Some of the people who were forced to leave Ukraine after the Russian invasion have fled to Transnistria. Why are Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in a de facto state that receives financial and military support from Russia, and what is their status there? A ZOiS study provides some insights.
Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.
Since Russia’s war against Ukraine began in February 2022, more than a million people have crossed the Ukrainian-Moldovan border. According to official figures, around 120,600 were still in Moldova in December 2023. The real figure is likely to be lower, partly because many Ukrainians regularly commute between Moldova and Ukraine. Some of those who fled Ukraine have settled in the Russia-backed de facto republic of Transnistria. The precise figure is likewise difficult to determine: according to official statistics from the de facto authorities, the number of people who had entered Transnistria stood at 185,200 at the start of January 2024; of this figure, 172,500 have registered in Transnistria. Local experts estimate that 5,000 to 6,000 Ukrainian refugees may have remained in Transnistria; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) puts the number at 8,000-10,000.
Transnistria is a de facto state which belongs to Moldova under international law. It declared its independence after a brief military conflict in 1992, but is not recognised by any country in the world. Transnistria receives financial and military support from Russia and briefly attracted media and political attention in this context in spring 2022 following still unexplained explosions in the capital Tiraspol and the Cobasna ammunition depot. These events sparked fears that the war would expand into the region and that Russia’s military presence in Transnistria and the de facto state’s dependence on its patron state could contribute to this escalation. Soon after the war began, Ukraine closed its 400 km border with Transnistria and it is now only possible to exit officially via the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.
Due to the de facto state’s special geopolitical status and its high dependence on Russian support, one question inevitably arises: why do refugees from Ukraine make their way to Transnistria, and how do they fare in this conflict region?
Proximity and language ease the transition
Geographical proximity is a key factor: many Ukrainians headed south and took the direct routes to the neighbouring country in order to avoid the overflowing evacuation trains towards the West. A study conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in winter 2022/23 revealed that 71 per cent of respondents in Transnistria came from the Odesa region in southern Ukraine, not far from the border with Moldova. The close economic and social links with Ukraine also play a role. Many refugees have friends and relatives in Transnistria or, indeed, come from Transnistria themselves. What’s more, around 22 per cent of Transnistria’s inhabitants identify as Ukrainian. There are few language barriers: the de facto state’s official languages are Romanian (termed ‘Moldovan’ by the de facto government), Ukrainian and Russian. In everyday life, education and public administration, Russian predominates. The IOM survey, already mentioned, revealed that 82 per cent of Ukrainian refugees live with relatives, friends or acquaintances, with a much smaller percentage renting their own apartments. A small minority are housed in refugee accommodation. Seven of these facilities opened in Transnistria in early 2022, but only one is still in use. There is easy access to schools and crèches, which are available free of charge. According to the authorities, around 400 students are in general education and some 200 children attend crèches. Local experts estimate that the number of children in school is twice as high as the official figure. As in other host countries, the children generally participate in online lessons from Ukraine as well as attending a local school.
Minimal state support
Other than easing the transition in this way, the Transnistrian de facto government has taken no further action. There are problems with access to financial resources, food and clothing. International aid is not disbursed to Transnistria, which means that refugees have to travel to Moldova in order to obtain financial support, although the IOM and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have also distributed aid directly in Transnistria via ‘Resonance’, a local NGO. In March 2023, the Republic of Moldova issued provisions granting temporary protection to Ukrainian refugees. This status applies for a limited period of one year and enables refugees to obtain healthcare and social assistance services and access the labour market in the Republic of Moldova. However, many Ukrainian refugees in Transnistria are unaware of these provisions; they also face bureaucratic hurdles as Moldova does not recognise documents issued in Transnistria as valid for making an application for protection status.
The Ukrainian refugees also have various issues to contend with due to Transnistria’s geopolitical status. As well as the uncertainty over their formal status, they are confronted with differences in political and social attitudes, for example. In interviews with refugees in Transnistria conducted by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), the respondents describe various challenges facing them in everyday life. The political proximity to Russia is demonstrated by the flags hanging in the public space, and the appeal of Russian identity-building projects such as the ‘Russian World’ for Transnistrians is made all too apparent in conversations. Some refugees have been asked quite bluntly whether they support Russia or Ukraine. Lessons in Transnistrian schools are conducted in Russian, with few exceptions. Although many Transnistrians are worried that the war might escalate, the refugees also hear expressions of support for a land bridge between the Russian-occupied territories and Transnistria. Among the refugees are some who fled the conflict in Moldova 30 years ago and who have now returned to Moldova due to the war in Ukraine. For Ukrainian refugees in Transnistria, life and the future are beset by ambivalence relating to its special geopolitical status. Their situation is likely to remain challenging and uncertain due to the ongoing war, whose end is not yet in sight.
PD Dr Sabine von Löwis is a researcher at ZOiS and head of the ‘Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions’ research cluster.