Armed conflict of the Dniester, thirty years later

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A newly-published book explores the circumstances around the violence that accompanied Transnistria’s de facto secession from Moldova. Three decades later, finding new answers to old conundrums is key to preventing ongoing tensions from escalating

In 1992, after tensions gave way to open armed confrontation along the Dniester, the dead could be counted in the hundreds, the displaced in the thousands; eventually, a ceasefire signed by Russia’s and Moldova’s presidents put an end to the fighting and effectively solidified Transnistria’s establishment as a de facto independent entity within Moldova’s internationally recognised borders. At the time and in retrospect, the violence in Moldova has been overshadowed by wars much greater in size: in the Caucasus, in the Balkans, and, most recently, in Ukraine. And yet, those violent events along the Dniester left a mark in the collective memory of the societies involved. Thirty years later, the protracted conflict between Tiraspol and Chișinău is still unresolved, dynamics stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contribute to increasing tensions, and some of the issues at the core of the conflict remain unaddressed.

Indeed, now as then, there is still disagreement about what really are the issues that lie at the core of this conflict and that make it intractable. As Eugen Străuțiu outlines in the introduction to a newly published book dedicated to the topic, “ The Armed Conflict of the Dniester, Three Decades Later", there are effectively three main dimensions that are regularly mentioned when trying to explain what determined the emergence of this conflict. Some researchers highlight the reawakening of nationalities that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union: as new nationalising elites gained power in Chișinău and introduced new language laws, a rift with Russian-speaking residents of Transnistria – many of whom had roots in other parts of the USSR – soon emerged. According to this line of thinking, matters of identity, well beyond the practicalities of new language regulations, were really the main determinant of the conflict. A complementary line of explanation focuses on elites: conflict did not really stem from the rebellion of marginalised minorities, but rather from powerful Transnistrian elites who felt their position was being threatened. A third approach gives more prominence to geopolitical interpretations and highlight’s Russia’s role in the conflict, from the involvement of the military back in 1992 to the sustained enabling support that Tiraspol received from Moscow in the ensuing decades.

What happened between 1989 and 1992 when this conflict took shape may be considered of little relevance while developing pragmatic approaches to conflict transformation in 2024, in a context dramatically re-shaped by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and by Moldova’s path of integration with the EU. And yet, even if more than three decades have passed since the violent phase of the conflict, contrasting understandings of the roots of the conflict still shape policy responses for overcoming the current impasse. For example, if the conflict is mainly understood in terms of self-interested local elites and Russian imperialism, then this surely affects the range of policy responses that should be meaningfully considered.

So much has changed, and yet…

To its credit, “ The Armed Conflict of the Dniester” gives space to a diverse range of perspectives, and will offer useful insights both to readers interested in the minutiae of events of the early 1990s as well as to those looking for broader analyses of the role of external actors – and particularly Russia - in the ensuing decades. Even better, reading about specific dynamics of the past may contribute to question assumptions about the present.

For example, in his contribution to the book Keith Harrington analyses publications and statements issued between 1989 and 1992 by local Soviets in the locations that would eventually be controlled by de facto authorities in Tiraspol, and finds significant criticism of the separatist project on national, legal, and pragmatic grounds. Expressions of defiance, such as waving the Moldovan tricolor flag, were however soon outlawed, and other public forms of opposition became effectively untenable in the following years. Nowadays, it would be impossible to gauge openness to a fundamental renegotiation of Transnistria’s status based on local public sources; this hardly implies overwhelming support for the separatist cause.

Dareg Zabarah-Chulak refers to volunteers coming from Russia to fight for the Transnistrian cause as “non-resident volunteers” rather than “foreign fighters”: indeed, the Soviet past was so close that their foreignness was not self-evident. To some extent, this may be true even for the (formerly Soviet, and then Russian) 14th Army that was instrumental in enabling Transnistria’s separatism: it was nominally under the control of authorities in Moscow, but its staff was largely locally recruited, and at key points in time both its leadership as well as the rank and file were seemingly closer to Tiraspol than to whatever instructions may have come from the Yeltsin administration. Three decades later, the 14th Army does not exist any more as such, but Russia still has a military contingent largely staffed by local residents on the ground: it is tasked with different activities, from participating to a joint peacekeeping force, to guarding an oversized ammunition depot (a Soviet leftover), to, arguably, forcefully demonstrating Russia’s commitment to the region. This is however a small local contingent long isolated from the motherland with no plausible supply route by either air or land: Russia’s military is not in the position to dictate solutions by force, as it effectively did in 1992.

The book includes also a chapter dedicated to published memoirs covering the conflict years; at a time where conflict protagonists and observers endlessly and publicly share their views in real time, this is a stark reminder of how effectively pre-digital the armed conflict on the Dniester really was.

Is Russia still the inescapable interlocutor that it has been for so long?

Understandably, Russia receives considerable attention both in chapters that focus on the early days as well as in those that deal with developments in the last thirty years, including various approaches for negotiations and conflict resolution. Indeed, for a long time Moscow’s stakes in the conflict have been clear.

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the time might have come to question if Moscow will continue to be the inescapable interlocutor it has long been for both Tiraspol and Chișinău. Beyond Russia’s subsidies, direct economic links are increasingly tenuous: according to Transnistria’s own statistics, total exports to Russia from the region amounted to less than 50 million USD in 2023. Fundamentally, Moldova itself is much less tied to Russia by either remittances, trade, or energy supply, and hence much more resilient to potential retaliatory measures.

Retrospectively, Anatoliy Dirun may have a point when he suggests in his contribution to the book that “The main miscalculation of the Moldovan military leadership [in 1992] was the unfounded confidence that the Russian units of the 14th Army would not intervene in the conflict.” Nowadays, as long as Ukraine holds, Russia poses no military threat to Moldova, but Moscow has clearly demonstrated its willingness to try and interfere in Moldova’s domestic politics through a variety of means – an approach that is in many way more insidious and more challenging to tackle without unduly curtailing democratic processes.

Three decades later, Russia should still not be discounted lightly. And yet, considering how much has changed since the years of violence described in “ The Armed Conflict of the Dniester", a change of approach in the way the conflict is framed may be warranted. In many ways, thinking of solutions to the conflict has long implied paying disproportionate attention to how the Kremlin would react to different proposals. Focusing on processes that can lead to a better outcome for people living on both sides of the Dniester seems as ever more of a priority than what the Kremlin will think of them.

This article has been written within the project “ Analysis of crisis scenarios in Moldova and Transnistria", implemented in cooperation with the Agency for Peacebuilding.

This project is realized with the support of the Unit for Analysis, Policy Planning, Statistics and Historical Documentation - Directorate General for Public and Cultural Diplomacy of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in accordance with Article 23 ‒ bis of the Decree of the President of the Italian Republic 18/1967.

The views expressed in this report are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst