Under Soviet rule
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in Moscow, August 23, 1939. In the background also appear Joachim von Ribbentrop and Joseph Stalin standing among the translators and secretaries. (nara.gov)
Before the Soviet period, the Transdniester region had always been regarded as part of Ukraine, not of Moldova or Bessarabia. Only in 1924 was it artificially given a Moldovan identity as part of a new Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Ukrainian SSR. This formation was created to facilitate the eventual re-absorption of Bessarabia into the Soviet Union—a goal finally achieved in 1940 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
In 1941 Romania joined its ally, Nazi Germany, in attacking the USSR, and occupied Bessarabia together with a broad swath of Ukrainian land further to the east. In 1944 the Soviet army re-conquered Bessarabia. Only then were the two parts of present-day Moldova joined together to form the Moldavian SSR. At the same time, about one-third of Bessarabia, including its entire Black Sea coastline, was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.
However, the two parts of the Moldavian SSR remained different in important ways. The Transdniester region, having long been part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, remained more Russified and Sovietized than Right-Bank Moldavia. The difference widened with intensive postwar industrialization that brought a big influx of Russian and Ukrainian workers into the Transdniester region.
Moldovan Popular Front (MPF)
Latent tensions came out into the open when President Gorbachev started liberalizing the Soviet political system. In May 1989, the Moldovan Popular Front (MPF) was established in Right-Bank Moldova. The MPF served as an umbrella organization for Moldovans who sought Moldova’s secession from the USSR and (in most cases) unification with Romania. Two opposing movements also developed:
- The Intermovement, representing pro-Soviet Russian-speakers, and
- Gagauz Khalky, representing the Gagauz minority.
Soon after, there began the long series of rallies, protests, and strikes that led to violent clashes and eventually civil war.
Clashes in October 1990 lead to split
In March 1990, the MPF gained control of the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR in the first competitive elections to that body. Alarmed at the apparent prospect of finding themselves unwelcome minorities within a Greater Romania, the Gagauz and Russian-speakers of Left-Bank Moldova reacted by proclaiming Gagauz and Transdniester autonomous republics (ASSRs) within Moldova (in November 1989 and January 1990 respectively). The MPF-dominated Supreme Soviet, however, refused to recognize these autonomous republics.
In June 1990, the Supreme Soviet declared the sovereignty of the Moldovan (no longer the term "Moldavian," which expresses inclusiveness of all ethnic groups) SSR, and appointed its chairman Mircea Snegur president. Although that did not mean full independence yet, this was evidently the goal. In September 1990, the Gagauz area and the Transdniester region proclaimed themselves Republics of the USSR (SSRs) outside Moldova.
In October 1990, a confrontation between crowds of MPF and Gagauz activists, many armed, ended without violence thanks to the intervention of Soviet troops and the negotiation of mutual concessions. But in November 1990 the first violent clashes did occur between Transdniester volunteers and Moldovan police in the city of Dubossary on the Dniester River.