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What's behind Transnistria's call for Russian 'protection'?

March 1, 2024

The breakaway region in Moldova has called on the Kremlin to 'protect' it, raising concerns of renewed conflict. Here is what you need to know.

A Tank on display in a square in Tiraspol, the so-called capital of the Transnistria.
The enclave continues to uphold Soviet-era systems and iconography evident in its flags, statues, and murals.Image: AA/picture alliance

Compared to other unrecognized breakaway statelets that emerged out of the Soviet Union's dissolution, Transnistria has largely remained peaceful despite tensions simmering on and off for decades. However, since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Moldovan enclave has repeatedly found itself on the brink of becoming another flash point of conflict in Eastern Europe.

In the most recent escalation of tensions, officials in the Pro-Kremlin separatist region have formally requested Russia's protection against perceived threats from the Moldovan government. They have urged the Kremlin to shield the region from "increasing pressure" from Moldova, alleging that Moldova is "damaging the economy" and "violating human rights and freedoms in Transnistria."

But why is Transnistria asking for Moscow's protection? And why now?

Alexander Korshunov, Chairman of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic's Supreme Council, addressing a crowd.
In Transnistria, a special congress has called on Russia to 'protect' the enclaveImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Emerging from the Soviet Union's breakup

Transnistria's appeal for Russian support could reignite a long-standing frozen conflict dating back to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The region declared independence in 1990, as the Soviet Union was loosening — and losing — its grip on Eastern Europe. A conflict ensued between Russia-supporting pro-Transnistrian forces and pro-Moldovan forces that lasted until a cease-fire was brokered in July 1992.

This agreement stipulated that a contingent of Russian troops, which Moscow regards as peacekeeping forces, would be deployed to the region. This mission persists to this day, with an estimated 1,500 Russian troops still stationed in the territory. The rebel government, known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), has maintained de facto sovereignty over the region in the past decades.

Despite having its own flag and currency, Transnistria lacks official recognition from any country, including Russia. Only Abkhazia and South Ossetia — internationally unrecognized breakaway regions also dating to the Soviet era — recognize Transnistria as a sovereign state; it is recognized internationally as being part of Moldova.

Protecting Russian nationals?

Before Wednesday, the Transnistrian congress had last convened in 2006 when it decided to hold a referendum on joining Russia. Over 95% of voters supported integration with Russia, though the ballot lacked international recognition and Moscow did not respond to the request.

The recent, unexpected announcement of a new session of congress prompted speculation that the enclave might renew its 2006 call for unification with Russia. But the congress only passed a resolution urging Russia to provide greater "protection" to the 220,000 Russian nationals in Transnistria from "increasing pressure" from Moldova, which they allege is "damaging the economy" and "violating human rights and freedoms in Transnistria."

The enclave's plea to Moscow echoes claims made by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, who for years have accused the government in Kyiv of oppressing its Russian-speaking citizens.

Fears have been raised that Russia might exploit the situation to destabilize Moldova, as the Eastern European nation seeks to join the European Union.

Despite Russian being the official language of Transnistria, ethnic Russians do not comprise the majority of the region's population, which boasts a diverse ethnic makeup. According to a 2015 census conducted by the de facto government, around 30% of the enclave's 470,000 residents identify as Russian, while approximately 29% identify as Moldovan and 23% as Ukrainian. Additionally, a significant number of residents hold dual or triple citizenship from Moldova, Russia or Ukraine.

In recent decades, there have been extensive economic exchanges between Transnistria and Moldova. However, the PMR primarily receives its supplies, including free natural gas, from the Russian government.

Why is Transnistria calling for Russia's protection now?

The PMR has been grappling with shortages since the war in Ukraine began.

The bulk of Russian aid previously flowed into the region through the Ukrainian port of Odesa. However, Ukraine sealed its border with Transnistria in response to Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022. Consequently, Transnistria is only accessible along its border with Moldova, which also closed its airspace to Russian airplanes shortly after the war broke out in Ukraine.

A handful of Transnistria banknotes.
Transnistria maintains its own flag and currency but lacks recognition as a sovereign state by any member of the United Nations, including RussiaImage: AA/picture alliance

Efforts to integrate the region by Moldova have further unsettled the Transnistrian government.

Recognizing the enclave as part of its internationally acknowledged territory, Moldova has consistently pursued measures to merge Transnistria's economy with its national economy while reducing the former's dependence on Russia. In 2014, the Moldovan government entered into a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union (EU), providing Transnistria with access to European markets — an attractive competitor to Russia for exports.

In January of this year, legislation was passed requiring Transnistrian businesses to register within Moldova's legal framework to obtain trading permits and to pay customs duties on a general basis.

Moldova attained EU candidate status in 2022. Its prospects were bolstered last December when Brussels announced plans to initiate accession negotiations for Moldova and neighboring Ukraine. The pro-Western leadership in Moldova has consistently accused Moscow of orchestrating campaigns aimed at destabilizing the country.

Moldova's border villages fear Russian invasion

Edited by Richard Connor