to deny them), and the recognition of their independent statehoods by the international community. There is a strong tendency in international politics to defend territorial status quos, however recent they happen to be.

Still, the territorial-political arrangement of the former Soviet Union is far from settled. A number of military encounters, up to and including protracted wars, have erupted around post-Soviet territorial disputes. This article will focus on one of them: The conflict between the new Moldovan authorities in Chisinau and the "Dniester Moldavian Republic" (with the Russian acronym: PMR) on the Dniester left bank. In the late spring and summer of 1992 a full-fledged, albeit limited war broke out in this area which resulted in several hundred casualties. The conflict was soon eclipsed by other world events and disappeared from the news headlines. It remains, however, one of the most complicated conflicts on the post-Soviet scene, both in terms of its pre-history, its political constellations, and its possible future developments. While an effective cease-fire was concluded on 17 July 1992, no solution has as yet been found to the underlying contentious issue: the legal-territorial status of the Dniester left bank of the Moldovan state.

The PMR was proclaimed in September 1990, but is as yet (April 1993) not recognized by any other state. On the other hand, Moldovan independence has been recognized by more than 120 states, and the territorial integrity of the state has not been questioned in any of these recognitions. The fact that the Dniester area had proclaimed its independence already in 1990, at a time when Moldovan independence was not recognized by the international community (and at a time when the relationship between Moldova and the Soviet Union was, mutatis mutandis, the same as the relationship between the Dniester Republic and Moldova today), was partly overlooked, partly not considered relevant. In 1990 and 1991, the fact that the Croatian leadership is not in control of the entire territory which it claims, was invoked in many Western capitals as an argument against extending recognition to this state. The same argument was for some reason not considered to apply to the Moldovan case. However, the discrepancy between the Western responses in the two cases may, of course, be due to a wrong handling of the Yugoslav crisis rather than an erroneous reaction to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The aim of our article is twofold: to present a chronicle of the Dniester war and the conflict leading up to it -- concentrating on political rather than military aspects -- and second; to try to uncover the roots of the conflict -- historically, culturally and politically -- to gain an understanding of how it might possibly be resolved.


The major battles in the Dniester June war took place in the city of Bendery, which is located on the right hand (Bessarabian) side of the river, and which has a predominantly Slavic population. The losses in military personnel and civilian casualties of both warring sides were considerable. According to the Chisinau branch of the human rights centre "Memorial", 203 persons from the Dniester side lost their lives between 19 June and 3 July as a result of military actions. These figures include 34 civilians plus unidentified bodies. In addition, according to the Bendery city council, appr. 200 local inhabitants are missing. The same source informs that more than 300 civilians have been treated for serious injuries. Moldovan government sources inform that 77 persons from the Moldovan side lost their lives during the June hostilities, including 37 civilians. 532 persons were injured, of which 348 had taken part in the military confrontations. In addition to this, skirmishes prior to 19 June had taken a considerable, although lower, toll on both sides.

As in most modern wars both parties accused the adversary of having perpetrated terror and massacre of civilians. The word "genocide" was tossed around lightly. There is, however, reason to believe that most of the atrocity stories were much inflated. The annual report on human rights observation around the world, issued by the US State Department in February 1993, remarked that in the Dniester conflict, "while some abuses occured, press reports on both sides exaggerated their actual extent." The independent human rights center in Chisinau, ‘Memorial’, reached a similar conclusion.

The war had the character of an internecine conflict: Orthodox Christians were killing Orthodox Christians, and members of the same ethnic groups -- Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians -- participated on both sides. To give a few examples: the police commissar in Bendery loyal to Moldovan authorities, V. Guslyakov, is a Russian Old believer, while the PMR defence minister, Stefan Kitsak, as well as the chairman of the PMR Supreme Soviet, Grigorie Maracuta, are Moldovans. It is therefore a gross oversimplification to present the conflict as a showdown between the ethnic Moldovan and the "Russian-speaking" part of the Moldovan population. Although the mass media have regularly referred to the war as an ethnic conflict, neither side agrees to this description. Both insist that it is essentially political in character, (although they strongly disagree as to which political values are at stake). At the same time, the ethnic dimension cannot be denied altogether. Russians, and to some extent Ukrainians, are overrepresented in the PMR leadership. Conversely, until after the war the post-Communist Moldovan government in Chisinau was composed almost exclusively of ethnic Moldovans.

The Eastern Slavs in Moldova cannot be regarded as a single group although they have several interests in common. While a large part of the Ukrainians are linguistically Russified, they nonetheless feel a stronger attachment to Ukraine than to Russia. Pro-Rukh sentiment among them has been fairly strong.

The other major nationalities in Moldova -- the Gagauz, the Jews and the Bulgarians, being the 4th, 5th and 6th largest group, respectively -- are all actively reanimating their national cultures, and if anything, look to Ankara, Tel Aviv and Sofia rather than to Moscow. The Gagauz are Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians who in 1990 proclaimed their own autonomous state in southern Moldova, a counterpart to the Dniester state. A community of interests exists among the leaderships of the two would-be states.

Besides the two warring parties, three states -- Russia, Ukraine and Romania -- are directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. Ethnic Russians make up some 25% of the population of PMR, and the Russian Federation has been engaged both through the presence of its 14th Army in the area and as a party to the political negotiations concerning the conflict. Ukraine is not only an adjacent state, but also feels a special responsibility for the 170.000 Ukrainians living in the Dniester republic (28% of the total population). And finally, Moldovans are ethnic Romanians (according to some; according to others: their very close relatives), and active groups in both Romania and Moldova are lobbying for the unification of the entire present-day Moldovan state, including the Dniester area, with Romania. This makes the Dniester conflict the only post-Soviet ethno-territorial controversy which is not only a matter of territorial (re)distribution among the former Soviet nationalities, but also a question of an irredenta of another European state.

Although all conflicts in the former Soviet Union might be said to have an ethnic component, this is probably less true of the Dniester conflict that of most others. What, then, are the driving forces behind it?


In earliest recorded history, from the 10th to 12th centuries, the Eastern parts of the Carpato-Dniesterian lands belonged the Kievian state. When this state disintegrated in the 13th century, an independent Galician-Volhynian principality was established into which the Moldovan area was incorporated. At the same time the first signs of a political unification among the Romanized Wallachian tribes in the Carpato-Danubian lands were in sight. The Wallachians received the Christian faith from the South Slavs, and along with the religious influence went other cultural impulses such as the Slavonic script and the Old Slavonic language. This language was for a long time the official language of the Wallachian and Moldovan principalities when they were established in the 14th century.

The existence of a Moldovan principality in the Eastern Carpatian lands is recorded in the chronicles from the middle of the 14th century. The consolidation of this state took place under voidevoda Roman (1392-94) who expanded its territory by incorporating into it the Lower Danubian lands which had been controlled by the Golden Horde.

In 1420 the Ottomans for the first time invaded Moldovan lands. Stephen the Great (1457-1504) put up a brilliant defence, and for a while managed to control an enlarged Moldovan principality. He later became one of the main heros of Romanian and Moldovan national consciousness. However, in order to stave off the Ottoman threat the Moldovan princes had to seek succour from various neighbours, and as a result lost much of their independence. Their state passed from one patronage to another, Hungarian suzerainty was replaced by Polish overlordship, but to no avail. In the 16th centur , Moldova passed into vassalage dependence on the Porte.

In 1538 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent captured vast tracts of land between the Prut and Dniester rivers. The town of Tighin on the Western bank of Dniester was renamed Bender(y), and was turned into a Turkish stronghold together with its surrounding territories. At that time the area beyond the Dniester was more or less depopulated. The first significant migration of Moldovans across the river took place in the second half of the 17th century. At about the same time the Dniester left bank was also being populated by Ukrainians coming from the East. By the first part of the 18th century a number of smaller settlements already existed in the area -- Rashkov, Rybnitsa, Dubossary and Tiraspol. The area was controlled by the Crimean Tatars who had accepted Ottoman suzerainty in 1475.

In 1711 the Turkish sultan deprived the Moldovan boyars of the right to elect their own sovereign as had hitherto been the costume. Henceforth, he was appointed by the Porte and chosen among the Greek Phanariots. According to the terms of the Peace of Kuchuk Kainarji, which terminated the Russian-Turkish war of 1772-1774, the Wallachian and Moldovan principalities remained under Ottoman rule, but with extended political liberties. Under the terms of the same treaty Russia received the "right of patronage" over all Christians in the Danubian principalities.

In 1787 the Porte declared another war on Russia and suffered another defeat. The terms of the Peace of Iasi in 1791 established the Dniester river as the new border between the Russian and the Ottoman empires. This meant that the entire Northern coast of the Black sea from Azov to the East and the Dniester to the West passed into Russian hands, and the khanate of the Crimean Tatars ceased to exist. Two years later, in 1793, the northern part of the Dniester left bank, which had hitherto belonged to Poland, also passed to Russia. From then on and until the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Dniester area which is fought over today, belonged to the Russian/Soviet empire(s). The largest group on the left bank of the Dniester in the 18th century was the Ukrainian peasants. The dichotomization of the population on the Dniester left bank between an "indigenous" Moldovan and a "non-indigenous" Slavic group, encountered in the Moldovan and occasionally also in the Western press, is therefore without any historical basis.

The next Russo-Turkish confrontation, ending with the peace of Bucharest in 1812, significantly changed the political map of the region. Turkey had to cede to Russia the mesopotamia between the Prut and Dniester river, that is, the northern part of Moldova which at that time became known as Bessarabia. The vassalage of Wallachia and of rump Moldova to the Porte was reconfirmed. As a result of the peace terms the left bank of Dniester ceased being a theatre of military operations.

When the united and independent Romanian state was proclaimed in 1878, "Moldova" disappeared from the political map of Europe as a separate entity while the name was retained as a designation of a historico-cultural region. Although both Bessarabia and left bank Dniestria now belonged to the Russian empire, the cultural and economic development of the two areas was rather different. Bessarabia was almost exclusively an agricultural region with a very low degree of urbanisation. The population in the few towns that existed was Jewish, German and Slavic, hardly any Romanian. The Romanian-speakers were held in bondage as serfs on large estates owned by landlords with a motley ethnic background.

On the left bank, Slavic cultural and demographic influence was much more pronounced. In this area more people were engaged in trade and the density of urban settlements higher. The Slavs on the banks of Dniester belonged to different social and cultural subgroups. Some were religious refugees from Russia such as Old Believers and Duchobors, a few belonged to the Black Sea Cossacks, while some were military men manning the garrisons of Tiraspol and Dubossary.

After World War I, the political history of Bessarabia and Dniestria parted ways again. In March 1918 the newly-installed Bolshevik power in Moscow was not yet consolidated, and an assembly of popular representatives of Bessarabia, the Sfatul Tarii, approached the Romanian government petitioning that the former Bessarabian guberniya of the Russian empire should be annexed to the Romanian kingdom. The Ukrainian, German and Bulgarian representatives of the assembly did not endorse this petition. In the following month Romania declared that the petition had been granted, and for the next 22 years Bessarabia belonged to the Romanian crown. In addition, Romania occupied Bukovina which had an ethnically very mixed population. Southern Bukovina had a Romanian majority while Northern Bukovina was dominated by Ukrainians who preferred to belong to Ukraine. Bukovina had been a Romanian province until it was annexed by Austria in 1775.

Left bank Dniestria remained Russian. When the Soviet Union was established as a federate state in 1922, the area was joined to the Ukrainian SSR. Two years later, however, it was given a status as a Moldavian Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (MASSR) under the Ukraine SSR. The appellation "Moldavian" (= "Moldovan") thus regained a political significance, although with a new meaning. The rationale behind this move was probably not so much to protect the interests of the ethnic Moldovans in the area, although they were given certain cultural rights. More important to Moscow was the desire to create a springboard for a reconquest of Bessarabia. This scheme was made rather transparent when Kishinev (Chisinau) on the right bank, on Romanian territory, was proclaimed the symbolic capital of the Moldavian ASSR. As functioning capital was chosen the small town of Balta. Five years later the capital was transferred to Tiraspol.

The number of ethnic Moldovans in the MASSR is a matter of uncertainty as official Soviet statistics were obviously juggled. In July 1924, this group was said to constitute 14.2% of the total population, while in October the same year the number had risen to 58%! In the census taken in 1926, the percentage was said to be 30.1%, which may be closer to the truth but possibly still too high. The corresponding figures for the other major ethnic groups at the time were (said to be) 48.5% Ukrainians, 8.5% Russians and 8.5% Jews.

In 1940 the Soviet acquisition of Bessarabia was made possible by the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Stalin immediately set out to redraw the administrative borders in the area. In June of that year, the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic was created as a component part of the USSR. Into this republic most of former Romanian Bessarabia was included, with some significant exceptions: The southern parts, with the counties of Izmail and Khotyn and the town of Ackerman, were joined to Soviet Ukraine, (together with Northern Bukovina, including the city of Chernovtsy to the north). To the remaining parts of Bessarabia was added most of the Moldavian ASSR on the left bank, but not all. Seven rayons with the towns of Balta, Anan’ev, Kodyma and Kotovsk remained parts of the Ukrainian SSR. In short, almost all of the administrative borders were brand new.

One can only speculate as to the reasons behind this rearrangement. One possible explanation could be the need to create viable economic units: The more developed left bank could complement the predominantly agrarian Bessarabian economy. However, in a strongly centralized economic system like the Soviet one such considerations were hardly decisive. Second, ethnic considerations clearly played a role. The fact that MASSR was divided into two halves roughly along ethnic lines corroborates this thesis. The transfer of Southern Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina with a strong Slavic population to the Ukraine also contributed to the creation of ethnically more homogeneous republics. Probably equally important, however, was a desire to eradicate the traces of the murky Soviet-German deal. With the new borders the disputed territory between Dniester and Prut, Bessarabia, ceased being a single unit. It was expected that this would complicate any future attempt to have the area returned to Romania. Indeed, this has also turned out to be the case.

When Romania joined the German military campaign against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, not only Bessarabia, but also left bank Dniestria and parts of Eastern Ukraine east to the Bug river, temporarily came under Romanian administration. The territories beyond Dniester were administered by a Romanian-appointed governor and given the name "Transnistria". This is the only time when this has been the official name of an administrative unit. According to most experts, Romania had no real interest in annexing Transnistria, but it was given to her by Hitler as a kind of compensation for northern Transylvania which had been awarded to Hungary in August 1940. After the collapse of the Axis powers the administrative regulations of the area reverted to the 1940 arrangement.

Under Soviet power some of the historically established differences between Bessarabia and the Dniester left bank in Moldova were retained while others were reduced. The entire area was infused by the same Soviet political culture and ruled by the same administrative practices from the same centres, Kishinev and Moscow. The Moldavian SSR was actively incorporated into the Soviet economy. On Stalin’s order entire industrial plants were moved to the republic. As a concomitant effect, the Slavic population increased considerably in both Bessarabia and Dniestria. Today, close to 70% of the Russians in Moldova live to the West of the Dniester. In all large Moldovan cities the Russian-speakers either predominate or constitute a substantial minority. In both parts of the country the bulk of the Slavic population element consists of recent immigrants. However, while the newly-arrived Russians in Dniestria were grafted into an older local Slavic culture, in Bessarabia they to a larger extent represent a new cultural element.



During perestroika, two parallel ideas captured the attention of the Moldovan public: the idea of creating an independent state, and the idea of uniting with Romania. Although these ideas were clearly at odds with each other, the disparity between them was regularly obfuscated. The Moldovan Popular Front led the struggle for political independence from Moscow. In an appeal to the citizens of Moldova in June 1989 the Front stated that it took as a starting point for its activities "the necessity of consolidating the statehood and sovereignty of the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic". Gradually, however, the idea of Moldovan sovereignty was jettisoned, and the Front stood forth as the most consistent champion of unification with Romania. Also in Romania a movement for unification was gaining speed. In this campaign intellectuals from Bessarabia who had fled to Romania during World War II played an important role.

In December 1989, the Second Soviet Congress of People’ s Deputies in Moscow declared the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact illegal. This pronouncement was among certain groups in Romania and (the then still Soviet) Moldavia understood as an annulment of the annexation of Bessarabia to USSR in 1940. Importantly, the unification movement put forward the demand to unite not only Romania and Bessarabia (including southern Bessarabia, now a part of Ukraine), but also the Dniester part of the Moldovan republic. The irredentist claims finally covered also Northern Bukovina. All these different claims could not be justified on the same grounds. While the return of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina were demanded with historical and legal arguments, the same reasoning could not be applied to Dniestria. In the latter case Moldovan Front leaders switched to demographic arguments, pointing to the fact that Moldovans constitute a plurality, (although not a majority) of today’s population on the left bank. Also in Romania most champions of unification included the Dniester area in their schemes for a Greater Romania, either as a genuine wish, or, possibly, in order to keep it as a bargaining chip for a future land swap with the Ukraine.

The prospect of Romanian unification was one of the main reasons why the Dniester authorities declared their independence from Chisinau in September 1990. It is widely recognized that the Romanian record on human rights and minority protection leaves something to be desired. There is no reason to believe that a Slavic minority in Romanian Moldova would be treated any better than the Hungarian minority of Transylvania is being dealt with today.

But also the prospect of becoming a minority in a separate Moldovan state was to many Slavs a disconcerting thought. As the struggle for national independence of the non-Russians in the Soviet Union picked up speed in 1989-1990, Moldova soon became one of the front runners. To be sure, it would be wrong to explain the drive towards independence simply as a reflection of an ethnic impulse. There were also solid economic reasons why the republics wanted to throw off the Soviet power. For instance, as late as in 1990 no less than 95% of all Moldovan enterprises were controlled directly from Moscow. Enormous factories, many of which belonged to the military-industrial complex, functioned as extraterritorial zones of sorts. The republican writ was not really effective on their premises. Importantly, a major part of the Union-controlled factories were located on the left bank. This region accounted for 33% of all industrial goods and 56% of all consumer good produced in the republic as a whole. The largest power station in the republic, which provides 90% of the energy needed on the right bank, is located in Dubossary on the left bank.

Thus, when Moldova in 1989-90 started to gain real sovereignty and the power of the central authorities in Moscow was seriously shaken, it is not surprising that the technocrats and factory directors in the republic became uneasy. Their positions depended upon retaining the links to Moscow. The tension was increased by a wave of nationalist outbursts instigated by the Popular Front in Chisinau.

In August and September 1989, the Moldovan parliament passed a number of language laws. The enshrinement of the Moldovan/Romanian language as the state language was identified as a "basic preconditions for the existence of the Moldovan nation in her sovereign nation-state formation". A separate law assumed a gradual transition from Cyrillic to Latin script for this language. The actual text of the laws was not really illiberal and contained a number of clauses concerning the rights of other language groups: The republic undertook to safeguard the development of the Gagauz language, and recognized Russian as "a language of interethnic communication". It was explicitly stated that the citizens were entitled to use the language of their choice at all public and private gatherings and in local administration. In the central administration Moldovan would be the working language, but documents were to be translated into Russian whenever necessary. Nonetheless, the law contained a number of loopholes which cleared the way for extensive arbitrariness. Russians soon started to complain that applicants with a command of the state language were given priority in admission to higher education and in employment. Even pro-Moldovan sources admit to this, although they scale down the proportions of the problem. "A lot of fools and scoundrels can be found in any nation".

The language laws incited stormy emotions, agitating both sides. In practically all major cities strikes were organized in August 1989, in which the strikers demanded that the daft laws should be put to a popular referendum. The strikes started before the language laws had been adopted. What the strikers opposed, then, was the actual text of the new laws, not the application of them. The referendum demands were not met, and the laws were passed by the parliament in late August.

Actually, for the left bank Moldovans it was rather far-fetched to talk about a "return" to the Latin script, as, with the exception of some 15 years in the interwar period, they had used the Cyrillic alphabet since the 14th century. The left bank Moldovans had been a kind of Romanian diaspora for more than two hundred years, and was very much influenced by Slavic culture. If many Moldovans on the right bank felt that they were pure and plain Romanians, with no separate Moldovan identity, this was not necessarily true of the Dniester Moldovans. Thus, there were not only disagreements and friction among the different language groups in the republic, but also within the Moldovan population (as well as within the other ethnic groups).

The language question was increasingly understood in the context of a possible reunification with Romania. Such unification was ever more vociferously demanded in the Moldovan public, also from the highest rostrums, such as the parliament. This was especially true after the fall of the hideous regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989. At that time not only in Romania and Moldova, but all over Eastern Europe and indeed all over the world people were in the grips of national-democratic enthusiasm.

In 1990-91 the Moldovan government conducted a campaign for the "nationalisation" of the schools. This campaign was to some extent understandable as Russian was used as the language of education not only for Russians, but also for many Moldovans and members of other ethnic groups. It was reasonable to expect that in a period of intense national awakening many pupils from these groups would switch to schools offering education in their mother tongue if they got the chance. A number of Ukrainian schools were reopened, and Ukrainian students flocked to them. As many parents in earlier times had chosen Russian schools for their offspring for career reasons, the career argument now worked in favour of Moldovan, the new state language. At the same time the desertion from the Russians schools was obviously not always voluntary. In a number of cases pressure was being exerted to speed up the process. Russian sources tell us that in 1990-91 15 Romanian-Russian mixed schools in Chisinau dropped education in Russian, and the Russian language pupils were required to attend other schools. As a result, practically all Russian language schools in Chisinau had to run two shifts - day and night classes. If this information is correct, the Russian schools were obviously being closed down faster than the students were deserting them. In addition, the curriculum of all schools, irrespective of the language of education, was nationalized. In the history classes from 5th grade and upwards the study of "the history of the USSR" was replaced by the study of "the history of the Romanians".

At the Moldovan state university the course "Russian language and literature" was for the year 1991 dropped altogether. This drastic move reflected the redundancy of Russian teachers after the school closures. But members of ethnic minorities were studying ever less at other faculties as well. In 1990 the number of students in the Russian sections of several faculties was reduced to 40-50% of the previous level. Next year the Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Gagauz and Bulgarians taken together made up no more than 11% of the students at the first year of study at the Moldovan state university, while at other institutions of higher learning they comprised 19,5% of the entire student mass. That was a far cry from their share of the total population.

On 5 June 1990, a new name for the Moldovan republic was adopted. Instead of "Moldavia" the name should henceforth be spelled and pronounced "Moldova". This minor and seemingly inconsequential change bore witness to a desire to underline the continuity and unity of the contemporary Moldovan state and the Romanian district with the same name. Another important milestone in Moldovan legislation was the passing on 23 June 1990 of a declaration of state sovereignty of the Moldovan republic and of an evaluation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The pact was denounced as an act of aggression leading up to the Soviet occupation of a part of Romania. This description was no doubt accurate, but of more immediate contemporary relevance was the possible consequences this document could have for the question of unification with Romania. The document declared illegal the decision of the USSR Supreme Soviet to create a Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and its incorporation into the USSR.

In January 1990 a referendum was conducted in Tiraspol on the question of giving the city and its surrounding county a status as an autonomous territory based on self-financing and self-rule. A little later referendums were held in Bendery and some other towns as well. 90% of the voters were in favour of the proposed arrangement, and there is little reason to doubt the announced result. Russian-speakers make up a clear majority in the polling districts, and in any case the economically strong Tiraspol area would no doubt benefit from a system of financial independence. The idea of a Left bank free economic zone could be attractive to all residents of the Dniester area, not only to the Slavs. Generally speaking, economic autarchy was at the time in vogue all over the Soviet Union. Everywhere people wanted to keep to themselves whatever they produced.

On 2 September 1990, the Second Extraordinary Session of the Peoples’ Deputies of the Dniester Area took place in the city theatre in Tiraspol. At that meeting the Dniester Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (later renamed The Dniester Moldavian Republic) was proclaimed as a constitute part of the USSR. The PMR has approximately 740.000 inhabitants, 17% of the total population of Moldova. Its territory comprises roughly one sixth of the area of the Moldovan republic. The PMR considers itself as the legitimate heir to the Moldavian Autonomous Republic of the interwar period, but without any territorial claims to those parts of the MASSR which are now included in the Ukrainian state. PMR officials point out that no less than the incorporation of Bessarabia into the Soviet Union the abolition of the Moldavian ASSR in 1940 was a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The resurrection of MASSR can therefore be seen as a natural corollary of the denunciation of this pact. This weak point in this line of argument is the fact that the MASSR was created precisely in order to facilitate a Soviet conquest of Bessarabia, and thus was an element in the same expansionist scheme as was the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

In any case, on one crucial point the PMR broke with the MASSR tradition. Independence from Moldova was declared also for the right bank, Bessarabian, city of Bendery. Since the majority of the population in this city is Russian-speaking their desire to be included into the new state is probably not to be doubted. By this action Dniester leadership indicate that they base the legitimacy of their republic not on legal and historical argumentation only, but on the popular-will criteria as well. However democratic this principle is, its standing under international law is tenuous.

Moldovan authorities considered Moldova as a national state for the Moldovan nation in which some other national groups also happen to be living. Hence, ethnicity is a constituting principle of this state. In contrast, the new Dniester republic was proclaimed as a supranational state. The adjective "Moldavian" was nonetheless included in the official designation of the state in order to underline the continuity with the MASSR, as an homage to the largest population group, and in order to keep the door open for negotiations with Chisinau. In conscious contrast to the language situation on the right bank the new would-be republic was given no less than three state languages -- Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan. (It was emphasised that the third language is Moldovan, not Romanian, and it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.) The relationship between these three languages, however, is far from equal. Russian clearly dominates in official communications. The implementation of the language regulations is very liberal: No-one, whether he is an official or a private citizen, is required to learn any new languages. The number of PMR officials fluent in Moldovan is limited, and in practice the language policy tends to perpetuate Russian linguistic hegemony.

In one respect, political tolerance seems to be greater in the PMR than in the Moldovan-controlled part of the country: Dnestrovskaya pravda, Trudovoi Tiraspol and other PMR publications are not on sale on the right bank, while official Moldovan papers may be purchased in Tiraspol. On the other hand, certain local Moldovan-language newspapers on the left bank have been suppressed, and as the PMR has taken over the Tiraspol radio transmitter for their own broadcasting, Chisinau radio is in practice being jammed. While this is done for political and/or practical rather than ethnic reasons, it also contributes to a Russification of the PMR society.

In September 1990 and again in September 1991, a parliamentary commission from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR arrived from Moscow to study the sociopolitical situation in Moldova. The commission was headed by the radical deputy Sergei Krasavchenko and dominated by anti-Communist democrats. Its report acquitted the Moldovan authorities of the charges levelled against it by local Russians. In Moscow, the main political battle at that time concerned the future of the Communist regime, and analyses of regional skirmishes were regularly subsumed under this perspective. It was clear to all that the political leaders of the Russians in Moldova clung to the unified Soviet state while the Moldovans had turned into fiery anti-Communists. Taking this into account, Moscow democrats were loath to antagonize potential allies in other republics, and prone to overlook what was deemed to be minor breaches of minority rights.

In the liberal Russian press at the time the situation in Moldova was presented in the same perspective: On one side was Chisinau fighting to throw off the empire, on the other side conservative partocrats in Tiraspol were impeding democratic transformation of society. This media picture was abruptly altered only in the summer of 1992 under the impression of the killings in Bendery and Dubossary. The tendency then switched to sympathy with the left bank.

From 2 September 1990 Tiraspol stopped taking orders from Chisinau and became de facto independent, as Moldovan authorities were not in a position to enforce their decrees on the left bank. On the right bank, activity in support of the Dniester regime was declared a criminal offence, and a number of persons were arrested on charges of separatism. On the left bank, police stations loyal to Moldovan authorities were besieged until they surrendered. Some Moldovan front activists were incarcerated on charges of terrorism.

On 2 November 1990 the first military encounter between the parties took place in Dubossary, leading to the death of three people. In Moscow (under whose jurisdiction Moldova still was) a conciliation commission was set up. From that moment on Tiraspol for all practical purposes broke off all relations with central Soviet authorities, and also with the new democratic leadership in the increasingly independent Russian state. The disappointment and distrust between the Dniester Russians and the Russian democrats in Moscow was deep and mutual. The Dniestrians relied on their own strength and resources and also on the support from whomever was willing to help them. The commander of the Soviet Army unit in the area, the 14th Army, General Gennadii Yakovlev, agreed to serve as Minister of Defence of the Dniester Republic. His replacement as Army commander, General Netkachev, however, jealously watched over the neutrality of his units in the brewing conflict.

The all-Union referendum on 17 March 1991 on the future of the Soviet Union was boycotted by Moldovan authorities. Prominent Moldovan politicians claimed that acceptance of this referendum would amount to a "death sentence" and a "crime against ourselves", statements which indicated a strong uncertainty about the possible outcome. However, on the left bank the referendum was carried out. Here, the number of voters in favour of a unitary Soviet state was reported to be above 93%. Attempts to set up polling stations on the right bank was physically prevented by Moldovan activists. In this situation the reaction in Chisinau and Tiraspol towards the coup d’etat in Moscow in August was predictably different. While the actual extent and character of the Dniester support of the State Committee for Emergency remains disputed, most political leaders in Tiraspol were clearly favourably disposed towards the new would-be masters in Moscow. This was especially true of the leadership of the United Council of Workers’ Collectives, (Russian acronym: OSTK), which in a sense amounted to a Dniester "Popular Front". It should be borne in mind, however, that in those turbulent days most leaders in the non-Russian republics, with the exception of Moldova and the Baltic states, either equivocated or gave explicit support to the putchists.

In the aftermath of the abortive coup the OSTK leader Igor Smirnov was arrested and incarcerated in Chisinau. This action triggered a railway blockade on the left bank organized by a women’s committee affiliated with the OSTK. As practically all Moldovan transport communication with the rest of the Soviet Union passes through Tiraspol-controlled territory, this effectively choked the Moldovan economy. The Moldovan authorities were forced to release Smirnov, who was soon afterwards elected president of the PMR. The apprehension of Smirnov had taken place in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and in another attempt to bring Dniester coup-supporters to justice Moldovan secret agents later abducted the PMR defence minister, Gennadii Yakovlev, in Odessa. This action almost created a diplomatic incident with the Ukraine.

On 27 August 1991, less than a week after the collapse of the coup, the Moldovan parliament declared the complete independence of Moldova under international law. While the establishment of a separate Moldovan statehood reduced the chances of an imminent reunification with Romania, the text of the Declaration was ambiguous on this particular issue: It declared that the parliament acted "in cognizance of the thousand year existence of our people and its uninterrupted statehood within the historical and ethnic boundaries of its national formation". It further considered the "divisions of the national territory in 1775 and 1812 as acts in contravention of the historical and national right and legal status of the Moldovan principality."

On the other bank, on 1 December 1991, the Dniester declaration of independence was followed up and confirmed by an area-wide referendum. According to the official report 97.7% supported the creation of the PMR. Voter turnout was 78%. There is somewhat more reason to be skeptical about the accuracy of this information than of the results of the referendum in Tiraspol the year before. No international observers were present (as no state wanted to lend the new state with any legitimacy), and charges of fraud and intimidation have been put forth from the Moldovan side. Little concrete documentation of this has been offered, but there can be no question that the referendum was conducted in a very primitive fashion. During a visit to Tiraspol in September 1992 the present authors were shown voting lists were the "aye"s and "nay"s of the residents had been recorded. Hence, the anonymity of the voters had been compromised. There were hardly any "nay"s on the lists, but all blanks had been counted as "nay"s, we were told. The actual aye-vote, then, amounted to 76% of the electorate. While that, too, may be considered suspiciously high, reminiscent of rigged Soviet elections, it should be contrasted with the Ukrainian referendum on independence arranged on the very same day. The results here were strikingly similar: With a voter turnout of 84%, the 90.3% yes vote amounted to 75.8% of the entire electorate.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that the PMR referendum had been boycotted in a number of Moldovan villages in central PMR, since a second round of voting had to be conducted there. The annual press release from the US State Department on human rights in 1993 claimed that "while there is some question concerning the extent of local Slavic support for the current Transnistrian leadership, it is clear that most ethnic Romanians in the region do not support the Transnistrian authorities". The Swedish-Danish Slavist Märtha-Lisa Magnusson, however, believes that as much as 70% of PMR Moldovans support the regime. This figure is somewhat higher than even the referendum result would indicate. In any case, the obvious deficiencies of the Dniester referendum ought to be considered against the background of the reluctance of the Moldovan authorities to hold any referendums whatsoever.

In 1991-92 the idea of unification with Romania was clearly becoming less fashionable among ethnic Moldovans, contrary to what most experts of nationalism had expected. The new catch-frase "cultural Romanian-ness and political Moldovan-ness" carried the day. There were obviously several reasons for this. For one thing, the democratization process in Romanian society went slowly, and many Moldovans began to fear that the political and cultural freedoms they had achieved since independence could be jeopardised again by unification. It was also recalled that life in interwar Romania had been far from idyllic. Romanian political life had been dominated by politicians from further South, and many Moldovans had felt that the capital had treated their region as a contemptuously backward province.

In addition, Romania had not much to offer in economic terms. The living-standard in Romania was lower than in Moldova, and the economic structures of the two countries were too similar to complement each other. Continued trade with the former Soviet Union was more important to Moldova than expanded export to the Balkan. The anxieties of the minorities were also taken into consideration. Should unification come about, ethnic tensions in Moldova were certain to be badly aggravated. Finally, as Moldovan state-building was mounting, a large number of intellectuals had got prestigious jobs in the new Moldovan state apparatus, and thus had a strong vested interest in the continued existence of this state.

The pro-Romanian Popular Front was losing members and influence, but could still count on the support of around 100 deputies in the parliament. The Front reacted to the changing political climate by pressing the cause of unification even further. A large-scale explanatory campaign among the population was launched. On 24 January 1992, the first national conference of unification was held in the Romanian city of Iasi (once the capital of the Moldovan principality). As chairman of the conference was elected the Moldovan Popular Front leader Mircea Druc. At the same time, the Moldovan Front ferociously continued to demand that the left bank was an integrate part of Moldova. In a resolution adopted at its 3rd congress in February 1992, the Front not only denounced the "terror and criminal vandalism of the armed bands of separatists", but also attacked the failure of president Snegur to defend the territorial integrity of the country. "A policy of conciliation with these forces... is a sign of cowardice, and even of tacit understanding with them." The Front claimed that all citizens of the Moldovan state residing on the left bank had a right to obtaining Romanian citizenship on a par with the residents of the right bank. "The fact that they were not citizens of Romania prior to 1940 cannot be a valid ground for denying them this right, as they more than anybody else have been subject to denationalisation under tsarist and Communist repression." The question of whether the residents of the left bank actually wanted Romanian citizenship was not addressed.

A liberal Moldovan law on citizenship, in effect enforcing the "zero option", had been passed on 5 June 1991. The possibility that Moldova would follow the Estonian and Latvian example and deny post-war Slavic immigrants status as original citizens, was therefore excluded. Hoever, the question of the status and protection of minorities was left hanging. A draft law on ethnic minorities under discussion in the parliament commission of human rights, gave cause for concern." In the preamble it was stated that "the only possible guarantee of the national rights and liberties of all citizens of the Republic of Moldova is the right of the indigenous population to its own ethnic territory and its right to self-determination." The tenor of this document was very similar to the official view on minorities in Romania, as the obligations of the non-titular groups were emphasized just as much, or more, than their rights. The document, however, has not yet been approved by the parliament, and chances are that it will never be done. Still, the tensions it stirred up were running high.

In this atmosphere military confrontations between Chisinau and Tiraspol became almost everyday occurrences. During the spring of 1992, Cossacks from other parts of the former Soviet Union started to arrive in Tiraspol to support the regime. While the Dniester authorities denied that they had invited them, and indeed discouraged them from coming, their services were nonetheless accepted. The Cossacks and other volunteers were put on the state pay-roll, receiving around 3000 rubles a month. The long-time objectives of most Cossacks were, however, at odds with the policy of the Dniester leadership. While the latter tried to uphold the independence of their new state, the former wanted to restore the Russian tsarist empire.

On 28 March 1992, the Moldovan president Mircea Snegur issued an ultimatum to the left bank leaders, demanding full compliance with Moldovan laws. When the PMR leaders remained unrepentant, martial law was declared on the entire territory of the republic. In an emotional address to the nation president Snegur claimed that "the knife has been put to our throat... The equanimity which I have always advocated... can no longer help us. Our national dignity is under threat! ... Let us give the foreign (sic) separatists and the traitors a decisive repulse."

The skirmishes gradually escalated to a war. Bendery was recaptured by Moldovan forces on June 19, but only for a very short time. In a lightning attack on the night of 20-21 June they were driven out in a matter of hours.

Who actually conducted the fighting on the Dniester side remains a hotly disputed topic. While the Cossacks claim that they did the job almost single-handedly, the support of the notoriously unruly volunteers at times obviously proved a mixed blessing to the PMR state. Some volunteers were arrested by Dniester authorities for disobeying military orders. The most famous case involved Lieutenant Colonel Kostenko, who was accused of fighting his own war against the PMR and Moldova alike. He later died under mysterious circumstances. Also on the Moldovan side volunteers/mercenaries participated in the fighting.

In September 1991, the PMR had erected its own Republican guard which also claim that they did most of the fighting. While this Guard is not yet at full strength, it is planned to be maintained at a level of 12 thousand men. Some observers find it more than odd that this is almost exactly the same size as the Russian 14th Army stationed in the area. A Western source sympathetic to the Moldovan cause has indicated that a peculiar "revolving-doors" system is in operation in PMR, in which the officers of the 14th Army put on the Guard uniform when the occasion calls for it. Russian military spokesmen have pointed out, however, that apart from the top officers the bulk of the 14th army consists of local conscripts and non-local NCOs who over time have struck roots in the area. Their involvement in the conflict, while not condoned by Moscow, should according to this view be seen as an aspect of Dniester self-defence. General Lebed’, who replaced Yurii Netkachev as commander of the 14th Army in June 1992, on a number of occasions voiced strong support of the PMR regime. He has declared the right bank city of Bendery an inalienable part of PMR and PMR itself "a small part of Russia". When Bendery was captured by Moldovan forces on 19 June, tanks from the 14th Army crossed the bridge over the Dniester. This event appears to have been the turning point of the battle.


The view from Romania. Without making another deep dive into history we will point out that the Bessarabian question was officially removed from the political agenda of Communist Romania when Nicolae Ceausescu in 1977 declared that "Romania has no territorial claims towards the USSR". Nonetheless, the thorny issue was frequently returned to also after that time, in the speeches of Ceausescu himself as well as in the works of Romanian historians. A rather transparent allusion to it was made by the dictator at the last congress of the Romanian Communist Party in November 1989, a few weeks before his downfall. In order to stave off the impending catastrophe Ceausescu tried to play his last trump card: to pose as a champion of the Romanian national consciousness by demanding a new inquiry into the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

In the first decrees issued by the National Salvation Front, which took over after Ceausescu’s fall, the new Romanians leaders assured that they would unswervingly honour all international agreements signed by the Romanian state and support the development of friendly relations between Romania and the Soviet Union. However, outside the corridors of power, in the rapidly organizing opposition, the demand for a return of Bessarabia became one of the main mobilizing themes. This development was greatly boosted by the events taking place in Soviet Moldova at the same time.

Only a few weeks after the Christmas revolution, in January 1990, a delegation from the Moldovan Popular Front arrived in Bucharest. The members of this delegation declared that "when Moldova has achieved complete independence from the USSR, reunification of Soviet Moldova -- that is, Bessarabia -- and Romania will sooner or later take place". Soon afterwards a National Action Committee "Bucharest-Chisinau" was formed.

Leaders of the burgeoning Romanian parties were frequently asked by journalists to state their position on the Moldovan question. Some of the more authoritative politicians, such as the leader of the liberals, Radu Campeanu, expressed rather moderate views: "In today’s situation the people of Bessarabia and Bukovina demand as yet only cultural distinctiveness and political autonomy. However, should the political situation in Europe change and should the population of Bessarabia and Bukovina come to demand unification with Romania, there is no reason to deny them that." As tensions continued to build up in Moldova, however, the influential Romanian opposition parties moved to ever more radical positions. The Romanian Orthodox Church also joined into the fray. In a synodal encyclical on Christmas eve 1990 it spoke of the need to support the renaissance of the Romanian people. "We meet you, (our brothers beyond the Prut), with an open heart and an outstretched embrace. We rejoice at any and every kind of activity on your side in the name of rapproachment between us."

By the end of April 1990, the question of simplified border crossing between Romania and Moldova was being discussed. By a mutual agreement 6th of May was designated as a day of "open border" -- "The flower bridge over Prut". This provided the impetus for further actions. On 21 June 1990 the independent Bucharest paper Româna libera published a joint appeal from a number of organisations -- the Moldovan Popular Front, the "Stefan cel Mare", "Sans frontiers", "Bucharest-Chisinau" and "For Bessarabia and Bukovina". They proposed 24th of June as a day of "peaceful demonstration of solidarity and friendship" and also the temporary opening of the USSR-Romanian border. Popular figures in Moldovan public life were regularly given column space and air time in Romanian mass media.

When the Dniester and Gagauz republics were formed in the autumn of 1990, the Romanian media coverage of Moldovan affairs was greatly expanded. On September 17 the Moldovan Front leader Iurie Rosca during a visit to Bucharest declared that "the fragmentation of the Moldovan territories, Bukovina and the southern Bessarabia, is a great impediment to our unification with the mother country". He further maintained that "the situation is exacerbated by the creation of the self-styled Gagauz and Dniester republics". Thus, the elimination of these republics was presented by the Front as a necessary step towards the achievement of their ultimate and paramount objective, the unification with Romania.

Official Bucharest still had no opinion on this touchy and crucial issue. While demonstrators were picketing the Soviet embassy in the city with slogans such as "Bessarabia is Romanian", the Romanian parliament at all cost tried to avoid a discussion of the Bessarabian question. A radical and a moderate tendency crystallized in the attitudes of Romanian politicians. The latter was represented by Ion Iliescu, who considered a parliamentary statement on this issue inopportune. "Thus the Moldovan (or the Bessarabian) problem", noted the Bucharest weekly Cuvîntul, "was farmed out to the opposition, to the street mob and, partly, to the independent press."

When the independent Moldovan state was proclaimed in August 1991, Romania was one of the first states to recognize it, a move that dismayed and angered Moldovan and Romanian unificationists. Romania, moveover, did not accept dual Moldovan-Romanian citizenship. Neither did Moldova. The official Moldovan position of "one people, two states" was not gainsaid in the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On 28 March 1992, the very same day as Mircea Snegur issued his ultimatum the the PMR leaders, the Moldovan crisis was discussed by Ion Iiescu and several Romanian ministers. They expressed their readiness to support Moldovan territorial integrity, but at the same time spoke in favour of a peaceful solution. In a somewhat contradictory move the National Salvation Front leader Petre Roman hinted that the key to the problem might be a land swap between Moldova and Ukraine.

When quadripartide discussions on the resolution of the Dniester conflict under CIS auspices were initiated at the same time, involving Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, Romania was included despite the fact that the country is not a CIS member. On 21 June 1992, the Romanian Ministry of foreign affairs issued a declaration which dotted most of the "i"s: "We are confronted by a deliberate policy aimed towards the undermining of the legal Moldovan government. Foreign military forces are attempting to obstruct the law-enforcing organs and military units of the Republic of Moldova assigned to restore and keep order." The Romanian state secretary Constantin Ene was dispatched to Chisinau to attend a hastily convened meeting of representatives of the foreign offices of Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and Romania. He complained that "every time progress is being made in the political negotiations, the situation in the region is being aggravated by someone". Nonetheless, in a number of subsequent statements and interviews Romanian statesmen took up a very balanced position and distanced themselves from the high-pitched campaign in the Romanian press. This was recognised also by the chairman of the Committee on mass media and information in the Moldovan parliament, Valeriu Matei, himself a prominent Popular Front leader.

In sum, the acuteness of the Bessarabian question in Romanian politics may to a large extent be explained by domestic factors. The opposition parties chose to focus so sharply on this issue not least because it was one of the few weak spots in the otherwise seemingly impenetrable armour of the Salvation Front. Significantly, the aggravation of the Dniester conflict in the summer of 1992 coincided with the election campaign to the Romanian presidency. Moldovan popular front leaders were also doing their best to keep the unification issue high up on the Romanian political agenda.

Official Romanian circles oppose the dismemberment of Moldova while they at the same time refrain from strongly-worded statements on the topic. Romanian-Moldovan reunification is considered not as a priority objective, but in a long-term historical perspective. However, after the impressive showing of the nationalists in the Romanian national elections in September 1992, official Romania was hard pressed to change its accents and approaches. On 5 December, the new foreign minister, Teodor Melescanu, criticised Moldova’s lack of enthusiasm for unification, and a few days later an under-secretary of state, Adrian Dohotaru, expressed the belief that unification could take place within the turn of the century. That statement created a commotion in Chisinau and raised some eyebrows in Russia and the Ukraine as well.

The View From Ukraine. The Ukraine for a long time kept a low key in the inflammable Dniester conflict as the republic already has a number of political-cum-ethnic tension zones within its own borders -- the Crimea, the Trans-Carpathia and possibly also the Donbass. Moreover, any Ukrainian involvement in the Dniester conflict would almost inevitably lead the state into an imbroglio with Bucharest since influencial circles in Romania clearly coveted the Ukrainian region of Northern Bukovina plus the rayons of Hertsa, Khotyn and Southern Bessarabia. The combination of domestic and international concerns, then, kept Ukraine from adopting the role of an arbiter.

At the same time a number of factors made it ever more difficult for the country to retain a passive attitude: First, the sizable presence of Ukrainians in Moldova in general and in the Dniester republic in particular; second, the possibility that an area in its immediate vicinity could be turned into not only a source of tension but of actual military fighting and possibly become a military stronghold of Russia; third, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of refugees ending up on Ukrainian soil as a result of such fighting; and finally, the intense propaganda campaign in the Bucharest press concerning the disputed territories.

After the declaration of Moldovan independence in August 1991 the focus of irrendentist claims in many Romanian media shifted from Bessarabia to Northern Bukovina. Some even suggested that this piece of land could be swapped with left bank Moldova which could be given to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Supreme Rada expressed concern that the strongly-worded Romanian declaration on the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact on 24 June 1991 could be interpreted as containing territorial pretensions against Ukraine. The Bucharest press pretended to challenge this view by declaring that "this is not a matter of territorial claims, but only of demanding back what has been stolen from us."

The Romanian parliament protested the Ukrainian referendum on independence on 1 December 1991 on the grounds that its was held also in allegedly disputed territories. The parliament called upon the states of the world to take cognizance of this circumstance and explicitly exclude Southern Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and the rayons of Hertsa and Khotyn when extending recognition to the new Ukrainian state. To our knowledge, no government has followed this advise.

The paramount concern of Ukrainian foreign policy, however, was not the relationship with Romanian or Moldova, but the relationship with Russia. The Dniester conflict was seen through the prism of the tug of war over the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea fleet. Moldovan politicians did their utmost to exploit the tensions between the Russian and the Ukrainian leaderships, and when the two great East Slavic states were at loggerheads, the rapport with Chisinau was fairly good. However, when Kravchuk started to mend fences with Russia, relations with the Moldovans soured somewhat. The Ukrainian stance on the Dniester issue may be said to describe a pendulum movement, from an initially greater skepticism towards the Romanian position, towards an even greater skepticism to the leadership in Moscow, and back towards the first position.

When the rhetoric around the Black Sea fleet was running high in the spring of 1992, Kiev on a number of occasions made common cause with Chisinau on the Dniester question. Ukraine in April established a 50 kilometer deep security zone along its border with the PMR, primarily in order to intercept Cossack volunteers crossing Ukraine territory. The Ukrainian Foreign Department also thwarted Russian attempts to assign the 14th army the role of peace-keeping force in the region. The country also insisted, along with Moldova, that Romania should be included in the negotiation process around the conflict. Russia, on her side, wanted to keep these negotiations an intra-CIS affair. In any case, the spring round of negotiations did not lead to any practical results. Its failure was probably also caused by the fact that the PMR was not allowed to participate. As a result, the information received by the negotiating parties about the conflict was incomplete. On the issue of PMR representation, however, the Ukrainian side supported the Russian position.

When the conflict by early summer threatened to grow into a full-blown war, Kiev to some extent changed its approach . On 22 June, at a time when the official Ukrainian press was still blaming mostly Russia for the escalation, the deputy Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs, B. Tarasiuk, declared in Chisinau that Ukraine was in favour of Dniester autonomy within the framework of a united Moldovan state. He further suggested that representatives of Tiraspol ought to participate directly in the negotiations as members of the Moldovan delegation. The next day the Moldovan crisis was discussed at the Dagomys summit between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. At this juncture Ukraine moved significantly closer to the Russian position.


The view from Russia. In Moscow support of the PMR has for long time been a major rallying point of antiliberal politicians and journalists. A stream of Russian right-wingers - Albert Makashev, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Viktor Alksnis, Aleksandr Nevzorov and others -- have made pilgrimages to the Dniester republic. They portray it as a last bastion of healthy Communist order (The PMR has retained the hammer and sickle in its state emblem and no Lenin statues have been torn down), as a heroic community of besieged ethnic brethren, or both. In April 1992, the entire editorial staff of the leading anti-Yeltsin newspaper Den’ -- including controversial figures such as Alexander Prokhanov and Igor’ Shafarevich -- descended on the banks of Dniester to express their solidarity with the PMR. "Here, on the Dniester, Russia has for the first time taken up the sub-machine gun. She is fighting, beating off attacks, and saying ‘no!’ to the traitors and scoundrels." "Today, the fate of little Dniester is the litmus test, the focus of all the problems of (Russia)." Den’ was also one of the first Russian media to advocate not only moral but also armed support of the PMR. In an article in the spring of 1991, with the indicative title "Once more on Great Russia", it was claimed that "our army has an obligation to defend its people against foreign intervention and should immediately throw the Kishinev bandits back across the Dniester. If this is not done, the army is not worthy of its name". To the Moscow rightists the consolidation of the PMR was not an end itself, but a means to restore the multinational Russian/Soviet empire.

But significantly, in Russia not only anti-democrats embraced the Dniester cause. Also a number of public figures who had been in the forefront of the battle for democratic reform under perestroika have voiced explicit support for the PMR. Upon the return from a visit to the Dniester republic in September 1991 Nikolai Travkin, the leader of "Democratic Party of Russia", declared: "In my view, Dniestria has all moral, civil and political rights to decide for itself both the issue of status as a state and whom they want to join in the future". Another staunch supporter of the PMR in the Russian liberal camp is the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Russian parliament, Yevgenii Ambartsumov. Like Travkin, he defends the right of Russia to have a say in the conflict as a matter of protecting Russian fellow citizens (sootechestvenniki). Also the influential anti-Communist politician Sergei Stankevich adheres to this view.

The outbreak of major military confrontations in the Dniester area put Boris Yeltsin in an unenviable position. It was extremely difficult to find the balance point between support for the Moldovan alliance partner in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the need to stop the flood-wave of allegations that he was betraying the interests of fellow Russians in the PMR. In addition to this, the position of Russia was complicated by a number of other concerns: a) The territorial integrity of not only Moldova, but also of Russia was at stake. If Russia should decide to recognize PMR and the Gagauz republic, Moldova and Romania would most certainly retaliate by recognizing the breakaway Russian territories, Tatarstan and Chechenia. Other states could then be expected to follow suit.

b) Yeltsin had not forgotten that Mircea Snegur was one of the few Soviet republican leaders who explicitly supported him in the struggle against the putchists in August 1992 -- while the PMR leaders did not. c) If strong anti-Russian sentiments should prevail in Moldovan politics, this state could possibly, together with the Ukraine and the Baltic states, end up as a kind of of anti-Russian "cordon sanitare". That would greatly complicate the attempts of the Yeltsin regime to integrate Russia into the Western world. d) The Yeltsin regime is very sensitive to allegations of Russian neo-imperialism. Despite the fact that it contributed to the dismantling of the Soviet Union, it is regularly being accused of harbouring imperialist schemes, and it tries to avoid any action that could substantiate such accusations. Thus, the political constellation in Russia in many ways resembled the situation in Romania and Moldova: A very vocal activist opposition, within and without the parliament, was goading on a low-key, non-interventionist executive power, demanding that it take a more militant stance on the Dniester issue.

The efforts of the patriotic opposition to bring about a more active Russian policy in the Dniester conflict met with sympathy and support among certain members of the Yeltsin entourage. Significantly, vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi is a leading champion of the Dniester cause in Russian politics. Rutskoi has on a number of occasions directly and indirectly attacked the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Kozyrev, who is generally considered a soft-liner on this and on most other issues. In a situation almost unprecedented in democratic states the vice president of the Russian Federation expressed the attitudes of the parliamentary opposition just as much as the attitudes of his government. The contrast between the two voices of the Russian executive was made abundantly clear in early April 1992 when both Rutskoi and Kozyrev visited Chisinau and Tiraspol with a two days interval. Rutskoi proclaimed that the Dniester republic "has existed, exists and will continue to exist", while Kozyrev seemed to be running after him with a fire extinguisher. In a heated debate at the VI Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation shortly afterwards Rutskoi advocated official recognition of the PMR. The cautious faction in the Parliament prevailed, however. At the very same time, on 6 April 1992, diplomatic relations were established between Russia and Moldova.

The escalation of the conflict after the Snegur ultimatum in March 1992 threatened to compromise the neutrality of the 14th army in Moldova, which Russia took under its control by a presidential decree of 1 April. Suzanne Crow of Radio Liberty believes that this move was intended to rein in the army and prevent its units from becoming "accidentally" involved should open hostilities break out. This effect was not achieved, however. General Lebed’ used ever-stronger language in his denunciations of the Chisinau regime, including accusations of fascist tendencies. His utterances were in some quarters interpreted as a sign that the Russian military was pursuing a foreign policy of its own, but in reality the general staff in Moscow distanced itself from Lebed’s verbiage. More than anything else, the commander’s attitude probably reflected the increasing nervousness of the locals in the Dniester region, military and civilians alike. Confronted with the ambiguities of official Russian policy on the issue and the lack of a clear policy concept in the Kremlin concerning the "near abroad" in general, they were afraid of being left in the lurch.

The June war of 1992 created a new situation for Russian policy makers. The 14th army was involved in the recapture of Bendery, and a statement of Aleksandr Rutskoi on 20 June, during Yeltsin’s visit to the USA, indicated a change in Russian policy towards a more active line. Upon his return home, Yeltsin backed up the vice president.

In the Moldovan and Dniesterian populations the war was very unpopular. According to a report in Russian media not a single recruit reacted to the 50 call-up papers issued by Moldovan military authorities on one particular day, despite the fact that failure to do so was fined with the equivalent of 25 monthly pays at the minimum wage rate. Under mounting pressure from the agrarian bloc in the Moldovian parliament president Snegur had to make a number of changes in domestic as well as foreign policy. Two of the most vociferous anti-Dniester ministers -- for defence and national security -- were removed from the cabinet.

Furthermore, Chisinau agreed to bilateral negotiations with Russia. The negotiation process started on 3 July 1992 in Moscow. PMR was allowed to participate as an observer, but not as a negotiating partner. The Moldovan side proved very accommodative. In return, a new and "softer" Rutskoi arrived in Chisinau and Tiraspol for consultations. He attempted to persuade the Dniester leadership to adopt a more conciliatory stance.

A bilateral agreement was signed on 21 July. As one of its most important points the composition of a multilateral peace-keeping force was agreed to. It was to consist of units from Russia, Moldova and the PMR. Bulgaria, Belarus and Romania had been asked to contribute with peace-keeping units as well, but declined the invitation despite Moldovan pledges to cover all expences. It was further agreed that the 14th army should be gradually withdrawn from the area, and a number of economic issues of mutual concern were addressed. In the lengthy communique the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova were underlined. Significantly, should the status of the Moldovan Republic as a state be changed any time in the future, the population of the left bank was guaranteed a right to secede. The details of a "special status" (osobiy status) for the left bank were to be worked out later. In a later round of negotiations, in September 1992, the Moldovan side offered the city of Bendery a status as a free economic zone.


The Snegur-Yeltsin agreement of 21 July 1992 has not yet been ratified by any party, the Moldovan parliament has even refused to discuss it. Activists from the so-called "volunteer units" affiliated with the Popular Front have conducted hunger strikes in down-town Chisinau to protest against Snegur’s alleged appeasement policy. Moldovan refugees in Bessarabia from the left bank incite their compatriots with stories of Dniester atrocities. Fortunately, most of the refugees have already returned home: of the 50 thousand registered with Moldovan authorities in July 1992, only 2.800 still remained on the right bank in November. Those who stay behind seem to be the most intransigent anti-Dniestrovians. Most of them will probably return only when the regime on the left bank has been toppled.

The nervousness of right bank Russians is growing. In a survey from the summer of 1992, reported in an official Moldovan newspaper 60% of them complained about adverse interethnic relations in the republic, and only 12% saw no reason to contemplate emigration. One year earlier, the latter figure had been three times as high. Any injustice done to the Russians in Moldova may inflame passions in Russia where the treatment of the Russians in the near abroad is closely monitored. Should the Yeltsin be replaced by more nationalistic leaders, they might feel compelled to honour pledges, made while in opposition, to come to the rescue of the PMR.

In the fall of 1992, the beleaguered community on the left bank was showing signs of fatigue and rents in the social fabric. In the official PMR press it was admitted that as a result of the war and of the arming of large groups in the population crime rate had soared. While 14 homicides had been registered in the eight first months of 1991, the figure for the corresponding period in 1992 was nine times higher. Moreover, the political leadership was torn by internal squabbles. General Lebed’ and one of his deputies, Mikhail Bergman, were publicly accusing certain members of the PMR government, including state secretary Valerii Litskai, of corruption and links to the Russian KGB.

The fate of the 14th army is still in the air. A pullout will require complicated negotiations with Ukraine on the conditions of transfer. More importantly, the Kremlin apparently does not have sufficiently effective levers to influence the political leadership of the PMR. Nor does it control completely the officers’ corps of the army, which in itself is a most disconcerting fact. The 14th army is to a large degree recruited from the locals (according to General Lebed’s own, partisan, estimate, 40% of the officers and 80-90% of the NCOs ). These circumstances make the transformation of the army into the armed forces of the PMR a likely outcome. This will inevitably provoke strong protests from Chisinau, possibly also from Kiev.

While the military defeat in the June war did little to enhance the prestige of president Snegur among the Moldovan public, the Moldovan hard-liners have as yet not been able to capitalize on his problems. In the Moldovan parliament the adherents of revenge are in a decisive minority. The formation of the new government of national consensus in August-September 1992, led by Andrei Sangheli, testifies to this. The composition of his cabinet consciously reflects the ethnic distribution of the population. In this government some posts are reserved for the left bankers, should they care to fill them.

The position of the Popular Front of Moldova (in February 1992 renamed "the Christian Democratic Popular Front, dropping "Moldova" from its name") is seriously weakened. The Front is ever more exclusively fighting for one cause only, the unification with Romania, but is for that very reason being marginalized. The participation of the Front leader Mircea Druc in the Romanian presidential elections in September turned into a most quixotic affair. Druc, having taken Romanian citizenship, garnered only 3% of the votes, and turned out to be least popular of all the candidates.

According to most estimates, one year after independence close to 90% of the Moldovan population was opposed to unification with Romania. However, the Moldovan leadership has not been willing to forswear this policy option entirely. On the contrary, the policy line is kept deliberately vague. Occasionally the impression is being conveyed that its disagreement with the Popular Front is only a matter of tactics and timing. A statement from the Political Analysis Department of the Moldovan State Office in September 1992 said that "matters ought not to be rushed. Every child is born only when the fetus is mature, after its measured time in the womb. So also with the ‘child’ of the Front (that is: unification. Authors’ remark)". Such analyses will not placate the Front leaders, nor allay the apprehensions of the left bankers.

While the nationalists in many respects strengthened their positions in Romanian politics during 1992, the cause of Romanian-Moldovan reunification has not benefited from this. Romanian nationalism is hung up primarily on the Hungarian and Gypsy questions, not the issue of unification with Moldova. "Vatra Romaneasca" and the Greater Romania Party at times even claim that reunification with Bessarabia could be detrimental to Romania as it might encourage separatist moves among Transylvania’s Hungarians. This makes it reasonable to suppose that president Iliescu might be able to continue his restrained policy.

The Ukrainians will most likely continue to support the precarious equilibrium in Moldova and try to stay out of the conflict as a "concerned bystander". The Russian position will depend on the ability of president Yeltsin to have his agreement with president Snegur ratified by the Russian parliament. This agreement seems to be one of the most realistic starting points for a resolution of the conflict. If the hostilities should be renewed, the question of extending official recognition to the PMR will no doubt by raised once more in the Supreme Soviet and/or in the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies.

The main unresolved bones of contention in the Dniester conflict is the status of the PMR. A draft law proposed by Chisinau, in which the independence of the Dniester area was reduced to a matter of administrative autonomy, was clearly insufficient to Tiraspol. Against the background of the recent bloody war the Dniestrians found it difficult to accept the new outstretched Moldovan hand, especially as they see the Moldovans as the aggressors and themselves as the victors.

The projects prepared in Tiraspol are likewise unacceptable to Chisinau. The Dniestrians would prefer a confederate arrangement, with the Gagauz republic in the South as a third party to the arrangment. In this state they would have their own army (to defend themselves against the other part of the confederation!) and be in control of almost the entire budget of their area. Under post-Soviet realities a confederation might for all practical purposes be the next thing to complete independence.

The alternatives to a confederation with Moldova, as Tiraspol sees them, are:

-- establishment of an independent Dniester state on good terms with the Eastern Slavic states. The 14th army could be kept in the area as a Russian army. The PMR is at the present busily building up the entire infrastructure of an independent state, including ministries and state committees, costums control and border guards. A separate Dniester citizenship is being discussed.

-- annexation to the Russian Federation. While the PMR does not have a contiguous border with Russia, neither has the Kaliningrad oblast. Still, history has shown that territorially divided states tend to be very instable structures.

-- conclusion of a federate arrangement with Ukraine. While the Ukrainian SSR, in contrast to several other Union republics, never had any autonomous formations on its territory, Crimea was nonetheless granted autonomous status within the Ukrainian state in February 1991. A precedent for similar arrangements in other areas, then, has been created. Ukrainian nationalists would no doubt welcome the return of former Ukrainian territory along the Dniester, but on the other hand these same groups are strongly opposed to a general federalisation of the Ukainian state.

-- The inclusion into a united Eastern Slav (Russian-Ukrainian-Belorussian) state, or into another wider Union or invigorated Commonwealth. Although the entire political arrangement of the former Soviet Union certainly is still in flux, this option at the moment does not seem very realistic. Ukraine is in the process of acute state building, and will most likely for years to come try to keep big brother Russia at arm’s length.

All of these alternatives must be regarded as less stabilizing than the Yeltsin-Snegur sketch. They will all result in a breakup of the territorial unity of the Moldovan state without the consent Moldavan authorities, and the international community cannot be expected to endorse such an arrangement. Admittedly, the Vance-Owen plan for cantonization of Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to indicate that the West is more willing than it used to be to accept military fait accomplices as starting points for peace settlements. The principle of the territorial integrity of states has certainly become less sacrosanct lately. On the other hand, it can be argued that the Yugoslav case is exceptional. It is an example to be avoided rather than emulated.


In 1992, a leading expert on Soviet affairs, Victor Zaslavsky, claimed that "as the legacy of Soviet nationality policy comes to be recognized, territorial exchanges and organized population transfers might become necessary. These issues should acquire a legitimate place on the agendas of the international community and its organizations." Certainly, a civilized redistribution of populations and territories is preferable to a chaotic scramble for contested stretches of land. However, the chances that the involved parties can agree upon the procedures for this and to the arrangements it results in, are meagre, even if the international community offers its mediation. Acknowledging that the borders between the Soviet Successor states in many instances have been drawn in an haphazard manner, and recognizing that the principle of the inviolability of existing borders was seriously undermined by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the present authors nonetheless believe that this principle is indispensable to the solution of ethno-territorial conflicts created by the dissolution of this state. This view does not exclude, but rather presupposes, the creation of effective regimes for the protection of the rights of religious, linguistic and other cultural minorities in the Soviet successor states. At times, such protection regimes can take the form of territorial arrangements. The Dniester area is one of the places where extensive territorial autonomy seems to represent the optimal solution.