Tag: Eastern Europe

As Transdniestrians celebrate Victory Day with a military parade – complete with Soviet-era tank – Russian [and Transnistrian] flags line the streets of Tiraspol. Photo by Thomas Vanden Driessche, Institute, in Zuckerman C. “The Country that Doesn’t Exist”, Picture Stories, National Geographic, 23/03/2017.

The small Republic of Moldova is one of the post-Soviet states facing a conflict on its territory over the unrecognized self-proclaimed region of Transnistria, officially known as Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic. Located between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and it is since then undergoing a transition both in the sphere of politics, economics and within its society.

The river Dniester separates the state into two parts, which differ in their history and attitude, but were amalgamated into the Moldovan Soviet Socialistic Republic in 1940. The Transnistrian part situated on the Eastern side of the river was harbouring the industrial economic sector and was inhabited mainly by Soviet, Russian-speaking elites, while the Western part of the country was an agricultural hub with cultural and linguistic ties to Romania. The way to independence was accompanied by an emancipation movement which strove to break with Soviet and Russian predominance over Moldova. The Soviet elites in Transnistria opposed this development to safeguard the Soviet and Russian ascendancy in the political and cultural spheres and feared discrimination. At the same time, they refused to accept any subordination to Chisinau and yearned to keep a direct and privileged connection to Moscow. They also refused a reunification with Romania, which parts of the Moldovan population aspired to achieve.  

With military support of the Soviet and later Russian 14th army, stationed near Tiraspol, the Transnistrians gained control of the area eastward of the Dniester as well as of the city of Bender, which is located on the Western bank of the river. The attempt by Chisinau to win back Bender led to a short war in 1992, with several hundred casualties and around 100.000 people fleeing the region.[1] On behalf of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR), Russia reached a ceasefire agreement with Moldova, which included a trilateral border regime and cemented the separation of the Transnistrian area. Since then, all attempts to reintegrate the TMR into Moldova have failed. In 1994 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) tried to reach a consensus involving not only Moldova and Transnistria but also Russia and Ukraine. In 2003 Russia proposed the so-called “Kozak-Memorandum” which suggested a reunification, while at the same time granting strong autonomy to Transnistria. Moldova refused the proposal, fearing that a veto right for Transnistria would block any decision from Chisinau and secure the influence of Moscow, which has kept its military presence in the breakaway region up to date. In 2005, the so-called “5+2” negotiation format was established between the sides, Moldova and TMR, as well as the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States. However, also this format has failed to make any progress regarding the disputed status of the TMR. The EU further intensified its engagement by launching a European Boarder Assistance Mission in Moldova and Ukraine to strengthen the control of movements across the border from and to the TMR.

Since 1992, the TMR has built up a de facto statehood and it has strived for integration with Russia. In 2006 the majority of its inhabitants voted for an incorporation with Russia. Up to date, Russia has neither recognized the TMR as a state nor it has showed willingness to incorporate the TMR into the Russian Federation. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 raised hopes regarding a Russian change of mind, however, the developments in neighbouring Ukraine have actually worsened the situation of the small unrecognized Republic for two reasons. Firstly, the TMR is highly dependent on financial aid and loans for energy supply from Moscow, which it in fact does not pay back. This support is endangered by the costs of the economic crisis and the conflict in Ukraine for Russia. Secondly, since the founding of the TMR, the economy of Transnistria and its elites profited from a flourishing trade over the Transnistrian-Ukrainian border, which also included illegal trading. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, Kiev is much more willing to prevent these trade flows, because it views the TMR, with its Russian military presence, as a threat to its security and the stability in the region around Odessa.

For the time being there is no settlement in sight for the disputed Transnistria region due to various reasons. The Transnistrian elites oppose reunification because the de facto statehood of the TMR is at the basis of their influence and economic privileges. For Chisinau, a reintegration of Transnistria would be costly with respect to political will, economic and  financial resources. The political conflict over the diverging foreign policy orientations deepen these cleavages. While the TMR opts for integration with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, Moldova seeks rapprochement with the EU, regardless of shrinking public support for this course. On the Moldovan side there is no will to strive for reunification and people on both sides of the Dniester have come to accept the division of the country.  As a matter of fact, in 2015 just 9% of Moldovans believed that reintegration was among the three most important questions regarding the future of the country.[2]


[1] Vahl, Marius; Emerson, Michael: Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict. In: JEMIE – Journal on Ethno-politics and Minority Issues in Europe (2004), 1, 29 pages. URN: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-61961.

[2] Institutul de Politici Publice: Barometer of Public Opinion. November 2015.

URN: http://www.ipp.md/public/files/Barometru/Brosura_BOP_11.2015_first_part_


Carpathian Mountains near Kolochava, Zakarpatska Oblast, Ukraine. Photo by Volodymyr Zinchenko, National Geographic

Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a post-communist country in transition, Ukraine started to undergo major political and economic changes that have severely affected  the population with high social costs. Standing at the crossroads between east and west, the country has veered between seeking closer integration with western European countries and being drawn into the orbit of Russia, with which it shares historical ties. This ambivalence embodies Ukraine’s political, economic, cultural, social and linguistic spheres, including the question of identity – i.e. western regions seek more independence from Russia while eastern areas, where a large Russian minority lives, are prone to call on closer integration with Russia. Ukraine has faced significant challenges, including pressing need for changes and reforms, political instability and a vulnerable economy with endemic corruption and energy dependency from Russia.

Since winter 2013-14 Ukraine has experienced tensions and hostilities, particularly in its eastern regions.[1] After the decision of former President Yanukovych to abandon the Association Agreement with the EU, tens of thousands protested in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv (November 2013), paving the way to the formation of a new government with Yanukovych leaving the country.  As the scope of protests expanded and the unrest turned deadly in many Ukrainian cities, pro-Russian protesters rallied in Crimea against the new Kyiv administration and demanded independence through a referendum (16 March 2014), which rapidly lead to the bloodless annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation (21 March). The situation has spiralled into violence in the Donbass region (Eastern Ukraine), where armed groups began to seize buildings and engaged in an ongoing fighting with governmental forces. However, independence was proclaimed in Donetsk and Luhanks referenda (11 May) and separatists’ leaders were elected, developments not recognised by Kyiv and the West. In June 2014 Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as new Ukrainian President and the Verkhovna Rada voted in a new government (2 December) after pro-European parties won parliamentary elections (26 October). The Ukrainian crisis brought to the fore the Kremlin’s strategy to assert its interests in the Eastern Neighbourhood with the use of soft-power tools as well as coercive measures such as trade embargoes, gas price hikes, destabilization of the East including military forces, alleged backing of Donbass separatists, and the annexation of Crimea. Hostilities in Ukraine inflamed international tensions with the EU and the US unanimously condemning Russia’s approach in the crisis. The 2014 international endeavours to de-escalate tensions resulted in the Geneva Joint Statement (17 April), pledging full support for OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the Berlin Declaration of Foreign Ministers (2 July), sending an OSCE Observer Mission to monitor the Ukraine-Russian border, and the Minsk Protocol (5 September) announcing a cease-fire and a security zone. In February 2015 Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Russian President Putin, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Holland agreed to revive the Protocol with a new package of measures, “Minsk II”, to reduce hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2017 “Minsk II” is still far from being implemented and the truce is being regularly violated from both sides. The numbers of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are shocking. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the conflict has caused nearly 10,000 documented casualties, there are an estimated 3.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance as well as 1.6 million internally displaced persons.

The EU, the USA, together with other countries and international organizations, have imposed sanctions targeted to Russian citizens and companies allegedly involved in the annexation of Crimea and in the backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As a response Russia applied retaliatory sanctions including a ban on food imports from the EU, United States, Norway, Canada and Australia. As a result, these set of measures are carrying severe economic effects and are exacerbating the downturn on both sides.[8] On top of that, the unrelentingly biased and divisive media coverage of several outlets about the Ukrainian crisis have contributed to polarise societies across Europe, either depicting “a monolithic and fictitious picture of Ukraine threatened by fascist hordes” (Russian media), or have “almost routinely […] downplayed the Russian side of the story” (Western media).[2] Indeed, one of the major casualty of the Ukrainian crisis is the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians that is continuously threatened, among other factors, by contrasting opinions about Russia’s role in the crisis. After three years of hostilities and an immense number of casualties and displaced persons, the Ukrainian conflict still represents one of the most significant challenge for the European continent. 



[1] This paragraph is based on the paper Bonato S., “Restoring Dialogue As It Drifts Away. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Initiative at the Nadir of EU-Russia Dialogue”, PECOB’s Papers Series, issue 49, February 2015, ISSN: 2038-632X.

[2] The Guardian, “Is western media coverage of the Ukraine crisis anti-Russian?”, New East Network, 4 August 2014.

  1. BBC News Europe, Ukrainian crisis timeline.
  2. Emerson M., “First Anniversary of the Vilnius Summit Or, How Tolstoy might have portrayed the legacies of Yanukovich and Putin”, CEPS Essays, N.18, November 2014.
  3. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, N.135, November 2014.
  4. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, No.137, January 2015.
  5. OCHA, Humanitarian Bulletin Ukraine, issue 15, 31 December 2016, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
  6. OSCE Infographic, OSCE Responds to Crisis in & Around Ukraine.
  7. OSCE Resources, Ukraine, Early Parliamentary Elections, Final Report, 19 December 2014.
  8. Tafuro E.,“Fatal attraction? Russia’s Soft Power in its Neighbourhood”, FRIDE Policy Brief N.181, May 2014.
  9. The Guardian, “Russia Reacts to EU Sanctions with Further Western Trade Embargoes”, 11 September 2014.
  10. Zinets N., Prentice A., “Ukraine Parliament votes in new government, fresh ceasefire hopes fade”, Reuters, 2 December 2014.