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Reports in April 2007 that bilateral Moldovan-Russian talks had yielded a draft proposal for a final settlement of Transnistria’s status prompted fresh calls for a resumption of multilateral negotiations. The reported draft was seen as favoring Russian and Transnistrian interests. In June, Transnistria released the last of four men who had been held on terrorism charges since 1992 but were regarded as political prisoners by the international community.
The Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica (PMR), bounded by the Dniester River to the west and the Ukrainian border to 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. It 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 PMR under an authoritarian presidential system.
With weapons and other assistance from the Russian army, the PMR 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 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 PMR. 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. Despite a 1999 pledge to withdraw its forces by 2002, Russia has since resisted pulling out until a final settlement of the region’s status is reached. In May 2006, Russia reiterated that its troops would remain in Transnistria for the foreseeable future. Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin and the Moldovan Parliament have both called for the soldiers 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. The latest round of multilateral talks collapsed in early 2006. Transnistrian referendum voters in September 2006 overwhelmingly backed a course of independence with the goal of eventually joining Russia, although the legitimacy of the vote was not recognized by Moldova or the international community.
In April 2007, the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation reported that bilateral talks between Voronin and Russian officials, conducted quietly since the multilateral talks broke down the year before, had resulted in a draft proposal that would give Transnistria significant autonomy and power within a reunited Moldova. The reported proposal would also require Moldova to remain neutral, preventing it from joining alliances like NATO. The news prompted fresh calls for a return to multilateral negotiations. Voronin insisted that he was eager to resume the wider talks, and in October offered to hold direct talks with Transnistria. PMR president Igor Smirnov rejected that offer.
Commentators have pointed out that Transnistria has little economic incentive to join Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. Most of Moldova’s industrial infrastructure is within Transnistria’s borders, although economic isolation limits its potential. Ukraine in early 2006 agreed to require that all goods imported from Transnistria be cleared by Moldovan customs officers, and the EU has established a program to help Ukraine control smuggling along the Transnistrian border.
Residents of Transnistria cannot elect their leaders democratically, and they are unable to participate freely in Moldovan elections. While the PMR 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 with 82 percent of the vote, 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 to be neither free nor fair, although they have not been monitored.
Opposition presidential candidates have often been barred from participating on technical grounds. In December 2005 parliamentary elections, the opposition group Obnovlenye (Renewal)—backed by Transnistria’s dominant business conglomerate, Sheriff Enterprises—won 23 of the 43 seats, defeating Smirnov’s ruling Respublica Party, which took 13. Obnovlenye leader Yevgeny Shevchuk seeks business-oriented reforms, and has been accused of taking a softer line on Moldova, but his party supports PMR independence. Shevchuk became speaker of parliament after the elections, but the parliament has traditionally held very little power. Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government and are under constant political pressure. PMR authorities prevented voters in the village of Corjova, which recognized the Moldovan government, from participating in Moldova’s June 2007 local elections. A Corjova mayoral candidate was arrested before the vote, apparently for possession of Moldovan electoral documents.
Corruption and organized crime are serious problems in Transnistria. The authorities are entrenched in the territory’s economic activities, which rely in large part on smuggling schemes designed to evade Moldovan and Ukrainian import taxes. Moldova has also accused Transnistria of illicitly exporting large quantities of drugs and weapons, although officials from the EU and the OSCE have argued that such charges are exaggerated. Russia has a growing stake in the Transnistrian economy and supports the PMR through loans, direct subsidies, and low-cost natural gas. Transnistria is not listed separately on Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media environment is restrictive, and the few independent print outlets have small circulations. Critical reporting draws harassment by the authorities, who also use tactics such as bureaucratic obstruction and the withholding of information to inhibit 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. Sheriff Enterprises 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 several thousand students study Moldovan using the Latin script, this practice is restricted. 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 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. In March 2007, five leaders of the opposition Communist Party were arrested for attempting to mount an unauthorized protest over rising utility prices and delays in pension and salary payments. 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 2006, authorities banned foreign financing for nongovernmental groups involved in political activity. 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 prisoners are frequently denied access to lawyers. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and the facilities are severely overcrowded. In June 2007, PMR officials released the last two of a group of four men regarded internationally as political prisoners. They were members of the Christian Democratic People’s Party who opposed Transnistrian independence, and had been held as terrorists since 1992, reportedly enduring torture and regular beatings. The first two of the four had been released in 2001 and 2004, and the European Court of Human Rights had ordered the remaining men to be freed as well.
In July and August 2006, two bombing incidents aboard Tiraspol public transportation vehicles killed eight and two people, respectively. A man was sentenced in March 2007 to 20 years in prison for the August bombing; he was allegedly preparing to attack a former employer when the bomb detonated prematurely. Two brothers were sentenced in October 2007 to 9 and 10 years in prison for making and selling the July bomb, which reportedly killed the woman who had purchased it as she was transporting it. No motive was disclosed by the court. PMR officials had initially speculated that Moldovan security forces were responsible for the blasts.
Authorities discriminate against ethnic Moldovans, who make up about 40 percent of the population. It is believed that ethnic Russians and Ukrainians together comprise a slim majority, and many hold Russian or Ukrainian citizenship.
Domestic violence against women is a problem, and women are underrepresented in most positions of authority. Transnistria is a source and transit point for trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution. Homosexuality is illegal in Transnistria.