The Stability of Multiethnic Transnistria: Preconditions and Reasons

The Stability of Multiethnic Transnistria: Preconditions and Reasons

Transnistria, or Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, is a polity, an unrecognized state that broke away from Moldova in 1990 and became de facto independent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In this issue brief our experts Dr. Alexander Osipov and Dr. Hanna Vasilevich aim at answering the question of why rivalries or claims on ethnic or linguistic grounds do not figure among the challenges to Transnistria’s stability.

General information

Geographically Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR) is a 200-km long and at an average 20-km wide strip of land located mainly on the left (eastern) bank of the river Dniester/Nistru. The TMR population constitutes approximately 475,000 people.[1] The Transnistrian political system is a centralized and authoritarian presidential republic with façade democratic attributes, a politically loyal and conformist electoral majority with the actual concentration of power in the hands of the security services and affiliated local business.[2]
In 2015, 29.1% of the population were Russians, 28.6% Moldovans, 22.4%, Ukrainians while around 14.0% did not specify their ethnicity, and 1.4% identified themselves as ‘Transnistrians’.[3] The major ethnic groups are spread over the entire territory more or less evenly although ethno-demographic proportions vary from district to district.
TMR does not define itself as a national state in an ethnic sense (with a reservation about the adjective “Moldovan” in its name). The 1996 Constitution of TMR and the legislation refer to its “multinational people”; such references also present in the legislation. The Constitution also proclaims equal rights and freedoms and prohibits incitement to racial, national and religious hatred (Art.7 and 8). Article 43 states that “Everyone has the right to preserve his/her national [ethnic] identity, just as no one can be forced to determine the national origin”. Article 12 grants the status of official languages on equal footing to Moldovan, Russian and Ukrainian.
All these constitutional provisions are replicated and partly developed in the sectoral legislation. For example, the TMR Criminal Code of 2002 sets up liability for “violation of the equality of citizens” on several grounds, including race, ethnicity and language (Art.133). The 2014 Code of Administrative Offences also envisages liability for “discrimination”. However, the scale of enforcement is negligible; besides, the TMR Ombudsman does not deal with the issues of discrimination on ethnic or linguistic grounds, language policies or cultural rights.
In fact, the Russian language dominates the entire public life in TMR;[4] Russian is, in fact, the only language of the public administration and the dominant language in education, media and culture; the scope of the two other official languages is gradually narrowing, in part because the number of speakers is declining.[5] At the same time, official statements, educational literature, and cultural events sponsored by public authorities are arranged in a way to articulate and demonstrate a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character of Transnistria.
TMR has no special mechanisms for the representation of ethnic or linguistic groups in the state power structure. Representatives of three umbrella CSOs, speaking on behalf of three main ethnic groups, participate in the work of the Public Chamber of Transnistria, an advisory body composed of appointed civil society representatives, as it full members or experts along with representatives of other organizations or professional groups.

Is multi-ethnicity a challenge?

One may assume, that in Transnistria popular attitude to the government and the very statehood must be different and quite often critical. Supposedly, a critical attitude might correlate with ethnic affiliation because people belonging to different ethnic and linguistic categories unequally benefit from public policies.
Despite the fact, that TMR can be characterized as an electoral authoritarianism, the regime repeatedly proves its high degree of popular legitimacy.[6] All local ethnicities vote alike at numerous referenda and elections and therefore in fact equally approve of local diversity policies. Sociological surveys repeatedly demonstrate that there are no big differences in attitudes to major political issues between the major three ethnicities.[7]
Perhaps, the only visible problem of ethnic relations and language policy in the TMR is the issue of so-called Moldovan schools using the Latin alphabet. A specific feature of TMR is that the Moldovan language is recognized only on the basis of the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1989 the Moldovan law-makers switched the Moldovan language to the Latin script. In the early 1990s, the administrations of several schools on the Left Bank and the parents of their students have chosen to conduct the educational process in the Moldovan language based on the Latin alphabet. These schools were cut off from public funding (thus becoming, in fact, private institutions in a legal vacuum) and experienced pressure up to police checks, fines, eviction from the premises, cessation of water, electricity and sewage supplies and direct threats). Most of these schools came under the jurisdiction of Moldova, and some were forced to move to the Right Bank. Later on, the official pressure of TMR authorities decreased but never ended, and most Latin-script-schools continue to function.
There is no doubt that the Transnistrian authorities would be able to cope with any tensions on ethnic grounds, but the fact is that no such tensions (except for the fight over the Latin-script schools) have taken place at all over the years.

How was the Transnistrian multi-ethnicity tamed?

First, in most post-Soviet statehoods the population at large demonstrates, and the societies can be described as apolitical in the terms that people prefer individual strategies of survival to collective action.[8] Besides, paternalism and clientelism serve as a stabilizing force. In the case of Transnistria, most inhabitants of the region are employees in the public sector or are directly dependent on the government or affiliated corporations in another way.[9]
Second, post-Soviet polities are partly based on flexible informal mechanisms of governance, and this opens up multiple opportunities for social adaptation to the given circumstances since formal rules can be circumvented, renegotiated, reinterpreted in different ways or ignored.[10] The legislation related to language and ethnicity remains declarative, vaguely formulated and open to interpretations; its implementation is done on an ad hoc basis and often depends on informal practices, mechanisms, and agreements.
Third, the TMR authorities managed to create and maintain local “banal nationalism”[11] as an institutional and discursive routine which binds all the region’s inhabitants. According to the estimates of a Moldovan human rights organization Promo-Lex, around 6,000 cultural events were arranged in 2015 alone by public authorities of TMR and affiliated organizations.[12] Taking into account the educational system and mass-media orchestrated by the government, one can conclude that the Transnistrian rulers managed to create and master the “infrastructural power”[13] of daily routines, rituals, and narratives that glue together the diverse population of the region.
Fourth, the system of propaganda, education, and collective rituals is combined with the common narrative of the regional “nationhood” which embodies an effective hegemonic strategy of the local elite. The official narrative is eclectic, and incorporates both the acknowledgment of ethnic pluralism and the justification of ‘national consolidation’. It offers a coherent worldview and it hinders internal cleavages and conflicts.
Therefore, the Transnistrian diversity policy can be described as predominantly symbolic production or the production of meanings[14] being aimed at the creation of TMR’s image as a multi-ethnic state. In practice, it combined culturally and linguistically homogenizing policies for a wider society with the maintenance of cultural and educational institutions serving the needs of speakers of languages other than Russian.
Thus, one can hardly explain ethnic relations and politics keeping in mind ethnic groups as such, as collective entities rather than categorizations and related human strategies.


[1] The results of the 2015 Transnistrian population census. Retrieved 22 November 2017,
[2] H. Blakkisrud and P. Kolstø, ‘From Secessionist Conflict Toward a Functioning State: Processes of State- and Nation-Building in Transnistria’, Post-Soviet Affairs, 2011, 27 (2), pp. 178-210; M. Bobick, ‘Profits of Disorder: Images of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic’, Global Crime, 2011, 12 (4), pp. 239-265.
[3] The results of the 2015 Transnistrian population census, op.cit., note 1.
[4] T. Hammarberg, Report on Human Rights in the Transnistrian Region of the Republic of Moldova, 14.2.2013. United Nations, pp. 1-49, at p. 35.; G. Comai and B. Venturi, ‘Language and education laws in multi-ethnic de facto states: the cases of Abkhazia and Transnistria’, Nationalities Papers, 2015, 43 (6), pp. 886-905.
[5] Hammarberg, op. cit., note 4, p. 36.
[6] At the referendum of 17 September 2006, 96.61% of the Transnistrian voters rejected integration with Moldova and alternatively 98.07% approved independence and a possible future integration into Russia; the turnout was 78.55%; see Database and Search Engine for Direct Democracy. Retrieved 22 November 2017, and
[7] J. O’Loughlin, V. Kolossov and G.Toal, ’Inside the post-Soviet de facto states: a comparison of attitudes in Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2014, 55 (5), pp.423-456.
[8] W. Brown, ’Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy’, Theory and Event, 2003, 7 (1), pp. 1-23.
[9] Bobick, op. cit., note 2.
[10] A. Polese, ‘Language and Identity in Ukraine: Was it Really Nation-Building?’, Studies of Transition States and Societies, 2011, 3 (3), pp. 36-50, at 40.
[11] M.Billig, Banal Nationalism, London, 1995.
[12] Report ‘Observance of Human Rights in the Transnistrian Region of the Republic of Moldova 2015 Retrospect’, A Promo-Lex Report, Chișinău, 2016. Retrieved 22 November 2017,, p.14.
[13] M. Mann, ‘The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results’, European Journal of Sociology, 1984, 25 (2), pp. 185-213.
[14] P. Bourdieu, ‘The Field of Cultural Production, or the Economic World Reversed’, in R. Johnson (ed.) The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, New York, 1993, pp. 29-73, at 37.

Share this post