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Russian and Moldovan officials continued their informal, bilateral negotiations on a final settlement of Transnistria’s status in 2008. Transnistrian president Igor Smirnov met directly with Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin in April and again in December. Voronin was pressing Moscow to accept a deal that would give Transnistria substantial autonomy within Moldova, among other concessions, in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian troops.
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 from Moldova 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, and the separatist regime maintained a de facto independence that was not recognized internationally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine have attempted to mediate a final settlement between Moldova and the PMR. In 2005, the United States and the European Union (EU) were invited to join the negotiations as observers, creating the so-called 5+2 format.
The lingering presence in Transnistria of hundreds of Russian soldiers and a supply of Russian weapons has further complicated matters. Despite a 1999 pledge to withdraw its forces by 2002, Russia has resisted pulling out until a final settlement is reached. Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin and the Moldovan Parliament have both called for the soldiers to be withdrawn.
Moldova rejected a Russian-backed federalization plan in November 2003 after it drew public protests. The latest round of formal multilateral talks collapsed in early 2006, and 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 the absence of active 5+2 negotiations, Voronin pursued bilateral talks with Russia and took a number of steps to bring Moldova’s foreign policy into line with the Kremlin’s. For much of 2008, he urged Russia to accept a proposal whereby Transnistria would receive substantial autonomy within Moldova, a strong and unitary presence in the Moldovan Parliament, and the right to secede if Moldova were to unite with Romania in the future. Russian property rights would be respected, and Russian troops would be replaced by civilian observers. Voronin defended his separate “consultations” with Russia by saying that any settlement would be finalized in the 5+2 format.
The Transnistria issue took on an added degree of urgency in August 2008, after Russia fought a brief conflict with Georgia and recognized the independence of two breakaway regions there. Russian officials said they had no plans to recognize the PMR, but warned Moldova not to adopt Georgia’s confrontational stance. The Moldovan government in turn rejected any comparison and repeated its commitment to peaceful negotiations. Some experts expressed concerns that Russia could impose a harsh settlement on Moldova in the bilateral talks and then recognize the PMR if the plan were rejected.
Transnistrian president Igor Smirnov’s relations with Voronin remained tense throughout the year, as the Moldovan leader effectively negotiated over Smirnov’s head and expressed clear frustration with the PMR leadership. The two men met in April for the first time since 2001, then again in December. Days after the April meeting, Romanian president Traian Basescu indirectly raised the prospect of a partition in which Ukraine would absorb Transnistria and Romania would annex Moldova proper, prompting Voronin to accuse him of sabotaging the negotiations. Meanwhile, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev met with Voronin and Smirnov separately during the year.
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 independence. 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 recognizes 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. 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 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The mediaenvironment is restrictive. Nearly all media are state owned or controlled and do not criticize the authorities. 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 Individual and His Rights, an independent newspaper, has experienced intimidation and violent attacks. Journalists exercise a certain amount of self-censorship. 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. Orthodox Christianity is the dominant faith, and authorities have denied registration to several smaller religious groups, at times in defiance of court decisions. Other court rulings in favor of minority faiths have been routinely overturned. Unregistered groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, have difficulty renting space for prayer meetings and face harassment by police and Orthodox opponents.
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. Parents who send their children to schools using Latin script, and the schools themselves, have faced routine 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 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 generally 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 detentions are common. Human rights groups have received accounts of torture in custody. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and the facilities are severely overcrowded.Military conscripts have reportedly been mistreated, and at least two died in 2008. 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.
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 as many as a third of the region’s residents reportedly hold Russian passports.
Domestic violence against women is a problem, and women are underrepresented in most positions of authority. Transnistria is a significant source and transit point for trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution. Homosexuality is illegal in Transnistria.