“Russian troops massing on East Ukrainian border – US says they may be preparing to invade” scream the headlines.
I doubt it. Russians are subtler than that; and in any case East Ukraine is not next.
A decade ago I spent part of the summer on a pro-democracy mission in Moldova, the outstanding aspect of which was a series of meetings in the breakaway region of Transnistria (variously spelled and even named depending on linguistic preference).
At the very outset of all of this I mentioned Transnistria, and watched in astonishment as almost no one else did! Remember, its existence essentially amounts to the occupation of part of the sovereign territory of Moldova by Russian troops, and has done since 1997 (the date after which Russia had agreed to withdraw them).
Now Transnistria is mentioned, but only in the incredibly simplistic way that it is “majority Russian-speaking”. I scarcely heard anything other than Russian there, admittedly, but then I scarcely heard anything other than Russian on the streets of Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova’s capital city. As I wrote last yet, it just isn’t that straightforward – and the media shouldn’t present it as such!
A little like Crimea, most of Transnistria was simply shifted from one Soviet Republic to another during the Soviet era (effectively, therefore, between what were seen as internal “States”) – in this case from Ukraine into Moldova. The rest of what is now the Republic of Moldova had been taken by the Soviet Union in 1940 during World War Two (western Moldova wasn’t – it remains part of Romania).
As was frequently the case, people were moved about in the Soviet Union, and those being moved typically adopted Russian as their first language regardless of ethnic origin or perceived nationality (as Russian was the Union’s language of business and administration). As a result the Republic of Moldova, essentially Romanian-speaking from a linguistic point of view, developed a large Russian-speaking minority – of course, those moving went primarily to the cities, and thus often became a majority (not least because Russian was simply more useful than Romanian to just about any resident of the Soviet Union).
Transnistria, of course, hadn’t really been Romanian-speaking to start with; it was actually Ukrainian-speaking if anything. However, a combination of Moldovans moving within their home Republic into its new zone (transferred precisely because it was industrial and thus provided the otherwise largely agrarian Moldova with an industrial hub), and Russian-speakers moving in from elsewhere in the Union, saw Transnistria become effectively tri-ethnic – about 30% Ukrainian, 30% Moldovan, 30% Russian with a few others making up the remainder (noting that these themselves are crude terms doing a gross injustice to the multiplicity of identities, ethnicities and nationalities really contained within them, not least once two or three generations of inter-marriage are introduced into the equation).
At the end of the Soviet Union, as many newly independent Republics did, Moldova adopted its originally native tongue (essentially Romanian, though some prefer to call it Moldovan and it is in fact referred to officially most often simply as the “Language of the State”), notably switching from Cyrillic script to Latin. There was even talk of union with Romania. As Transnistria did not originate from this, a civil war ensued, resulting in an uneasy truce in 1992 in which Transnistria effectively became an independent state backed by Russia but officially remained recognised as part of the Republic of Moldova. I think it fair to point out that the West has to understand this – it was not unreasonable for Russian troops to remain in 1992 when there was a real risk that Russians elsewhere in Moldova would be absorbed against their will and without cross-community consensus into Romania. However, they agreed in 1994 to leave within three years, and by 1997 the “Greater Romania” issue had passed – yet they are still there.
Transnistria adopted its own language policy, becoming officially tri-lingual but banning Latin script – thus road signs, for example, are in Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian but all in Cyrillic. (In fact, we visited a Transnistrian school which broke this law and taught Romanian in Latin script – it was a horrendously uneasy atmosphere and I was unsurprised to hear that the authorities promptly bulldozed it the following month.)
You can read about Transnistria but you cannot quite grasp the discomfort of the place. The authorities had cut off all phone lines, introduced their own currency, introduced their own stamps (unrecognised internationally, meaning Transnistrians have to leave Transnistria just to post a letter anywhere outside it), stopped dual-band mobile phone access, and it was clear every room we were in was bugged. Soviet statues predominated, militaristic parades were common, and public toilets (such as they were) consisted of a less-than-generous hole in the ground. Entrance to Transnistria itself involved passing two military checkpoints (one of which was openly Russian); there was one road only into and out of any town, and it too had checkpoints. Such was the paranoia of the place, the authorities even sent someone after us to Chisinau 48 hours after our departure to pretend to be an opposition spokesperson agitating fairly and democratically for union with Romania (complete with a Romanian-language T-shirt in Latin script) – even though he spoke only Russian and was obviously acting (literally) for the government.
Here’s the historical thing: contemporary Russia’s particular interest in Ukraine itself dates from Ukraine’s (perceived “anti-Russian” but actually anti-trafficking) decision to insist essentially that any imports into Ukraine from Transnistria be registered with Moldovan authorities – the inevitable response to which was a “referendum” in Transnistria where 97% “opted” for Transnistrian independence in “free association” with Russia. Sound familiar? It is astonishing that anyone reporting or analysing the Crimean situation would have missed this – yet they all did, as far as I saw! However, it must be said that Transnistrians in 2011 were free enough to vote for the wrong guy for President (an ethnic Ukrainian opposed to both main Transnistrian parties, to confuse matters).
Here’s the contemporary thing: Transnistria is already Russian-occupied and funded; and it is to the southwest of Ukraine – but it borders a part of Ukraine on the Black Sea which is comparatively pro-Russian. Geographically this part of Ukraine, centred on Odessa, juts out geographically like Crimea. So, ethnically justifiable on the same grounds as Crimea, historically justifiable similarly, and even geographically justifiable on the map, this all means that Southwest Ukraine is the obvious next stop for Russian “intervention” - not least on the grounds that it would constitute a “reunification of Transnistria with its original hinterland (in fact, Transnistria’s Prime Minister comes from Odessa)” while at the same time “respecting the results of the [aforementioned] 2006 referendum”.
Moldova is, of course, a “brother country” of Romania, which is now part of the EU. If Russia effectively annexes part of an EU member state’s “brother country”, is the EU going to do anything (like, really do anything) about it? What happens if it annexes a bit of the neighbouring sovereign state as well?
No, obviously. We are doing the opposite of what we should be doing. Quite aside from ensuring the linguistic and democratic rights of “Russians” in the Baltic States and as far as possible elsewhere and then putting it up to the Russians to act similarly democratically, we are in fact propping up an unelected government in Kiev allowing the Russians to justify taking away chunks of their territory. And few of the people commentating on these decisions in the Western media and to Western governments have even heard of Transnistria…