National identity in Transnistria: a global historical perspective on the formation and evolution of a ‘resistance identity’

JorisWagemakers

Holds a degree in Sociology from the University of Antwerp and in Conflict and Development Studies from Ghent University, in Belgium. He lived for one year in Moldova, and visited Transnistria in the framework of his thesis, of which this is a summary article, and which he wrote for the latter degree under the tutorship of Bruno De Cordier.

The de facto state of ‘Transnistria’ is often depicted as an ‘informational and economic black hole’, a ‘mafia state’, and a‘Soviet open-air museum’ by the mainstream media.[1] Such cliché-ridden and sensationalist coverage, however, neglects or ignores the realities in the area and the stark societal and political changes that occurred within Transnistria since it acquired de facto independence in fall 1990, and more precisely during the last three to five years. The election of a new Transnistrian president, political pressure in the so-called ‘5+2 negotiations’, the stronger willingness for economic cooperation with Moldova and the EU, the increasing importance of the internet as a source of information, and the overall global political climate are all elements that contributed to a new political orientation and new narratives of Transnistrian nation-building.

This article provides a concise historical overview of national identity formation in Transnistria, which evolved from a regional identification over a civic one to processes of state and nation-building. We will use a social constructivism paradigm, arguing that identities are constructed through historical social processes, influenced and sometimes manipulated by leaders for instrumental objectives.[2]Rather than focusing solely on elite narratives of identity construction, we will link historical social processes to feelings of national identity. We will argue that narratives about Moldova and ‘Greater Romania’, formerly used to legitimize Transnistrian secessionism, have been replaced by narratives about and against Western, and more specifically what is seen as ‘American’, values and practices.

Identification in a conflict context

In the early stages of the conflict, during the 1990-92 period, the Transnistrian movement did not have a classical ethno-nationalist character, at least not openly. Initially, mobilisation was mainly based on a regional and a civic identity. Present-day Transnistria, a narrow strip of land situated east of the Dniestr river, was integrated into the greater Russian imperial space in 1792 and for a longtime remained part of a disputed frontier area. In the year 1940, by then already in the USSR, it became the ‘embryo’, so to say, of what was eventually to become the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic after Romania had officially ceded Bessarabia (right-bank Moldova) to the USSR in 1947.[3] Transnistria, which already had some industries and a Slavic population before the formation of the USSR, was to provide an industrial base for the new Moldovan SSR. It developed an economic structure based on industry and urbanization quite distinctive from that of ‘right bank Moldova’ which remained mainly rural and agricultural.[4]

Russian and other Slavic immigrants moved to the region to staff the industries, and the region’s Soviet power elites created solid links with the Soviet centre because of the presence of defense industries in Transnistria that were under central control from Moscow. Although Transnistria had no autonomous status in the Moldovan SSR, the area’s Russian-speaking politico-economic elites in this historical frontier area gained power through their peculiar interaction with the centre. The Moldovan claim to be part of the historical Bessarabia region, associated with present-day Romania and right bank Moldova, triggered the Russian speakers and the Slavic population strata in Transnistria to identify themselves on the basis of a regional as well as of a Soviet identity. This reactive nationalism was enforced by the Moldovan SSR’s 1989 language law which changed the use of Cyrillic to a modified Latin alphabet for the Moldovan language – which is very similar to Romanian, albeit with more Slavic loanwords  – and the adoption of a tricolor Moldovan national flag quite similar to that of Romania in 1990. These Moldovan national symbols, created before the country’s independence from the USSR in late 1991, were supplemented in 1994 by a national anthem called Limbanoastră, a plea for the national emancipation of Bessarabia.

These steps were perceived by many native Russian speakers, not only by members of the power elites and opinion leaders but also at the grassroots level, as a step closer towards the restitution of a ‘fascist-ruled Greater Romania’– of which Bessarabia indeed used to be part of between 1941 and 1944 – as well as a way to marginalize the Russian speakers in the country.[5] In the first stage of the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict, the Transnistrian movement and region were thus defined on the basis of elements and realities which made it different from right bank Moldova and Romania. This so-called ‘negative identity’ transformed into what Castells calls a resistance identity.[6] As a way to resist domination by Moldovan policies and culture, a (cultural) identity opposed to that of the dominant society is constructed. Framed by familiar Soviet-internationalist rhetoric about the friendship of peoples (дружбa народов), the Transnistrian civic identity was created and oriented against an image of a pro-Romanian identity of Moldova. The Transnistrian entity was initially constituted as a multi-ethnic state, opposed to the Moldovan state that was allegedly discriminating citizens not only of Slavic descent, but also the Turks in the enclave of Gagauzia in southern Moldova. A Transnistrian state was constructed and legitimated as the only possible way to resist Moldovan domination and to defend the rights of minority groups.

The physical consolidation of aspired nationhood

Although the civic identity was meant to be ethnically neutral, during years of nation building, ethnicity became more salient as an identity marker. Transnistrian identity is largely based on an interpretation of Soviet, which is in the first place Russian values and language, and is partly constructed by stereotyping Moldovan-Romanian language and culture.[7] The need to construct a homogenous Transnistrian identity came at the expense of an emphasis on multi-ethnicity.[8] Consequently, the construction of a national identity can be seen as a next step in maintaining de facto independence and legitimising secessionist claims. Transnistria has established its own state-like structures with an own constitution, an elected president and a parliament, a judicial system, police and border guards, its own national bank and currency, a national flag which is almost identical to that of the former Moldovan SSR, and an anthem and coat of arms. In this way, a Transnistrian state and nation could be visually imagined and seen in daily life by its citizens.

A limited form of statehood is a prerequisite for constructing nationhood. Clearly demarcated borders and border control physically create a Transnistrian region, while different kinds of events, monuments, and memorials create a subjective feeling of belonging to a Transnistrian state. Events like Victory Day (День Победы) on 9 May and various museums and monuments dedicated to the remembrance of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is called not only in Transnistria but all over the former USSR except the Baltics, reinforce the identification with the greatness of the Soviet past. This Soviet affiliation has been further preserved and extended by Transnistrian narratives of history that have been taught in schools and spread by the local official, or at least pro-government, media. These narratives have been juxtaposed to the ones being taught in right bank Moldova by minimising Moldova’s link to Greater Romania and instead focusing on its history within the former USSR.

Many symbols of Transnistrian national identity can be seen as a juxtaposition against a Moldovan state with Romanian, and increasingly ‘EU’, affiliations. Even the locally produced cognac, depicted on one of Transnistria’s banknotes and as such one of the symbols of Transnistrian nationhood, has been juxtaposed to Moldovan wine. High taxes for the import of wine and other products from Moldova have been intended to encourage an affiliation with Transnistrian products and, consequently, Transnistrian nationhood.[9] Other symbols and celebrations can be considered as a way to forge a unique Transnistrian identity. The most important celebration in this regard is Independence Day on 2 September, but also monuments and memories about the Moldovan-Transnistrian War of 1992 and subsequent narratives about an alleged ‘fascist-Moldovan aggression’ have been institutionalised in creating a Transnistrian idea and identity.[10]

Transnistria’s present identity

Strong references to the USSR, for which there exists sincere and understandable popular nostalgia, have certainly forged an identification at the grassroots level with the Transnistrian state, at least among the Slavic population. Another important factor in explaining the success of Transnistrian nation building, however, has been the physical and informational isolation of its citizens from the other side of the Dniestr. As shown in one study, access to information other than local Transnistrian and Russian sources has been largely limited during the years of de-facto independence.[11] The strict border controls which were established in 1997-99 are perceived to have enhanced the informational isolation. But in either case, the strong identification with the Russian language among the majority of Transnistria’s inhabitants made it so that the latter were psychologically oriented much more toward the Russian sphere in the first place. In recent years, however, Transnistria’s border controls have been relaxed. If before hardly any foreigners, least of all Westerners, were allowed to enter Transnistria, now foreign journalists can make documentaries about life in this peculiar entity. Yet, Moldovan television channels still can’t work or film in Transnistria, although negotiations have been initiated on this matter too.[12]

These changes reflect a political shift in Transnistria. In late 2010, after two decades in power, President Igor N. Smirnov, Transnistria’s first president and personification, ceded power after elections to Yevgeni V. Shevchuk of the opposition Republican Renewal Party (Республиканскаяпартия «Обновление»). The policies of the new head of the de-facto state seem to emphasize more cooperation with Moldova and the EU and, at the same time, the consolidation of Transnistrian state- and nationhood. Physical and informational isolation as a strategy of nation building isn’t feasible in the current context any longer because of the increasing importance of internet and satellite TV as sources of information, the large number of Transnistrians working or studying abroad, and the demands among part of Transnistria’s citizens for economic and institutional reforms.

At the same time, as we also notice from our observations in Transnistria, such a strategy of nation building isn’t really necessary anymore, since most citizens, not in the least the younger population segments who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s and grew up and were acculturated in the state, recognize Transnistrian nationhood and identify with it. Similarly, narratives about Moldova’s affiliations with (Greater) Romania have become less effective as a way to forge a Transnistrian resistance identity, since nationalists striving for unification with Romania have been largely marginalised as a political force in Moldova itself. Instead, for the last three years, a pro-EU coalition has won a majority over the Communist Party of  Moldova, making the juxtaposition between a EU- or Western-oriented Moldova and a Russia- or Eurasia-oriented Transnistria a much more interesting and realistic paradigm for the creation of a resistance identity.

In order to investigate which narratives people and opinion leaders living in Transnistria use in forging their national identity, we conducted some twenty interviews in spring 2013 with Transnistrian youth in Tiraspol. The respondents which we met and spoke to were between 18 and 30 years old, and as such have no childhood memories or even no active memories of life in the Moldovan SSR. We interviewed respondents from different ethnic backgrounds, thus making comparisons between ethnic groups possible. Our research confirms the findings of Chamberlain-Creangă that mark different positions towards the Transnistrian state.[13] While Transnistrian citizens of ethnic Moldovan background are generally more negative and skeptical vis-à-vis Transnistrian statehood, those of Slavic ethnicity and background are clearly most supportive and claim to be Transnistrian citizens. All of our respondents from ethnic Moldovan background mentioned the illegal and fictional character of the state. As one said, “Transnistria is an invented people, and not like a country, it’s a product of Soviet colonisation and propaganda.”[14]

When explaining the differences between Moldova and Transnsitria, and consequently formulating their image of Transnistrian state- and nationhood, seven respondents of Slavic background referred to the costs of living. According to three respondents, the cost of electricity and gas is ten times more expensive in Moldova. One respondent mentioned gas being six times cheaper in Transnistria than in Moldova. Also, reference was made to pensions being higher in Transnistria, better social services and roads – as we could observe ourselves – in Transnistria, although  public transport was considered to be of better quality in right bank Moldova. Economic performance and job opportunities are another aspect upon which Transnistrians define their feelings of national identity. Initially, Transnistria was economically better off, with employment opportunities in its factories and the economic support of Russia. Currently, however, most factories are closed mainly due to a lack of export possibilities, and Russian economic support of the region is declining. In the interviews we performed, we did also notice a positive connotation towards the ‘EU’, be it mainly related to the perspective of, or hopes for, economic development and employment in the region.[15]

Respondents also mentioned the greater political stability in their republic. According to two respondents, the electoral victory of the current president clearly shows that Transnistria is a democracy and that it has a functioning state system. Another respondent stated that “at least Transnistria has a president”, thereby making reference to the political instability of right bank Moldova during which the country didn’t have a president for more than a year. This means that Transnistrian narratives stating to be more democratic and stable than right bank Moldova, as described by Caspersen in 2012, find resonance among Transnistrians.[16]

From micro-regional to global collision?

Although state performances in public transport, social services, the creation of job opportunities and political stability, or more correctly the perception of state performance in these fields, has an important impact on how Transnistrians describe their feelings of belonging towards the Transnistrian and Moldovan state, identity issues in Moldova are most often described in cultural terms. Eleven respondents stated that the main difference between both banks of the Dniestr is Moldova’s lean towards the EU and Transnistria’s affiliations with Russia and Russian culture. Transnistria is defined as being more anchored in the former USSR while Moldova is defined as “wanting to be like Europe”. Nine respondents named the difference in language, that is, Russian versus Moldovan or Romanian, as one of the main differences between the two river banks.

Remarkably, no reference was made to Transnistrian values of multi-ethnicity or to  Moldova’s perceived connections with Greater Romania, nor did any of our respondents use Transnistrian narratives of victimization and ‘fascist-Moldovan aggression’ related to the Transnistrian-Moldovan War of 1992 in order to define Transnistrian state- and nationhood. Instead, a rigid West-against-Russia dichotomy was applied. Positive or negative feelings towards the Moldovan or the Transnistrian state and subsequent identity have been formulated on the basis of a connection to the European-Western or the Russian-Eurasian world. Both respondents of Moldovan and Slavic background expressed negative feelings towards the Western world in general and specifically the US and its society, although respondents from ethnic Russian background were the most critical.

As one stated “Nothing good comes from the West. The internet is bad for children. Now we have child prostitution in Transnistria because people watch movies from the West. Alcohol and drugs now have become the norm in Transnistria. In the USSR all was better.”[17] Five respondents claimed not to like Western consumerism and the greed that they perceive to be connected with it. One young man among our interviewees, for example, stated not to understand the need to buy a new smartphone every year. Similarly, one young woman was critical about clothing trends coming from the West, more specifically the need to wear makeup and jewelry. She believes that this is superficial and imported by ‘the West’. Another respondent noted, “We are not like the West where people buy products and don’t believe in anything. Yet on TV they propagandise this.” [18]

Superficiality, consumerism, greed, the (failing) capitalistic system, and individualism figured among the terms most commonly used by our respondents in order to describe Western and more specifically American society that is perceived to be the core and the role model of the first. Interestingly, these negative connotations towards what is seen as Western culture and symbols are often opposed with a Transnistrian or Russian value or practice. When talking negatively about Western culture and its capitalistic system, they mentioned the former Soviet societal system to be better. When discussing unhealthy food habits, like the consumption of pre-fabricated foods or genetically modified vegetables, respondents referred to natural Transnistrian foods and local cuisine. Western values like hyper-individualism, greed, and homosexuality have been juxtaposed by Transnistrian and Russian values like hospitality, camaraderie, humanity, and manhood. This way, Transnistrian identity can still be understood as a resistance identity. This time, though, it is not one that is opposed to Moldovan culture, whether or not linked to the history and notion of Greater Romania, but opposed to the Western world, into which Moldova is assumed to be integrating and compromising its own identity.

Final conclusions

Narratives upon which citizens of the Transnistrian entity have forged their national identity have changed significantly during the now more than two decades of de-facto independence. Rather than only looking at elite narratives and strategies of identity construction by leading sectors of society, we interviewed young people currently living in Transnistria and looked at recent developments. First, we found that the economic performance of the state, or more precisely a perception on state performance in this field, is an important aspect for respondents in evaluating Transnistrian statehood. In a situation where economic cooperation with Moldova and the EU is considered to be necessary and desirable by the incumbent head of state and its population, a strategy of factional isolation seems to be infeasible for forging a local identity. Second, in a context where access to external sources of information is facilitated by an increasing importance of the internet as a source of information and eased border control policies, a strategy of informational isolation seems to be infeasible as well.

And third, a resistance identity based on Moldova’s affiliations with Romania has become largely irrelevant since Moldovan nationalists and irredentists are currently a fringe fraction in the country. Within the framework of Moldovan-European cooperation in the EU neighbourhood policy, ‘right bank Moldova’, like the Baltic countries before it, is, by many Transnistrians, perceived as integrating if not selling out to the EU, ‘Western culture’, and the Western societal model. In the context of these societal changes, a resistance identity formerly oriented against ‘Moldova’ and ‘Greater Romania’ has mutated into a resistance identity against the Western world in general and what is seen as American culture specifically. But at the end of the day, this merely reflects, on a micro-regional scale, the changing global paradigm in which Western hegemony and its neoliberal and globalist societal model are increasingly being contested from the Russian and other emerging spheres.


[1]Although the republic’s official name is Cisnistrian Moldavian Republic (ПриднестровскаяМолдавскаяРеспублика, in Russian), over the years, the name ‘Transnistria’ has entered the English language as the main term to designate the de-facto state. Also, geographically as well as psychologically, looking at it from the West, where we are based, the area is literally situated beyond the Dniestr river. Therefore, and to avoid confusion, we decided to use the name ‘Transnistria’ in this English article. It does not reflect a political choice nor any taking of sides.

[2]Stewart, F. (2009). ‘Religion and ethnicity as a source of mobilization: are there differences?’, MICROCON Research Working Paper №18, Oxford: University of Oxford.

[3]Waters, T. (1997),  ‘Problems, progress and prospects in a post-Soviet borderland: the Republic of Moldova’, International Boundaries and Research Unit Boundary and Security Bulletin.

[4] The term ‘right bank Moldova’ that one often finds in publications and discourse is used to designate the Moldovan state without the Transnistrian region, while ‘left bank Moldova’ comprises the territory of Transnistria. Transnistria’s territory is about 4,163 km² large and officially had 509,400 inhabitants in 2012. Again according to the official figures, the population consisted of 31.9 % of ethnic Moldovans, 30.4% Russians, 28.8% of Ukrainians and for 2.5% of Bulgarians, Byelorussians and others. Государсвенная служба статистики Приднестровской Молдавской Республики, «Статистический ежегодник 2013 г.», www.mepmr.org/pechatnye-izdaniya/statisticheskij-ezhegodnik-pmr

[5]Blakkisrud, H., Kolstø (2011). ‘From secessionist conflict toward a functioning state: processes of state- and nation-building in Transnistria’, Post-Soviet Affairs, 27 (2), 187-210.Contrary to the Moldovan SSR where it was boycotted under nationalist pressure, the regions of Transnistria and Gaugazia held the all-Soviet referendum of 17 March 1990 on the preservation of the USSR, and officially voted 98 and 97% respectively in favor of the union’s preservation.

[6]Castells, M. (2010). ‘The power of identity: the information age, economy, society, and culture’, vol. II, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing.

[7]Troebst, S. (2003). ‘The ‘Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic’: from conflict-driven state-building to state-driven nation-building’,European Yearbook of Minority Issues, 3 (9), 5-30.

[8]Note in this regard that Transnistria has three official languages. Besides Russian, these are Ukrainian and ‘Soviet Moldovan’, that is, the Moldovan still written in an adapted Cyrillic alphabet as it was used in the Moldovan SSR until 1989.

[9]For a more detailed discussion on Transnistria’s post-secession economy, coping strategy, and economic stakeholders, see Parmentier, F. (2010), ‘Construction étatique et ‘capitalisme de contrebande’ en Transnistrie’, Transitions, XLV №1, 135-151.

[10]Bobick, M. (2011), ‘Profits of disorder: images of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic’,Global Crime, 12 (4), 239-265.

[11]Promo-LEX (2012), ‘The media market and the access to media on the left bank of the Nistru’,www.promolex.md/upload/publications/en/doc_1340371914.pdf.

[12] Since right bank Moldova was not willing to air Transnistrian television, the latter also refused to air productions and channels of the former.

[13]Chamberlain-Creangă, R. A. (2006). ‘The ‘Transnistrian people’: citizenship and imaginings of ‘the state’ in an unrecognized country’,AbImperio, 4 (2006), 1-29.

[14]Interview with a female respondent, aged 20, Tiraspol, 10 April 2013.

[15] According to a study of Bobcova, 90% of respondents from both sides of the river bank stated that the economic situation in their country is difficult or unbearable and 81% would approve a greater cooperation between both river banks for economic development. Bobcova, E. (2009). ‘Development patterns for Moldova and Transnistria in the post-conflict period’,Institute for Public Policy – Black Sea Peacebuilding Network, www.ipp.md/public/files/Proiecte/blacksee/eng/BobcovaENG.pdf.

[16]Caspersen, (2012), ‘Democracy, nationalism and (lack of) sovereignty: the complex dynamics of democratization in unrecognized states’, Nations and nationalism, 17 (2), 337-356.

[17]Interview with a male respondent, aged 22, Tiraspol, 12 April 2013.

[18]Interview with afemale respondent, aged 25, Tiraspol, 12 April 2013.

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