30 years since the war in Transnistria. A precedent for Russia’s wars in the ex-Soviet space

Prime Minister of Moldova Chiril Gaburici (R) and the Minister of Defence Viorel Cibotaru (L), during the military drill 'Nordic shield -2015' at Balti shooting range, 140 kilometers north-east of Chisinau, Moldova, 21 April 2015.
© EPA/DUMITRU DORU   |   Prime Minister of Moldova Chiril Gaburici (R) and the Minister of Defence Viorel Cibotaru (L), during the military drill 'Nordic shield -2015' at Balti shooting range, 140 kilometers north-east of Chisinau, Moldova, 21 April 2015.

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The former Minister of Defense, Viorel Cibotaru, currently a political and military analyst in Chisinau fought in the 1992 war on the Dniester between the Moldovan army and the Transnistrian paramilitary forces, helped by the Russian 14th Guards Army.

Viorel Cibotaru explained for Veridica the starting point of the conflict, the role of the special services and of the Russian veterans, and the plan for the conservation of the defunct USSR in the former union republics.  

VERIDICA: It’s been 30 years since the war on the Dniester. Looking back, how do you see the aftermath of that war, up to the present day?

Viorel Cibotaru: In my view, the militarized phase of the conflict started in December 1991, when the Dubasari bridge was attacked by a small special detachment of the Republic of Moldova’s Interior Ministry. The detachment was travelling to free the Moldovan police officers detained by pro-Russian separatists at the militia precinct in Dubasari.  

The detachment, on its way to that destination, was received with Kalashnikov machine gun fire by a group that was organized as a paramilitary force at the time. That “first blood” was to me the beginning of that phase, which was continued on March 2dn with the uprising of the Moldovan patriot officers and volunteers in Cocieri and the liberation of the village and of the army garrison there.

Unfortunately, the conflict was only stopped for a short while. The consequences of that conflict of 1991-1992 are still being felt today. It is still affecting all of Moldova’s development processes and is still one of the fundamental issues facing Moldovan society.

The Transnistrian conflict, a precedent for other Russian wars in the ex-Soviet space

VERIDICA: Can the Transnistrian conflict be seen as a precedent for what happened later in Georgia, in 2008, in the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then again in 2014, in the regions of Luhansk and Donets, in eastern Ukraine?

Viorel Cibotaru: It was more than just a precedent; what happened in the Republic of Moldova was part of an act of disobedience to the Soviet Union’s dismantling processes. Those processes were being coordinated from a central unit made up of former secret service officers of the late Soviet Union, which kept working under Moscow’s coordination.

The same scenarios have been applied more or less everywhere. We are talking about the same approach and the same attempt at stopping the collapse of the USSR or at least building the grounds for a future restoration of the Soviet Union with all the union republics; starting with the Baltic Countries, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia – in the Caucasus – but also some republics in central Asia.

Part of those scenarios unfolded fast, as it happened in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, where the formation of separatist entities was avoided. In Ukraine, this scenario developed significantly due to the creation of the Republic of Crimea. Attempts were made in other regions as well, but they did not yield the results of the actions carried out in George and the Republic of Moldova, due to some of those countries’ particularities.  

In the years 1975-1985, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia were seen as leisure areas and provided very good conditions for living. High-ranking members of the USSR secret services and army would move there. When their active service ended, after a difficult duty at the North Pole, or the Barents Sea, in the Middle East or in Siberia, they were allowed to choose a nice and warm place to live.

That would happen especially on the left bank of the Dniester, where the weather was warm for about 200 days per year. They would also go to the Black Sea Coast, in Abkhazia, to Sukhumi and even the Crimean shores.  

So, in 1991, on the left bank (Transnistria), out of the total population of 780,000 citizens, some 55,000 were Russian veterans. They were people with highly conservative pro-Soviet political views, with combat experience, who rapidly organized themselves into detachments, also with logistical support and coordination from Moscow.

Western journalists on the Transnistria front

VERIDICA: You experienced the 1992 war also as a journalist. How was that experience for you?

Viorel Cibotaru: In 1991-1992 I was the deputy editor-in-chief of the paper “Vocea Poporului” (People’s Voice). I had helped establish the newspaper. Back then I was working for trade unions. From that position I was posted to the Media and Communication Center of the Defense Ministry, as an officer. I was first-lieutenant back then and the officer in charge of communication.

Due to my universal training, I contributed with both my own productions, such as radio reports, TV reports, live comments, but also with a lot of organizational work. I used to organize and lead to the conflict areas teams of foreign journalists accredited by the Ministry of Defense.

In retrospect, I could say that I was fortunate to participate in some military operations as well, as an army officer. I must admit that I did not fire any weapon. I only dealt with public relations, the media, etc.

VERIDICA: Where there many foreign journalists reporting on the war on the Dniester?

Viorel Cibotaru: Yes, there were many. Back then I was also a professor of journalism at the Journalism Faculty in Chisinau. I was giving classes there and I was also working on my doctoral thesis in philological sciences, specializing in journalism. For me it was a learning opportunity to see how freelance journalists were working. I saw journalists from big media companies: CNN, BBC, Reuters, from Japan and even from Russia.

Those crews were made up of 5 to 20 people. We would either drive them on buses, or they would drive their own vehicles. I remember that the CNN crew came with a minibus that had satellite transmission equipment. Even if I did my best to protect their life and integrity, they would often just disappear and cover events on their own.

VERIDICA: Were there any accidents, did any foreign journalist get hurt?

Viorel Cibotaru: Happily, there were no accidents, no wounded journalists. But it happened, more than once, to find ourselves within the range of fire arms, in places under attack, with bullets flying all around.

I remember one time when we were with a fantastic crew from Sweden, which had actually come to Moldova to make a film on a palace in Varnitsa (near the town of Tihina) that used to be owned by Charles the 12th, King of Sweden. It’s actually ruins of the former palace, used by the king during the fights with the Tsarist Empire in the 18th century, and which was inhabited until 1713.

We went to film in the area with the Swedish crew and a very popular Swedish actor. His role was to narrate that historical episode. While they were filming, the separatists started firing machine guns on the left side of the Dniester. I remember that the Swedish crew didn’t even blink the whole time, they stayed and kept filming, even if bullets where flying above us.  

It was a really memorable scene. I didn’t understand Swedish, but I was told later that the actor said something like “back then, during the reign of Charles the 12th, they didn’t shoot as they are shooting now, because they used a different type of armament”. Unfortunately, I did not see the film, but I hope it was a genuine journalistic material. I saw then how brave those people were, defying fear, and they were obviously very well trained to do their job under those extremely difficult circumstances.

O potential settling of the Transnistrian conflict: autonomy after the Gagauzian model, within the Republic of Moldova

VERIDICA: Coming back to the present moment, I would like to ask you whether there is a clear vision of the Transnistrian issue today, if the current format with the Russians maintaining a peace-keeping force could be changed or if something could be agreed with regard to destroying the Soviet ammunition in Cobasna?

Viorel Cibotaru: Leaving aside the interpretations promoted by the Russian propaganda, in the Republic of Moldova the vast majority of the population and of the political segment of up to 75-80% agree with a unitary state. The districts on the left bank of the Dniester have all the means they need to carry out their activities within the framework of an autonomy similar to that of the Gagauz Republic, without allowing the Moscow regime to control the entire political, economic, constitutional and security life of the Republic of Moldova by implementing its own models for settling the Transnistria conflict. I’m referring here to federalization (wanted by Moscow), which has nothing in common with those solid European federations, but other conditions as well.

The previous governments have made lots of mistakes when negotiating with the Russian Federation. We see that it’s not about the Republic of Moldova tampering with the interests of the Russian Federation, but the Republic of Moldova suffering because it’s interest and legitimate right to be an independent sovereign state is being violated.

And this has been happening for 30 years now. There are no other solutions. This is the solution. The solution that the people of the Republic of Moldova wants, on the right bank anyway. I hope that a large part of the population that migrated from the Transnistrian area, where there are some 250-260 thousand inhabitants left, out of 800 thousand, because they could no longer bear the conditions imposed by the regime, might come back.

I would like to wish the elites in the Republic of Moldova patience and courage, persistence and the wisdom to understand that a proper level of resilience could result into unifying the territory and building the state, sooner or later, into what the majority I referred to earlier really wants.


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