Nistru war oxymoron: propaganda versus reality. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



This way, the Republic of Moldova not only lost the military war for its assertion as a territorially integral state, but by conspicuously omitting the truth about the realities of the involvement of the Russian army in the Nistru war of 1992, also loses the propagandistic war for restoring its territorial integrity...


Anatol Țăranu

On March 2, it will be 30 years of the beginning of the Nistru armed conflict, a war in which the young independent state Republic of Moldova suffered a military defeat, while the conditions of the peace were dictated by Moscow in the text of the ceasefire agreement of July 21, 1992, which was signed by the then Presidents of Russia and the Republic of Moldova Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Snegur. The Moscow agreement that is often called the Yeltsin – Snegur Convention, de facto stipulated the territorial disintegration of the Republic of Moldova. This state of the Moldovan state has been kept until present with uncertain remedying prospects.

Main propagandistic battle

The stopping of the military phase of the separatist Transnistrian conflict signaled the forceful restart of the propagandistic war whose intensity is kept at high levels up to present. The main propagandistic war is given for the definition of the character of the war of 1992 that is called “Moldovan-Russian war” owing to the military support provided to the separatist forces by the former 14th Army of Russia that is deployed in the region. Furthermore, this definition is justified by the manner in which the ceasefire agreement was signed by the then Presidents of the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation, which is by the representatives of the belligerent forces. Such formulations as “civil war” and “Moldovan-Transnistrian war” are definitely in opposition to this definition of the character of the Nistru military confrontations that comes to imprint a fully different ideological connotation on the secessionist conflict in the Republic of Moldova. The whole range of details of a fierce propagandistic war with major geopolitical stakes is between these two diametrically opposed approaches to the nature of the Nistru military confrontation of 1992.

The appearance and perpetuation of the secessionist war in the Eastern districts of the Republic of Moldova in time generated different narratives and contradictions among the interested political players. The rhetoric of Chisinau, on the one hand, and of Moscow and Tiraspol, on the other hand, shows diametrically opposed positions and goals. In Chisinau, they speak about the independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, which was internationally recognized in 1991. Instead, the Kremlin and the administration of the separatist region support the arguments for legitimizing the actions and processes on the left side of the Nistru by constantly malign narrative against Chisinau, accusing it of aggression and persecution of the so-called “Transnistrian people and state”.

Origins of military conflict

The military conflict on the Nistru was preceded by tense processes in Soviet society caused by the perestroika policy that enabled to liberalize politics at regional level and that in Moldova eastwards the Prut generated unprecedented vivacity inside the National Renaissance and Liberation Movement. However, as Soviet society was democratized incompletely, a rupture appeared between the interests of the people incorporated by force into the Soviet empire and some of the national minorities in the Soviet republics, which identified themselves with the imperial nation dominated by Russian ethnics during the Soviet period. The legalization of the language of the majority in the republic and the introduction of the obligation to use the Latin script for writing this generated protests among speakers of other languages than the Romanian one.

The linguistic problem the past few years of existence of the Soviet Moldova became very thorny and was intentionally politicized by the forces that opposed the dissolution of the USSR. In fact, the National Renaissance and Liberation Movement was accused of xenophobe nationalism and the Great Russian chauvinism draped by arguments in favor of keeping the USSR was aimed against it. This propagandistic narrative manifested itself more visibly in the Transnistrian region where the Slavic ethnics (Russians or Ukrainians) formed majorities in urban areas. The protests against the republican government were more intense here. According to the census of 1989, Transnistria was inhabited by 40.0% of Moldovans, 28.3% of Ukrainians, 25.4% of Russians and 1.9% of Bulgarians.

Separatist regime undertaken by revanchist circles in Moscow

The involvement of the Moscow Soviet administration in the secessionist conflict in Moldova is confirmed by ex-President Mircea Snegur, who said that when the Moldovan delegation refused to sign the Union Treaty, Gorbachev said: “Mircea, if you do not sign the Treaty, you will have a Transnistrian republic, a Gagauz republic and three more other republics”. Later, the chairman of the Russian State Duma Gennady Seleznyov, who was in Chisinau on an official visit, admitted to Russia’s military involvement in Transnistria with the aim of “stopping the union of the Republic of Moldova and Romania”.

The implosion of the USSR left the separatists in Tiraspol without an ideological basis. But the Transnistrian separatism was swiftly undertaken by revanchist circles in the post-Soviet Moscow and was subjugated to the geopolitical service of Russia. On March 2, 1992, after paramilitary forces of the separatists attacked police posts loyal to Chisinau on the eastern bank of the Nistru, large-scale military clashes started. Alongside the troops of the Transnistrian guard and units of Cossacks, over 6,000 soldiers of the so-called 14th Army of Russia, were engaged in the military conflict against the Moldovan constitutional forces.

Incontestable evidence

During the last few years, hundreds of documents that proved the incontestable involvement of the 14th Army’s troops in the Nistru armed conflict and its fusion with the separatist troops, which turned the Nistru conflict that was apparently a conflict between Chisinau and the separatists from Tiraspol into a Moldovan-Russia war, were published in Chisinau. On July 8, 2004, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) pronounced its judgment in the case of “Ilașcu and others against the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation”. The ECHR for the first time in the international legal system blamed the Russian Federation for the military conflict of 1991-1992. This way, the Court ascertained that during the Moldovan-Russian conflict of 1991-1992, the 14th Army’s troops deployed in Transnistria, which successively belonged to the USSR, the CIS and Russia, fought alongside the separatist forces. It was also ascertained that during the conflict, the Russian leaders  in their statements supported the separatist authorities, while the Russian authorities contributed both militarily and politically to the creation of a separatist regime in Transnistria – a region that legally forms part of the Republic of Moldova.

ECHR clarifies things

The ECHR’s decision was based on multiple proofs of direct involvement of the Russian army in the Nistru war against the constitutional forces of the Republic of Moldova. Here are several of the documented cases:

  • On June 20, 1992, the Russian artillery fired at least 76 rounds against four different targets in Tighina and Varnița;
  • Owing to the support of artillery and tanks of the Russian army, the Transnistrian guards and Cossacks broke the defensive line of Moldova near the bridge over the Nistru and started the counteroffensive in Tighina;
  • On June 21, the Russian army substantially intensified the attacks on the Moldovan positions, not only on the outskirts of Tighina and Varnița, but also in Gîsca (Suvorovskaya gora), Chițcani and near the police section in Tighina. Regiment No. 328 of self-propelled artillery and the artillery of Motorized Regiment No. 183 of the 14th Army launched 208 shells against 11 targets in the aforementioned places;
  •  On the night of July 3, 1992, the artillery of the 14th Army launched a massive attack with eight artillery battalions and six mortar guns. There were destroyed ten different targets of Moldova’s forces, including ammunition depots, fuel storehouses and a command center and recovery bases of the army and the police. About 112 Moldovan combatants died in that bombardment.

Hot war turned into propagandistic war

The direct involvement of the Russian army in the Nistru war on the part of the Transnistrian separatists decisively determined the transformation of the Transnistrian conflict into a chronic one. After the Moldovan constitutional forces were beaten militarily by the alliance of the Russian army with separatist paramilitary units of Tiraspol, the hot war turned into an ordinary propagandistic war.

The Russian propaganda made considerable effort to imbed the formula of “Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict” into political and diplomatic use. This perfectly suited the Russian Federation in its attempt to hush up its direct involvement in the internal affairs of the Republic of Moldova. Often, for the same purpose, it is used the “civil war” formula, with reference to the Nistru war of 1992.

Angering ambiguity

Unlike the consistent and clear approach of Moscow and Tiraspol to the character of the Nistru war, the official Chisinau resorts to angering ambiguity in its assessments of this war, with all the unfavorable consequences of this position. In Chisinau, there are politicians, sometimes also representatives of the official power, who said that the Nistru war of 1992 in reality was a war of aggression of the Russian Federation against the Republic of Moldova and was this way an interstate war. But there is also distinct narrative, like that of the former President of the Republic of Moldova Igor Dodon, who, in an interview of 2016, spoke about “a civil war” that started at the beginning of the 1990s through the blame of Chisinau. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova Nicu Popescu, in June-November 2019, being probably overwhelmed by the Russian propagandistic narrative, in a news conference in Bucharest said the Nistru armed conflict of 1992 was a “civil war”. However, the next day, after criticism was leveled at him, he admitted and regretted “the made mistake”. In February 2020, another Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Moldova Aurel Ciocoi said the war of 1992 was waged by the separatists in Tiraspol on Chisinau, while the Russian Federation intervened to stop the bloodshed.

Such an ambiguous approach of Chisinau, sometimes over the limits of political loyalty,   when defining the character of the Nistru war considerably weakness the Republic of Moldova’s positions within the international efforts to politically settle the Transnistrian conflict. Even if officially most of those who were in power in Moldova point to the presence of foreign troops on the territory of the Republic of Moldova and to the necessity of withdrawing these, the official Chisinau avoids determinedly and constantly talking about the foreign occupation of the Transnistrian part of the national territory.

Examples worth being followed

For comparison, in Georgia, where there are also separatist regions protected by Moscow, the officials’ position is trenchant. In Tbilisi, they openly say that the territories that are not controlled by the government are territories occupied by the Russian Federation. In this regard, the Georgian Parliament in 2008 adopted a law on the occupied territories. Consequently, even if the Russian-Georgian relationship is tenser than the Russian-Moldovan one, the level of national cohesion in Georgia over the problem of separatist conflicts is much higher than the level of similar cohesion in Moldovan society. This way, the Republic of Moldova not only lost the military war for its assertion as a territorially integral state, but by conspicuously omitting the truth about the realities of the involvement of the Russian army in the Nistru war of 1992, also loses the propagandistic war for restoring its territorial integrity.  

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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