Freedom in the World 2004 - Transnistria [Moldova]

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 620,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Christian Orthodox (94 percent), other [including Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim] (6 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Moldovan (40 percent), Ukrainian (28 percent), Russian (23 percent), other (9 percent)


Some slight progress toward resolving the status of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria was made during 2003, as the Russian military continued to remove weapons stockpiles from Transnistria in keeping with international agreements, and a number of international actors announced their support for a plan to reintegrate Transnistria with Moldova.

The Dnestr Moldovan Republic (DMR), bounded by the Dniester River to the west and the Ukrainian border on the east, is a breakaway region in the eastern part of Moldova with a large population of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. In Moldova, the region is called Transnistria. The DMR broke away from Romanian-speaking Moldova in 1991, when the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence from the Soviet Union. At the time, pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria feared that Moldova would join neighboring Romania. They reacted by declaring independence, establishing the DMR, and setting up an authoritarian presidential system. With weapons and other assistance from Russia's Fourteenth Army, the DMR leadership fought a military conflict with Moldova that ended in a 1992 cease-fire. Since that time, the separatist regime has existed as a para-state, strong enough to resist absorption by Moldova yet too weak to gain outright international recognition as a sovereign nation.

Over the past several years, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine have attempted to mediate a final settlement between Moldova and the DMR. They also participate in the Joint Control Commission that monitors compliance with the 1992 cease-fire. Nevertheless, despite Russia's acceptance of the 1999 Adapted Convention Forces in Europe Treaty, under which Russia was supposed to have removed its forces and weapons stockpiles from the DMR, the question of the DMR's political status remains unsettled.

Parliamentary elections in December 2000 resulted in a victory for separatist leader Igor Smirnov's supporters. In December 2001, "presidential" elections were held, but were severely flawed. One potential contender was barred from participating in the race, and another, the mayor of Benderi, was dismissed from his position. Workers were reported to have been threatened with the loss of their jobs and students with expulsion if they did not vote for the government's candidate. Smirnov was declared the victor, in some areas winning by a considerable margin. In the northern region of Kamenka, for example, he received 103.6 percent of the vote, indicating significant ballot-stuffing.

After Moldovan elections in 2001, in which Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin was elected president, there were some hopes that a quicker resolution to the Transnistrian conflict would be achieved. Negotiations have, however, made little progress over the past several years. The lingering presence in Transnistria of 1,300 Russian soldiers and of a supply of Russian weapons – the second largest weapons stockpile in Europe, with some 22,000 tons in all – has further complicated a resolution of the dispute. In 1999, Russia agreed to an OSCE initiative for the removal of all Russian weapons and troops by December 2002. As the withdrawal deadline approached, Russia announced that it would not meet its obligation and attempted to refashion the force as "guarantors" of any eventual diplomatic settlement. In response to this development, the OSCE extended the deadline by 12 months. During the course of 2003, some movement was seen on the issue; by April, 10 trainloads of Russian military equipment had left Tiraspol for Moscow.

During the year, a Joint Constitutional Committee composed of members of the Moldovan government and DMR representatives worked on a plan to create a federal structure for Moldova that would allow for Transnistria's reintegration, but little progress was achieved. The most important substantive problem remains the different visions between the Moldovan preference for a federal state with a recognizable center and the DMR authorities' preference for a "common state" but one that would be more of a confederation of two very distinct entities. Since Russia has accepted the federalization plan for Moldova, however, many observers believe it is only a matter of time before the DMR's authorities have to accept this outcome as well.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Residents of Transnistria cannot elect their leaders democratically, and they are also unable to participate freely in Moldovan elections. While the DMR maintains its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, no country recognizes its sovereignty. The DMR's legislative body, the Council of People's Deputies, was transformed into a unicameral body with 43 members in 2000.

A local faction of the Communist Party of Moldova is the only group in opposition to the government; however, its influence is limited. No other democratic alternatives to the current regime exist, as all other parties and political formations have ceased to operate in Transnistria.

The DMR government controls most print and electronic media in Transnistria and restricts freedom of speech. Independent newspapers and television stations do exist, but they frequently experience harassment for criticizing the government. Authorities have also confiscated copies of independent newspapers. In 2001, DMR president Igor Smirnov issued a decree on the creation of a state editorial committee to oversee the activity of all print and electronic media. The committee's members include the ministers of security, justice, foreign affairs, and information. In May, a court in the city of Bender ordered the closure of one of Transnistria's few independent newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, and the paper's editors were fined approximately $5,000 after they were found guilty of libel. Outside observers believed that the trial was politically motivated. There is no information on government policy relating to the Internet.

Authorities have denied registration to some religious groups (such as Baptists and Methodists) and prevented them from distributing literature or leading public meetings. The government also limits the ability of religious groups to rent space for prayer meetings. DMR authorities discriminate against ethnic Moldovans, who constitute 40 percent of the region's population. Several Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested during the course of the year on charges of proselytizing. There is no information on government policy with regards to academic freedom.

The DMR authorities severely restrict freedom of assembly, and on the few occasions when permits have been granted for groups to protest, the organizers have been harassed. The authorities have also organized "spontaneous" counterrallies on such occasions. Freedom of association is similarly circumscribed. In June, the Supreme Court upheld a 2001 ruling forbidding the formation of a nascent political party. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have reportedly been harassed by police officials, who invite NGO leaders for "informational discussions" or pressure landlords of properties being used by NGOs not to renew leases. Trade unions are holdovers from the Soviet era, and the United Council of Labor Collectives works closely with the government.

The judiciary is not independent. Politically motivated killings and police harassment have been reported, and political prisoners are frequently denied access to lawyers. Police can detain suspects for up to 30 days. Prison conditions are considered harsh, and prisons are severely overcrowded. The police continue to use torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, especially against political opponents of the current government.

Domestic violence against women is a problem, and women are under-represented in most positions of authority. In the absence of a strong central authority in Transnistria, many observers claim that the region has become a "criminal black hole" in Europe for various forms of smuggling and trafficking in human beings for purposes of prostitution.

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