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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

4 First power shift and proclamation of sovereignty

The second stage of socio-political change in Moldova came with the period between September 1989 and June 1990, and was highlighted by a major shift in the power structures of the republic. The pro-Union Communist government of Moldova was succeeded by a coalition of nationalist-democratic forces, which won the democratic elections in February 1990 and proclaimed the political sovereignty of Moldova within the USSR. In September 1989 the MPF had advanced republican political sovereignty as the major objective of its political struggle. Criticism of the Communist-controlled republican government included appeals for an official re-evaluation of the historical events of 1940, and for the priority of republican legislation over the Union legislation in Moldova.

A spectacular rise in mass political activism, fuelled by the Moldovan ethnic movement, began after 17 September 1989, when the new republican draft law on parliamentary (Supreme Soviet) elections was published in the press for discussion. The MPF held a series of rallies and meetings to air its pre-election political programme, which combined affirmation of republican sovereignty and ethnic revival with anti-federalist and anti-Communist demands.

The October 1989 rallies staged by the MPF are reported to have gathered tens of thousands of participants in Kishinev alone. In November, two violent clashes were reported between the police and the MPF demonstrators. On 7 November in Kishinev, several thousand protesting demonstrators stopped the Communist Party celebrations of the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution by climbing onto tanks and forcing the Communist Party leadership of the republic to leave the review stand (SM, 8 November 1989). In addition, an MPF rally held on 10 November 1989 ended in rioting. After the rally, some 10,000-15,000 demonstrators demanding immediate dismissal of the Moldovan Communist Party leadership are reported to have attacked several official buildings in the centre of Kishinev. An attempt was made to set fire to the republic's Ministry of Internal Affairs building. The police struck back by beating and arresting the protesters; 40 civilians and about 100 policemen were reported to have been injured during the violent clash (SM, 12 November 1989).

On 16 November, Moldovan First Secretary of the Communist Party, K. Grossu, was dismissed after the weekend clashes and was replaced by P. Luchinsky, known to be reform-oriented and liberal. On 21-24 November, the Supreme Soviet of Moldova approved a new democratic electoral law and fixed new parliamentary elections in the republic to be held on 25 February 1990.

The success of the anti-Communist revolution of December 1989 in Romania had an important impact on the growing radicalization of the Moldovan nationalist movement and non-Communist commitments of large masses of the Moldovan population in general. At the February 1990 elections, the majority of the seats in the new Moldova Supreme Soviet were won by candidates supported by the MPF and by nationalist-oriented Communist candidates who expressed support for sovereignty for the republic.

On 27 April 1990, the newly-elected Moldovan Parliament approved constitutional amendments changing the flag of the republic from the red banner with socialist symbols to the Romanian ethnic three-colour (blue, yellow, and red) flag. (SM, 1 May 1990). On 23 June, the Moldovan Parliament adopted the Declaration on the Sovereignty of Moldova, which proclaimed the priority of the Moldovan Constitution and legislation over the USSR Constitution and legislation on the territory of Moldova.

The same day, the Parliament approved the conclusions of the parliamentary commission on the political and legal evaluation of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact's consequences for Bessarabia and North Bukovina. The commission had concluded that it was illegal for the Soviet Union to incorporate Bessarabia in 1940. With these acts the Moldovan Parliament was following the example of the Baltic nations in challenging the constitutional principles and established practices of the Soviet Union federation (SM, 25, 28 June 1990).

In this period, inter-ethnic conflict between the Moldovans and subordinate ethnic minorities of the Russophones and Gagauz manifested themselves in legislative confrontation between the Moldova central, republican, and local bodies and authorities, and in escalating protest actions by the minorities against Moldovan attempts to affirm the proclaimed sovereignty of the republic.

Although the protest strikes in Trans-Dniester against language legislation had stopped by the end of September, that did not mean compliance. Russophones opted for the tactics of non-recognition at the local level. On 7-8 September 1989, the deputies of Tyraspol City Council voted to ignore the new language legislation by all bodies and offices on territory under the authority of the Tyraspol local government. On 14 September, similar decisions were adopted by the sessions of Rybnitsy and Bendery city councils, adding a demand to the USSR Supreme Soviet to abolish the Moldovan Republic laws on languages.

In legal terms, such decisions taken on the part of the local authorities to oppose republic-level legislation were, in fact, anti-constitutional, for the local bodies were exceeding their authority (SM, 10, 19 September 1989). In their propaganda, the IM and Communist Party leaders alleged that electoral victory for the MPF at the republican level would entail the ascendancy of Moldovan domination over the minorities; loyalty to the Union centre and "socialist internationalism" were held out as the only guarantees against extinction under these conditions of burgeoning Moldovan nationalism.

As parliamentary elections approached, Trans-Dniestrian leaders presented their demand for national-territorial autonomy for the Russophone-populated districts within Moldova. In Rybuitsy (3 December) and Tyraspol (28 January) local referenda were held in support of granting these towns the status of autonomous self governing and self-supporting territories. These referenda also supported the formation of the Trans-Dniester Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Moldova (PASSR). On 12 December 1989, a mass rally organized by the GPF in Komrat proclaimed itself the First Congress of the representatives of the Gagauz people, and petitioned the Supreme Soviet of Moldova for the establishment of the Gaganz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Moldova (SM, 9 December 1989; 30 January, 3 February 1990).

Spring 1990 saw new aggravation of inter-ethnic symbolic disputes. Sessions of the city councils of Tyraspol (30 April), Bendery (3 May), and Rybnitsy (8 May) abrogated the constitutional amendments concerning the new republican flag on their territories. The Moldovan Parliament reacted by amending the penal code of the republic to stipulate stricter punishment for non-observance of the legislation on republican state symbols (SM, 4, 7,15 May 1990).

The critical challenge to the legitimacy of the Moldovan central government came in June 1990. On 2 June, Russophone deputies from legislative bodies of all levels elected from the territories of five districts of left-Bank Moldova convoked the "First Congress of People's Deputies of Trans-Dniester." This Congress adopted a resolution demanding the creation of an economically independent Trans-Dniester region and political autonomy within Moldova. The Congress called on the Russophone population to hold local elections to the Supreme Soviet of Trans-Dniester, which was to proclaim independence or autonomy within Moldova unless such political autonomy be granted by the central Moldovan authorities to the Russophone districts of Trans-Dniester (SM, 5, 7 June 1990).