Why should the people of Transnistria be forced to use the Roman alphabet?
The good news is that Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris – the bad news is that the negotiations will come to naught if the US insists on upholding its black-and-white narrative, which depicts Russia as the "aggressor" and Ukraine as the blameless helpless victim.
What’s interesting about the diplomatic encounter is the nature of Russia’s proposals: a federal system for Ukraine, which allows for greater autonomy for eastern and southern Ukraine, recognition of Russian as one of the official languages, and – especially baffling for Western observers – guarantees for Transnistria’s Russian-speaking population.
Those who wish to research the burning Transnistrian Question are handicapped from the very beginning because, among other unresolved issues surrounding this weird little strip of land bordering Moldova and ethnically Russian southern Ukraine is what to call it: there are at least three or four different names for this curious string of territory that snakes along the eastern bank of the Dniester river. The region declared independence in 1992, the immediate impetus being the Soviet collapse, which coincided with a drive within Moldova for union with Romania.
Filling the vacuum once occupied by the Romanian Communists, a pan-Romanian movement, motivated by virulent nationalism, was rapidly gaining influence. The pan-Romanists demanded a single official language – Romanian – and the end of political autonomy for geographically concentrated minority ethnic groups. From now on, declared the central Moldovan government, all official business – including instruction in state-supported schools – would be conducted in the sole official language, i.e. the Roman alphabet. That action reversed the old Soviet laws, which had banned the Roman alphabet and decreed all official texts must be in Cyrillic. This ethno-linguistic tug-of-war pretty much encapsulates the post-Soviet history of the entire region.
The Moldovan language edict was the initial impetus for the Transnistrian revolt, but the real issue was a fear Moldova would soon merge with Romania in order to realize the ancient dream of Romanian ultra-nationalists: the creation of "Greater Romania." Transnistria, unlike the rest of Moldova, had never been part of Romania, and the Russian and Ukrainian majority – some 60 percent – had no desire to be a part of the "Greater Romania" project. Fighting broke out, and, with the support of the Russians, Transnistria held a 1990 referendum in which 96 percent voted for independence – as in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and now Crimea. Igor Smirnov was elected President.
The Moldovan response was to launch attacks on the rebellious republic, which were quickly repulsed: however, the Moldovans kidnapped Smirnov and other separatist leaders on Ukrainian territory and jailed them in the Moldovan capital. Smirnov and the others were released only when Transnistria blockaded the rail line bringing in vital supplies from the east.
Boris Yeltsin intervened, at this point, signing an agreement with the Romanians that granted autonomy to Transnistria and also granted it the right to self-determination if and when Moldova decided to merge with Romania. The merger project, however, receded into the background as the "Greater Romania" ultra-nationalists began to lose influence in Moldova – and also Romania – due to the rapidly worsening economic situation in the region. The grandiose plans of the Greater Romanians faded as Moldova careened into utter privation, and the prospect of joining up with dirt-poor Romania seemed less attractive: a referendum overwhelmingly rejected union with Romania.
This did nothing to reassure the Transnistrians, however, who suspected Yeltsin and the Russians might sell them out for the right price. Transnistria contains most of what had formerly been Moldova’s light industrial and energy facilities, which the central government was eager to get its hands on. In spite of guarantees of "special" autonomy in the Moldovan constitution under the new administration, the Transnistrians insisted on dealing with the Moldovans in state-to-state terms. To heck with the Moldovan constitution, they averred – which could be changed if the right-wing nationalists came back into power – they wanted a treaty. This the Moldovans steadfastly refused – and the conflict has been "frozen" in place ever since.
As in virtually all such post-Soviet "frozen conflicts," history, ethnicity, language, and economics combine in a mosaic of extreme complexity – one not given to cold war era dichotomous thinking. Does anybody really have an easy and just solution to the Transnistrian Question, mired as it is in a tumultuous history of bloody wars, pogroms, and feuds that started in the 14th century? In all of these conflicts – from Crimea to Abkhazia – the clear-cut roles of aggressor and defender blend into one another and all efforts to construct a narrative that puts Russian-speakers in the wrong and Moldovans (or Ukrainians, Poles, etc.) in the right run aground on the rocky shoals of history and moral ambiguity.
Yet there is John Kerry, sitting in Paris with Lavrov even as I write, presuming to decide, among other things, the fate of Transnistria. As if we could ever know enough about that impossibly complicated part of the world to make even a qualified judgment.
Lavrov is now insisting on a "federal," i.e. highly decentralized system granting a great degree of autonomy to southern and eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is also demanding an end to efforts to make Ukrainian the sole official language, as well as calling for the coup leaders to rein in the right-wing militias, which have taken the place of the police in Kiev.
Neither Washington nor Moscow has any business determining Ukraine’s internal political arrangements. Yet it is Washington, in its deployment of "soft power" against the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich, that bears the onus of having provoked this kind of interference by Moscow. The Kiev coup was bought and paid for by the West, which poured money and who-knows-what-else into the Ukrainian opposition – unleashing ultra-nationalist forces like Svoboda and Right Sector and their violent provocations. The Ukrainian "crisis" is entirely the creation of Washington and its "democracy promotion" strategy of pursuing regime-change in the states of the former Soviet Union.
What’s more, the Russian proposals are clearly in line with libertarian principles – and yes, this is truly shocking to those who still think a nation’s domestic political character determines and defines its foreign policy. Yet the undeniable truth of the matter is that the decentralized federal system advanced by Lavrov maximizes the liberty of local communities and minimizes the power of oligarch–run authorities in Kiev to plunder the provinces. Conservatives in the US who invoke states rights as a bulwark against an overweening federal government need to think twice before denouncing the Lavrov proposal.
As we have seen in the case of Transnistria, the language question is a major problem in southeastern Europe, and the libertarian solution – guarantee linguistic liberty to ethnic minorities – is specified in the Russian proposals. In America, ballots and other official documents are in multiple languages: why is this multicultural approach suddenly abandoned whenever the issue involves Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union?
Support for these two important principles – decentralism and multi-lingualism – are what distinguishes genuine libertarians of Ukrainian extraction from Ukrainian nationalists who share with Svoboda and Right Sector a pathological hatred of all things Russian. Don’t be fooled by the latter.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the US government should impose these principles, together with Russia, on the peoples of the region. Let the Ukrainians negotiate with the Crimeans, and if they want to involve the Russians that’s their business. We, on the other hand, have no business interfering in this squabble.
Why oh why should the long-suffering people of Transnistria – who have lived under the Romanians, the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Moldovans – be forced to read, write, and speak Moldovan? Why must they use the Roman alphabet rather than Cyrillic letters? Does the United States really have a vital interest in deciding this burning question? Is it worth risking the start of a new cold war with nuclear-armed Russia?
These are the high weeds we wade into whenever we interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, and they don’t get much higher than in places like Transnistria, Ukraine, and Russia’s "near abroad." The danger here is we lose our way in this wilderness of competing ethnicities and catch ourselves on a tripwire that leads to a wider conflict for which we – and the world – are unprepared. The only rational course for the US to take is to turn back – before it’s too late.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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