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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 July 2007, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Dniester conflict frozen after 15 years
Trans-Dniester map
The Trans-Dniester conflict has been "frozen" for the past 15 years
Fifteen years ago Russia and Moldova signed a ceasefire ending the civil war in Moldova's Trans-Dniester region.

Petru Clej looks at how the relationship between Moldova and the breakaway region has evolved under the watchful eye of Moscow.

Trans-Dniester (Pridnestrovie in Russian, Transnistria in Romanian) is the most populous and most Western of the four breakaway regions of the former USSR.

It has a population of 555,000, larger than that of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh taken together.

It is also the region where a rekindling of military conflict is least likely. The conflict in Trans-Dniester - unlike those in the other three regions - was not an ethnic one.

The population is a mix of Moldovans (32%), Russians (30%) and Ukrainians (29%). There was no ethnic cleansing on a large scale, although a number of Moldovans who felt threatened by the Tiraspol regime took refuge across the river Dniester.

Fear of Romania

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, himself born in Trans-Dniester, has made it clear that force will never be used to reintegrate the region into Moldova.

Mircea Snegur, President of Moldova in 1992
By signing this agreement we proved to the whole world that the instigator and direct participant to this war was the Russia Federation
Mircea Snegur, President of Moldova in 1992

The agreement signed 15 years ago by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Moldovan counterpart, Mircea Snegur, ended what had been in effect a civil war.

The conflict started on 2 March 1992 - the day Moldova became a member of the United Nations, having declared independence from the USSR six months earlier.

The Trans-Dniester leadership had declared "independence" even before the break-up of the Soviet Union, in September 1990, in protest at what they saw as "moves towards reunification with Romania".

The region, invented by Soviet leader Stalin in 1924, was merged with the Romanian province of Bessarabia after its annexation in 1940, resulting in the Moldavian SSR, the precursor of today's Republic of Moldova.

Anything Romanian or pro-Romanian was viewed with suspicion in Trans-Dniester, and this was one of the battle cries of 1992: "We do not want union with Romania."

Russian support

The conflict itself lasted four months and claimed an unknown number of dead, possibly more than 1,000.

General Alexander Lebed
General Lebed led Russian troops in Trans-Dniester, (Pic: Nicolae Pojoga)

Trans-Dniester separatists enjoyed the tacit support of the Russian troops stationed there, led by General Alexander Lebed, a veteran of the Afghan war and later presidential contender.

In fact, the 21 July 1992 agreement still serves as a de facto framework for relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, albeit by default.

It established "peacekeeping forces", with Moldovan, Trans-Dniester and Russian participation and apart from minor skirmishes no clash has taken place since then.

All attempts to solve the conflict through political means have so far failed.

Petru Lucinschi, Mircea Snegur's successor as president, signed a memorandum in 1997 with Mr Yeltsin and Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov on creating a "common state". The agreement was never put into practice.

In 2003, current President Vladimir Voronin made a spectacular U-turn and rejected at the last moment the "Kozak memorandum", named after Russian President Vladimir Putin's adviser who negotiated it, which would have given Trans-Dniester broad powers within a loose federation.

The involvement of the US and European Union, alongside Moldova, Trans-Dniester, Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has been equally unsuccessful.

In the meantime, Trans-Dniester is continuing on its path to independence - although no country recognises its aspirations.

Last September, the region voted overwhelmingly in favour of separation from Moldova and for joining Russia.

Frozen conflict

And although officially Russia does not recognise the Tiraspol regime, it has started invoking the Kosovo precedent, accusing the West of double standards, for advocating independence for the nominally Serbian province, but opposing the same treatment for Trans-Dniester.

Soldiers in the Trans-Dniester war
Hundreds of people lost their lives in fighting (Pic: Nicolae Pojoga)

In fact, Russia remains the paramount player in the region.

It still maintains troops and military equipment in Trans-Dniester, and recently President Putin suspended Russia's participation in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE).

Russia is angry over the non-ratification of the treaty by Nato countries and the Western insistence on Russian troops withdrawing from Moldova and Georgia.

Speaking on the 15th anniversary of the ceasefire, Mr Snegur blamed the conflict squarely on Russia.

"In fact, at that time we were at war directly with Russia. What could we do, faced with a monster? By signing this agreement we proved to the whole world that the instigator and direct participant in this war was the Russian Federation," Mr Snegur said.

"I even wonder why they signed the document, which amounts to a recognition of their involvement," he added.

But Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov, in his 17th year in power, rejects Western calls for Russian troops to leave.

"Against the background of failures of Western peacekeepers in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and other 'hot spots', they offer to replace Russian peacekeepers with an international contingent," he said.

"If those who adhere to that idea force us, they will get new bloodshed," Mr Smirnov told Itar-Tass news agency.

Trans-Dniester re-elects leader
11 Dec 06 |  Europe
Regions and territories: Trans-Dniester
07 Mar 07 |  Country profiles

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