25 years after the creation of Transnistria, the territorial status of the unrecognized republic is still in limbo. Its future is increasingly uncertain, given the current Ukraine crisis.

A woman stands at a bus stop in Tiraspol, Transnistria. Photo: AP

Last week the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldavian Republic (TMR) marked its 25th anniversary. Its existence dates back to the Second Extraordinary Congress of People’s Deputies of All Levels of Transnistria (held in Tiraspol), which proclaimed the Transnistrian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the 25 years since the adoption of that act, the Soviet Union has disappeared from the world map, and the countries that emerged from its ruins have abandoned the legacy of “real socialism” and declared their commitment to a market economy. The Soviet-era boundaries are disputed and in some cases (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea) have been redrawn. But Transnistria (now neither Soviet nor socialist) has remained.

“Being the leader of an unrecognized state is an unenviable job... That means that no one invites you to international meetings. The United Nations does not answer your letters. When you visit a foreign embassy, ​​you are received by the first secretary, not the ambassador,” says renowned British expert Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Center.

Also read: "The two big factors that could shift the status quo on Transnistria"

His expert reasoning is hard to contest. Indeed, laws passed by unrecognized republics are generally not considered legitimate outside their own territory (thus, property deals there are negated and internal codes of criminal, administrative and civil law are not recognized).

Unrecognized states are impeded in forming international legal relations with members of the United Nations. Foreign diplomats, after all, tend to visit only for mediation purposes. Nevertheless, such entities continue to exist, even though formally they are not states.

Three reasons why the situation with Transnistria is unique

When it comes to ethno-political conflict in the former Soviet Union, Transnistria is a bit of an outlier.

First, unlike other non-recognized entities, at the time of its proclamation (and later during the conflict with Moldova) the TMR did not have political and legal subject status within the Soviet Union. Abkhazia had been an autonomous republic within Georgia, the Chechen-Ingush ASSR had been part of Soviet Russia, and South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh had been autonomous regions of the Georgian and Azerbaijani SSRs, respectively. But back in September 1990 there was no autonomous Transnistrian republic or region to speak of.

Second, in contrast to the hot spots of the South Caucasus, the conflict on the Dniester is not explicitly ethnic in nature. This aspect was cited repeatedly in the 1990s-2000s as evidence of the “singularity” of the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict. On the side of the TMR (including its leaders) were not only Russians, but also Ukrainians and Moldavians.

In the meantime, discussions of the conflict missed out the non-trivial fact that within Moldova itself there was no consensus as to the national identity of its citizens. The debate about whether Moldovans form a separate group or are part of a larger Romanian ethnos is still ongoing to this day.

As a consequence, there was competition not only between Chisinau and Tiraspol (i.e. between the capital and the breakaway province, as in the confrontations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, Baku and Stepanakert, Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, and, in the 1990s, Moscow and Grozny), but also between two nation-state projects that could be termed “Moldovenism” and “unionism” (or “Romanianism”).

Third, the uniqueness of Transnistria lies not only in the history of the conflict and the attempts to settle it. Its ebb and flow fundamentally distinguishes it from other post-Soviet ethno-political disputes. In the cases of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and southeastern Ukraine, we see a conflict between a “maternal state” (to which the disputed territory legally belongs) and an unrecognized entity supported by a “patron state,” be it Armenia or Russia.

The impact of the Ukraine crisis

The confrontation in Transnistria is not in the foreground. Moreover, there is a certain level of interaction (albeit minimal) between the two banks of the Dniester River (i.e. Tiraspol and Chisinau). But a far more serious factor is the position of third-party Ukraine.

Prior to 2014 both Kiev and Moscow had been the guarantors of peace (not least because a third of Transnistrians are ethnic Ukrainians, and many are also Ukrainian citizens). But ever since Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine has regarded Transnistria as a Russian outpost and has tried to obstruct the unrecognized republic in whatever way it can.

All this makes the issue of returning Transnistria highly problematic. It is complicated even more by the fact that the main question is still unanswered: Where will the unrecognized republic go? Georgia has offered Abkhazians and Ossetians “top status” within the Georgian state. And Azerbaijan has called upon Nagorno-Karabakh to join the Azerbaijani nation-state project, where it will enjoy “broad autonomy” (along the lines of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in Russia, it is said).

But what can Chisinau offer? At the peak of “Moldovenism” (under the country’s third President Vladimir Voronin), it could have proposed a unified Moldovan state. But since the failure of the “Kozak Memorandum” (2003), which called for Transnistria to join a federal state, left-bank residents have not been overwhelmed by options.

Also read: "Revealing the post-Soviet identity complex in Transnistria"

The European idea, very popular on the right bank of the Dniester, is viewed less as a democratization project than as a tool to minimize Russian influence. And the Ukrainian crisis has done much to discredit it (as a means of ensuring Western dominance in the post-Soviet space).

One other no less important item on the agenda is Bucharest’s genuine (not rhetorical) readiness to “unite” with Moldova, albeit in truncated form. Here, too, the situation is not quite as clear-cut as sometimes portrayed in the Russian media. Romania, hardly the EU’s richest country, would struggle to quickly and painlessly absorb Europe’s poorest country.

This issue of whether Transnistria can actually become part of Europe needs to be considered when discussing the future of Transnistria. Despite these unanswered questions, and the economic and political complexities, the “breakaway” republic is approaching three decades of existence.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.