Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova

A Russian-dominated breakaway region of another former Soviet Republic, just up the river from the Black Sea and a short hop from Crimea, has formally requested the Russian Federation follow up on its Crimea annexation by doing the same there.

Although many Western observers initially thought the continuing buildup of Russian troops near Eastern Ukraine was intended for a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said today that he is worried it may in fact be the Russian Army positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

A month ago I would have said that was nonsense — and it still feels strategically and logistically less likely than the Crimea takeover — but a month ago, few were expecting such a brazen seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to expand upon my “Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet ‘Near Abroad'” prepare some research on Transdniestria and Moldova.
The landlocked Eastern European country of Moldova is wedged between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. The predominant language is Moldovan, which is effectively the same language as Romanian and since 1989 has used the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet (previously enforced by Moscow). The country has been independent since 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, but it changed hands and was carved up many times in the past 500 years. At various points, parts of the country were ruled by the Ottomans, the Romanians, the Lithuanians, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The borders have also changed quite a few times in that time and Moldova has struggled to find its geographical place in the region. Part of the country had long been a Russian Empire border zone (on the edge of Ukraine) and was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union right after World War I, when the Russian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the communist government. The rest of the country was part of Romania during the interwar years. After World War II, the parts of what are now Moldova today were fused together into a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the smaller of the USSR’s member republics.

So, as you can imagine, by the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, things were pretty confusing and jumbled. There wasn’t a clearly defined national identity because there wasn’t even a clearly defined historical area or legacy of self-rule. It was possible that Moldova might even try to rejoin Romania, which has the most in common with the bulk of the country and had previously controlled it several times. After late 1989, when Romania’s totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been executed, it seemed to Moldovan nationalists like a good escape route from Soviet/Russian domination, which had not yet ended.

This plan, unfortunately, didn’t sit well with the longstanding Russian population from the other side of the Dniester River, the zone that had not been part of Romania during the interwar years (having been almost immediately brought into the Soviet Union by 1924). This was a place that had been a militarized frontier of the Russian Empire since 1793 and had suffered greatly under Axis-Romanian occupation during World War II — experiencing forced Romanianization and the murders of over 100,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in Axis concentration camps built in the region.

This geographical area, the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, effectively Moldova’s Russianized East Bank (and a few communities on the Moldovan side of the river), is known in English as the Trans-Dniester region or Transdniestria/Transnistria and other variants adapted from the Romanian point-of-reference to “the area across the Dniester.”

The bulk of the rest of Moldova, the Dniester’s West Bank, is the non-Russian-speaking area referred to as “Bessarabia” — which has changed hands far more often than Transdniestria. By the early 1990s, Transdniestria’s Russian population, despite now being separated from the Russian Soviet Federal Republic by the entirety of a newly independent Ukraine, still saw itself as the Western-most outpost of historical Russia, and felt very threatened by the pro-Romanian nationalism of the Moldovan independence movement that had broken the country away from the Soviet Union.

They promptly declared independence from Moldova as the USSR was breaking up and — after some initial skirmishes in the first politically chaotic months — the new Moldovan military tried to invade the Transdniestria region.

Below: The current flag of the breakaway region.

Complicating matters was the giant, heavily armed elephant in the room: The fact that the Soviet Union’s 14th Army had been stationed in eastern Moldova (Transdniestria) at the time of independence and was assigned to Russia, rather than Moldova, when the former Soviet states were divvying up the old USSR’s Army and Navy.
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A Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet “Near Abroad”

The term “Near Abroad” was coined in the 1990s by a Russian foreign minister to describe the countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. It is sometimes also called the “periphery” or various other terms, but “Near Abroad” is now the more common term in English-language literature, translated from the Russian phrase. About a decade ago, Vladimir Putin proclaimed the region to be Russia’s official “sphere of influence” along the lines of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. Obviously, given the situation in Crimea, he’s taking that pretty seriously.

This post attempts to provide a very basic, abbreviated background guide to the countries of the Near Abroad and their relationship with Russia since December 1991.
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A willful Russian blindness on Ukraine

Spotted this article: “Action by Russia Divides Immigrants in New York” It’s kind of a silly, New York Center of the Universe, let’s-ask-the-randos type of article, but I laughed at this:

From behind the counter of the Taste of Russia deli in Brighton Beach, Lemmy Galigsky, 56, said he did not understand the objections to Mr. Putin’s actions and longed for the days when the two countries were united. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” said Mr. Galigsky, who is from Odessa. “Many years ago, it was one country. It was Russia everywhere. It was Soviet Union.”

I laughed partly because of the oversimplified nostalgia and quaint attitude. But I also laughed, as some fiction authors put it, “mirthlessly.” Yes, who can say why a lot of people might object to going back to being part of their longtime oppressor? A true mystery.

After forced mass starvation, forced deportation, and forced Russianization policies — under both the Soviet Union and Russian Empires — it’s a wonder not everyone is on board with reintegrating into the good old days when “it was one country. It was Russia everywhere. It was Soviet Union.” Who could understand a mindset that rejects that?

Russians have taken a very problematic attitude (unfortunately much like the American one that views all American activities around the world as beneficent and deserving of instant welcome from the locals) toward Ukraine.
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1992: The Great Russian Withdrawal from the Near Abroad

Flag_of_Russia_(1991-1993)-200pxA while back I posted the story of the experiences of the Soviet cosmonauts who were in space as the Soviet Union was breaking up.

While that was a pretty extreme situation, I just came across this article from 1997 about Soviet military units deployed in the non-Russian republics of the USSR (the “Near Abroad”) as it was breaking up. What were they supposed to do: withdraw immediately — hold in place? It was a logistical and political nightmare.

In many cases, ethnically Russian Soviet troops suddenly found themselves under Russian national command hundreds if not thousands of miles outside of the new country they were serving. Some units immediately started marching and driving back toward Russia, overland, abandoning in place any equipment they couldn’t take with them. Other units found themselves completely cut off and trapped in deployment locations as long-dormant ethno-religious and political conflicts broke out around them.
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Watching the USSR break up, from Space

mir-orbit-rkk-energiaIt just occurred to me that the Soviet/Russian space program was flying active missions to the Mir space station during the entire collapse of the Soviet Union over the course of 1991, so I decided to do some research to see how that played out.

It must have been totally insane experiencing your home country’s collapse and dissolution from space.
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Suddenly nobody’s interested

When Kyrgyzstan has valuable military bases and no turmoil, the United States and Russia are willing to shower Kyrgyzstan with goodies and promises, but when Kyrgyzstan is teetering on the brink of collapse and bloody ethnic war in the south (200 dead, 300,000 refugees within one week), suddenly nobody’s interested in Kyrgyzstan any more. Fascinating how that works

The United States, overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, has neither the appetite nor the motivation for a new commitment. Russia, the more obvious player, sees the risks of a deployment outweighing the benefits. Russian troops would enter hostile territory in south Kyrgyzstan, where Mr. Bakiyev’s supporters blame Moscow for his overthrow, and Uzbekistan could also revolt against a Russian presence.

Mr. Vlasov, of Moscow State University, said: “Who are we separating? Uzbeks from Kyrgyz? Krygyz from Kyrgyz? Kyrgyz from some criminal element? There is no clearly defined cause of this conflict. It would be comparable to the decision the Soviet Politburo made to invade Afghanistan — badly thought through, not confirmed by the necessary analytical work.”

If the explosion of violence was a test case for the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an eight-year-old post-Soviet security group dominated by Russia, it seems to have failed, its leaders unwilling to intervene in a domestic standoff. In any case, neither the Russian public nor its foreign policy establishment is pressing the Kremlin to risk sending peacekeepers.

There are concerns that the area could become a breeding ground for radical Islamic militancy as a self-defense mechanism, and the whole region could melt down into a transnational conflict like the Balkans in the 1990s if violence ticks up again and spreads. There is a strong cultural-historic divide between the ethnic populations within Kyrgyzstan that reminds me of the former Yugoslavia. Even the ethnic map looks similar to many of the Bosnian War maps.

Credit: The Economist, 6/17/10


The Economist this week noted the continuing need for international intervention that doesn’t seem to be coming:

The time for such geopolitical caution is past. The interim government needs and deserves help. Although the bloodletting seemed to be subsiding as The Economist went to press, the misery of the refugees needs to be alleviated. Relief supplies are needed on both sides of the border. The UN’s proposal to set up an “aid corridor” is welcome and urgent. Persuading terrified refugees to go home may require a peacekeeping force, organised either in the region or by the UN. Failure to safeguard the refugees’ return would be to accede in an ethnic cleansing that would set a terrible precedent in Central Asia and beyond. Better to pursue multi-ethnic harmony within Stalin’s hateful legacy than to redraw the map.

Furthermore, as I blogged previously, eyewitnesses (one now with video evidence, reported in The Economist this week) in Uzbek neighborhoods saw regular Kyrgyz troops actively assisting the anti-Uzbek mobs in several cities, either clearing their paths with military vehicles or even joining the shooting of civilians. Thus only an outside peacekeeping force will be sufficient to reassure Uzbek civilians that it is safe to return to their homes or to normal activities. None is on the way.

This post originally appeared at Starboard Broadside.

Systematic ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan?

The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is growing rapidly worse, as what seems to be systematic ethnic purges against Uzbeks began today (NY Times):

Rioting spread across the south of this strategically important Central Asian nation on Sunday as the authorities failed to contain mobs that appeared to be increasingly engaging in targeted ethnic violence.

The official death toll from four days of clashes neared 100 people, though the unrest seemed so widespread that the figure is likely to go far higher. Reports from the region said bands of ethnic Kyrgyz were seeking out Uzbeks, setting fire to their homes and killing them.

Thousands of Uzbeks have fled to the nearby border with Uzbekistan, and the authorities were said to have lost control of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city.
“The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control,” Kyrgyzstan’s acting president, Roza Otunbayeva, said Saturday. “Attempts to establish a dialogue have failed, and fighting and rampages are continuing. We need outside forces to quell confrontation.”
“It was raining ash the whole afternoon, big pieces of black and white ash,” said Andrea Berg, a Human Rights Watch employee holed up her apartment in the city. “The city is just burning. It’s totally out of control.”

The rioters at one point commandeered two armored personnel carriers from troops stationed in the city, said Timur Sharshenaliyev, a spokesman for the government there. Soldiers were able to take only one back.

The provisional government passed a decree giving the police and soldiers permission to open fire on rioters to prevent attacks on civilians and government buildings, according to a statement on the government’s Web site.

Russia is moving slowly on a request for peacekeeping troops and plans to take up the matter before the Collective Security Treaty Organization this week. For more on that and for more background, you can read my post from last night: “Kyrgyzstan requests Russian peacekeepers.”

The New York Times has pointed out that in 1990, acts of reciprocal genocide in the same region were only halted by Soviet troops rolling in, but that was when Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR, which made such an intervention much easier. Even then, hundreds died before the troops arrived.

This post originally appeared at Starboard Broadside.