A federalisation plan for the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, Part #2
The incorporation of Transnistr into a sovereign Republic of Moldova can be undertaken quickly, easily, to the satisfaction of everybody including the Transnistrians themselves, their politicians, the politicians and people in Moldova and Chinisau (i.e. Moldova)'s political society more generally, the European Union, broader western interests, and even Russia's interests. This can all be done smoothly and without a drop of blood being spilled. Do you think we're crazy? Read on.
Firstly we observe that this is the second in a series of articles about the federalisation of Pridnestrovia (to use its formal name). The first article, which itself provides references to a prior 11 articles about Pridnestrovia, appears here. In that first article we were too pessimistic. We were of the view that a lightning military strike against Pridnestrovia would be necessary to drive the remaining Russian military forces and Russian FSB staff out from Pridnestrovia and to release Pridnestrovia from the Russian yoke so that the region can pursue to peaceful course of Euro-Atlantic integration much like the rest of Moldova. Since then we have reached the conclusion that no military strike is necessary, lightning or otherwise. The whole thing can be done by straightforward legal and political negotiations. Not a single shot need be fired.
Why so? Because by reason of the course of the war in Ukraine, Russian interests, Pridnestrovian interests, western interests and Moldovan interests have all changed. Most fundamentally, provided that the terms of the transition are right (and we think that an agreement can be reached easily if not straightforwardly), both the authorities in Pridnestrovia and Moscow will agree to the de facto transfer in sovereignty with a new vision of Pridnestrovia. That vision will not initially be that different to the current government in Tiraspol (all changes take time); but it is a motion towards regularisation of Transnistr in the international order of things that will ultimately work out well for everyone involved.
To understand why and how this is possible will take a degree of intellectual effort, because Bessarabia, this region, is one in which competing political incentives have always ebbed and flowed like the tide and Pridnestrovia is no different. It's a complex part of the world.
Consider the following historical and contemporary logic of the region.
1. In the pre-Soviet era, ethnic Ukrainian people reached the west bank of the Dniestr River (very approximately) while Romanian / Moldovan people (they are the same) reached the other side of that west bank, facing them off from the east.
2. In the early Soviet period, Transnistr was accorded its status as a territory west of Ukraine by being recognised as a Socialist Republic within the Soviet system.
3. Pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Moldova was annexed into the USSR. However war then broke out between Germany and Russia and Moldova became the scene of fighting between Nazi-supported Romanian fascists and the Soviet-supporting Ukrainians. By the end of World-War II the front line dividing the Red Army from Romania was pretty much in the same place as had been delineated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
4. Transnistr itself being rather a small place, the Soviet Union created a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic as a unit of sub-federal government incorporating Transnistr. This arrangement was not ethnically problematic, because (a) the Soviet Union was not a democracy (b) the Soviet Union had no freedom of speech to express one's ethnic dissatisfactions (c) Soviet laws did what they could to abolish concepts of ethnic identity, that were seem as part of the ideology of the petty bourgeoise (to use the language of Karl Marx).
5. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, ethnic tensions began to arise as ethnic Ukrainian people in Transnistr
feared domination by ethnic Moldovan people in the newly sovereign Republic of Moldova that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They therefore called upon the Soviet (i.e. Russian) troops that were remaining in Moldova at the end of the Soviet Union, many of whom were of Ukrainian ethnicity, to protect them. That led to the six-week Transnistrian war of 1992, which led to a declaration of independence by the territorial unit we now call the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic.
6. The branch of the Russian Armed Forces that remained as "peacekeepers" at the end of the 1992 war were essentially the same people as the members of the Soviet Armed Forces who had been present in Moldova at the end of the Soviet Union. They integrated into Transnistrian society over years, marrying local people (both ethnic Ukrainian and ethnic Moldovan) and establishing a part of the Pridnestrovian capital, Tiraspol, as Russian. By this we mean that Russian institutions arose, such as a Russian lawyer, some Russian doctors, and the Russian ruble became the currency of that part of Tiraspol. The Russian troops, who became residents, built apartments and houses for themselves in the Russian part of town.
7. This branch of the Russian Armed Forces, based in Tiraspol, was never really integrated with the rest of the Russian Armed Forces. Russian soldiers could not volunteer to be deployed to the Transnistr batallion; they were effectively their own department and they made money using their own local (gasoline) resources, just as every branch of the Russian Armed Forces is expected to make money. All the time, the local troops integrated with (i.e. formed relations with the local women of) Transnistr.
8. The limited armour in the Transnistrian batallion remained where it was and was not updated. The only "troops" who went back to Moscow from time to time were members of the officer class, and they flew via the airport in Chisinau that maintained direct flights to Moscow as befitted its status as a neutral country (written into its constitution). Despite the definition of neutrality in the Moldovan constitution, the Moldovan authorities turned a blind eye to the transit of the Russian officer classes through Chisinau Airport because actually Moldova maintained cordial relations with this Russian soldiers who over time were integrating into Moldovan society.
9. The Russian military garrison retained a sort of elevated status within Transnistrian society; but, as time went on, the integration became ever more substantial and hence the distinction between Russian overlords and Ukrainian subjects became ever more tenuous. The latest critical stage in this process of transition was the appointment of the capable local student at the former Soviet Union's top university in Transnistr, Shevchenko National Transnistrian University, Vadim Krasnoselsky, an ethnic Ukrainian, in 2016. Krasnoselsky, a competent administrator with a security services background, was acceptable to Moscow and also to Chisinau, as a local Moldovan of Ukrainian ethinicity. He was a consensus candidate of some ability who would be able to turn around the Pridnestrovian economy as well as maintain cordial relations with Moscow and ever-increasingly warm relations with Chisinau. He started by reorganising Pridnestrovia's fragmented economy into a structure that worked well and started to make Transninstr wealthy. The local football team, Sheriff Tiraspol, would become a brand for the entire territory through expenditures on foreign players that made it a strong European League team. Consumer goods would be organised through the Sheriff Corporation, a state-owned company of a kind, that would keep the population of Pridnestrovia in circumstances of comfort. The whole thing would be based upon gas subsidides, arranged through a company called Tiraspoltransgas, that simply took a commission on all the Russian gas transiting Transnistr through pipelines running from south Ukraine to Moldova and onto the rest of Europe.
10. The model was so successful that Pridnestrovia would start to compete with its neighbour Chisinau on a cost-of-living basis (remember that all those consumer goods are subsidised in Transnistr) notwithstanding the fact that Chisinau has been the recipient of vast quantities of EU and other international funding. In other words, while the rest of Moldova's economy has been stimulated by international cash injections, Pridnestrovia's economy has been stimulated by massive state subsidies. This discrepancy will have to be resolved but will not prove very difficult to do so.
11. To give just one small example, Sheriff supermarkets want to open in Chisinau. This does suggest that the Pridnestrovians are willing to share their wealth in exchange for peaceful relations with Chisinau.
12. The only people who didn't like this development of Pridnestrovia was the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, and in particular its state security service appendages in southwestern Ukraine, in the Odessa oblast, that foresaw an economically strengthened Pridnestrovia without a continuing existential threat from Chisinau. In other words Tiraspol's principal opponent turned out not to be either Chisinau or Moscow (who had long since stopped caring much for Transnistr; they wished it all the best but, as matters were explained to this author, they were not going to do much for the Transnistrians who didn't really do much for them) but the SBU in Odessa, who wanted themselves to exert influence over the Pridnestrovian cash cow.
13. The most effective way they did this - Ukrainian security service infiltration of a pro-Russian KGB in Tiraspol was not going to be effective after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 - was to bung up the customs and border formalities on the main road between Tiraspol and Odessa. The Ukrainian SBU became for Pridnestrovians hated representatives of the Ukrainian authorities seeking suddenly to exert influence over Pridnestrovia as she became ever wealthier, while Kyiv slipped downwards into both impoverishment and war under her regime run by Igor Kolomoisky and his proxy President (formerly a TV comedian) Volodimir Zelenskiy.
14. Hence when Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Pridnestrovian President Vadim Krasnoselsky on 24 February 2022, informed him that on this day he had commenced his Special Military Operation in Ukraine, and asked him to close the borders with Ukraine, it was no great burden for Mr Krasnoselsky, who was happy to see that border closed and also happy to show Moscow that he was obliging.
15. The course of the war, in particular the lightning strikes by forces staged in Crimea against the southern Ukrainian oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk (the last to the extent it had not already been de facto annexed in 2014), gave rise to the possibility, or at least expectation, that Russian forces would sweep through on a southern Ukrainian corridor to seize the cities of Nikolaev and Odessa, and thereby create a land bridge from Tiraspol to Donetsk, Rostov and beyond. Had it occurred, this would obviously created very new facts on the ground for Tiraspol, which would then have become a genuine Russian client state - and there would have been nothing so small a place could have done about it.
16. Hence the Pridnestrovians, through their by now fairly competent politicians, did the natural thing faced with such a contingency which was to declare their wholehearted support for Moscow and the prospect of unification with Russia, just in case that actually turned out to be what happened.
17. In the event, however, it didn't. American financial and military support to Ukraine was sufficient to prevent the Ukrainian assault upon Nikolaev, that began in April 2022, from being successful. While Nikolaev has suffered as a result, being reduced to a pile of rubble on the frontline of a warzone, the front line that has emerged (and once front lines emerge after about six months of war they seldom move, as the parties dig in with trenches), runs in a messy corridor of trenches and backroads betweeen Nikolaev and her Russian-occupied sister city of Kherson just to the east of Nikolaev. We would be very surprised if that did not represent the final front line of line of armistice in the south of Ukraine in the Russian invasion.
18. If that is right, then the Pridnestrovians can now discount the "joining Russia" scenario and instead their goals are to achieve some sort of stable status at the end of the war in Ukraine, or even before it. Although western powers are ruminating with theories such as "Pridnestrovia is a territory unlawfully occupied by Russian Armed Forces", implying that it needs to be liberated, this is not really the case. The "Russian Armed Forces" the West refers to are really an integrated part of Pridnestrovian society. All those personnel who are not so integrated have left in a hurry, many of them driving off the very limited amount of Russian armour left in Transnistr to Ukraine, to sell it to the best buyer. At the time of writing, in mid-October 2022, it is estimated that the number of "Russian troops" left in Pridnestrovia is as little as 500 to 600. The amount of armour left by the Russians is virtually zero. Because this has left Transnistr without a substantial army, the Tiraspolese authorities have gradually over the years built up something called the "Pridnestrovian Armed Forces". This institution serves principally as a civil contingencies force, but also has some armour.
19. Two directions now remain as options for the Pridnestrovians, given that their always somewhat tenuous links with Moscow are now completely severed - Moscow, while good-natured towards them, is not going to stick its neck out either to help them or to hurt them. The two directions left in which they can point are eastwards, towards Ukraine (and become a Ukrainian province); or westwards, towards Chisinau, and reach a federalisation agreement with the authorities in Moldova. The former option would involve reaching an arrangement for Pridnestrovian domination with the hated Odessa SBU, backed by Zelensikiy and his colleagues in Kyiv. It would also violate the principle of territorial integrity that the European Union in particular and the West more generally advocate for the entire Southeastern Europe region: once the borders are fixed, they can't be de-fixed absent peacefeful democratic referenda on both sides. So according to the West, Pridnestrovia is part of Moldova. And faced with a choice between that and Pridnestrovia becoming part of Ukraine, the Pridnestrovians, notwithstanding their predominant ethnicity as Ukrainians, would much prefer the former.
20. Moscow will not mind because Moscow understands; and Moscow no longer has the interest or the leverage in seeking to compel the Pridnestrovians to do something contrary to their national interests.
21. In the first article in this series, that we refer to above, we described the basic elements of a Pridnestrovian federalisation arrangement with Chisinau. We stand by the principal elements of such a deal; but as experts in civil conflicts and divided territories, we know that the devil is in the detail.
22. To encourage the Pridnestrovians to move in a westerly direction, and entirely to abandon any dsytopian fantasies of being forcibly joined to Ukraine as a nation in war with Russia, it is important to set out in greater detail what a Pridnestrovian federalisation agreement would actually look like in practice. Then we can start undertaking the painstaking detailed legal diplomacy required to reach an agreement between the parties. But before one can begin this, one needs a draft document. To the details of such a draft, we will turn our attention in the forthcoming third of these essays.
For the Pridnestrovians, the future is bright; and the Moldovans will be pleased to have them. Moldova has a creditable record of fair, reasonable and moderate federalisation agreements with autonomous regions. In order to perpetuate and increase the existing levels of trust and confidence, the place to start (although not at all to end) is surely the federalisation structures that Moldova has agreed in the past. In this way, we give both the Moldovans some comfort that federalisation with Pridnestrovia is a process likely to result in something acceptable to them; and we give the Pridnestrovians comfort that this procedure is likely not to cause them any losses that they have not already offered to bear as part of their normalisation process with Chisinau. As long as they are protected from the Ukrainian SBU, they will be happy; and this, surely, is something that the West can easily deliver to them. The SBU is an organisation of a kind that has no place in modern Europe; and if Ukraine seeks integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions then the SBU will need to go the way of all prior such state security organisations: the more radical members will be purged, and the more moderate members will be integrated into the regular police forces.
It is imperative, at this stage, that the West provides every reassurance that we will protect the Pridnestrovians from Ukrainian SBU brutalism. If we do this; and if we can assist them with the process of economic transition in an intelligent and sophisticated way (they are clever and educated people and this is how to persuade them), then notwithstanding the Transnistrians' delightful and touristic Soviet culutural oddities, we will easily draw them into the European system of integration.