RD Interview: Matthew Dal Santo, a Danish Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen, met Transnistria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev in Tiraspol, where they discussed the frozen conflict in Transnistria and post-Soviet Russian identity.

A voting official hands a woman her old Soviet passport and ballot to vote in Moldovan elections in Kochiyer, Moldova in 2009. Photo: AP

 For a very different take read: "The two big factors that could shift the status quo on Transnistria"

Frustrated with Russia’s support for the eighteen-month-old separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, a month ago U.S. President Barack Obama accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of pursuing “a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire.”

But the Donbas isn’t the only part of the old U.S.S.R. where Russia’s desire to preserve its influence has coincided with a desire among the local people for what they see as the reunion with Moscow.

As the U.S.S.R unravelled, the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova declared Moldovan the country’s sole official language. Authorities on the mainly Slav (ethnically Russian and Ukrainian) left bank of the River Dniester—Moldova’s industrial heartland—rebelled with the help of the Soviet Union’s locally based Fourteenth Army.

As in today’s Donbas, the resulting 1992 war (which left around 1,000 dead) was characterized by an enduring local identification with the borders of a greater Soviet state and a desire to defend a Russian-speaking culture seen by the Kremlin as threatened.

A separatist victory resulted in a Russian-sponsored mini-state—some 250 miles long and, at its narrowest, only a few miles wide—called the Pridnestrian Moldovan Republic (population—500,000), but more widely known as Transnistria.

Transnistria’s relations with Moldova have since swung between confrontation and pragmatic accommodation. But guaranteeing its de facto independence is the continuing presence of a thousand or so Russian soldiers in a peacekeeping capacity officially known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces.

Is it possible to speak of a single pro-Russian, separatist movement in post-Soviet Eastern Europe? Maybe.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March last year, there was speculation among many in Transnistria that it would be next. Acting on a 2006 referendum (rejected by Moldova) that saw 97.2 percent vote “yes” to “potential future integration into Russia,” the Speaker of the Transnistrian parliament appealed to the Kremlin for incorporation into Russia.

Moscow turned it down, but there are still rumors the incorporation might happen sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, Transnistria appears a likely if, in most Western eyes, unsatisfactory model for the future of the Donbas: a frozen conflict that serves Russia’s interests in keeping a toehold in—and NATO and the EU out of—Moscow’s so-called “near abroad.”

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Earlier this year, I met Transnistria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol. I asked him what the future holds for Transnistria, its perspective on the European Union’s role in the geopolitical contest unfolding in the region and the nature of Transnistria’s relations with Russia. His reply is a window on Transnistria’s separatist, pro-Russian world view.

Few in the West will sympathize with this. But understanding this worldview would appear inseparable from successful efforts to restore stability to the region.

Matthew Dal Santo: Transnistria has spent a long time negotiating with Moldova about its status. How does Transnistria envision its future relations with the Moldovan government in Chishinau?

Vitaly Ignatiev: To answer your question, it is first necessary to make a few general points. In accounts published in the foreign press by Western experts unfamiliar with the situation in Transnistria, it is possible to come across a number of assertions: that Transnistria’s pursuit of independence and the Russian vector for our republic’s development only serve the interests of certain political forces and that, allegedly, no real conflict actually exists, and so forth.

In this connection I must emphasize that the aspiration for independence is the will of Transnistria’s people expressed more than once in a number of nationwide referenda. We want to be independent and are pursuing integration with Russia—as the people have decided—and the people’s decision, as is well known, remains the most important thing in a democratic society.

Therefore, yes, Transnistria has consistently followed a course for legal recognition of its statehood and its convergence with Russia. In turn, we have proposed to Chishinau a “civilized divorce” and, further, a peaceful, mutually beneficial and open co-existence as sovereign and, I emphasize, friendly states. In Transnistria, we are convinced that precisely such a format of further relations will be the most effective from the point of view of both security and economic and political cooperation.

Concerning respect for Transnistria’s distinctive culture by Moldova, I can say only one thing: for us Transnistrians, the greatest manifestation of such respect would be recognition by Moldova of our right to live in our own sovereign state.

MDS: Last year Chishinau signed an Association Agreement with the EU. Was Transnistria invited to participate in those negotiations and how does the Agreement affect Transnistria ?

V.I.: Transnistria was not a party to those negotiations. We have spoken out publicly about this on many occasions, drawing the attention of our international partners to the fact that the Association Agreement and the [Deep and Comprehensive] Agreement on Free Trade [with the EU] that it includes don’t take into account, first of all, Transnistria’s interests.

Secondly, they don’t take into consideration the fact that Moldova is entering into an association with the EU despite remaining party to an unresolved conflict. Thus, the very situation has come about that we warned of in a number of different international fora: the Association Agreement has become for Moldova a new source of leverage over Transnistria.

Under the guise of international obligations undertaken under this agreement, today the Republic of Moldova has rolled out an unprecedented campaign of blockade directed at Transnistrian businesses. Our Moldovan colleagues have openly notified us that more than sixty Transnistrian firms are today under threat of closure.

In this respect, it’s necessary to explain that in 2006 Moldova and Ukraine introduced for Transnistria a discriminatory regime of external economic activity: they obliged Transnistrian firms to register in Moldova in order to be able to export their products to external markets.

Thus, on the pretext of the requirements of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU (DCFTA) Moldova simply refuses to issue the necessary documents to our firms and thus brings them to the brink of closure.

In addition to this, trade conditions with the EU are at risk of deterioration from 2016 [when the Association Agreement comes into effect] onwards.

Meanwhile, the EU market remains one of the most important for Transnistria’s economy, which is mostly oriented towards imports. On this point, it’s necessary to note that Transnistria maintains a systemic dialogue with the European Union, thanks to which a range of problems in relations between the EU, Moldova and Transnistria have been successfully resolved.

Nonetheless, the general situation hasn’t changed: the Association Agreement has exerted a detrimental influence on Transnistria and, more generally, on the geopolitical situation in the region.

MDS: How would you describe relations between Transnistria and Russia?

V.I.: In brief: Ours are relations between a country, a civilization, a whole cultural and historical world on the one hand, and a part that has been artificially separated from it on the other. Transnistria remains an inseparable part of the Russian world. In the West, perhaps, this isn’t fully understood, not least because the international media have created a slanted idea of Transnistria in people’s minds.

Frankly, it would never occur to you that Denmark were not a part of Europe, would it? On both a geographical and a historical-cultural level Denmark is part of Europe. In the same way, Transnistria is part of Russia.

Transnistria preserves the memory of the renowned feats of Russian soldiers; the ancient fortress of Bendery remains a symbol of the mastery of Russian military commanders; Transnistria’s capital was founded by the great [Russian] general Alexander Suvorov—these are facts that are impossible to deny.

Historically, Transnistria was not part of Moldova or Ukraine but of the Russian Empire. Indeed, [Russian Empress] Catherine II made significant efforts to develop our territory and, as a result, Transnistria always was a unique Russian territory, in which different peoples lived side by side in peace.

Today, the situation hasn’t changed—the citizens of Transnistria associate themselves exclusively with Russia and the Russian world. They rejoice in its successes and share its tribulations.

And Russia, you understand, replies in kind:  It keeps the peace in Transnistria, supports our republic in every domain, helps build the future and is always ready to come to our assistance.

MDS: What is the most important thing for Westerners to understand about Transnistria’s foreign policy?

V.I.: The most important thing for Westerners to understand is that in Transnistria people are the same as everywhere else—they are people with the right to free self-determination, the right to be prosperous, to defend their own rights and interests.

The world has to stop looking at Transnistria as some indeterminate territory, as if it were just a “fragment of the Soviet Union.” Instead, the world has to see Transnistria as a state possessing lawful sovereignty, a state that has friends, partners and enemies in the global community, a state with its own economic and political connections, interests and goals.

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If Transnistria’s foreign policy were viewed as the foreign policy of any other modern state, everything would be in order and nothing would seem unusual. We have to avoid using double standards in evaluating developments in world politics.

MDS: Transnistria is famous for its Soviet monuments. And in Soviet times there was a conflict between the Church and the State. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, for example, was a renowned atheist. Today, however, the centre of Tiraspol is full of churches. What is the nature of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the State in Transnistria? What role does Orthodoxy play in the republic?

V.I.: You probably noticed the fact that in Transnistria respect for the Soviet past sits peacefully and organically alongside Orthodoxy, which, as is well known, is the faith that the overwhelming majority of Transnistrians profess.

This situation is clear proof that Transnistrian society nowadays demonstrates a unique level of tolerance and stability. Don’t forget that in the U.S.S.R. religion was, in fact, outlawed, and Transnistria was no exception in this respect. In schools they even taught atheism, and the older generation remembers this well. Nonetheless, it’s clear that during this period Orthodoxy didn’t lose its standing.

The point is that Transnistrians approach many different phenomena with understanding, and even philosophical acceptance, without setting them in conflict. This is, in fact, one of the distinguishing features of Orthodoxy as a religion and world view.

Perfectly constructive relations have been established between the Church and the government, despite the fact that Transnistria remains a secular state. The Orthodox Church and government authorities see eye to eye on the most pressing issues in domestic and foreign politics, share the same ideals and values, and are able to reach consensus on the problems that have arisen. Aren’t these the signs of a mature, democratic and tolerant society?