NUI PhD scholar Keith Harrington on his research:

Keith Harrington is an NUI Travelling Scholar in Humanities and Social Sciences and a PhD Candidate at the Department of History and the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies at Maynooth University. Here he talks about his research to date. 

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A bust of Lenin inn rural Transnistria. Authors own photograph.

I began my research in 2017 under the joint supervision of Dr John Paul Newman and Professor John O’Brennan. My work focuses on the conflict between Moldova and the separatist region of Transnistria. In 2018 I was awarded the NUI Travelling Studentship in Humanities and Social Sciences to support my work.

My research primarily focuses on the impact that language legislation had on the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria, and how the conflict was experienced in all seven districts of Transnistria. Scholarship has tended to present Transnistria as region whose drive for separatism was driven by a few elites, who wished to consolidate control over state assets. In addition to this, Transnistria itself is generally presented as a territory which was unified in its quest to separate from Moldova. However, after doing some preliminary research in the Moldovan National Library and the Tiraspol Central Archive, I realised that there was a dimension to the conflict which had not yet been told.

Prior to 1989 there had been no tension between the Transnistrian region and the rest of Moldova. However, tensions soon began to emerge when civic groups, encouraged under the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, began to demand that Moldovan become the sole official language of republic, and be written in the Latin rather than the Cyrillic script. The main opposition to these calls came from Transnistria, where the majority of the population were either ethnic Russians or Russian speakers. When the Moldovan Supreme Soviet agreed to convene to debate the proposed changes to the language legislation, mass strikes were held throughout much of the Transnistrian region. Despite the pressure from Transnistria, the Moldovan authorities decided to adopt proposals into law on the 31 August 1989. It was only after this event, that various regional leaders attempted to secede from Moldova. The links that they had established from the strikes made them realise that they had a more or less coherent territory that they could control. The passing of the 1989 language laws set Moldova on a course which eventually lead to civil war, and the division of the country. The importance of the language legislation is evident by Transnistrian’s 1992 declaration of independence, which deemed all decisions taking by the Moldovan parliament before 31 August 1989 null and void, with any decisions taken after having to be ratified by a local assembly.

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Victory Monument in Tiraspol. Authors own photograph

The language issue did not just divide Moldova and Transnistria, it also divided Transnistria itself. Moldovans constitute the single largest ethnic group in Transnistria (although they are out numbered by Russians and Ukrainians combined). What is yet to be discussed in scholarship is how these Moldovans reacted to the passing of the language laws, and potentially finding themselves outside of the Moldovan state. It should come as no surprise that many Moldovans were unhappy about the prospect of being outside of Moldova. Indeed, this caused particular trouble in the rural areas of Slobozia and Grigoriopol, where the local communist party was forced out of the area. The largest resistance came in the district of Dubăsari, were fighting emerged between locals and Transnistrian forces, leading to a small civil war within Transnistria. This has resulted in Moldova retaining control over certain portions of Dubăsari. My interest in resistance to Transnistrian rule goes beyond political factions. I am also interested in a number of civic groups, most notably the Tiraspol Pedagogical Institute, whose resistance to Transnistria lead to its evacuation from Tiraspol to Chișinău, where it remains to this day.

In total I have visited Moldova and Transnistria three times, and have conducted research in a number of repositories including the National Library of Moldova, the Archive of Social and Political Movements of Moldova and the Tiraspol Central Archive. Researching in Moldova and Transnistria has proved difficult at times. Many of the repositories in Moldova have very little information online, whilst some of their counterparts in Transnistria are located in very rural locations. This is further complicated by the linguistic situation in the country. Moldovan (identical to Romanian) is still the sole official language of Moldova. However, due to the fact that Moldova was a part of the Soviet Union, the majority of the documents are in Russian, and a high proportion of the population speaks Russian. This can result in having to order documents in Romanian, while being able to read them in Russian. It can also create difficulties, as some people prefer to speak one language over the other. The situation less complex in Transnistria. Officially, Transnistria has three state languages, Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan. However, virtually everyone speaks Russian, and all of the documents are in Russian. The language situation has created a challenge for me, as I have had to study two different languages with two different scripts (Romanian/Moldovan is written in the Latin Script, whereas Russian is written in the Cyrillic script).

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Lenin stands guard outside the local parliament building of Dubăsari. Authors own photograph.

A study of this nature is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Transnistria still exists as a de-facto independent state. This study is the first historical study to properly focus on the region. When discussing the conflict, most scholars have preferred to mention Transnistria only when it directly affected Moldova, rather than discuss the internal power struggle for the region. Larger questions concerning language and identity are still very much at the forefront of Moldovan and Transnistrian politics. Since independence, various governments have toyed with the idea of reintroducing Russian as a second language, whilst others have declared their intention to change the official language from Moldovan to Romanian, as the term Moldovan is viewed as nothing more than Soviet era propaganda. Tensions over language issues still exist between Moldova and Transnistria, as Transnistria refuses to give a permanent status to the schools which teach Moldovan in the Latin script on their territory. It is also important because there are a number of other de facto states which have yet to receive independent study, most notably South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Additionally, the emergence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ in Ukraine, has demonstrated that de-facto states in the post-Soviet space are anything but a phenomenon of the past.

I chose to conduct my research in Maynooth for a number of reasons. Firstly, both Dr Newman and Professor O’Brennan have experience working with post-communist conflict zones, particularly in the Balkans. In addition to this, Professor O’Brennan is the chair of the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, the only one of its kind in the country. By being a member the centre, and working closely with it, I have been able to meet international academics who have also contributed to my research.

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