In Moldova, Memories Persist of Transnistria’s Secession

REUTERS/Vladislav Culiomza/File Photo
The Moldovan flag files in Chisinau, Moldova April 27, 2023.

Flowers in their hands and military medals proudly pinned to their outfits, Moldovan veterans met Saturday to recall the Transnistria war of secession.

The yearly gathering in Moldova’s capital Chisinau has taken on a particular resonance this year after the separatist region called for Russian support.

Standing by a monument to those who died in the conflict, Boris Gavriluta, 56, insisted he did not want a new conflict.

Wednesday’s request by Transnistria’s putative capital Tiraspol for the Kremlin’s protection has revived fears of a new destabilisation campaign in Moldova, a mostly Romanian-speaking former Soviet Republic between Ukraine and Romania.

Moldova’s pro-European President Maia Sandu attended Saturday’s gathering and denounced forces that “continue to want to sow distrust and discord in our country.

“I say loud and clear, they will not manage, not today, not tomorrow,” she added, promising “to never allow this tragedy to repeat”.

Frozen conflict

In March 1992, Moldovan and Transnistrian separatist forces went to war, mobilising some 30,000 fighters.

Barely 200 kilometres (124 miles) long, and rarely more than 20 kilometres wide, Transnistria unilaterally proclaimed its independence en 1990, fearing a “Romanianisation” of Moldova as it exited the Soviet orbit.

Most of Transnistria’s now 465,000 inhabitants are Russian speakers.

Gavriluta was a doctor in one of those battalions. “We were young and beautiful,” he said with a smile. “We are still good looking, but we left our youth on the battlefields.”

The armed conflict ended in July 1992 after several hundred deaths with the intervention of the Russian army.

The situation has been frozen since then and negotiations continue to find a settlement.

Transnistria is not recognised as a state by the international community — not even by Russia. It does, however, see it as a beachhead near the European Union and has stationed some 1,500 soldiers there.

Dreaming of the EU

“At the time, the war took place in the context of the unravelling of the Soviet Union,” said Romanian historian Armand Gosu. “Now we are in the domain of hybrid warfare.”

Even if most experts do not see Russia invading Moldova, at least for the moment, “it would be naive to ignore the subject”, he added.

“Moscow keeps an eye on Moldova” and will certainly intensify its “propaganda” before the autumn 2024 presidential elections and the legislatives the following year.

Its aim, he said, is to prevent Moldova from getting closer to the European Union, which in December agreed to start formal membership talks. “’Let’s destabilise it a bit’ — that’s the idea,” Gosu added.

Ion Baiesu, another veteran, laid flowers at the monument to the fallen in his town of Varnita, not far from the border with Transnistria. He sported a beret and a broad smile, revealing gold-capped teeth.

While he feared a “population completely intoxicated” by what he said was the Kremlin’s propaganda, he nevertheless thought the economic prospectives offered by the European single market would win over the undecided.

“I pray to God I live long enough to see the day” when Moldova joins the EU, said the 74-year-old.

He did not believe there would be a Russian attack, but if needed, he said, he would fight for his country again — “as long as I can hold a rifle”.