Transnistria, unrecognized nation-state: in search of its national identity, between Russia and Moldova

By Nikita Taranko Acosta – Geneva

In this paper, I endeavour to approach the process of nation-building as a result of a secessionist movement in what is known today as eastern Moldova, which gave birth to the unrecognized state of Transnistria1. My method of analysis includes the following: i) examination of causes that lead to the outbreak of the conflict; ii) outlining the difference between initial Transnistrian statehood during the 90s and the de facto nationhood; iii) pinpointing the strategies applied for creating national identity in the new-born state; iv) evaluating Western criticism towards pro-Russian separatist movements. Ultimately, I will allow myself to take the risk and suggest a viable solution.

To understand the complexity of the unrecognized state and some of the causes that stimulated its separation from the Western Moldova, we need to go back to 1792 when Russian Empire, under the command of General Alexander Suvorov, defeated the Ottoman Empire and gained territories of the lower Dniester River2: today’s Transnistria, which—at some point in the XI century— already belonged to Kievan Rus—[CITATION Kin00 \p 179 \l 3082 ].

Bessarabia (most of today’s Moldova) followed a different path and was constantly shifted: from Russian Empire since 1812 to Romania in 1918, back to subsequent USSR in 1940, returning to Romanian Kingdom during the II World War and eventually being re-annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and incorporated in the Moldovan SSR (formed by Transnistrian and Ukrainian lands by that time), only to be born as Moldova in 1991.[CITATION Coj06 \p 263-264 \l 3082 ]

Therefore, one may easily notice how arguably different is the historical background of the two regions of the current Republic of Moldova, one being more attached to Romania —although a new unresolved Moldovan nation myth is developing and aims to legitimize republic’s sovereignty—, while the other one is still living under the Soviet narrative but reluctantly starting to conceptualize its own identity, maintaining closer ties with Russian narrative, though.

Due to these differing histories, that the left bank of the Nistru River3 has a distinct, much less homogenous population than Molvoda, is not surprising. Actually, its population is evenly divided amongst ethnic Russians (30%), ethnic Ukrainians (30%) and ethnic Moldovans (30%).4 Certainly, most inhabitants’ identities were subjected to repeated ‘de-nationalization’ and ‘Russification’, including deportations and ethnic cleansing, initiated by Stalin [CITATION Coj06 \p « p. 265 » \l 3082 ]. Such measures further stimulated the opposition between the left and right banks, psychological stress which is sufficient to trigger a conflict between social groups, even without substantial antagonism [CITATION Taj81 \p « p. 254 » \l 3082 ]. What seems interesting, however, is that this ethnic component had never aroused any real attempts of secessionism prior to 1989 and the term Transnitrian did not exist before the conflict. [CITATION Coj06 \p « p. 262 » \l 3082 ]. We can, therefore, affirm that ethnic distinction is not the driving force behind the dispute.

On the other hand, it appears more reasonable to suspect that the decisions adopted by the Moldovan SSR since 1989 have sparked the discontent and awoken the dormant fear of Transnistrians of losing their language, traditions and homeland. Main reasons for dismay were the new language discrimination policy introduced by Moldova in 1989, which stated that Moldovan in Latin script should be the only official language of the “country” and the declaration of sovereignty5 [CITATION Coj06 \p « p. 261 » \l 3082 ]: direct breach of the USSR legislation —let us not forget that Moldova does not exist as a country yet—. The outcome was the creation of the new Transnistrian Republic within the Soviet Union and the disastrous armed conflict in 1992 that decisively split the region apart.

After having examined the causes that lead to the breakup of Moldova, I may affirm that the nature of the conflict was —above all— political and did not have, at first, nationalistic roots. The essence of the strife lay, as many present conflicts, in the attitude of the people towards a political agenda. However, what is interesting is that this attitude has been fluctuating for the past 25 years and the current Transnistrian stance has taken another outlook since 20106: from the pro-Soviet viewpoint and against Moldova’s potential unification with Romania, to a pro-Russian; i.e. pro-Eurasian union versus pro-European Union [CITATION Wag14 \l 3082 ]. In other words, we could argue that the new Transnistrian people’s resistance identity[CITATION Cas10 \p « p. 8 » \l 3082 ]7 [that would later on develop into reactive nationalism which I plant to unravel at some point] was founded on different principles than the previous resistance identity, formerly based on opposition to Moldova’s affiliations with “Greater Romania”. At the beginning, Transnistria intended to form its statehood by pressing upon region’s multi-ethnicity and multilingualism (we can see that in the recognition of three official languages of the three major ethnic groups in the Constitution); this clearly differentiated it from Moldova. Sadly, this utopia would be later subjugated to the very basis of identity building, which was largely inspired by the Soviet interpretation —privileging Russian language and values— (Troebst 2003, quoted by Wagemakers 2014).

This said, before tackling the nation-building process in Transnistria —core of this study— let us illustrate previous attempts of resolving the conflict before it would become a “frozen zone”, as many commonly define it nowadays. After the 1990-1992 Independence War, greatly assisted by the 14th Russian army [ CITATION Wal14 \l 2057 ], Moldovan side proposed to grant Transnistria the status of an autonomous region (something similar to the case of Gagauzia) even offering the possibility of a Federalized government. Transnistrian side disagreed to this suggestion and argued that only a Confederation, giving Transnistria an equal status as Moldova itself, would be an acceptable solution [CITATION Tro03 \p « p. 463 » \l 2057 ]. As we already know, none of the proposals succeed and an austere sentiment has even evolved since then. Nonetheless, I believe that —at least the older generations that used to live under the united Moldovan SSR— do have a sincere interest in reunification and might try again in the future if provided the chance, although the longer they wait the more unlikely is this to happen.

Now, what is a nation and what features does statehood require to become nationhood? As Ernest Renan defines it: “the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common; and also that they have forgotten many things” [CITATION Ren11 \p « p. 80 » \l 2057 ]. He also adds that ethnic component and language may bring people together, but recognizes that it is not a conditio sine qua non:” There is something in man which is superior to language, namely, the will”, he says. From a political view, a nation is depicted by “a community of people obeying the same laws and institutions within a given territory” [CITATION Smi91 \p « p. 9 » \l 3082 ]. Based on these assumptions, let us evaluate the Transnistrian case.

Transnistria is an ethnically and linguistically diverse state, yet culturally consolidated. In addition, the decision to voluntarily assemble in a community where individuals have shared interests appears to give its inhabitants the right to be bound together. Furthermore, Transnitria enjoys its own government, parliament, military, militia, passports, flag and anthem as well as currency just as any other country (except the fact of remaining unacknowledged on the international level) [CITATION Min15 \l 2057 ]. Nonetheless, this would legitimize the constitution of statehood rather than nationhood, the former being an indispensable step for accomplishing the latter. As Renan puts it: “a Zollverein is not a patrie”. Rousseau suggests that it is the mode of existence —originated from laws, mores and customs— what establishes la patrie, while Abbé Sieyès adds that “a common will” is what transforms the union into a nation [CITATION Rab07 \p « pp. 372-373 » \l 3082 ]. In the end, one last major requirement for nation’s existence is the “possession in common of a rich legacy of memories” [CITATION Ren11 \p « p. 82 » \l 3082 ] because without them, what kind of national identity can we talk about? Here arises the biggest vacuum for Transinstria.

As described earlier, the left bank seems to have accomplished most of the conditions, so fundamental to proclaim itself as a nation. However, as Troebst argues, Transnistrization process is still on the way and it is what —sooner or later— will determine the position of the region, achieving real nationhood if succeeded only. Now, we know that “national identities are chosen, not genetically implanted, and they are subject to change. [CITATION Haa93 \p « pp. 507-508 » \l 3082 ]. Therefore, it seems obvious that governments are to assume the role of national identity founders in an intelligent and careful manner. Especially evident is this for Transnistrian Government (it has a double difficulty of creating the foundations upon which a new identity could be forged as well as fighting the international pressure calling on “violation of international law”) that would need to test and apply all kind of strategies to instill this feeling of a common and distinguished identity.

First of all, since the beginning of the 90s, political propaganda was used as a means of seeking loyalty and awaking the feeling of belonging to the Transnistrian Republic [CITATION Coj06 \p « p. 268 » \l 3082 ]. This was rather efficient due to the general tumult in the whole CIS at the period. This instability and uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic recession, change of regime and the new military conflict of 1992 makes the task of reinventing a suitable narrative relatively easy, especially as the antagonist country —Moldova— suffers from its own lack of identity. When societies undergo rapid transformations, traditions are more frequently reinvented [CITATION Oli11 \p « p. 273 » \l 3082 ]. As Wolfrum and Petra affirm “perceptions of history can mobilize, legitimize, politicize and shape national identity” [CITATION Tro03 \p « p. 445 » \l 3082 ]. That is why politics of history plays a major role for nation-building and constitutes the backbone for legitimization of new traditions. These can be epitomized in many ways: from commemorative landscape —in forms of public museums of history, monuments, names of squares and streets— to ceremonies and festivities; all efficient strategies to instill a collective remembrance of particular events.

These practices would define the new master narrative and the Transnistrian government has surely made use of such tactics. A good example would be politics of remembrance focusing on the tragic war of 1992 [CITATION Tro03 \p « p. 452 » \l 3082 ]. Transnistrian victory legitimizes current de facto independence and bonds people with its heroic, however painful, past. This is not surprising: “Suffering in common unifies more than joy does”. [CITATION Ren11 \p « p. 83 » \l 3082 ] Secondly, Transnistrian authorities promote the almost divine cult of personalities, such as Aleksandr Suvorov —perceived as a liberator of Transnistria— and PMR’s former president Igor Smirnov, a supreme and caring leader, without forgetting Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, who initiated the Revolution and added a heroic page to Transnistria’s past when it became part of the Soviet Ukraine [CITATION Tro03 \p « p. 453 » \l 3082 ]. Lastly, national holidays —just as traditions and cult of personalities— are stored in the collective memory thus reinforcing the state’s national identity. Of most significance is the celebration of the Independence Day on the 2nd of September; another important holiday celebrated to stress greatness of the Soviet past (hence, Transnistrian past too) being the Victory Day on the 9th of May [CITATION Wag14 \l 3082 ].

As mentioned earlier, the breach of international law is one of the strongest arguments against Transnistrian separatist movement, used especially by the “Western” world. However, I suspect another implicit reason —fear of Russian influence in the area—, for Transnitria is mainly pro-Russian and speculations about a possible integration with Russia exist. Nonetheless, as President Putin announced:” They [Transnistrians] have their own views on how to build their future and their fate. It would be nothing more than a display of democracy if we were to allow those people do as they wish”[CITATION Tra14 \l 3082 ]. Anyway, if one genuinely believes that the right of self-determination of a region, justified by repression and violation of citizens’ rights by the state claiming sovereignty over it is an illegal act that must be condemned, then why does this thinking not apply to other scenarios alike? Why Kosovo, Serbia’s region, bound to it by international law that guarantees country’s integrity, is accepted as an independent state by 23 out of 28 EU members and more than half of the UN states? (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of RKS 2015). Wouldn’t that be a flagrant violation of international law and UN’s resolution 1244[CITATION Sec99 \p « p. 2 » \l 3082 ]? The obvious answer is that interpretations of law and country’s rights differ according to the perspective adopted by most powerful nations. This reveals the hypocrisy and the lack of actual concern for the wellbeing of conflictive states by people in charge of taking such decisions. Traditionally, an un-peaceful secession was viewed as being a problem and not a solution. However, as Ulrich Schneckener points out, “secession can be also a conflict resolution”. [CITATION Tro03 \p « p. 464 » \l 2057 ].

Returning to the case of Transnitria, it seems quite reasonable to allow its people choose themselves their own future. Why outsiders who might not even be familiar with the whole picture should have the power to decide over the fate of a nation out of political interests or economic benefits? As Renan beautifully delineated: “A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will”. [CITATION Ren11 \p « p. 83 » \l 3082 ]

I want to conclude by suggesting that, whatever may become of Transnistria in the following years, its people’s needs and will should remain the absolute priority: they fought hard to get to where they are today and they deserve much more than the status quo. Living in a state that no one recognizes is hard, but dealing with economic blockade from Ukrainian and Moldovan side, problems of very limited opportunities, separated families, increasing tensions on the borders with Ukraine due to side-effects of 2014 conflict with Russia[ CITATION Day15 \l 3082 ] and decreasing support of Russia is much harder and comprises another challenge for Transnistria. Should they overcome these hardships and survive as a nation-state, a new country must appear on the map of Europe.

This article has been written in 2015 and published on CREER website in 2017


Castells, Manuel. 2010. The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Vol. II, 8. Wiley-Blackwell.

Cojocaru, Natalia. 2006. «Nationalism and Idenity in Transnitria,.» Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 262; 261-272.

Rabow-Edling, Susanna. 2007. «The Decembrists and the Concept of a Civic Nation.» Nationalities papers pp. 372-373; (369-391).

Day, Mathew. 2015. «Pro-Russian ‘republic’ Transnistria calls up reservists as East-West tensions flare.» The Telegraph, 22nd of July.

«Encyclopædia Britannica Online, » s. v. « Transdniestria », accessed on the 10th of November, 2015.

Haas, Ernst. 1993. «Nationalism: an Instrumental Social Construction.» Milennium: Journal of Internation Studies 22: 505-545.

Hosbawm, Eric. 2011. « »From-Introduction: Inventing Traditions ».» En The Collective Memory Reader, de Jeffrey et al Olick, 273; 271-274. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

King, Charles. 2000. The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture. Hoover Institution Press.

Ministry of Economic Development of Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, 2015. Статистический ежегодник ПМР. Accessed on the 22nd of Novermber, 2015.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic,1991. Accessed on the 24th of November, 2015.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo, 2015. Accessed on the 26th of November, 2015.,33

Renan, Ernest. 2011. « »What is a Nation? ».» En The Collective Memory Reader, de Jeffrey et al Olick, 83; 80-83. Oxford University Press, 2011.

«Security Council Resolutions.» United Nations. 10th of June, 1999. Accessed on the 27th of November, 2015.

Smith, Anthony. 1991. National Identity. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Tajfel, Henri. 1981. Human Groups and Social Categories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Transcript: Vladimir Putin’s April 17 Q&A. 17th of April, 2014. Accessed on the 27th of November, 2015.

Troebst, Stefan. 2003. « We are Transnistrians!: Post Soviet Identity Management in the Dniester Valley ». Project Muse (Ab Imperio) 445; 437-466.

Troebst, Stefan. 2003. «The « Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic: from conflict-driven-state-building to state-driven-nation-building.» En European Yearbook of Minority Issues, 5-30.

Wagemakers, Joris. 2014. National Identity in Transnstria. 8th of August. Accessed on the 23rd of November, 2015.

Walker, Edward. 2014. Eurasian Geopolitics. 3 de July. Accessed on the 24th of Novermber, 2015.

1 Other spellings of the state are: Trans-Dniester, Dniestria and Cisnistria (the actual correct translation from the Cyrillic Приднестровье literally meaning “the region on our side of the river”) [CITATION Tro03 \l 3082 ]. I will use Transnistria, though, which is more familiar to English speakers.

2 “Transdniestria”; Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

3 Inhabitants of the left bank of the river, i.e. Transnitrians, are opposed to those from the right bank, i.e. Moldovans.

4 The rest being Gagauz, Belarusians, Bulgarians and Poles; Ministry of Economic Development of TMR, Статистический ежегодник ПМР

5 According to linguists, Moldovan is a “Cyrillized” version of Romanian; therefore, Moldovan in Latin script does not exist.

6 New president was democratically elected.

7 Resistance identity: generated by those (…) who are stigmatized by the logic of domination (…) and opposed to certain principles permeating the institutions of society (Castells, 2010)

Please follow and like us: