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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder5. Dynamics of the Moldova Trans-Dniester ethnic conflict (late 1990s to early 1990s)
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Historical background
View the document3 Linguistic disputes and growth of ethnic political activism in Moldova
View the document4 First power shift and proclamation of sovereignty
View the document5 From declaring sovereignty to declaring independence
View the document6 The august 1991 coup attempt and the transition to independence
View the document7 Large-scale inter-ethnic violence
View the document8 Bloodshed and conflict settlement in Bendery
View the document9 Socio-political change and inter-ethnic violence
View the document10 Ethno-political legitimacy crisis as transition to violence

9 Socio-political change and inter-ethnic violence

The above review shows the significant impact of socio-political transformation in Moldova 1988-92 on the politicization of interethnic disputes and the escalation of ethno-political contentions to the highest degree of militancy. Each new stage of socio-political change entailed political crises in inter-ethnic relations, accompanied by an escalation of anxiety-laden demands concerning the political status of ethnic groups with zero-sum perceptions of power issues.

We may identify five major critical points in the inter-ethnic political struggles in Moldova between late 1988 and mid-1992:

(1) August-September 1989: crisis resulting from the adoption of new republican legislation on the status and functioning of languages;

(2) October-November 1990: crisis prior to local elections to the Supreme Soviets (parliaments) of unilaterally proclaimed separatist Gagauz and Trans-Dniester republics;

(3) September 1991: crisis following the failure of the coup in the USSR and the arrest of leaders of the rebel ethnic groups in Moldova;

(4) December 1991: crisis after presidential elections and referenda on independence in Gaganzia and Trans-Dniester;

(5) March 1992: crisis after the separatist authorities of Trans-Dniester attempted to subordinate local police offices by force, while using other means of official mass coercion.

Three major patterns and stages can be singled out in the development of disruptive inter-ethnic confrontation between Moldova and Trans-Dniester:

(i) November 1990 and September 1991: transition from nonviolent to violent ethnic political action as manifested in clashes between the Moldovan police and civilians in Dubossary;

(ii) December 1991: transition to recurrent violent interaction in ethnically mixed urban and rural areas of left-bank Moldova; Moldovan police and special OPON detachments, Moldovan peasants on the one side engaged in violent interaction with specially created formations of Trans-Dniestrian militia and semi-organized self-defence Russophone civilian groups on the other;

(iii) March-July 1992: transition to warfare - large-scale, organized, and sustained inter-ethnic violence pervaded the whole border area between right-bank and left-bank Moldova, culminating in the Bendery bloodshed of June 1992. Organized armed military formations (Moldovan OPON, police and armed forces against Trans-Dniestrian guardsmen and militia) representing established populations of opposing ethnicities engaged in warfare employing a vast range of conventional weapons. Paramilitary formations of adversaries (Moldovan and Romanian volunteers, Trans-Dniestrian self-defence groups and Cossack detachments from Russia) added a guerrilla dimension to the civil war.

Resort to violence in the Moldova-Trans-Dniester conflict appears to have been highly instrumental and related to the issues of political contention. Violence seems to have been closely connected with the political nature of ethnic disputes in the changing Moldovan society. Comparing the timing of violence with the course of non-violent ethno-political disputes in Moldova, we can see that the points marking the transition from non-violent to violent ethnic interaction correspond to the ethno-political crises of legitimacy which marked the peaks of inter-ethnic struggles for power (reallocation of power arrangements, or establishing a new set of power arrangements).

The theory of collective action and social organization elaborated by Charles Tilly and his colleagues provides important insights in accounting for inter-ethnic violence in the Moldova-Trans-Dniester conflict. Tilly's research on the materials provided by a century of civil strife in European countries has shown that collective violence has regularly flowed out of the central political processes in a country or region, and can be better understood as growing out of the interaction of organized groups carrying out sustained collective action.

A general rise in collective action can be almost always be observed during periods of political transition, when various groups in society become more highly politicized as they press their claims and counterclaims. Tilly observes that where there is a high volume of such collective action, there is also a higher likelihood that some of the events will turn into violent encounters. Highly mobilized groups and the rapid acquisition or loss of power by groups have usually resulted in a disproportionate number of violent conflicts (filly et al., 1975: 243-7, 281-8; Tilly, 1978).

Applying Tilly's propositions concerning inter-ethnic political strife more specifically to the consideration of inter-ethnic political disputes can help us assess those peaks in the development of an ethno-political conflict, as well as those stages of non-violent change in interethnic political relations when transition from non-violent to violent collective ethnic action is likely to occur. One of Tilly's major conclusions is that collective violence peaks at times of political activity, and especially when fundamental changes are taking place in the distribution of power among the self-aware groups which constitute a society (filly et al., 1975: 247-51, 280-3). Hence, in the case of ethno-political conflicts in a multi-ethnic society, we may expect high levels of militant collective ethnic action at those stages of change in interethnic relations when the stakes are high in terms of threats to and opportunities for objective political interests and subjectively perceived group political status.

Socio-political change in multi-ethnic societies implies significant changes in how ethnic groups become organized. Owing to political changes in society, groups will actively press their interests, mobilize themselves and available resources, and engage in various forms of collective ethnic action. What is sought can be either a larger share of the power available through the political system, or a re-allocation of power arrangements - ranging from inclusivist to exclusivist terms, from territorial autonomy to ethno-secession.

"Times of transition are also times of ethnic tension" (Shibutani and Kwan, 1965: ch. 14). The atmosphere of uncertainty generated by rapid sociopolitical change is a factor of paramount importance for the politicization of ethnic groups. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, major group anxiety concerns the anticipated consequences of political transformation for the status and interests of the ethnic group in a multi-ethnic polity and/or the perceived threats emanating from other groups. After the collapse of the Union centre, in ethnically divided societies of the ex-USSR republics, the transfer of power raised the cardinal question of who would rule. Activated fears of ethnic domination and subordination may become particularly salient and provide the rationale for militant politicization of groups.

Characterizing the processes in modernizing societies, D. Horowitz notes: "Power is sought to prevent the emergence of dire but distant and dimly perceived consequences," and "so critical and dangerous are those feared consequences that it is deemed vital to take steps to avert them in advance" (Horowitz, 1985: 186-7). At some point this quest for power will provoke a repressive reaction from the already established centres of power or from the majority group which aims at establishing its own exclusive dominance in the process of state building. From the interplay between collective action by the ethnically aggrieved and repression by established organizations of the ethnically dominant may come ethno-political violence.