What is Transnistria, the target of recent bombings?

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(CNN) --

Pro-Russian authorities in the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova have asked President Vladimir Putin for help in the face of what they see as threats from the Moldovan government.

Transnistria, which illegally separated from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union, has remained firmly in the Kremlin's orbit, while Moldova, which borders Ukraine, aspires to join the European Union.

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At an extraordinary congress on Wednesday, Transnistrian politicians asked Moscow to protect them from "growing pressure from Moldova."

The Kremlin later declared that protecting its "compatriots" was a priority, Russian state media RIA Novosti reported.

Although the congress initially raised fears that Moscow would press ahead with its old plan to destabilize the increasingly pro-Western Moldovan government, Moldova branded it "propaganda."

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What happened in Transnistria?

Meetings of the Transnistrian Congress of Deputies, a Soviet-era model of decision-making, are rare but often significant.

The Congress of Deputies gave rise to Transnistria in 1990, which triggered a war two years later between separatists, supported by Moscow, and the fledgling Republic of Moldova.

No country officially recognizes Transnistria, where Russia has maintained an increasingly smaller military presence for decades, currently around 1,500 troops.

Before this Wednesday, the most recent meeting of Congress had been in 2006, when a referendum was approved calling for accession to Russia.

When Transnistrian politicians unexpectedly announced a new meeting, analysts suggested it could lead to new calls for unification with Russia.

Moldovan and Ukrainian officials downplayed these speculations.

Congress did not go to this extent, instead passing a resolution calling on Russia to provide the more than 220,000 Russian citizens of Transnistria with greater "protection" from the Moldovan authorities.

"Transnistria will continue to fight for its identity, the rights and interests of the people of Transnistria and will not give up protecting them, despite any blackmail or external pressure," the resolution said, according to Russian state media TASS.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry said that "protecting the interests of the people of Transnistria, our compatriots, is one of the priorities."

Moldovan authorities dismissed the congress as an attempt to stoke "hysteria."

"There are no dangers of escalation and destabilization of the situation in this region of our country," spokesman Daniel Voda wrote on Telegram.

"What is happening in Tiraspol [the region's capital] is an act of propaganda."

In a statement to CNN, Moldova's reintegration office said it "rejects Tiraspol's propaganda statements and recalls that the Transnistria region benefits from peace, security and economic integration policies with the EU, which are beneficial to all citizens".

For his part, the spokesman for the United States Department of State, Matt Miller, declared this Wednesday that the country "closely follows Russia's actions in Transnistria and the general situation in the area."

Why hold a conference now?

Russia's war in Ukraine has had a profound effect on Transnistria's economy.

Ukraine closed its border with Transnistria when the war began, disrupting about a quarter of the enclave's trade.

Although it still receives free Russian gas, the agreement to allow its transit through Ukraine is set to expire in December, and there are no guarantees it will be extended.

The war also prompted Moldova to try to resolve its decades-long conflict with Transnistria.

Partly in response to the war, the EU granted Moldova candidate status in June 2022, and in December 2023 gave the go-ahead to start accession negotiations.

Although Moldova's President Maia Sandu has indicated she would be willing to join the EU without Transnistria, reunification can speed up the process.

A recent blog by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated that "Moldova's strategy is to accelerate the process by making life as difficult as possible" for Transnistria.

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In this regard, Moldova unexpectedly removed customs duty exemptions for Transnistrian companies in January, forcing them to pay levies to both Transnistria and Moldova.

Dumitru Minzarari, professor of security studies at the Baltic Defense College, told CNN that Transnistria's decision to hold a special congress was "directly provoked" by Moldova's reintroduction of customs duties.

"By offering the breakaway region tax breaks, the Moldovan government had been virtually financing the existence of a separatist regime in Tiraspol," Minzarari claimed, an arrangement the government no longer felt obligated to tolerate.

Minzarari said the dispute created opportunities for Russian authorities to "fish in troubled waters."

Why is Russia interested in Moldova?

If the Russian invasion of Ukraine had gone as planned, it would have captured the capital Kyiv in days and the rest of the country in weeks, razing the Ukrainian coast to the southwestern city of Odessa, near Transnistria.

The then commander of Russia's Central Military Region, Major General Rustam Minnekaev, said one of the goals of the so-called "special military operation" was to establish a corridor through southern Ukraine to Transnistria, as Russia seeks to reunite with their "compatriots abroad".

Although Ukraine stopped Moscow's advance in Kherson, about 350 kilometers from Transnistria, analysts emphasize that Russia maintains its designs on Moldova.

"The Kremlin intends to use Transnistria as a Russian-controlled proxy that it can use to derail Moldova's EU accession process, among other things," the Institute for the Study of War, a research group, warned in a report last week. study center based in the United States.

A bust of Lenin in front of the House of Soviets building in Tiraspol, July 2022. (Credit: Anton Polyakov/Getty Images)

Just as Russia considered Ukraine's 2014 turn towards the EU unacceptable – and used military force to prevent it – it is also willing to prevent it in Moldova.

CNN last year saw a document prepared by the Russian security service, the FSB, detailing its plan to destabilize Moldova and thwart its tilt toward the West.

Putin justified Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk as an effort to protect Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine, whom he claimed were threatened by Kyiv.

Minzarari said there were "strong parallels" between that rhetoric and that used recently by the Transnistria government.

In an interview with RIA Novosti, President Vadim Kranoselsky claimed that the Moldovan government was preparing to carry out terrorist attacks against Transnistria in the face of a possible invasion, without providing evidence.

However, other analysts argue that, rather than underscoring Russia's influence in the region, the situation in Transnistria is rather a reminder of how Moscow has so far failed to achieve its main war objectives.

"A call for the annexation of Transnistria rejected by Russia would be a major public relations coup for Ukraine, reminding Russians and Ukrainians that what commentators believed two years ago were modest war goals are now too far out of reach." of Russia to even consider them," Ben Dubow, a non-resident researcher at the Center for European Political Analysis, told CNN.

CNN's Radina Gigova contributed to this report

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