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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

6 The august 1991 coup attempt and the transition to independence

The failure of the August 1991 coup in the USSR can be regarded as the landmark of the fourth stage of socio-political transition in Moldova. Two events of major significance mark this period: Moldova's declaration of complete independence in August 1991, and worldwide recognition of the new republic after the definitive disintegration of the Soviet empire and the resignation of Gorbachev in late December 1991.

Together with the Baltic states, Moldova was among those few Union republics to condemn the organizers of the Communist putsch in Moscow from the outset. On 21 August, an extraordinary session of the Moldovan Parliament called for active resistance against the Union structures and against the putschists. After the failure of the Moscow coup, on 23 August, the Moldovan Parliament banned all activities of the Communist Party in Moldova (ST, 28 August 1991).

On 27 August, the Declaration of Independence and the secession of Moldova from the USSR was adopted by the Parliament. On the same day, Moldova's independence was recognized by Romania; two days later, diplomatic relations were established between the two states. On 23 October, the government of Moldova declared republican ownership of all industrial enterprises formerly under Union structures. In November/December 1991, the Moldovan Parliament adopted legislative acts on the creation of a national army, internal troops, frontier guard, and special police detachments (OPON). Nationwide presidential elections were to be held on 8 December.

As in other ex-USSR republics, the removal of the Union centre and the process of state-building were accompanied by growing differentiation and rivalries within the elite of the titular nationality. The radical wing of the Moldovan nationalist movement, headed by Moldova's former Prime Minister M. Druk, called for the restoration of Greater Romania within the 1940 borders, through reunion of independent Moldova with Romania and presentation of territorial claims to the Ukraine. A large group of Moldovan intellectuals, followed by some of the rank and file, left the MPF, disapproving of Druk's radicalism. The majority of the Moldovan elite backed the moderates, headed by Moldovan President Snegur, whose policies envisaged strengthening Moldova's independence, preserving economic ties with other ex-USSR republics, and joining the Commonwealth of Independent States.

On 14 October 1991, the MPF declared its transition into opposition to the Snegur government (NM, 24 October 1991). After that, the MPF leaders called a boycott of the forthcoming presidential elections. On 1 December, a rally of the coalition of radical nationalist parties declared the formation of a "Pan-Romanian National Council of the Reunion," for Greater Romania within the borders of 1940. This Council consisted of radical nationalist Moldovan Parliament deputies and their colleagues from the Romanian Parliament who belonged to right-wing opposition parties in Romania (NM, 4 December 1991).

At the nationwide elections held in Moldova on 8 December, Snegur won the presidency, receiving 98 per cent of the vote. Voter turnout was high, at 83.9 per cent (NM, 13 December 1991). The failure of the MPF boycott and the victory of Snegur demonstrated the popular support and legitimacy enjoyed by the moderate nationalist leaders.

The same period between August 1991 and December 1991 was marked by a new crisis in inter-ethnic conflict between the Moldovan majority and the Russophones of left-bank Moldova. Since the very beginning of the August coup attempt in Moscow, Trans-Dniestrian and Gaganz leaders had supported and expressed allegiance to the putschists. After the failure of the coup, on 25 August, the Supreme Soviet of the PMSSR proclaimed Trans-Dniester independent from Moldova. The Moldovan Parliament did not recognize this proclamation, and on 27 August the Moldovan central authorities issued an order authorizing the arrest of separatist leaders of Trans-Dniester and Gagauzia. The next day, a special decree of President Snegur abolished or suspended the publication of almost all local Russian language newspapers, accusing them of Communist propaganda and support of the coup junta (ST, 28 August, 4 September 1991).

On 1 September, the Russophone population of Trans-Dniester began a railway blockade of Moldova demanding the release of the arrested leaders and threatening to interrupt electricity and gas supplies to right-bank Moldova, populated predominantly by Moldovan's. On 2 September, the outlawed Supreme Soviet of the PMSSR approved the Constitution of the republic, adopting the former socialist Moldovan state emblem and flag as symbols of the Republic of Trans-Dniester (IZ, 2, 3 September 1991; ST, 7 September 1991).

From 9 September, in the towns and cities of Trans-Dniester, armed formations of so-called "forces of self-defence of Trans-Dniester" and "detachments of people's militia" (people's volunteer corps), subordinated to staff headquarters in Tyraspol, came into being. On 21 September, the Trans-Dniestrian "parliament" approved a "law" on the creation of Trans-Dniestrian republican armed forces (the republican guard) and announced military mobilization of Russophone males aged 20-40 (IZ, 10,11 September 1991; ST, 14, 21 September 1991). Sentries and control posts were stationed by Trans-Dniestrian guardsmen and militia on all roads and on the Dubossary Bridge.

A particularly explosive situation arose in Dubossary, with its mixed Moldovan and Russian population. The city police and executive power were controlled by Moldovans, while the legislative local bodies were controlled by the Russian majority. On 25 September, after five Russian civilians were arrested by the police and accused of non-compliance, Russian citizens attacked the central office of the city police and the building of the Dubossary branch of the Moldova State Bank. The ensuing police control action resulted in three casualties. Groups of Moldovan peasants from nearby villages arrived in the city to support the police (IZ, 27 September 1991; ST, 2 October 1991).

A delegation of deputies of the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet arrived in Moldova to assist in settling the conflict. On 1 October, an agreement was signed between the Moldovan government and representatives of left-bank Moldova. It provided for the liberation of the arrested separatist leaders, mutual withdrawal of additional Moldovan police forces and Trans-Dniestrian guards from Dubossary, and an end to the railway blockade of right-bank Moldova. However, control posts stationed by Trans-Dniestrians on the roads and on the Dubossary Bridge remained (NM, 4 October 1991).

Inter-ethnic conflict did not abate, however. Russophone leaders insisted that Moldova should recognize the independence of Trans-Dniester as an indispensable precondition for initiating negotiations on Trans-Dniester's entering Moldova as an ethno-territorial autonomy with the right of free secession. The Moldovan central authorities, however, rejected direct bilateral negotiations with the leaders of separatist parliaments and refused to recognize the legitimacy of these bodies, demanding their dissolution and the return of deputies from Trans-Dniester and Gagauzia to the central Moldovan Parliament as a precondition for examining the minorities' demands.

In October 1991, the Supreme Soviets of Trans-Dniester and Gagauzia called for local referenda to be held on independence and presidential elections on 1 December 1991 (NM, 17, 31 October 1991). Starting in November 1991, Trans-Dniestrian Russophones made attempts to subordinate local organs of social control to the authority of the Trans-Dniester republic. The decree issued by the head of the Trans-Dniestrian Department of Internal Affairs envisaged the establishment of a Trans-Dniestrian militia instead of Moldovan police officers, and required dismissal of any policemen disinclined to swear allegiance to the PMSSR (NM, 15 November 1991).

On 1 December 1991, two separatist leaders, I. Smirnov and S. Topal, were elected president at the local elections held in Trans-Dniester and Gaganzia, respectively. The referenda held the same day supported independence from Moldova. On 3 December, the Supreme Soviet of Trans-Dniester approved the creation of the Trans-Dniestrian Ministry of Defence and Security. G. Yakovlev, Commander-in-Chief of the 14th Soviet Army, located in the region, expressed his support for the PMSSR (NM, 4, 7 December 1991).

In mid-December 1991, a new crisis in inter-ethnic disputes erupted, with violent clashes in left-bank Moldova. On 16 December, Russophone militiamen attacked and occupied the local offices of Moldovan police in the Grigoriopol and Slobodzeja districts, which had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Trans-Dniestrian republican authorities (NM, 17 December 1991). The Dubossary Bridge was once again reported to be seized by Trans-Dniestrian guardsmen, and the town of Dubossary cut off from the neighbouring Moldovan villages. On 7 December, about 700 armed guardsmen and three armored personnel carriers under Trans-Dniestrian "Dniester" formations of guardsmen were reported to be gathering in Dubossary district (NM, 14 December 1991). The Russophone Dubossary City Council and the local radio called on citizens to blockade the city police office, and presented Moldovan policemen with an ultimatum to leave the city. The policemen rejected this and staged a defence, calling for support from Kishinev.

Moldovan peasants from neighbouring villages who hastened to help the besieged policemen were stopped at the Dubossary Bridge by shots from Trans-Dniestrian guardsmen. Additional police detachments from Kishinev made an attempt to enter Dubossary. Exchanges of fire and clashes between the Moldovan OPON detachments and Trans-Dniestrian guardsmen resulted in five killed and twelve wounded (NM, 17 December 1991). Minor armed collisions were also reported in Kamenka and Grigoriopol districts.

In late December came reports of potential trouble. The command of the 14th Soviet Army promised support to the Russophones in the event of new intervention from the Moldovan police. On 25 December, the first semiarid groups of Russian Cossacks from the Don region of the Russian Federation were reported to have arrived as volunteers in Tyraspol, to swear allegiance to the PMSSR as a sign of solidarity and support to their Russian ethnic brethren in Trans-Dniester (MN, 21, 26 December 1991).