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An Introduction to Breakaway Regions of the Former Soviet Union
(Released January 2009)

  by Fiona Allison  


Key Citations




Moldova and Transdniestr


Another breakaway region in the former Soviet Union, which has also not been recognised internationally, is the Transdniestr area of Moldova. Moldova is different from other states in that it was never an independent country before the Soviet Union but was a principality of Romania. Part of Moldova as it is today used to belong to the historic regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia, the latter of which was occupied by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In the post war period Stalin created the Moldovan SSR using 70 percent of Bessarabia, with the remainder of the region contributing to form the Ukraine SSR.
map of Moldova and Transdniestr
Moldova and Transdniestr
There have been disputes since over a small area of land which used to be a part of Ukraine but was incorporated into Moldova. Therefore when Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it was at first only recognised by Romania, Lithuania, Georgia and Armenia, and not Ukraine. Moldova's problem with the Transdniestr area, so called because it is on one side of the Dniestr River, began with the implementation of a new language law. As with Georgia, the question of language was an important one for Moldova - as under Soviet rule, Moscow had been adamant that Moldovan was a separate language from Romanian and instead implemented the use of Russian, despite the fact that the Moldovan language is virtually the same as Romanian. Russian was made the official language in Moldova to exert Soviet authority, as neighbouring Romania was pursuing policies independent to those of the Soviet Union. In August 1989 Moldova became the first Soviet republic to declare the language of the indigenous people, Romanian, to be the official language.5 However, according to the 1989 census Moldovans accounted for only 64 percent of the population, the remainder including 14 percent Ukrainian and 13 percent Russian.6 The language law provoked disquiet among the minorities, many of whom didn't even speak Moldovan. What alienated the minorities further was that when Moldova did first declare independence, some groups wanted reunification with Romania, although that idea has since dissipated. Once a draft of the new language law was published Moldovan nationalism was fervent, as the republic could regain its national identity. The draft law stipulated a return to Latin script from Cyrillic, and it declared Moldovan and Romanian were one and the same language. This further angered the minorities, whose main language was Russian, in the Dniestr area, who feared for their rights and future in a state that was gripped by nationalism. The Ukrainians in the Transdniestr area were highly Russified and so had common cause with the Russians there. Joined together they made up a large minority group, 27% of the population. In 1990 the group declared the Transdniestr area a republic independent of Moldova, and attempted to forge close ties with Moscow. Immediately the Moldovan government declared the move illegal. The region remained unmoved by this and announced it was to hold its own parliamentary elections.

Transdniestr flag
The Transdniestr flag includes a Soviet hammer & sickle

Before the Russians and Ukrainians announced their secession another group in Moldova had already declared their own independent region. Although only making up 4 percent of the population in 1989, the Gagauz minority was a very determined one. The Gagauz are an Orthodox Christian, Turkic-speaking people, although their exact origin and when they arrived in Moldova is unknown. For the Gagauz too, the reason for their separatism was the language law, for those that were bilingual; their second language was Russian, not Moldovan, and they felt particularly excluded from the new Moldova. The Gagauz announced their breakaway in August 1990, a move that the Moldovan government immediately denounced. Despite this and the fact that their independence movement, Gagauzi Khalk, was outlawed, the Gagauz went ahead in planning their own elections. In 1991, when Moldova held its first independent presidential elections, the Transdniestr and Gagauzi separatists not only refused to participate but held their own elections a week earlier on December 1st. Moldova experienced unrest with its minorities although not on the same scale as Georgia and mainly with ethnic Russians. In addition there were industrial disputes as the Transdniestr area contains the majority of Moldova's heavy industry. Because Transdniestr has created its own economy, bank and currency, this has left Moldova without the industries previously based there. On the other hand Transdniestr is impoverished because of its international isolation. These disputes have drastically affected Moldova's economy and the country remains one of the poorest in Europe. Sporadic violence occurred, especially after a Russian killed a young Moldovan during an argument over the new state flag. His funeral became an excuse for a nationalist rally. As the Moldovans became increasingly nationalist and anti-Soviet, the ethnic minorities became more anti-Moldovan and pro-Soviet, causing a deep ideological rift in the republic. The violence escalated between Moldova and Transdniestr in March 1992, on the very same day that Moldova was granted membership to the United Nations, a sign that its independence had now been recognised internationally. The killing of a Dniestr militia man - allegedly by Moldovan police forces - was the spark that inflamed the conflict along the banks of the Dniestr River. The small Moldovan forces were outnumbered by the Transdniestr forces who were boosted by Cossack volunteers and had arms supplied by the Russians, although it is disputed whether Russian troops took part in the conflict. Moldova was assisted by supplies from Romania. It took four months and the deaths of an estimated 700-1,000 people before a ceasefire agreement was reached. The towns of Transdniestr were left in ruins. The ceasefire agreement was reached with the provision that peacekeepers, mainly Russian but also from the UN, remain in the area to retain the fragile peace, and they are still stationed there. The non-recognition of the Transdniestr region has not stopped it from creating a state flag, as well as its own parliament, president and currency. The Transdniestr region is full of Soviet-era regalia, the Hammer and Sickle is on the state flag and a statue of Lenin stands outside the parliament building. Transdniestr still appeals to be made a part of Russia. As with Georgia there does not appear to be an easy solution to the situation in Moldova, as Transdniestr will never give up its fight for independence and Moldova will never recognise it.

gravesite ceremony
A woman and her daughter lay flowers at one of the common graves in Transdniestr, June 19, 2008

The collapse of the Soviet Union showed how important ethnicity and national identity are to people. A crucial factor is that Georgia and Moldova had little if any; independence in the past, their own cultures and language had been suppressed for so long under Russian hegemony that when they were independent they embraced nationalism in a vehement manner. The people of countries like Georgia and Moldova had been a minority group themselves within the entire Soviet Union and felt they needed to protect their own rights above those of the ethnic minorities.

Currently there appears to be no way to resolve the problem of the breakaway regions as neither side is willing to step down. As long as Georgia and Moldova refuse to acknowledge their respective separatist regions, and while Russia aids or encourages separatism, the separatists will be determined as ever to gain recognition. It seems unlikely the regions will maintain their fragile peace, despite the UN presence. However, whilst former Soviet States look towards the West for economic and military support, it is likely the breakaway regions will lean further towards Russia, signalling further political and possibly military conflict.

© 2008, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals


  1. Fane, Daria. Appendix B Soviet census data, union republic and ASSR, 1989. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. 1993 Eds. Ian Bremner and Ray Tarras. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  2. CIA - The World Fact Book - Georgia CIA last updated November 2008.

  3. Jones, Stephen.Georgia: a failed democratic transition. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. 1993 Eds. Ian Bremner and Ray Tarras. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  4. BBC News, World, Europe, Regions and Territories: Abkhazia, BBC News. June 2008.

  5. Fane, Daria. Moldova: breaking loose from Moscow. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. 1993 Eds. Ian Bremner and Ray Tarras. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  6. Fane, Daria. Moldova: breaking loose from Moscow. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. 1993 Eds. Ian Bremner and Ray Tarras. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge