Transnistria tensions: Will Russia try to annex Moldova’s breakaway region?

Pro-Russian rebels hint at a referendum, a move Moldova has dismissed as meaningless propaganda.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the city on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Tiraspol, Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniestria, February 23, 2023. REUTERS/Vladislav Bachev/File Photo
A general view shows Tiraspol on the Defender of the Fatherland Day, in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria [File: Vladislav Bachev/Reuters]

Bucharest, Romania – Alexandru Flenchea’s phone has been ringing non-stop since last week.

“I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have received in the last two days from both the press and just acquaintances,” Flenchea told Al Jazeera, by phone.

People keep asking him whether it is safe to stay in Moldova.

“It is just insane,” he said.

Flenchea heads the Initiative 4 Peace Association in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital.

He has been fielding calls since Ghenadie Ciorba – an opposition figure in Transnistria – recently reportedly suggested that separatists may call for a referendum on the region’s annexation to Russia.

On Wednesday, the call Ciorba touted did not quite come at a rare special congress in the narrow strip of land that is internationally recognised as Moldovan territory but backed by Russia.

But the “congress of deputies of all levels” in the separatist region’s capital did pass a resolution seeking Moscow’s support in staving off an apparent economic crisis, which they blamed on Moldova.

“There is social and economic pressure on Transdniestria, which contradicts European principles and approaches to the protection of human rights and free trade,” the resolution said.

Transnistria has been under the control of separatist authorities since 1992, and is home to about 470,000 people.

Moldovan authorities have dismissed its demand as a propaganda move and downplayed the recent events, saying there is no risk of escalation.

Wednesday’s meeting took place just a day before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly.

transdniestria map

Wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistria is not recognised by any member of the United Nations as an independent entity.

About 1,500 Russian troops are stationed in the strip, which is home to ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans.

“People from Transnistria have their own passport that is not valid anywhere,” said 36-year-old Cristina Afinoghenova, who is originally from Transnistria and currently living in Chisinau.

As a result, “many obtain secondary documents”, she added.

Most Transnistrians have Moldovan passports, while some have Russian and Ukrainian papers.

Afinoghenova, who was six when the region declared independence, recalled discussions “particularly about language”, arguing “whether the Moldovan language lacked prestige” or “if Russian was considered cool”.

The conflict over Transnistria in 1989 was over “the language issue”, according to Anatoli Dirun, head of the Tiraspol School of Public Studies; Tiraspol is the region’s capital.

Transnistria was part of what was known as the Moldavian Republic within the Soviet Union.

However, with the proclamation of perestroika, the political and financial reform movement launched by Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the growth of national movements began in many Soviet republics.

“Moldova was no exception,” Dirun said.

Then, the Moldova parliament in 1990 decided that the only state language in the republic would be Moldavian in the Latin script.

Transnistria, historically under the sovereignty of the Russian Empire, which had just joined Bessarabia (Moldova) in 1940, “did not agree with this decision”, Dirun added.

“After their demands were ignored, the population of Transnistria organised a large-scale strike”, he explained.

‘Sandwiched between Chisinau and Kyiv

The war in Ukraine has polarised opinion on both sides of the Dniester River.

Dirun believes that since 2014, amid the Donbas conflict and Russian annexation of Crimea, “Ukraine has seriously changed its attitude towards Transnistria, considering the Russian troops stationed there as a threat to its national security.”

After February 2022, following Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine closed its border with Transnistria.

“Tiraspol has found itself sandwiched between Chisinau and Kyiv,” said Dirun.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine has also impacted negotiations, said a Moldova government spokesperson of a department focused on reintegration policies.

“[It] is currently [impossible] to hold meetings since two of its very important actors, Ukraine and Russia, cannot sit at the same table to negotiate,” said the spokesperson.

According to Afinoghenova, there are children and parents in Transnistria “who have different views [regarding the war in Ukraine] and stopped meeting and speaking with each other”.

Economic woes

The closure of the border with Ukraine, combined with a Moldovan decision to tax goods imported into the separatist region, has skyrocketed prices of basic products, said Afinoghenova, whose parents and relatives live in Transnistria.

According to Dirun, the war has rocked Transnistria’s economy “but also forced the leadership of Transnistria to take a more restrained position” and “not demonstrate its pro-Russian views”.

The war in neighbouring Ukraine has also made Transnistria “an even greater ground for disinformation campaigns”, said Anastasia Pociumban, a research fellow at the Center for Order and Governance at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Another challenge “has been related to the supply of electricity”, Pociumban added.

Moldova was once one of the European nations most dependent on Russian energy.

By 2023, it became independent of Russian gas, but it continues to rely on electricity sourced from the breakaway region of Transnistria.

Pociumban argued that “Moldova’s previously full dependency on Russian and gas and electricity from Transnistria was used as a vulnerability for Russia’s blackmailing”.

On the other bank of the Dniester River, in Moldova, “this war has [also] polarised the population even more”, said Alexandru Flenchea.

However, “if there’s one thing that all Moldovans have in common, it is that almost all of us don’t want war,” he added.

Moldova was officially granted candidate status by the European Union in June 2022, a process the bloc still believes in.

“Moldova’s European future cannot be held hostage by the conflict,” Peter Stano, EU spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera