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Russia-Ukraine War: The Donbas Conflict Is Similar to a Crisis 30 Years Ago

Decades ago, similar issues of identity and marginalisation of Russian minorities shaped Transnistria’s fate.

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The separatist movement in the Donbas region of Ukraine is playing out the way it did in Moldova’s Transnistria. The same issues of national and linguistic identity and fear of cultural marginalisation of Russian minorities stoked the flames of their independence struggle. In both cases, Russia stepped in to arm the pro-Russian vigilante groups, which led to a nasty war and Russian-dominated regions breaking away from their parent country and declaring independence. However, the war in Donbas, bordering Russia, is far more brutal than it was in Transnistria, a thin strip of land bordering southern Ukraine.

Like other Soviet republics, little Moldova, after being tossed around between Russia and Romania for two centuries, was trying its best to form its own national identity. In the 1980s, when Gorbachev introduced the policies of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’, encouraging decentralisation and political liberalisation, there was an immediate awakening of nationalism amongst ethnic Moldovans.

The Popular Front of Moldova was formed. In 1988, they demanded from the Soviet authorities that Moldovan, not Russian, be declared the state language, and the Latin script, rather than the Russian Cyrillic script, be used. The more radical elements wanted the minorities, mostly Slavs – that is, Russians and Ukrainians – expelled from Moldova.
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'For Two Centuries, We Were Told How Inferior We Were'

“On August 31, 1989, giving in to public pressure and in recognition of the shared Moldovan-Romanian linguistic identity, the Soviets accepted the language demands,” explained my friend Ioana.

“And we are crossing a street by that name – Strada 31 August 1989!” I observed, pointing at the road sign in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital.

“Yes. I remember that day clearly. I went to school and the blackboard in the class had something written in big letters in Romanian – and in Latin script. I was shocked!” she recalled. “Our resistance to Russian is a reaction to the imposition of that language on us. Whenever we spoke in Romanian, the Russians would tell us to speak in a ‘human language’. For two centuries, we were told how inferior we were. They brainwashed us into believing that we were no good. If there were fifty Moldovans in a room talking in Romanian and a Russian came in, everyone would switch to talking in Russian.”

When War Broke Out Between Moldova & Transnistria

Culturally threatened and fearing a possible integration of Moldova with Romania in the future, the ethnic minorities, the Russians, formed their own movement demanding equal status for Russian and Moldovan languages. However, in 1990, in the first free parliamentary elections held in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, the nationalist Popular Front won and began implementing their agenda of ethnic cleansing.

Both sides formed armed vigilante groups that attacked each other. In Russian-dominated Transnistria, on the eastern bank of the Dniestr River, the people’s representatives proclaimed the narrow valley as Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Though it was not accepted by President Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was already in turmoil and too weak to enforce the decision. Slowly, the separatist government took control of Russian-dominated Transnistria. Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union on 27 August 1991. Six months later, war broke out between Moldova and Transnistria.

Decades ago, similar issues of identity and marginalisation of Russian minorities shaped Transnistria’s fate.

Memorial to soldiers killed in Transnistrian war (1990-92).

(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

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Drunk on Enmity, But Inexperienced in War

Four years ago, on 10 April 2018, driving from Chisinau, Alex, my driver-guide, and I got our permits at the Moldova-Transnistria border and proceeded towards Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital. I was later told at the tourism department that I was the first Indian to visit the independent country. I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

On our way to the old Bender railway station, we stopped at what once was the City Hall, whose white walls, lavishly pockmarked with bullet holes, showed signs of savage combat during the Transnistria War. It was a sorrowful epitaph of past times. Inexperienced and unruly groups of fighters had rushed headlong into combat, butchering each other. In no time, outsiders stepped in. Russia, sympathetic to their Transnistrian brethren, armed the separatists. Romania provided weapons to Moldova.

Decades ago, similar issues of identity and marginalisation of Russian minorities shaped Transnistria’s fate.

Walls pockmarked with bullet holes show signs of savage combat during the Transnistria war, Bender. 

(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

The nastiest period of the war was from 2 March to 21 July, 1992. Both parties, drunk on enmity but raw in the art of warfare, had gone on fighting amongst themselves without reaching a conclusion. With no sign of a swift and successful end, and dismayed by their own performance, the vicious rivals looked numbly upon Russia for intervention. Major General Alexander Lebed took over Russia’s 14th Army and went headlong into battle, obliterating Moldovan forces in Bender.

How the Russians Brokered a Ceasefire

However, he had no love for the separatist Transnistrians, denouncing them as bandits and criminals. “I told the hooligans in Tiraspol and the fascists in Chisinau – either you stop killing each other, or else I’ll shoot the whole lot of you with my tanks,” he is stated to have said. Yielding to Lebed’s threat, the warriors unclenched their guns.

Russia had forced the cessation of the tedious and petty war fought between brigands more than armies. The floundering, battle-weary combatants went back to their carefree slumber.

The Russians brokered a ceasefire that has lasted until now, making it a ‘frozen conflict’. Over 700 people died in the war. Though the Russians have established a military base in Transnistria, even they don’t recognise it as an independent country.

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Will Donbas Go Down the Transnistria Way?

We drove by the new Russian military base, a fortress sunk in-ground, its towering mud walls, formed by nature, hidden behind a thick growth of creepers. Calm reigns around the fortress. With no good insurrections, revolts or wars to attend to, the principal occupation of its resident soldiers is to keep the populace in obedience, harass innocent citizens and extort money from tourists – when they are not dressed up for drills and reviews. Several uniformed soldiers were striding along the fortress wall with extraordinary solemnity. Though military service is no burden to them, none looked happy. “Hardened drunkards,” sneered Alex.

Transnistrian authorities have banned teaching in Romanian language in primary schools. Once, their paramilitary machine-gunned the Latin letters from a classroom wall.

Transnistria is just a depressing Soviet relic, a living museum of communist times with decrepit and identical blockhouses, streets peppered with statues of Lenin and posters of Stalin, billboards celebrating past Russian triumphs, an intelligence agency still called KGB, streets named after Marx, Engels, Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, and big-hatted policemen and soldiers in Soviet uniforms harassing innocent pedestrians. It was a stifling atmosphere not suited to my liberal mind.

Expect “independent” Donbas to be another Transnistria.

(Akhil Bakshi is the author of Hostage to History: Travels in Moldova. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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