Civil War and Ethnic Conflict in Post-Soviet Moldova – the Cases of Gagauzia and Transnistria compared

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2003

29 Pages, Grade: A



1. Introduction

2. Reasons and Triggers of the two Conflicts
2.1. Gagauzia
2.2. Transnistria

3. Why did the Conflict end in Gagauzia and not end as yet in Transnistria?
3.1. Moldova in the 1990s
3.2. The Settlement of the Gagauzian Conflict
3.3. The Unsolved Transnistrian Conflict
3.4. Possible Solutions

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by a number of ethnic conflicts. Civil wars broke out in Azerbaidzhan (Nagorno-Karabakh), Georgia (Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia), Russia (Chechnya) and Tadjikistan. Also the newly independent Republic of Moldova plunged into violence with civil unrest in the early 1990s in the southern region of Gagauzia and the armed conflict in Transnistria in the East. While the southern conflict over Gagauzia could be settled in a peaceful manner and through a mutual agreement, in contrast the Transnistrian conflict has not been resolved as yet. Since the two conflicts started at the same time and in a similar setting this outcome appears puzzling.

This paper is arguing that the initial causes and triggers to the conflicts matter much less than the different group capabilities of the respective warring parties. While the triggering of violent conflict is based on contigent elite choices in the conducive environment of Soviet national legacies, group capabilities are basically structural features. Group capabilities are going to be defined in a broad sense. They include all resources and abilities of a group in a medium or long-term perspective to assert themselves against other groups. This includes first of all material resources such as arms, but also political cohesion or social capital for that matter. In a setting with almost equal capabilities of the two sides its might be more favourable to sustain or ‘freeze’ the conflict than to come to a solution. If the incentive structure would make key players on both sides worse off with a peaceful resolution those players might even collude in preventing the implementation of popular demands for an end of hostilities. External players, such as Russia are a decisive intervening variable in sustaining or changing this incentive structure.

The first part of this paper is going to investigate the underlying reasons and ultimate triggers for Moldova’s ethnic conflicts. In the second part the differences in the course of the two conflicts will be examined. In addition to the capability-based explanation alternative hypotheses will be tested. In the last chapters possible solutions to the Transnistrian conflict will be developed and some general conclusions about the applicability of the theoretical approach be made.

2. Reasons and Triggers of the two Conflicts

The Republic of Moldova gained independent statehood in August 1991 after the failed attempt of a coup d’etat in Moscow. It inherited the unsettled question of Moldovan statehood which can be briefly sketched as follows.[1]

Historically Moldova is a multi-national region lying at the intersection of the Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires. The majority of the population is Romanian-speaking. There has not been an independent Moldovan state in the current territorial configuration before 1991. In 1812 a part of the territory of the Principality of Moldova (one of the three territorial entities that formed the unitary state of Romania in 1869), was occupied by Russia. This territory, which is located between the rivers Pruth and Dniester and the Black Sea in the south, and is known as Basarabia, had been continuously contested.

In 1918 in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and the following civil war Romania took hold of it. In 1924 a small strip of Ukrainian territory located on the Eastern bank of the Dnestr was declared as the Moldovan Autonomous Republic as part of USSR. This territory which had always been under Russian authority in fact has no links to the historical Moldovan lands, except for a minority of Moldovan speakers who had settled there. The reason for this move of Stalinist nationality policies consisted in keeping up the claim of the existence of a distinct Moldovan nation, as opposed to Romania, and thus instrumental for demanding the return of Moldova proper to the Soviet Union in order to ‘unite’ it with the artificially created republic. Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact the USSR was able to regain Moldova from Romania (but lost it again temporarily during the Second World War between 1941-44).

Throughout the Soviet period the policy of ‘Moldovan’ nation-building was pursued, e.g. by the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic neologisms and other ‘linguistic’ innovations aimed at differentiating Moldovan from Romanian and at creating an ‘own’ Moldovan historiography denying the links to Romania.[2] Thus, in fact the notion of ‘Moldovan’ language exists only politically and bears no more linguistic meaning than the ‘Austrian’ or ‘American’ languages.[3]

The debate about Moldova’s national identity resurfaced in the wake of ‘ perestroika and glasnost’. Intellectuals and the younger generation of the Soviet Republic’s leaders increasingly questioned the concept of a distinct Moldovan nation and reemphasized the Romanian identity and language. In this respect they also differentiated themselves from the former generation of leaders which was either Russian-born (like Leonid Brezhnev who served as Moldova’s Party secretary in the 1950s) or originated from the eastern (Transnistrian) bank of the Dnestr. The latter had been mostly educated in Moscow and had worked as industrial managers. The Transnistrian elite was always deemed more reliable to Moscow for their territory’s longer affiliation with the USSR. In the 1980s they had been increasingly replaced by native Moldovan cadres. These younger Moldovan communists, who were often managers in the agrarian sector, also won the first free elections in Soviet Moldova in 1990 together with the intellectual nationalists as the newly founded Popular Front by promoting independence and Romanian language issue.[4] The language issue was therefore an asset to of these younger elites to be used against the old Soviet elite dominated by Russian speakers.[5]

The new parliament in 1990 declared Romanian (Moldovan) written with Latin script as the state language and thus repealed the only significant difference from Romanian. Moreover, the Romanian tricolor and anthem were introduced as state symbols (while still being part of the USSR). At the same time, calls for reunification were increasingly voiced.[6]

These moves of (re-)Romanization were strongly opposed by parts of the population. Moldova’s population is not uniformly romanophile. There are significant Ukrainian and Russian minorities, each with about 13% share of the population, 4 % Gagauz, 3% Bulgarian and others.[7] These groups opposed the creation of a unitary state dominated by the native Moldovan elites or even the unification with Romania, a country in which ethnic minorities (like the Hungarians) were ignored by the center or even maltreated. The most pronounced opponents of this development were the Gagauz and the Transnistrian regions.[8]

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Moldova’s independence lead to a certain degree of polarization along ethnic lines.[9] Yet, there was little violence to be observed in the beginning. The decisive trigger for conflict was the language law adopted by the new nationalist Moldovan leadership and the strong reaction against it by the Gagauz and Transnistrian leaders. Therefore, some degree of elite-based explanations is necessary to explain the start of violent action.[10] Elites were not completely free in inciting ethnic conflicts but were embedded in a structural environment with constraints to be considered and choices available. The Soviet legacies in Moldova were conducive to conflict, and elites, in particular the Transnistrian ones deliberately opted for it.[11] Whereas in Gagauzia minority rights were at stake, conflict in Transnistria was about two rivalling concepts of Moldovan state- and nationhood as I will show in the following.

2.1. Gagauzia

The Gagauz are a Turkic people of Christian Orthodox religion living in the Southern parts of the country in rural settlements partly intermixed with Moldovan villages.[12] The years 1990-1992 saw an increasing ethnic mobilization in Gagauzia against the government in Chişinău. The Gagauzians, who had enjoyed autonomy inside Soviet Moldova felt threatened in their survival as a distinct nationality by the drive of the Moldovan leadership to romanize the whole country.[13]

In the view of the Gagauzians the stakes in this conflict were particularly high since almost all members of the Gagauzian people were living inside Moldova. Unlike other minorities such as Bulgarians or Ukrainians the Gagauzians had no foreign homeland which could offer support or refuge.[14] Therefore, the survival of the Gagauzians as a distinct nation was connected with their status inside Moldova, in particular the right to use their language and to have their own educational institutions. Thus, in reaction to the passing of the controversial language law Gagauz leaders proclaimed an independent Gagauz Republic.

The logic of their action becomes more clear in applying Ian Bremmer’s framework for investigating the relationship between different nationalities in the collapsing Soviet Union. Differentiating between four institutional levels (center, first-order titular nationality, second order titular nationality, non-titular nationality) he establishes a 4x4 matrix indicating the respective strategy of a group on a particular level against any other. Moldova as a first-order titular nationality, i.e. a nation endowed with an own Soviet Republic, in this framework would be expected to apply a strategy of domination against a second-order titular nationality, i.e. an autonomous unit inside its territory, such as Gagauzia. The second-order titular nationality for its part would seek liberation from the first-order titular nationality. At the same time the Center (Moscow) would try to integrate both sub-levels, while the first-order nationality aspires for liberation from and the second-order nationality colludes with the center.[15]

Precisely this was the case also with Gagauzia. While Moscow was increasingly losing control over the non-Russian periphery, the Soviet Republics, which were endowed with all institutions for sovereign statehood sought independence. To assert their statehood they had to abolish competing national institutions of minorities inside their own republic in claiming the establishment of a homogeneous nation. These minorities in turn (such as the Gagauzians) insisted on the legitimacy of their Soviet-built institutions and therefore resisted the Republic’s independence and its nationalizing course. Gagauzians demanded their republic to be raised to an equal status with Moldova.[16]

Also the integration strategy of Moscow could be observed: troops of the Soviet Interior Ministery prevented an attack of Moldovan volunteers mobilized by the nationalist Druc governement in Chişinău against the much weaker Gagauzian forces in August 1990 while Gagauzians welcomed the later putsch against Gorbachev in hoping it would prevent the break-up of the USSR.[17]

Therefore, the legacy of Soviet nation-building with its institutional balance between the different levels was mixed up by Moldovan independence. Both Moldovans and Gagauzians had institutional resources to assert their position against the other.[18] The conflict between Moldovans and Gagauzians broke out when the Moldovan elites started a nationalizing course endangering Gagauz autonomy and threatening their assimilation.

The explanation for why individuals chose to engage in the conflict is quite obvious for the case of Gagauzia. The nationalizing strategy of the Moldovan governments had direct negative consequences for the Gagauz population. The creation of a romanized or even Greater Romanian Moldova would have endangered their survival as an ethnic group. In particular the language law was seen as a threat since 92% of Gagauzians declared Gagauz as being their mother tongue. Only 4% speak Moldovan but 73% know Russian as a second language.[19] Although, there was no immediate physical threats to the population a gradual assimilation through the abolishment of Gagauzian cultural, educational and administrative institutions was a serious threat to a small and isolated minority. Therefore it was rational for Gagauzians to oppose these policies from the beginning and use all means available. As the Moldovan state was weak immediate action appeared particularly promising. This perspective does not exclude the possibility of local elites with vested interests in jobs and resources deliberately pushed ethnic mobilization, of course.[20]


[1] For a more detailed accoun see W van Meurs (1998), ‘Carving a Moldovan Identity out of History’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 39-56.

[2] On Soviet korenizatsiia policies in Moldova see C King (1998), ‘Ethnicity and Institutional Reform: The Dynamics of ‘Indigenization’ in the Moldovan ASSR’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 57-72.

[3] On this issue see D Dyer, ‘What price Languages in Contact: Is there a Russian Language Influence on the Syntax of Moldovan?’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 73-86.

[4] C Neukirch (2001), ‘Moldovan headaches – The Republic of Moldova 120 days after the 2001 Parliamentary Elections’, Centre for OSCE Research – Working Paper 3, University of Hamburg, p. 8.

[5] C King (2000), The Moldovans – Romania, Russia and the Politics of Culture, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, pp. 135-141.

[6] D Fane (1993), Moldova: breaking loose from Moscow, in: I Bremmer / R Taras (eds.), Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States, CUP, pp. 126-128.

[7] D Deletant (1999), ‘Moldavie’, in: J Rufin (ed.), Mondes Rebelles – Guerres civiles et violences politiques, Paris: Edition Michalon, pp. 1353.

[8] In fact the new legislation was rather liberal in itself allowing for the use of minority languages. But nationalist bueraucrats and politicians used it as a weapon of linguistic discrimination. P Kolsto / A Malgin, (1998), ‘The Transnistrian Republic: A Case of Politicised Regionalism’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, p. 107.

[9] W Crowther (1998), ‘Ethnic Politics and the Post-Communist Transition in Moldova’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 147-164.

[10] See in particular C King (1994), Moldovan Identity and the Politics of Pan-Romanianism, Slavic Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 345-368.

[11] N Melvin (1995), Russians beyond Rusia – The Politics of National Identity, L: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, pp. 56-58.

[12] On the history of the Gagauz minority see C King (1997), ‘Minority policy in the post-Soviet republics: the case of the Gagauzi’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp.740-743.

[13] For a more detailed account of the Gagauz problem see J Chinn / S Roper (1998), ‘Territorial Autonomy in Gagauzia’, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 87-101; C King (1997), ‘Minority policy in the post-Soviet republics: the case of the Gagauzi’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 738-756.

[14] To some extent Turkey perceived itself as a natural ally for all Turkic people in the former Soviet Union. Ankarea was supporting the Gagauzians through diplomatic channels but active involvement in Gagauzia started only after a peaceful settlement. (L Benko, Autonomy in Gagauzia: A Precedent for Central and Eastern Europe?, East-West Working Group, Passau, 1997, Online:, login: 03/31/03, pp. 2.)

[15] I Bremmer (1993), ‘Reassessing Soviet nationalities theory’, in: I Bremmer / R Taras (eds.), Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States, CUP, pp. 11-22.

[16] The Economist, 04/06/91, Vol. 319, Issue 7701, p. 50.

[17] C King (1997), ‘Minority policy in the post-Soviet republics: the case of the Gagauzi’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 744-745.

[18] On the legacies of Soviet nation-building see Y Slezkine (1994), ‘The USSR as a Communal Appartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism’, Slavic Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 414-452.

[19] L Benko, Autonomy in Gagauzia: A Precedent for Central and Eastern Europe?, East-West Working Group, Passau, 1997, Online:, login: 03/31/03, pp. 1.

[20] C King (1997), ‘Minority policy in the post-Soviet republics: the case of the Gagauzi’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4, p. 752.

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Civil War and Ethnic Conflict in Post-Soviet Moldova – the Cases of Gagauzia and Transnistria compared
Central European University Budapest  (Department of Political Science)
Civil War and Ethnic Conflict
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Moldavien, Moldawien, Moldova, Moldavia, Transnistrien, Transnistria, Transdnjestr, Gagauzien, Gagauzia, ethnischer Konflikt, ethnic conflict, Bürgerkrieg, civil war, GUS, CIS, autonomy, Kishinev, Ti
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Maximilian Spinner (Author), 2003, Civil War and Ethnic Conflict in Post-Soviet Moldova – the Cases of Gagauzia and Transnistria compared, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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