In a world of close to 200 United Nations member states, there are hardly more than a dozen ‘outcasts’ from this union. According to constitutive (as opposed to declarative) theory, the question of statehood is a matter of context, as the recognition by another international community is more vital than the state being a functioning community in itself.
States that are de facto (as opposed to de jure) exercise their functions even if they may not be legally credited as such. Transnistria is one such example. It is a state neither in the declarative nor in the constitutive sense. But it has many of the attributes of a traditional state – such as a military unit, a postal system, and a national anthem.
This does not mean that Transnistria (as a de facto state) functions as an independent utopia. There are political issues related to its independence – Russia being a possible decision-making influence here. Its official name is the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR). However, Transnistria is claimed by Moldova as a part of the latter’s own territory, a claim that is approved by the UN. Transnistria, on the other hand, has stood by its communist legacy, claiming itself to be a remnant of the Soviet Republic and has a ‘hammer and sickle’ symbol on its flag.
As one of the few truly unrecognised states, Transnistria is one of the only four entities which aren’t UN members or observer states, while not having the approval of any other UN state either (the other three being the republics of Artsakh and Somaliland, and Abkhazia). Three other ‘frozen conflict’ states at least mutually recognise Transnistria: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the aforementioned Artsakh. So some sort of ‘union’ is in place, even if the comparison with the UN makes it abysmally small.
This region is also known as “Trans-Dniestr” or “Transdniestria”. Etymologically, these names are essentially versions of Transnistria (the Romanian colloquial name of the region), meaning ‘beyond the river Dniester’. The documents of the Moldovian government refer to the region as Stînga Nistrului (in full, Unitățile Administrativ-Teritoriale din Stînga Nistrului) meaning ‘left bank of the Dniester’ (in full, ‘Administrative-Territorial Unit(s) of the Left Bank of the Dniester’). The region has a total area of 4,163 square kilometres with 4,75,665 people according to the 2015 census. Its population density is 114 per square kilometre.
It is landlocked and borders the rest of Moldova in the west and Ukraine in the east. The PMR holds power in the territory that nearly overlaps with the eastern bank of the Dniester. This area has 10 cities and towns, and 69 communes with a total of 147 localities. The Moldovian government continued to hold sway over six communes on the left bank (Cocieri, Molovata Nouă, Corjova, Pîrîta, Coșnița, and Doroțcaia) after the War of Transnistria in 1992, as part of the Dubăsari district. All these communes are situated north and south of the city of Dubăsari, which again is under the control of the PMR. The village Roghi in the Molovata Nouă commune is also controlled by the PMR. Meanwhile, Moldova controls the other nine of the ten villages in the six communes.
Transnistria is connected to its neighbours by the road passing through Tiraspol-Dubăsari-Rîbnița. It passes through the villages controlled by Moldova. Transnistrians are also able to travel in and out of the territory (under PMR control) to the neighbouring Moldovan-controlled territory, to Ukraine, and on to Russia, by road or via two international trains – the year-round Moscow-Chișinău, and the seasonal Saratov-Varna. People who prefer planes rely on the airport in Chișinău, the Moldovan capital, or the airport in Odessa, in Ukraine.
Transnistria has a presidential form of government, with a constitutionally-strong president. The people here also combined this system with an electoral system for parliamentary elections based on single-member districts (SMD). Political representatives are to be elected in territorial districts on the basis of the first-past-the-post principle. There are no electoral laws or provisions that regulate the activities of political parties to stimulate party growth and institutionalisation such as budget funding or public subsidies for political parties. The initial choice of establishments has proven to be rather stable throughout the existence of this unrecognised state.
There are three roughly similar ethnic and demographic groups here- Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians. Neither has the region seen too much of ethnically-motivated tensions. The boundaries between these groups, especially between the Slavs, have been absorbent. At the same time, the groups maintain their distinct identities, while retaining a degree of internal coherence.
Ania, a new friend of mine who is a native Transnistrian and is pursuing a bachelor’s in ‘Fundamental and Computational Linguistics’ at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, says, “Time has stopped here. Most of it remained the same since the Soviet Union’s collapse. But different people think in different ways. The vast majority of young people want to leave this country to get a better education or to find a job. Because in our country, it is a really huge problem. The only state university, of course, is not so bad, but for students, it lacks opportunities for further growth. Students who are above average choose to receive education in countries of a similar board. It is like a vicious circle.”
She further adds, There is no development, no professionalism. Life here is really hard. Low salary, no work, bad government. But many people cannot change it and just get used to it. They have lived in Transnistria so long, and any change seems impossible to them. They just hope for the best. Mainly old people have this point of view. On the other hand, Transnistria is a very peaceful republic. The crime rate is very low. People grow their food because most of them have farmlands. There are some small factories but in general, Transnistria has power because of a metallurgical plant. And one more benefit is Transnistria’s outstanding natural scenery. It’s all very precious to me – many forests, one big river, and astonishing landscapes. It is actually a very pretty place if one wants to peacefully retire.”
As a parting note, she states, “Of course, recognising our republic would have solved many problems here. Some people want us to be a part of Russia. The Moldovan government believes that Transnistria must be part of Moldova. Discussions continue to this day. It is hard for the people. But, the resilient people of Transnistria don’t lose hope about having a bright future.”
Russia has been providing constant financial support to Transnistria, and many people perceive it as a peacekeeping force in the region. Russian soldiers came in 1992 to resolve the Transnistrian war and have been stationed here ever since. Russian TV channels are broadcast here, kids in schools learn from Russian textbooks, and many pensioners even receive pension from Russia. Transnistria is not perceived as a self-sufficient state. It still largely depends on support from Russia.
It has been correctly said by a few scholars that despite the challenges unrecognised states pose to the principle of the territorial integrity of established states, they are not trying to undermine the system of sovereign states or create alternative forms of statehood. Instead, they are seeking a place in a system that does not accept them as constituent members. To my knowledge, there is no system in place to elevate the unrecognised states to the status of recognised states. After all, such a mechanism would logically require established states to agree upon principles that could result in their own territorial dilution.
In more than two decades of its de facto status, Transnistria has witnessed many changes in its territory. At a global level, however, its status has remained more or less constant despite all this. As time passes, we will see how it deals with the new challenges – and whether the question of statehood and international recognition becomes stronger or not.
A version of this article was first published here.
With inputs from Kristoffer Tangård
The author is a doctoral candidate of political science at the Higher School of Economics- The National Research University, Moscow, Russia. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.