subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Not a single country in the world recognises Transnistria, a narrow strip of land hemmed in by Ukraine and Moldova. Half a million people live in this strange leftover from the break-up of the Soviet Union: ethnic Russians account for 34% of the population, Moldovans 33% and Ukrainians 26.7%.

Transnistria hosts 1,500 Russian troops and could easily get wrapped up in the Ukraine war. But that’s not the underlying problem. Unrecognised and partially recognised states point to a profound, unresolved and brutal failing at the heart of the world’s current political order, a flaw so foundational that we often don’t see it. Sometimes not even after the mass graves are filled. 

On August 27 1991 the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence. The problem was that Transnistria didn’t want to be part of the Republic of Moldova and declared its own independence seven days later. The Transnistria war, rumblings of which started in November 1990, went into overdrive. Russia’s army entered the conflict, ensuring victory for the separatists in 1992. 

After a ceasefire Transnistria trundled along, ruling itself, and Moldova kept up the fiction of suzerainty. Russia provides free natural gas, transited through Ukraine, which Transnistria uses to power its industries and sell electricity to Moldova at rock-bottom prices. Transnistria’s citizens qualify for Russian and Moldovan passports, the latter allowing them to work in the EU. Sleeping dogs were left to lie.

Until 2024. When Ukraine closed its border with Transnistria at the beginning of the invasion, Transnistria had only one trade route left, and the Moldovans now seem hell bent on piling on the pressure. Moldova tightened customs checks, suddenly imposed import duties and amended its criminal code to make separatism a crime. Transnistrian officials could face jail time if they travel to Moldova. In response, Transnistria hiked taxes on about 2,000 Moldovan businesses. 

Moreover, the gas transit agreement will expire in December and the Ukrainians are less than keen to renew it. A humanitarian crisis looms. Transnistria went headline viral in March when it appealed to the European parliament, the UN secretary-general and the Red Cross for help. Russia was asked to provide protection, something Donbas separatists requested in 2014 and Vladimir Putin responded to by rolling out the tanks.

Existential threat

From the perspective of Transnistria’s undemocratic government, the Soviet Union just sort of carried on. But the de facto state is now facing an existential threat. Tensions in the region have risen alarmingly, and what was a largely peaceful situation has turned perilously uncertain. Rational people would talk this out and come to a mutually beneficial agreement. Unfortunately, sanity and Europe have parted ways. So much for
the Enlightenment.

Africa also has countries that aren’t countries: Somaliland and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, commonly known as Western Sahara. So the issue isn’t limited to European politics. In fact, the existence of unrecognised, partially recognised, autonomous regions and independence movements across the globe points to at least two fundamentals of the world’s political ordering. 

The first is a rather strange myth that supranational organisations and states seem wedded to despite all evidence to the contrary, namely that current borders need to endure forever. African leaders, for example, are devoutly attached to colonial demarcations.

An apartment block in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Picture: TRISTEN TAYLOR
An apartment block in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Picture: TRISTEN TAYLOR

From the agricultural revolution onwards empires, states, kingdoms, cities and countries have come and gone — 10,000 years of churn. The map has always changed; it doesn’t necessarily need to, or have to, stay the same. The Chagos Islands don’t have to remain a British territory, for example; the 3,000 or so indigenous Chagossians could go home. The entire population of the islands was expelled between 1967 and 1973 when the Americans craved an air and naval base to fight the communists. 

Charles Tilly, a defining figure in 21st-century sociology, explains that national states are entities “governing multiple contiguous regions and their cities by means of centralised, differentiated and autonomous structures”.

Just look around. Every country in the world is a national state. While types of structures such as governments and judicial systems differ, the base architecture is the same. Yet the national state is a fairly recent phenomenon: the development started after AD990 and only really got going from about 1500. 

Coercion and capital

How did the national state develop? Tilly’s answer is coercion and the concentration of capital. While the latter has great interest and power — after all, capitalism overran feudalism — coercion is directly relevant here. Simply put, national states were created through or from war and are held together through violent coercion. Britain’s formation of SA is an example. 

So deep is coercion in the national state’s DNA that it is the response to any kind of separatism. Usually this takes the form of mass arrests, torture and death squads — the odds are good that civil war cometh. Ethnic cleansing and genocide lurk. 

In democratic states coercion is still the go-to. When Scotland held its 2014 independence referendum, London and Brussels broke out a rather large economic and social threat. An independent Scotland would not automatically be part of the EU and would have to apply independently for membership. José Manuel Barroso, the then European Commission president, said this application would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”.

Apart from those who are mad-drunk on the Homeric virtue of glory in combat, we all have the feeling that war is a bad thing. Or at least we should, and herein lies the challenge: how to deal with regions and/or people who want to be independent without devolving to coercion. 

Despite all polls to the contrary, what would happen if the Cape Independence Party won the Western Cape provincial election in May? Would Pretoria let a province go after a bit of negotiation on electricity supply, passports and a customs union? Probably not. The crime of high treason applies in SA to acts with the intention of “violating, threatening or endangering the existence, independence or security of the republic” and “changing the constitutional structure of the republic”. 

Thinking about the improbable case of the “Cape of Good Hope”, as the party calls its dreamland, reminds me of West Papua, Biafra, Kabylia, Katanga and the 38 other places or peoples associated with the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa), which holds world football cups for unrecognised or partially recognised states, minorities, stateless people and regions unaffiliated with Fifa. According to Conifa, its members represent 950-million people. The organisation’s 2024 world cup will be played in the autonomous Kurdistan region, which held an independence referendum in 2017. Nearly 3-million people, 92.3% of the electorate, voted to secede from Iraq. War followed. 

The Transnistrian crisis is more than a geopolitical flare-up in the spiralling West versus Russia & China conflict. It speaks to the deadly flaw at the national state’s core. If we don’t find something better than coercion and economic overlordship, war will be eternal. 

• Dr Taylor, a freelance journalist and photographer, is a research Fellow in environmental ethics at Stellenbosch University. 

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.