The label Transnistria has historically applied to lands that today lie inside both the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, but it now refers specifically to the area between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border. Since 1990, residents of this territory have claimed independence from Moldova. Despite a lack of international recognition, the Dniester Moldovan Republic (DMR) functions as a de facto sovereign state.
The DMR sits upon a thin strip of land, less than thirty kilometers wide and only 4, 118 square kilometers in area. Although the political and economic elite is primarily of Slavic origin, 39.9 percent of the population are ethnic Moldovan (Romanian speaking). Ukrainians form the largest minority with 28.3 percent, and 25.5 percent of the population claim Russian heritage. There is a Slavic concentration in the urban centers, particularly in the capital of Tiraspol. The Moldovan population constitutes a majority in the countryside.
Despite its plurality of Romanian speakers, Transnistria has never been part of the greater Romanian lands to the west of the Dniester. The region formed part of Kievan Rus and then the Galicia-Volhynian Kingdom between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. It was subsequently drawn into the Ottoman Empire before being annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812. Following the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war, Transnistria was briefly incorporated into Soviet Ukraine.
In 1924, land stretching from the Dniester in the west to the Bug River in the east was carved off of Soviet Ukraine to form the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR). The creation of the MASSR formed part of the Soviet Union's policy of national liberation, which was designed to draw bordering states (Bessarabia) away from the influence of bourgeois neighbors (Romania). Tiraspol was named capital of the MASSR in 1929, though the right was reserved to shift the capital to Chisinau upon reunification with rump Moldova. Following the Soviet Union's annexation of Bessarabia in 1940, six western districts were integrated with Bessarabia to form the Moldovan Soviet Social Republic (MSSR). The remaining MASSR territory reverted to Soviet Ukraine.
Despite the merging of Transnistria and Bessarabia between 1940 and 1991, social, political, and economic differences between the two regions remained. Having been significantly sovietized between World War I and World War II, the Transnistrian political elite was considered by Moscow to be more reliable than its Bessarabian counterpart. Moldovan Communist Party (CPM) members from Transnistria were, therefore, relatively overrepresented in the Moldovan Soviet structure. Transnistria was the focus of Soviet industrial expansion in the region, particularly the steel industry, while Bessarabia remained agrarian. Sizable Ukrainian and Russian immigration also shifted the demographic balance during this period, though ethnic Moldovans remained in the majority.
From 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika allowed ethnic Moldovans to seek a redress of the socioeconomic imbalance in the MASSR. A devolution of power from Moscow to the constituent republics, and the introduction of direct elections to the Moldovan Supreme Soviet in 1989, enabled Bessarabians to increase their influence over national policy.
Conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol began to mount from 1989. Tensions were exacerbated by the introduction of a number of restrictive language laws that favored the Moldovan language over Russian. Sporadic violence began in 1989 and continued intermittently until a peace accord was signed in July 1992.
Transnistrian resistance was initially led by the United Council of Work Collectives, under the leadership of Ukrainian national Igor Smirnov. Protests swiftly became violent, as industrial managers mobilized their workers against Moldovan police forces. An autonomous Dniester Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed on September 2, 1990. This proclamation was followed by a declaration of full independence on August 27, 1991, with Smirnov as president.
Conflict peaked in the summer of 1992 following the intervention of the Russian Fourteenth Army, which was stationed in Transnistria. Although Moscow claimed credit for taking swift action, the decision to engage was likely taken by Fourteenth Army commander Yuri Netkachev, without official sanction from the Russian government. Netkachev was soon replaced by Alexander Lebed. Throughout the conflict, the Fourteenth Army provided troops and armaments to the Transnistrian forces. With a disorganized defense—led by poorly armed police forces—Moldovan troops were unable to retain control of their positions in Transnistria and suffered considerably more casualties than Transnistrian and Russian forces. Overall casualties have been estimated at between seven hundred and one thousand. A pact signed on July 21, 1992, between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Moldovan president Mircea Snigur ended armed hostilities, and Russian forces began to withdraw in 1994.
At the turn of the century, the DMR remained autonomous, though the international community refused to recognize its claims to statehood.
See also: lebed, alexander ivanovich; moldova and moldovans; primakov, yevgeny maximovich
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