Moldova–Transdniester Conflict (1992 – Present)

Published: 2019/11/28 Number of words: 5041

(, 2008)


Moldova proclaimed its independence from the USSR on 27 August 1991. However, prior to this internal conflict had begun to emerge and between May and July 1992, a full-scale localised war took place between the Moldovan government and the secessionist Moldovan region of Transdniester. Sporadic, heavy fighting continued until 1994 when a relative stabilisation of the situation began to take place. To date there has been no permanent resolution to what has become a ‘frozen’ conflict and the status quo when the ceasefire agreement was signed in July 1992 remains. The Moldovan regime currently has no effective control over the territory of Transdniester which now, with its own state institutions, though recognised by no other country, forms a de facto state. The border between the two territories continues to be patrolled by a peacekeeping force consisting of mainly Russian personnel.




The tumultuous historical background to the creation of the state of Moldova (outlined in Appendix A) is significant for a number of reasons:

  • At various time in history both Romania and Russia have felt that they have a claim to the territory that now forms Moldova.
  • The history of modern Moldova and the Transdniester region are very different with each having been amalgamated into different states at different times. This has led to significant segments of their populations identifying with external powers – Romania and Russia/Ukraine respectively.
  • Prior to its declaration of independence in 1991 Moldova had never existed as an independent state within its current borders


These are those issues which the actors in this conflict openly claimed concerned their dispute. In reality, however, the underlying causes of conflict are far more complex.

Resistance to/support for unification with Romania

The key question in Moldovan politics during the early stages of independence concerned what form the future Moldavian-Romanian relationship would take. This was a highly controversial and polarising factor within Moldova. Although open political discourse stopped short of proposing reunification and articulated only a desire for closer co-operation between the two states, this issue underlined a broad range of political matters. In light of the lack of universal support, this issue gained real relevance, mainly as a result of the perceptions of threat it generated in the ethnic minority population of Moldova. These people were already being discriminated against, as discussed below, and any unification with Romania was perceived by them to further increase their vulnerability.

Transdniester separatism

The secessionist conflict between Moldova and Transdniester is most commonly portrayed as a simple ethno-political conflict in which an ethnic minority, concentrated in one geographical area, is facing discrimination from the state in which it lives. Consequently, the members of the group have resorted to violence in their struggle to combat perceived inequalities through the pursuit of regional independence or autonomy. However, the rationale behind the struggle for independence is far more complex than a simple ethnic divide. Political, economic and social factors have all played key roles in the causation of this conflict.


Structural causes of war/incentives for violence

The issues of separatism and unification were the stated causes of this conflict; however, these do not explain why this conflict was expressed through violent and not peaceful means. In order to determine this it is necessary to analyse the incentives for violence.

Ethnic, social and economic divisions

Moldovan administrative and political spheres are dominated by ethnic Moldovans – largely as a result of the Soviet policy of korenizatsia which sought increased indigenisation of government structures throughout the republics. Ethnic divisions are also evident along geographic lines, although this is by no means absolute. Ethnic Moldovans form the majority in areas to the west of the Dniester River (Moldova). In contrast, in Transdniester ethnic Russians form the majority. These ethnic divisions impact upon everyday life as a result of widespread differentiation in social opportunities and systematic bias such as discrimination in the workplace, education and in access to and dissemination of Russian language information.

There are sharp disparities between the capital city of Chisinau and the rest of the country and the feminisation of poverty appears to be increasing with women earning, on average, nearly a third less than men doing the same jobs. The Transdniester region is the most economically developed area of Moldova, specialising in secondary and tertiary industrial production whilst to the west of the Dniester River, most employment is within the primary sector. Moldova is heavily dependent upon Transdniester for economic support and energy supplies.

Regime type, stability and legitimacy

The collapse of the USSR necessitated a complete re-evaluation of the existing system of governance. The new Moldovan political system was characterised by poor performance with a blurring of the distinction between regime and state which culminated in a lack of legitimacy or trust on the part of the people. Within this context, a fragmented and polarised elite monopolised political control which resulted in pluralism by default, not design. Corruption permeates all state institutions and its existence is universally accepted.

Demographic trends

Since independence, the demographic composition of the state has changed dramatically with a vast increase in the youth sector and a ruralisation of the population. When this trend is considered in conjunction with the economic division of the population along geographic lines, it is clear that the biggest internal migrations have been from the developed areas, largely concentrated in the Transdniester region, to the agricultural areas which prevail to the west of the Dniester River. As such, the non-uniform population and unemployment shifts have affected the two regions disproportionately.

Economic trends and governance

Between 1991 and 1994 the Moldovan economy was in significant decline with the GDP decreasing by an average of 20 per cent per year and exports constituting only 90 per cent of the value of the country’s imports. In 1991 the national income was only at 1985 levels and by 1994 the industrial output was half of 1990. As GDP declined so did per capita income levels. By 1994 Moldova was the poorest country in Europe with GNP per capita of approximately US$387, just 1.8 per cent of the European Union average.

In some regions unemployment is as high as 50 per cent with half of all unemployed persons being under the age of 24. Low pay and a lack of opportunities have led to mass migration and one-third of the workforce has to work abroad, most of them illegally in the EU.

The rapid decline in the economy led to a sharp deterioration in living standards and a widening, in terms of both relative and absolute poverty, of the gap, not only between Moldova and other former Soviet countries, but also between different domestic geographic and social sectors. An awareness of this gap and the sense of grievance it creates within the Moldovan population provide a strong incentive for political change.


Challenges to state legitimacy and the search for a new national identity

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an intense effort to build a distinct Moldovan national identity which, when combined with the rapid socio-political change following the collapse of the Soviet order, created an atmosphere of uncertainty. Within this context non-violent action, such as strikes and rallies, carried out by and on behalf of the Transdniester people between 1989 and 1991 posed a serious challenge to the constitutional order of Moldova. These challenges were particularly acute in Moldova where the newly-established political system lacked any history of success on which legitimacy could be founded. The absence of any effective authority capable of resolving disputes peacefully resulted in the rapid escalation of tensions. Legitimacy was further undermined by splits within the Moldovan regime. These crises of legitimacy mirrored the stages in the escalation of tensions and the use of force. As each crisis occurred, the intensity and frequency of violence increased, finally culminating in March 1992 with the outbreak of war.

Politicisation of ethnic, social and economic divisions

Whilst there are clear divisions within Moldovan society, examples of strong integration can also be seen. There is a high degree of intermarriage within the major national groups and substantial integration in business spheres. Language laws and the resultant discrimination in educational opportunities have led to significant integration within the education system. Consequently, ethnicity does not appear to have the intrinsic potential to lead to violent conflict within the context of the Moldovan state. Rather, it was the politicisation of ethnicity that gave this factor such significance in the conflict-causation process. In their search for power, the political elites in both Moldova and Transdniester hit upon extremely attractive slogans that proved to be effective mobilisation tools and they considered the flare-up of interethnic conflict advantageous to their own advancement to the highest posts in the leadership.

Proximate causes of conflict

Language status holds a special importance for Moldovans. During Soviet rule, although no official language was legally named, Russian became the effective language of the republic and the use of Moldovan declined. Under Gorbachev, demokatizatsiya led to demands outside the Russian Federation for de-Russification and the strengthening of the official role and status of titular republican language. In September 1989, Moldova adopted new language laws which decreed that all official business was to be conducted in Moldovan and written in the Latin script. Anyone holding an official position had to be able to speak Moldovan, although Russian was to remain the language of inter-ethnic communication. These laws gave the status of a state language to the majority ethnic group but it meant that 97 per cent of non-ethnic Moldovan persons were unable to speak the official language of the state. The laws met with little support from either ethnic Moldovans or members of the ethnic minorities. The inclusion of the clause in which Russian was maintained as the language of inter-ethnic communication was interpreted by Moldovans to mean that their native language would remain subordinate to Russian as was the case for much of the Soviet era. For the Russian-speaking population, the laws indicated that they were to become second-class citizens. By this time, the failure of the Moldavian Supreme Soviet to resolve the problem of language had made this issue the line of division around which the issues of separatism and unification would be fought. Language, however, was only a manifestation of the deep-rooted struggles for power and identity with the new Moldovan state.


The long- and mid-term causation of the Moldovan conflict would appear to strongly support the work of Azar who argues that protracted social conflicts begin with several groups simultaneously pursuing their needs and interests, thus manufacturing four pre-requisites of conflict: communal content, deprivation of needs, state weakness, and international linkages. Re-prioritising Azar’s four pre-conditions of conflict, this theory suggests that conflict is derived principally from state weakness. When the state is unable to control its people and territory, it will often manipulate and entrench group divisions to maintain control through a ‘divide and rule’ approach and so fail to meet the needs of its entire population (Azar, 1990, pp 7–10).

In contrast, Brownargues that ‘the proximate causes of many internal conflicts are the decisions and actions of domestic elites’ and that ‘power struggles’ between competing elites ‘are clearly the most common’ form of internal elite-driven conflicts (Brown, 2001, pp 17–19). Brown highlights twelve underlying causes common to countries experiencing violent internal conflict, dividing them into four categories of influence: structural, political, economic/social and cultural/perceptual. Brown further argues that these factors can act as catalysts or proximate causes for the evolution from non-violent internal conflict to war. With regards to the Moldovan conflict, much of Brown’s argument is highly applicable. A weak state characterised by exclusionary political and social institutions, economic decline and cultural discrimination provided the context within which legislative changes such as the new language laws, which within a more stable country may not have triggered widespread violence, were sufficient to bring about a national war.

Similarly, Jabri’s (1996) application of Giddens notion of ‘structuration’ to conflict would suggest that conflicts arising from state weakness and the manipulation of ethnic divisions will tend to become weaker and more ethnically disharmonious as a result of the violence, thus increasing the likelihood of future conflict. This certainly would appear to be the case in Moldova. During the course of the conflict, issues have proliferated and specific disputes over matters such as the state language have broadened to include conflict over inequalities in all aspects of life. Positions have also polarised. For example, ethnicity was used principally as an effective mobilisation tool around which more deeply rooted struggles for power could be enacted. As time progressed, state institutions evolved in order to reflect society. These mirrors of current divisions have become entrenched in society. Consequently, change has become increasingly difficult as the ethnic, linguistic and cultural links experienced by many at the start of the war have gradually been eroded and replaced by new links in terms of geography and shared experiences of conflict. Jabri’s approach would therefore seem to offer an incisive explanation for why previous conflict is the best predictor of future conflict. As such, it not only explains the reason for a failure to resolve the conflict but also claims that the conflict is likely to become ‘hot’ again, should a resolution never be found.


Attempts were made by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania to initiate a diplomatic offensive in order to resolve the crisis. In the Istanbul agreements it was agreed that a ‘mixed commission’ of observers from each of these four countries would observe the disengagement of forces from the conflict zone, secure the neutrality of the 14th Army and develop measures to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to districts in need, ensuring that conditions were created to expedite the return of refugees.

During 1991 and 1992, the activities of international organisations were viewed by Moldovan authorities as being a means of gaining political capital that would enable them to solve the problems of Transdniester by force. Despite this, a number of external organisations did become involved in the search for a peaceful settlement to this conflict and have since been engaged in Track One and Track Two diplomacy. A request was made by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) facilitate conflict resolution through mediation and human rights monitoring; a greater role for the UN in the political settlement process, including a fact-finding mission to the region, was welcomed.

The International Federation of Human Rights sent a delegation to Moldova which raised the question of turning Moldova into a federation of three republics and, in mid 1992, a visit by a UN Secretariat delegation reached agreement that UN experts and observers would participate in the verification of compliance with the ceasefire conditions and in settling any disputes that might arise.

A Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) visit was followed by a report stating that it would send observers to Moldova, if requested by the Moldovan government. It recommended the granting of special status to the left bank districts, allowing them to decide their own fate if Moldova were to reunite with Romania. It also recommended the establishment of a permanent mission in Chisnau with a mandate to help establish an enduring peace in Transdniester.


The UN has had no involvement with the military peace-keeping operation in Moldova despite having been involved in similar operations elsewhere within the post-Soviet space; it was involved, through the UNOMIG operation, in Georgia where the conflict bore similarities in terms of causation and the way it manifested to that of Moldova. It would appear that a key reason for the UN lack of involvement was the presence of Russian troops on Moldovan territory and a general unwillingness to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence. However the fact that Russia, a secondary actor in this conflict, now provides the largest contingent of troops in the CIS peacekeeping force would appear to undermine the neutrality of the force as a whole and perhaps point to the reasons why the conflict remains ‘frozen’ more than a decade after the cessation of hostilities. In light of this, the Moldovan conflict would provide a significant example of where an independent UN-led force could have achieved success where national or regional forces could not.
In light of the lack of UN involvement, the OSCE established a wide-ranging mandate in 1993 to facilitate a lasting political settlement of the conflict, gather information on the military situation in the region, encourage de-militarisation, and provide advice and expertise on human and minority rights as well as democratic transformation. Further, it was to facilitate the repatriation of refugees and provide a definition of special status for the Transdniesteran region. Finally, OSCE was to initiate a visible presence in the region.
Within the constraints of this mandate, security in the conflict zone was to be provided by military observers and limited peacekeeping contingents from all three sides, co-ordinated by a Trilateral Control Commission. Control posts were to be manned by Russian observers under the auspices of CIS peacekeeping troops.


Reflecting the status of the Moldovan conflict as being long term and of relatively low intensity, international assistance to Moldova is focused primarily on development rather than relief operations with development assistance being received from a wide range of sources.

The UN maintains a significant presence with several agencies operating in Moldova. The largest of these are the UNDP which has a large portfolio of projects dealing predominantly with institution building, quality of governance and human rights; the UNHCR, which provides assistance to those people displaced by the conflict and the small numbers of refugees from other conflicts who reside in Moldova; and UNICEF, which works on education, health and orphanages.

The World Bank has provided significant international financial support to a broad range of projects such as structural adjustment, private development in the agriculture and enterprise sectors and strengthening the economic and financial management of the energy sector.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has invested US$370 million in developing the physical and telecommunications infrastructure in Moldova. The European Union provides targeted funds for food security and humanitarian assistance.

The two largest donors to Moldova are the United States and the Netherlands although smaller amounts were also given by other European nations as well as Turkey, which provides aid to the Gaugauzia region, and Japan. British aid supports the objectives of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) through the funding of social protection reform, civil society development and the enhancement of sustainable rural livelihoods.


Peace-making projects within Moldova have achieved positive results in three main areas: preventing the escalation of conflict, mitigating the effects of the conflict on the affected population thus increasing the people’s capacity to resist the impact of further conflict cycles, and the creation of an enabling environment for positive conflict management.

Preventing Conflict Escalation

A key focus of the work of development agencies, whose aim it is to prevent the escalation of conflict, has been on enhancing democratic governance. Significant emphasis has been placed by the UNDP on programmes designed to strengthen state institutions in an attempt to ensure both legitimacy and a monopoly of violence and consequently to enhance the ability of the state to mitigate or manage conflict through pacific, rather than violent, means. Social security reform has also been a development priority and the subsequent reduction in absolute and relative poverty levels has begun to reduce both a key source of grievance amongst the population and the impact of further conflict.

Mitigating the effects of the conflict on the population and increasing capacity for resisting the impact of further conflict

In accord with its well-documented links with conflict, poverty reduction was a key focus of development work within Moldova; a significant number of projects was undertaken in this area, primarily focused upon facilitating change at state level. In an attempt to reverse the tendency of groups within conflict situations to retreat and become self-contained rather than seeking to bridge community divides, programmes were also directed at the promotion of social inclusion and cohesion.

Creating an Enabling Environment for Positive Conflict Management

In order to achieve this goal, agencies within Moldova invested heavily in the promotion of cross-cutting institutions such as women’s groups which bridged traditional or conflict-induced ethnic, political or social divides. Significant work has also been undertaken in the area of justice and human rights protection aimed at strengthening the capacity of the government and civil society to fight corruption.


The OSCE is at the centre of peace-making co-ordination. Through the work of the European Network for Civil Peace Networks, intensive conflict resolution programmes have been initiated. These programmes have involved peace-making initiatives with the Moldovan Ministry of Integration and international peace-making and transformative conflict programmes within Transdniester. The regional political union, GUUAM, incorporating Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova has initiated a seven-point plan for a long-term resolution to the conflict. The proposal involves democratic elections under the aegis of the European Union, the OSCE, the USA and Russia and, ultimately, the replacement of Russian peacekeepers by international observers.

Co-ordination Issues

In the case of Moldova, several barriers exist which limit effective co-ordination. In times of conflict, the access of development and humanitarian agencies to affected populations is often severely limited. Within Transdniester, ‘state’ authorities sought to deliberately limit the ability of development workers to reach those in need by imposing highly restrictive travel policies and laws governing the work of the development workers. Access problems were further compounded by the fact that large areas of Moldova, i.e. Transdniester, were completely beyond the control of the government. Further, non-state actors such as Transdniester are not signatories to international human rights treaties and therefore can act, to a large degree, with impunity. Under such circumstances peacekeeping forces could have done much to assist the work of humanitarian agencies. However, in this case, the largely Russian peacekeeping force was universally seen as displaying bias towards Transdniester and as such hindered, rather than helped, the long-term prospects for building peace.

In addition, military priorities were widely criticised for being driven by issues and timescales external to the conflict itself, resulting in a clear division between civilian and military functions in terms of the overall timeframe of an operation. Where many civilian organisations had been operational in Moldova for several years, military peacekeepers were rotated into and out of the operational theatre at regular intervals. Whilst this may have had advantages in terms of troop morale, the consequence of this rotation was a constant ‘reinventing of the wheel’, creating fluctuations within the knowledge base of any given unit at a particular time and leading to conflict between military and civilian organisations over what could or could not feasibly be achieved within a given timescale. In light of this, the role of the peacekeepers remained limited to simply keeping the two belligerents apart rather than evolving into a more positive, proactive peace-building role in conjunction with development agencies, which often appeared to be working against rather than alongside the military.

The Moldovan situation clearly illustrates that there is a need to balance national or humanitarian interests where these may diverge. In this case, national agendas, particularly those of Russia, have dominated international ones. Factors such as the mandate, force levels and the length of any intervention are no longer based upon the needs of the affected state. Instead they are used as political bargaining tools and watered down in order to gain domestic or international support to the extent that the operation can no longer be carried out effectively.

Appendix A

Historical Context

  • 1797-92 and 1806-12: Incorporation of territory that now forms much of Moldova into Russian Empire following Russo-Turkish Wars
  • 1917: Proclamation of independence by Bessarabian People’s Democratic movement (areas to the west of the Transdniester River)/Romanian occupation of Bessarabia
  • 1918: Formal union between Bessarabia and Romania
  • 1922: Transdniester becomes administrative region within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
  • 1924: Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic created
  • 1940: Occupation of Bessarabia by Russian forces/Law passed formally creating the Moldavan SSR which included Transdniester
  • 1941: Re-incorporation of Bessarabia into Romania
  • 1944: Bessarabia re-conquered by Russia
  • 1947: Paris Treaty recognised 1940 Soviet-Romanian frontier
  • 1990: Communist regime ousted by nationalists/Declaration of Moldovan sovereignty
  • 1991: Declaration of Moldovan independence from the Soviet Union /Declaration of Moldovan independence from the Soviet Union

Appendix B

Evolution of the Conflict

  • 1989 – 1990: The emergence of the conflict against the background of general social and economic destabilisation
  • November 1990 – September 1991: Transition from non-violent to violent ethnic political action
  • December 1991: Transition to recurrent violent interaction in ethnically-mixed urban and rural areas
  • March-July 1992: Transition to a full-scale localised war in the form of organised and sustained inter-ethnic violence
  • Mid 1992 onwards: The relative stabilisation of the situation and the search for a settlement


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‘In 1991 Transdniester accounted for 36 per cent of industrial production, 28 per cent of consumer goods and 87.7 per cent of the country’s energy supplies.’ (Arbatov et al. pg. 154)

UNDP Moldova Democratic Governance Programmes

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