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Is the Moldovan territory of Transdniestria the next Crimea?

© Wikimedia Commons - Transdniestrian parliment, 2006

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2014-03-25

NATO’s top commander has expressed concern over Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border and military exercises in the Moldovan region of Transdniestria. Could this separatist territory become the next Crimea?

The Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniestria may not ring a bell to most people, but in recent days it has become the subject of great concern for Western military officials. NATO’s top commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said on Sunday that the strip of territory wedged between Moldova and Ukraine could easily become the next Crimea.

Breedlove said Russian troops were “very, very sizeable and very, very ready” to launch a new incursion in the region. “There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that,” Breedlove added.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Choïgu announced Friday that his country’s military had carried out exercises in Transdniestria, but denied that his country had any intention of extending its control there.

A Moldovan Crimea?

Transdniestria and Crimea appear to have a lot in common. Both count a large population of ethnic Russians, who speak Russian and share close cultural links to the regional heavyweight.

As with Ukraine, Moscow has expressed concern over ongoing efforts by Moldova’s government to strengthen ties with Western Europe, and has even threatened sanctions. Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin warned that Moldova could “permanently lose” Transdniestria if Moldova continued to establish links with Brussels.

Many residents of Transdniestria have been calling for a Crimean-like integration with Russia for over 20 years, and in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine the rebel government has pleaded with Russia to let them in the federation.

Hammer and sickle

But Transdniestria’s situation is also fairly unique. As the Soviet Union began to break apart in 1990, pro-Russian separatists in Transdniestria declared its independence from Moldova. Two years of civil war ensued, before a 1992 ceasefire ended hostilities.

While the territory has been afforded wide autonomy, the conflict has remained unresolved. No country in the world has recognized Transdniestria, whose population numbers around 550,000, as an independent state.

The secession also led to the establishment of an authoritative presidential system. Residents of Transdniestria are unable to participate freely in Moldovan elections, while native Moldovans are barred from the local government, according to a 2013 human rights report by the international NGO Freedom House.

Meanwhile, Transdniestria has minted its own currency and raised border checkpoints with Moldova. It issues its own passports, which have the distinction of being the last ones in the world bearing the hammer and sickle insignia of the former USSR.

Russian speakers in Transdniestria largely distrust the Romanian-speaking authorities in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. Ethnic Russians in the separatist region are still suspicious of the linguistic ties between Moldova and Romania, which was allied to the Nazis during World War Two.

The official language of Transdniestria is Russian, not Moldovan, while the vast majority of schools teach the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Roman alphabet used in the rest of the country.

A gift from Gazprom

Far from discouraging the secessionist bent in Transdniestria, the Kremlin has encouraged the territory’s ties and economic dependence to Moscow.

Russia has opened a diplomatic mission in the capital of Tiraspol and keeps 2,500 soldiers stationed in the territory, according to recent media reports. It is by far the largest investor in Transdniestria, and the Russian gas giant Gazprom has dispensed local authorities from paying its gas bill since 2007, according to Freedom House.

An annexation of Transdniestria following the strategy used in Crimea seems feasible, but Western concerns of a new Russian conquest could be overblown.

Moscow has faced a string of sanctions and intense pressure from Western powers following its move to annex Crimea, and is unlikely to spark another diplomatic row.
The Moldovan region also lacks the strategic value that makes the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea such an attractive target.

Furthermore, Moscow already exercises a de facto control over the territory. In a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, judges plainly noted that Russia’s military “effectively controls the territory”.

Date created : 2014-03-25


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