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Transnistria — Life in a Russian Bear Hug

Transnistria is a small breakaway state located between the Dniester River and Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine. In November 1990, limited fighting broke out between Russian-backed pro-Transnistrian forces and the Moldovan police and military. The fighting intensified in March 1992, and lasted until an uneasy yet lasting ceasefire was established on July 22, 1992.

Transnistria’s Russian-speaking population believes that its identity would be overwhelmed by the ethnic Moldovan majority and thus sees the Russian military presence as protection. Moldova contends that those Russian troops violate its territorial integrity and that Moscow has repeatedly blocked any attempts to reach a settlement. For these reasons, many see parallels between this long-simmering “frozen conflict” and the ongoing situation between Crimea and Ukraine. (Photo of Young Communists: Davin Ellicson)

This account was compiled from interviews done by Charles Stuart Kennedy with John Todd Stewart (which began in October 1999), Ambassador to Moldova from 1995 to 1998, Nadia Tongour (interview begun in November 2007), the Soviet Desk Officer from 1991 to 1993, Louis Licht (June 2000), DCM at Embassy Chisinau from 1994 to 1996, John M. Evans (October 2009), Chief of the OSCE Mission in Moldova from 1997-1999, and Craig Dunkerley (March 2004), who, as DCM at Embassy Vienna, served on the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE’s headquarters in Vienna. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a supranational organization consisting of 57 countries devoted to human rights, security, and crisis management, has helped monitor the ceasefire and has tried to broker a final settlement.

Read Ambassador Rudolph Perina’s account of the unsuccessful negotiations on Transnistria as well as his perspective on the other frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.


“Moldova was the Florida of the USSR” 

STEWART: Moldova had declared its independence on August 27, 1991, as the USSR was breaking up. At that time a problem was developing with a secessionist faction on the eastern bank of the Dnister River, a sliver of land along the Ukrainian border which is called Transnistria in Romanian. That dispute worsened into armed hostilities during 1992.

TONGOUR: The real shock was that Moldova was starting down this path at the very time when they experienced a major blow, namely the onset of the Transnistrian conflict, when the Russian-backed forces in that region staged a rebellion and refused to recognize Moldovan government authority. That was the official beginning of the conflict, in the summer of 1992, between Moldova and the “Transnistrian Authority,” which in some form or another has persisted — more recently in a “Cold War” manner –for lo these many years.

LICHT: In Moldova, we had a concern that the split of the Transnistria area, which continues today, was a problem. It probably is the most important issue out there. The other concern was to try to make Moldova a viable place, to promote democracy, and give assistance…The people in Moldova are nice people. They are sort of Romanian, and sort of Russian.…

Those who speak Romanian there still read it in Cyrillic, whereas in Moldova, they changed back to the Romanian alphabet. So, the people are really confused. Moldavians have been part of Romania, part of the Soviet Union, they are independent, they don’t know if they want to be part of Romania again. Some people think it’s like being the Appalachia of Romania, so why do that? It’s a place, of course, where a lot of people have studied and operated in Russian and now they have to operate in Moldovan, which is really Romanian.

STEWART: Our goals in Moldova were, first of all, to facilitate the political and economic transformation of the country into a democratic, prosperous state, and then second of all, to solve the Transnistrian problem in a manner consistent with OSCE principles. The main tool that we had to achieve the first objective was our AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] program, and that was sizable. During my last year, it was around $25 million, which for a country of 4.4 million is quite large these days. On per capita basis, it was second largest in the newly independent states after Armenia….

[Igor] Smirnov, the President of the so-called Transnistrian Republic, came in the mid-1980s from another part of the Soviet Union to run a factory, and the head of the security forces there came after independence from Latvia, where there is reportedly still a warrant for his arrest. It was a wonderful place to come and take a piece of the action. But in addition to people like Smirnov, there are a great number of pensioners who came during Soviet days. All things are relative, of course, but Moldova was the Florida of the U.S.S.R., the republic with the most temperate climate, which was attractive to retirees. These people do not speak Romanian and have no connections with the area, period.

LICHT: We were deeply involved [in trying to resolve the issue]. The OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] has a mission there. The second head of it was an American. We were involved in trying to mediate that dispute and we had a negotiator named Joe Pressel, who when I was there would come frequently and talk to the president, and would go over to Transnistria. You would go over to Transnistria, which some wags call a museum of Communism.

STEWART: The situation is theoretically complicated but a good deal simpler in reality. Most Transnistrian residents are native speakers of Russian or Ukrainian — Slavic speakers — while the majority of the population on the west bank of the Dnister are native Romanian speakers. The ostensible cause of the conflict was the fear, which was not beyond reason, that Moldova would merge with Romania. And these Slavic speakers in Transnistria did not want that to happen as they would become a minority in greater Romania.

This was the ostensible cause of the conflict, which was exacerbated by the fact that there was a concentration of Russian troops in Transnistria that sided with the rebels and provided arms and manpower to resist the attempt by the central government to retake the area. As a merger with Romania became less and less likely in succeeding years and no solution to the separatist problem was reached, it became clear that the real difficulty lay in the fact that Transnistria was being run by a small clique which was making a good deal of money from the area’s unique status.

Transnistria, where the ruling clique had formed an unrecognized government, served as a base for the supply of drugs, arms, and tax-free liquor and cigarettes to other parts of the region. In addition, the regime received free energy in the form of gas from the pipeline that ran from Russia to the Balkans. They were able to sell this energy to industries in Transnistria and pocket the income. They also received a percentage of the profits from the other illegal activities which were based in the area. In charge of what amounted to a robbers’ nest, they were doing quite well financially from the unrecognized statehood that they had created.

TONGOUR: Officially our people were not even supposed to go to Transnistria and when they did, it was a major production, requiring permission from authorities on both sides of the river as well as from Washington. What was really remarkable was that we were the primary source of information, in the best sense of the word, for other European countries, which were interested in the region but had fewer resources to commit to the area.

“The reality was that the Moldovan side was very much in cahoots with the Transnistrian side. There were all kinds of scams that were being practiced.”

EVANS: The governing authorities in Moldova were able to blame a lot of their problems on the fact that they had this breakaway territory and had to turn a lot of attention to that. The reality was that the Moldovan side was very much in cahoots with the Transnistrian side, at least on the level of business. There were all kinds of scams that were being practiced.

One of the most notable was the smuggling of fuel oil and gasoline, which mainly came, in their case, from Romania. What would happen is that gas tankers or gasoline trucks would come into Moldova proper with papers suggesting they were going all the way through. So they had transit papers for Moldova but in fact they would get into Transnistria and turn around and sell untaxed gasoline to Moldovan consumers. A similar scam was going on with tobacco products. (Pictured border crossing)

First of all, there was a lot of corruption between the Transnistrians and the Moldovans and so goods went back and forth fairly easily. Also the Moldovans had enacted a VAT tax, a value added tax, but Transnistria had not imposed such a tax so Moldovan consumers gladly went over to Transnistria and bought imported products like German beer in the Transnistrian stores and then returned home.

The criminal structures, which were clearly evident all through the former Soviet Union, clearly were there between Transnistria and right bank Moldova. There were big villas being constructed in Chişinau apparently with money made in Transnistria.

And one thing we noticed since we frequently traveled to Transnistria, we noticed that almost every weekday morning there was the equivalent of a Brinks armored truck that would come from Transnistria over to Chişinau. Now, I never had the opportunity to inspect what was in that truck but it was certainly the case that there were financial relations of some sort between the two sides

Another one of the things I was told on first arriving in Moldova was, “Hey, it’s just a half a dozen crooks over there, Igor Smirnov and four or five others; if they were gone then the Transnistrians would rejoin Moldova.” That was absolutely not true. Certainly by the time I was there the insecurity of the people, the fear of another Moldovan invasion, the distrust between the two sides and, I must say, the support that the Transnistrian regime had among the populace was undeniable.

So it was not a question of going and arresting the Transnistrian elite, which was another idea that was broached to me the first fall I was there by the Moldovans: “oh,” they were saying, “we’ll just go and arrest Smirnov.” Well, it wasn’t that simple.

The Russian Army — and the Arms Depot — Across the River

Q: What was happening on the ground? Was the Soviet army, a division or what?

TONGOUR: I think it was called the 14th battalion or division under General Lebedev. They had basically seized a major power plant that was in the Transnistrian region and were hindering Moldovan access to power. This was obviously a major problem for Moldova. The situation was dicey. It was not a “hot conflict” with major battles, but a conflict that was literally close to home, with the establishment of the “Transnistrian Republic” just across a small river. In reality, it was somewhat of a standoff because the Moldovan military lacked the resources to really take on the sizeable Russian-Transnistrian forces, which called themselves the Transnistrian Army.

DUNKERLEY: Based entirely in the Transnistrian region, the Russian forces were commonly seen as exerting a certain amount of favoritism and support on the behalf of the separatists, reflecting perceptions of extensive political and economic ties between Tiraspol and Moscow interests.

Over the past several years, the Russian military presence has shrunk considerably in number; most of the enlisted troops came to be locals. Of greater concern was perhaps the military infrastructure in Transnistria that had previously supported the Warsaw Pact southern flank.

There rem

ained, for instance, a major Russian arms depot – I believe it was Kolbasna – that reportedly contained over 40,000 tons of all sorts of things:  ammunition, mines, rockets – and there were continuing reports and fears of illicit leakage from these arsenals. Indeed, Transnistria was commonly seen in those days as a source and transit point for all sorts of illegal activity in terms of smuggling and such.

So this was an unhealthy, potentially destabilizing situation and seen to undercut the viability of the Moldovan state. The Moldovan authorities indicated during this period that they wanted to get the Russian forces out which, in turn, would presumably strengthen Moldova’s political position vis a vis Transnistrian separatism.

But because of the twists and turns of Moldovan domestic politics, the fragility of the government of the day, and perhaps as well a sensitivity in Chisinau not to overplay their hand vis a vis Moscow, the Moldovan pursuit of this objective was sometimes hesitant and inconsistent in effect.

Q: Were the Russians under Yeltsin playing a game there at all?

STEWART: Not a very coherent game. Part of the problem resulted from the chaos in Moscow. There was no clear line on Transnistria or much else for that matter. Sometimes the Russians seemed to be promoting a reasonable settlement, and other times they appeared obdurate. There were plenty of good reasons, by my lights, for the Russians to want a settlement along the lines I described because the kleptocracy’s involvement in arms trading only served the interests of internal instability in the Russian Federation.

Even the idea of having a Russian base in the area struck me always as nonsensical. What good is a small force separated from the Russian Federation by 500-600 kilometers in this little sliver of land east of the Dnister? If the Ukrainians wanted to sweep in, they could mop up the 2,000 men without much difficulty. It made no earthly sense.

TONGOUR: If you consider the geography of the region, this was one conflict zone that made sense from the Russian perspective. Given the large contingent of Russian speakers or ethnic Russians living there, both they and the Russian government saw them as but an extension of Russia. And from their standpoint, the “upstart” Romanians were effectively encroaching onto their turf.

While willing to cede one side of the river, they were not willing to part with the Transnistrian region to the east, which they not only saw as theirs but where they had stockpiled military equipment and personnel. So, yes, Russian armaments and supplies were in abundance in this Russian-speaking enclave.

STEWART: Our position was coordinated through the OSCE, and we, like the rest of the OSCE membership, including the Russians — it was a consensus decision — agreed that yes, these Russian troops had to be removed along with their arms and ammunition. The arms and ammunition are important because there was a very large dump of Soviet armaments in a town called Kolbasna in northern Transnistria that was supposed to supply the Red Army in the event of hostilities in the Balkans.

This was a considerable problem because a lot of these armaments were quite old and unstable. Moving them would have been a dangerous proposition. The Transnistrian regime was putting up all sorts of objections to the evacuation or destruction of the Kolbasna materiel because they were almost certainly conniving in the sale of usable weapons and ammunition to one insurgent group or the other in the region. I would not be at all surprised if a number of them ended up in Chechnya or the former Yugoslavia.

That’s why the obvious strategy was to get rid of the arms and ammunition, then to get rid of the Russian troops, and then to put pressure on the Transnistrian regime to come to terms with the government in Chisinau. However, despite some very active efforts by the OSCE during the majority of my time there, very little progress was made in this direction.

EVANS: The Russians had agreed to take the arms out of Kolbasna and take them back to Russia but the Transnistrians at one point had actually lain on the railroad tracks, and these were old women and ordinary citizens, to prevent those Russian trains from moving, at an earlier stage. So there was a fight between the Russians and the Transnistrians and also the Moldovans over that source of wealth.

The OSCE, the United States, and Operating on the Ground

EVANS:  I was sent there to head a completely international mission. There were, at that time, seven of us, of all different nationalities, only one American. I had in addition a Czech military officer, a Dutch military officer; my deputy was a Georgian. We had a German human rights officer and a Polish public affairs officer as well. So this was an international group, civil and military, and our lingua franca was Russian. It was the only language that all of us spoke sufficiently well to do our work.

Q: Did you have any concern about implying official recognition of the regime by your presence there?

STEWART: That was a part of my concern, and I never put myself in a situation where I was subjecting myself to any “border controls.” When I went to the steel mill, my car was simply whisked through the “border” because the head of the steel plant pretty well ran that part of Transnistria.

We had contacts with –“opposition groups” is too strong a word — groups that didn’t see eye to eye with the regime. We were supporting a radio station there, for example, that provided an independent source of news. I did not have regular dealings with people in the regime there, but I designated an officer to act as a liaison because periodically there were things that we had to talk to them about. This officer would go over on a weekly basis to make his rounds, talking to both unofficial people in Transnistria and to the regime as well.

I did make a couple of trips to the steel mill in northern Transnistria as it played down the fact it was in Transnistria and had some ties to Chisinau as well. I tremble to think who all was getting pay-offs from that operation in exchange for the virtually free energy it probably received. That certainly helps the bottom line if you’re running an electric arc furnace. In any case, I would go into Transnistria if there was some good reason to go, such as to the Russian commander there, who was a fixture on the Moldovan scene. We had a regular relationship with him, and the military attaché would deal with his staff.

TONGOUR:  We were seeking ways to aid civil society, promote elections, combat corruption — all the things that we think of today when we speak of governance and nation building, and that we continue to do. However, at that point we were still at stage one, namely how to build a government or some sort of political entity that was not simply a throwback to the old Soviet system. Even more basic: how to stage elections in these regions, how to secure the elections and ensure non-interference by the Russians.

Another focal point was how to foster a modus vivendi with a former giant in a now newly diminished status and help it move forward in a positive way and forestall its devoting too much of its energy on the “Near Abroad” [Russia’s term for countries that used to be part of the USSR]. A few years later, the orientation would shift, and we would focus more on providing “concrete assistance” — giving grants, building schools (including business schools) and other practical support as well as opportunities for their people to come here for training. In some ways we felt as though we were helping to give birth — delivering countries rather than individuals.

STEWART: Don Johnson, who had been Ambassador to Mongolia, was the head of OSCE. He was pushing very, very hard for an agreement to get the Russian troops and materiel out. And then for a deal to end the Transnistrian secession which would be consistent with OSCE principles. That last part is important because the real question with a Transnistrian settlement was whether democratic principles would be respected in the area. The last thing the ruling clique wanted to have was a free election. I am sure they realized they would be voted out and that would end their sources of income.

As a result, we had to be very careful about any solution that was proposed. The Moldovans were quite willing to grant considerable autonomy to the region, even in cultural affairs, for they had no problems in making Russian an official language in Transnistria. The real sticking point was the question of democratic rule. If Chisinau insisted on retaining authority for organizing elections, they would be free and fair, and that is what the Smirnov clique, which we called the kleptocracy, would not tolerate.

EVANS: I think the Moldovans had an interest in presenting to the outside world that the Transnistrians were simply crooks and good-for-nothing sorts, that they enjoyed no popular support and that it was all Russia’s fault, because it just simplified things and it put all the onus on Russia and a few other people and I think they thought that would win the world’s sympathy.

As it turned out the Moldovan side, the central government, made one mistake after another; they failed to show up for various meetings, I mean, as much as we tried to help them they were always saying “Oh, the OSCE mission has to do more.” Well, we were working ourselves to a frazzle coming up with all sorts of ideas and initiatives and suggestions and textual improvements while they were just sort of taking potshots at the mission and going to [OSCE headquarters in] Vienna and complaining that we weren’t doing enough.

There was another summit that was held in Odessa, and this would have been in probably March of 1998 and we understood that [Russian] Prime Minister [Viktor] Chernomyrdin at that time and [Ukrainian] President [Leonid]  Kuchma would be in Odessa and that both [Transnistrian “President” Igor] Smirnov and [Moldovan President Petru] Lucinschi would be there and that a deal would be done. So with my Georgian deputy and a couple other people we went to Odessa and indeed there was a big meeting and there was a final session from which we were excluded. Something was done in that final session and I eventually found out about it.

There was a fourth so-called “secret protocol” to this agreement and it had to do with dividing the proceeds from the Kolbasna arms depot. And the formula for dividing these proceeds, which were considered to be in the millions, was a 50/50 formula dividing the spoils between Smirnov and Chernomyrdin or, to put it more charitably, the Transnistrian region and Russia. A couple of days after the Odessa Summit [Russian] President [Boris] Yeltsin fired Chernomyrdin.

The secret protocol, the fourth protocol, was still unknown but by the time I next reported to the Permanent Council of the OSCE in Vienna I knew enough about it to be able to make reference to it in my report, my verbal report to the council, and I smoked it out and the Russians had to come clean on what was in it. I finally was shown a copy of it and all the world saw that there was this nitty-gritty monetary issue and furthermore that President Lucinschi of Moldova had been a party to it.