Acquiring Assets, Debts and Citizens: Russia and the Micro-Foundations of Transnistria's Stalemated Conflict

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines how a mix of grassroots socioeconomic and transnational factors perpetuate Transnistria's de facto separation from fight-bank Moldova. The authors seek to push past the scholarly divide in the study of stalemates, which privileges either intergovernmental and nation-state elite power factors or observable, bottom-up elements in explanations of deadlocked conflicts. An interdisciplinary approach is used to demonstrate Russia's range of soft-power activities in Transnistria: the acquisition of industrial assets, debts and citizens, all of which have bearing on Russian-disposed public sentiment inside the secessionist region. The article ends by suggesting ways in which Russian influence and that of the European Union and Chisinau can pull Transnistria closer toward Moldova for conflict settlement within a territorially integral, sovereign Republic of Moldova.

Keywords: citizenship, Moldova, Russia, de facto states, Transnistria

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In August 2008, the world saw that unresolved conflicts and little-known, unrecognized entities can threaten regional security and potentially shift global power relations. South Ossetia (1) and Abkhazia were two of four so-called "frozen conflicts" resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Another frozen conflict close to Europe's doorstep is Moldova's secessionist region of Transnistria. (2) Nestled along Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine, this small sliver of land is home to over 100,000 Russian citizens, Russian military units, heavy armament and Russian big business. (3)

Transnistria fought a short war with Russian military backing amid its push for independence from Moldova during the early 1990s. Sporadic armed skirmishes over this period made for a less intense and low casualty conflict compared with the other Eurasian conflicts--in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechnya. (4) The loss of roughly 1,000 lives in Transnistria occurred mainly in the most violent stage of the conflict, during the period of Russian militarized intervention in the summer of 1992. Russia's military presence effectively ended violence and forced a ceasefire (in July of that year) between Moldovan and Transnistrian combatants, but did not resolve the larger dispute over Transnistria's independence and Russia's influence in the region. Despite ongoing negotiations between the Transnistrian de facto authorities and the recognized Moldovan government--mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine, and later joined by the United States and the European Union as "observers" (known as the 5+2 format)--no permanent solution has been reached on the territory's status. The conflict has remained "frozen" between active hostility and formal settlement for the better part of two decades.

This article examines Transnistria's de facto separation from fight-bank Moldova as perpetuated by a mix of grassroots socioeconomic and transnational dimensions. It is a study of the factors that sustain stalemate. Scholars and practitioners working on Moldova agree that these factors are different from, (5) even if related to, the issues behind the outbreak of conflict in the early 1990s. (6) Paramount to triggering and escalating the initial conflict were shifts in elite configurations, titular minority language rights (7) and geopolitical interests around Moldova brought on by the Soviet Union's transition and collapse. (8) Contemporary scholars offer a host of other reasons for why Moldova's conflict with Transnistria remains intractably "frozen." Depending on their disciplinary focus, most academic explanations are either geopolitical, elite-centered or focus on internal social conditions in the region.

Political scientists and international relations scholars see this impasse as resulting from inadequate, unbalanced international security and conflict-settlement mechanisms, (9) as well as from Russian geopolitical manipulation, which has in this narrative stymied any Transnistrian-Moldovan political settlement unfavorable to Russian primacy in its so-called "near abroad. …