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Transnistria’s relations with Moldova deteriorated in 2006, as customs regulations imposed by Ukraine limited the separatist enclave’s ability to trade independently of Moldova. Referendum voters in September overwhelmingly supported independence and eventual unification with Russia. In December 2005, the opposition group Obnovlenye had made surprising gains in parliamentary elections, but incumbent President Igor Smirnov was reelected in December 2006.
The Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica (PMR), bounded by the Dniester River to the west and the Ukrainian border on the east, is a breakaway region in eastern Moldova with a large population of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. In the rest of Moldova, where the dominant language is nearly identical to Romanian, the separatist region is called Transnistria. Transnistria was attached to the territory that became Moldova when the borders were redrawn under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1940. As the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1990, pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria, fearing that Moldova would join neighboring Romania, declared independence and established the DMR under an authoritarian presidential system.
With weapons and other assistance from the Russian army, the DMR leadership fought a military conflict with Moldova that ended with a 1992 ceasefire. A new Moldovan constitution in 1994 gave the territory substantial autonomy, but the conflict remained unresolved. The separatist regime was strong enough to resist absorption by Moldova, yet too weak to gain outright international recognition; it is not recognized by any independent state.
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 its soldiers as “guarantors” of any eventual diplomatic settlement. In response to this development, the OSCE extended the deadline by 12 months. The new date was likewise disregarded, as Russia declared that it would not remove all of its troops until a final settlement was reached. In May 2006, Russia reiterated that troops would remain in Transnistria for the foreseeable future. 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. Moldova rejected a Russian-backed federalization plan in November 2003 after it drew public protests. Early in 2004, five negotiators representing the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria agreed to meet regularly, but talks were suspended that year after Transnistrian authorities closed two schools on their territory that were teaching in Moldovan using the Latin script. The dynamic shifted somewhat with the December 2004 election of President Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, who subsequently launched a peace plan that formed the basis for talks in 2005. Negotiations between the five parties in January 2006, with the EU and United States in attendance as observers, ended without yielding significant progress.
In March 2006, Ukraine and Moldova agreed to a new set of customs regulations, under which all cargo shipped from Transnistria to Ukraine must be first cleared by Moldovan customs officers. The agreement was met with protests on the Transnistrian side of the border, and the DMR government subsequently pulled out of settlement talks with Moldova. Russia also denounced the move, while the OSCE praised Ukraine for its role in the dispute. The EU also implemented an EU Border Assistance Project, designed to curb smuggling across the Transnistrian segment of the Ukraine-Moldova border. Relations deteriorated further in September, when Transnistria held a referendum in which citizens overwhelmingly backed a course of independence with the goal of eventually joining Russia. The referendum was not recognized by Moldova or the international community. Russia publicly backed the vote.
In December 2005, the pro-business Obnovlenye (Renewal) Party, headed by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Yevgeny Shevchuk, won an unexpected victory in legislative elections, defeating the Respublica Party of Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov. The elections were not recognized by the international community and were not independently monitored. Pro-Smirnov politicians have criticized Shevchuk, who assumed the position of Speaker of Parliament after the elections, for not taking a hard enough line on Moldova, and have voiced suspicions that he may be willing to consider unification. However, Shevchuk has publicly made strong statements against Moldova and the West.
In December 2006 presidential elections, Smirnov was reelected with 82 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, Anatoliy Bazhen of the Pridnestrovie Communist Party, received 8 percent. As with the parliamentary elections, the result was not recognized outside of Transnistria, and the election was not independently monitored.
Commentators have pointed out that Transnistria has little economic incentive to consider joining Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. Most of Moldova’s industrial infrastructure is within Transnistria’s borders, although economic isolation limits its potential.
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 its sovereignty. Both the president and the 43-seat, unicameral Supreme Council are elected to five-year terms. Having won reelection in December 2006, Igor Smirnov is now serving his fourth term as president, and he has said that he will not step down until Transnistria is independent. The international community has generally considered the presidential and parliamentary elections held since 1992 as neither free nor fair, although they have not been monitored.
Andrey Safonov, an outspoken critic of Smirnov, was initially barred from competing in December 2006 presidential elections due to alleged fraudulent signatures on his petition to secure a place on the ballot. He was given permission to compete the day before the elections, which Smirnov won easily with 82 percent of the vote. Local reports indicated that opposition campaigns were not covered by the press. In 1996 and 2001 presidential elections, candidates with genuine prospects of challenging Smirnov were banned from participation. In December 2005 parliamentary elections, the opposition group Obnovlenye made significant gains, defeating the ruling Respublica Party. However, the Parliament has traditionally held very little power. 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.
Corruption is a serious problem in Transnistria. The authorities are entrenched in the territory’s economic activities and are often complicit in organized crime. Moldova has accused Transnistria of illicitly exporting large quantities of drugs and weapons, although officials from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have argued that such charges are exaggerated. The Customs Department, headed by the president’s son, is suspected of diverting funds to top officials. Russia has financial interests in Transnistria’s illegal activities, although its economic influence over the territory has probably declined in recent years. Transnistria is not listed separately on Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media environment is restrictive, but the few independent outlets rarely experience open harassment. The authorities use tactics such as bureaucratic obstruction and the withholding of information to inhibit the activities of independent media. The independent newspaper The Individual and His Rights has experienced intimidation and violent attacks. Journalists exercise a certain amount of self-censorship. Nearly all media are state owned or controlled, and such outlets do not criticize the authorities. A single company dominates the limited private broadcasting, cable television, and internet access. There were no reports of censorship of internet content.
Religious freedom is restricted. A locally administered census in 2005 found that more than 80 percent of Transnistrians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. Authorities have denied registration to other religious groups, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are regularly arrested. Unregistered 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 restricted in Transnistria. The Moldovan language and Latin alphabet are associated with support for unity with Moldova, while Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet are associated with separatist goals. In 2004, authorities closed down eight schools that had not obtained a licensing permit and had not adopted the official curriculum. Parents and teachers who resisted the action were forcibly removed, and some were threatened by authorities. The schools were allowed to reopen but faced logistical and legal hurdles. In 2005, the OSCE reported that parents who send their children to schools using Latin script continue to face harassment from the security services.
The authorities severely restrict freedom of assembly and rarely issue required permits for public protests. Freedom of association is similarly circumscribed. All nongovernmental activities must be coordinated with local authorities, and groups that do not comply face harassment, including visits from security officials. In March 2006, authorities banned all foreign financing for nongovernmental groups. The region’s 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 the legal framework falls short of international standards. Politically motivated arrests and long-term detentions are common. Human rights groups have received accounts of torture in custody. Politically motivated killings and police harassment have also been reported, and political prisoners are frequently denied access to lawyers. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and the facilities are severely overcrowded. Two members of the so-called Ilascu group remain in jail, despite calls from the European Court of Human Rights for their release. The two men were imprisoned for crimes against the Transnistrian authorities during the 1992 armed conflict and have reportedly been tortured while in prison.
In the summer of 2006, two bombing incidents aboard Tiraspol public transportation vehicles killed several people. Government officials speculated that Moldovan security forces could be responsible, but the OSCE reported that the blasts were most likely linked to criminal activity.
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.
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 for the purpose of prostitution.