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Although peace talks to find a final settlement regarding the status of Transnistria resumed in 2005, no breakthroughs were reached. During the year, the United States and the European Union (EU) were invited to be observers in the negotiations.
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, fearing that Romanian-speaking Moldova would join neighboring Romania, declared independence, established the DMR, and set 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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (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. In September 2005, the United States and the European Union (EU) were invited to join the negotiations as observers.
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. This deadline was likewise unmet, as Russia ultimately declared that it would not remove all of its troops until a final settlement was reached. Large quantities of armaments continued to be evacuated, but in January 2005 the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that evacuations had not taken place for the previous six months. The ministry also said that 50 percent of the equipment had been removed thus far. Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin and the Moldovan parliament have both called for the troops to be withdrawn.
Settlement negotiations have made little progress over the past several years. After Voronin rejected, in November 2003, a plan that would have created a "joint state," talks became deadlocked. The competing interests of Russia, Ukraine, and Western institutions such as the EU and the OSCE further impede progress in finding a solution. Early in 2004, the five negotiators (from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria) agreed to meet regularly, but talks were suspended in 2004 after Transnistrian authorities closed two schools on their territory teaching in Moldovan using the Latin script. The authorities subsequently closed the other six such schools, taking some by force. While the schools were open in 2005, and all faced official obstacles.
The dynamic shifted somewhat with the December 2004 election of President Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, who subsequently launched a peace plan that was the basis for talks in 2005. Results have been modest so far, but all sides remain engaged.
In general, the Transnistrian authorities have been very effective in pursuing their short-term goals, and they currently have little reason to compromise on demands for wide-ranging autonomy or on contentious points such as developing a Transnistrian military. The authorities opened their own mint in November and began issuing a Transnistrian currency, which had previously been produced in Poland. Most of Moldova's industrial infrastructure is within Transnistria's borders, but international isolation limits its economic potential. A power plant in Transnistria that provides about 46 percent of Moldova's energy cut supplies in November because Moldova refused to accept a rate increase.
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; authorities staged a recall vote for the only opposition member of the Supreme Soviet, but the necessary quorum of voters did not turn out. Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government and are under constant political pressure. The Ministry of State Security has conducted Soviet-style interviews of citizens suspected of subversive activities and engages in brutality and heavy-handed threats.
The Transnistrian authorities refused to permit polling on their territory for the March 2005 Moldovan elections, and therefore residents had to cross the border to vote. Transnistria planned to hold its own legislative elections in December 2005, which the OSCE will not monitor.
Corruption is a serious problem in Transnistria. The Moldovan government claims that weapons trafficking is common practice, though foreign diplomats maintain that such charges are exaggerated. Nevertheless, criminal elements with links to the regime are suspected of functioning with impunity.
The media environment is restrictive, but the few independent outlets do not experience open harassment. The authorities use tactics such as bureaucracy and withholding of information to inhibit the activities of independent media. The independent newspaper The Individual and His Rights has experienced pressure and violent attacks. All journalists exercise a certain amount of self-censorship. Nearly all media are state owned or controlled; state influence in the media is official policy, and these outlets do not criticize the authorities. A single company dominates private broadcasting (with one channel), cable television, and internet access.
Religious freedom is restricted. A locally administered census in 2005 found that more than 80 percent of Transnistrians say that they are Orthodox. Authorities have denied registration to other religious groups, and Jehovah's Witnesses are regularly arrested. Nonregistered groups have difficulty renting space for prayer meetings and face harassment.
Although about 5,000 students study Moldovan using the Latin script, this practice is banned in Transnistria. In 2004, authorities sent militias to close down eight schools that did not obtain a licensing permit and adopt the official curriculum. 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 (Moldovan, or Romanian), rather than in Russian. The schools were allowed to reopen but faced logistical and legal hurdles.
The authorities severely restrict freedom of assembly and rarely issue required permits for public protest. Freedom of association is similarly circumscribed. All nongovernmental activities must be coordinated with local authorities, and those that are not face harassment, including visits from security officials. Trade unions are holdovers from the Soviet era, and the United Council of Labor Collectives works closely with the government.
The judiciary is subservient to the executive and implements the will of the authorities. Defendants do not receive fair trials, and legislation falls short of international standards. Politically motivated arrests and long-term detentions are common. Human rights groups receive accounts of torture in custody. Politically motivated killings and police harassment have been reported, and political prisoners are frequently denied access to lawyers. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and prisons are severely overcrowded.
Members of the so-called Ilascu group were 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. Two have been released. In July 2004, 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 remain in jail.
Authorities discriminate against ethnic Moldovans. According to Moldova's Ministry of Information, more than 270,000 people in Transnistria hold Moldovan citizenship, at least 80,000 hold Russian citizenship, and 80,000 hold Ukrainian citizenship.
The Transnistria authorities are entrenched in the territory's economic activities, both legal and illegal. Transnistria is accused of being 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 likely less than in previous years. In August, Moldova lifted economic sanctions on the territory that had been imposed in the previous year.
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.