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Joint mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in hopes of resolving the conflict between the Moldovan government and leaders in the breakaway region of Transnistria led to negotiations in 2004, but no settlement was reached. Tensions escalated over the summer, as the Transnistrian authorities forcibly closed schools teaching the Moldovan language in the Latin script, which led to each side imposing sanctions on the other.
The Dnestr Moldovan Republic (DMR), bounded by the Dniester River to the west and the Ukrainian border on the east, is a breakaway region in the eastern part of Moldova with a large population of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. In Moldova, the region is called Transnistria. Historically distinct, Transnistria was attached to the territory that became Moldova when Stalin redrew borders in 1940. As the Soviet Union began to falter in the early 1990s, pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria feared that Romanian-speaking Moldova would join neighboring Romania. They reacted by declaring independence, establishing the DMR, and setting up an authoritarian presidential system.
With weapons and other assistance from the Russian army, the DMR leadership fought a military conflict with Moldova that ended in a 1992 ceasefire. A new Moldovan constitution in 1994 gave the territory substantial autonomy, but the conflict remains unresolved. The separatist regime has been strong enough to resist absorption by Moldova yet too weak to gain outright international recognition. It is not recognized by any independent state.
Over the past several years, the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine have attempted to mediate a final settlement between Moldova and the DMR. They also participate in the Joint Control Commission that monitors compliance with the 1992 ceasefire.
After Moldovan elections in 2001, in which Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin was elected president, there were some hopes that a new resolution to the Transnistrian conflict would be achieved. However, negotiations have made little progress over the past several years. The lingering presence in Transnistria of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers and a supply of Russian weapons has further complicated matters. In 1999, Russia agreed to an OSCE initiative calling for the removal of all Russian weapons and troops by December 2002. However, as the withdrawal deadline approached, Russia announced that it would not meet its obligation and attempted to refashion the force as "guarantors" of any eventual diplomatic settlement. In response to this development, the OSCE extended the deadline by 12 months. During the course of 2003, some movement was seen on the issue, but ultimately Russia declared that it would not remove all of its troops until a final settlement was reached. Large quantities of armaments were evacuated in 2003 and 2004.
After Voronin rejected, in November 2003, a plan that would have created a "joint state," talks became deadlocked. Early in 2004, the five negotiators (from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria) agreed to meet regularly, but talks in May and November had no results; Transnistria failed to send representatives to talks in June.
The situation was further hampered in July, when Transnistrian authorities decided to close the six schools on their territory teaching in Moldovan using the Latin script if the schools did not obtain a licensing permit. When the schools resisted, a militia took some of them by force, blocking entrances to teachers and students and evicting orphans who lived at one. As a result, the Moldovan government imposed economic sanctions on the territory and temporarily withdrew from negotiations. Transnistria responded by blockading rail links to Moldova.
In general, the Transnistrian authorities have been very effective in pursuing their short-term goals, and they currently see no reason to compromise on demands for wide-ranging autonomy or on contentious points such as developing a Transnistrian military and currency. The competing interests of Russia, Ukraine, and Western institutions, such as the European Union and the OSCE, further impede progress in finding a solution.
Residents of Transnistria cannot elect their leaders democratically, and they are unable to participate freely in Moldovan elections. While the DMR maintains its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, no country recognizes the government's sovereignty. Igor Smirnov is now serving his third term as president, and he has said that he will not step down until Transnistria is independent. The various presidential and parliamentary elections that have been held since 1992 have generally been considered neither free nor fair by the international community, although they have not been monitored.
Candidates with genuine prospects of challenging Smirnov in 1996 and 2001 were banned from participation. The main opposition movement was also banned, and those opposition politicians that remain are harassed and threatened. Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government and are under constant political pressure. The Ministry of State Security conducts Soviet-style interviews of citizens suspected of subversive activities and engages in brutality and heavy-handed threats.
The DMR government controls most print and electronic media in Transnistria and restricts freedom of speech. Independent newspapers and television stations do exist, but they frequently experience harassment when they criticize the DMR government. Authorities have confiscated copies of independent newspapers. A state editorial committee oversees the activity of all print and electronic media. The committee's members include the ministers of security, justice, foreign affairs, and information.
Religious freedom is restricted. Authorities have denied registration to some religious groups, such as Baptists and Methodists, and Jehovah's Witnesses are regularly harassed and arrested. The government also limits the ability of religious groups to rent space for prayer meetings. A Jewish cemetery was vandalized in April.
Although 4,000 students regularly attend schools that teach Moldovan in the Latin script, such activities are banned in Transnistria. In July, the Ministry of Education declared that such schools much obtain a licensing permit and adopt the official curriculum. Militias were subsequently sent to block entry to schools that did not comply. Parents and teachers who resisted the action were forcibly removed, and some were threatened by authorities. It is generally believed that the issue is not about language but about the politics of teaching in the official language of Moldova, rather than in Russian.
The authorities severely restrict freedom of assembly, and on the few occasions when permits have been granted for groups to protest, the organizers have been harassed. The authorities have also organized "spontaneous" counter-rallies on such occasions. Freedom of association is similarly circumscribed. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been harassed by police officials, who reportedly invite NGO leaders for "informational discussions" and pressure landlords of properties being used by NGOs not to renew leases. In July, the chairman of the Moldovan Helsinki Committee was attacked, allegedly by pro-government forces trying to prevent him from attending a human rights roundtable. Trade unions are holdovers from the Soviet era, and the United Council of Labor Collectives works closely with the government.
The judiciary is not independent but instead implements the will of the authorities. Politically motivated killings and police harassment have been reported, and political prisoners are frequently denied access to lawyers. Police can detain suspects for up to 30 days. The police continue to use torture and arbitrary arrest, especially against political opponents of the DMR government. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and prisons are severely overcrowded.
The so-called Ilascu group was imprisoned by Transnistria following what is widely considered to have been an unfair trial that found them guilty of crimes against the Transnistrian authorities during the 1992 armed conflict. They were imprisoned in inhumane conditions and tortured. One of the four members of the group was released in May 2001, and a second was released in June 2004. In July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Moldova and Russia were responsible for paying damages for infringement of the rights of the four and said that the remaining two must be released immediately. Moldova and Russia have paid compensation, but the two men still remain in jail.
Authorities discriminate against ethnic Moldovans, who constitute 40 percent of the region's population.
The Transnistria authorities are entrenched in the territory's economic activities, both legal and illegal. Transnistria is a major exporter of drugs and illicit arms. It is likely that revenues of the customs department, headed by the president's son, line official pockets. Russia also has interests in Transnistria's illegal activities, although Russia's economic influence over the territory is probably less than it once was.
Domestic violence against women is a problem, and women are underrepresented in most positions of authority. Transnistria is a transit point for trafficking in women.