The paper examines the current demographic crisis of Transnistria, an internationally unrecognised state that separated from Moldova in 1990 followed by a short violent conflict in 1992. Much has been written about the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria. What these studies largely neglected to mention is that the region is experiencing a strong demographic decline for two reasons: sinking birth rates and high outmigration. This has consequences for economic development, education, healthcare, and the social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. These trends are discussed against the background of the unique political situation of Transnistria and in light of similar demographic processes taking place in East Central and Southeastern Europe. The authors draw conclusions about the stability of the region and the relevance of the demographic situation for conflict transformation. The paper is based on studies conducted in Transnistria and fieldwork undertaken by the authors.
Demographic change and how to deal with it has been a central topic across Europe for the last 20 years (European Commission 2020). East and Southeast European countries have been especially affected by demographic change because this tends to accompany the fundamental economic and political transition from state-planned to liberal market economies, which has caused massive labour outmigration from East to West with severe social, economic, and political consequences for the societies and economies left behind (Kureková 2011; Skoglund 2019). In this study, we focus on Moldova, a former Soviet republic, and especially on the de facto state of Transnistria that separated from Moldova in the early 1990s.
The demographic change and significant outmigration experienced by many of the East and Southeast European countries has been the subject of various studies (Chawla, Betcherman, and Banerji 2007; Erőss and Karácsonyi 2014; UNFPA 2018), and Moldova is no exception (Gagauz et al. 2016; IOM 2016). Post-Soviet de facto states have been analysed from various perspectives, including patron–client relations, the political economy, international relations, and more recently, internal development (e.g. Bakke et al. 2018; Berg and Vits 2020; Marandici and Leșanu 2020; Relitz 2019). However, demographic prospects have been rarely analysed, mainly because of the difficulties in accessing data. Nevertheless, this topic is relevant, as a permanent population is one of the features that legitimises a state. But also from the perspective of the internal legitimisation of de facto states, a stable population is essential (Kolosov and Crivenco 2021).
Moldova has the lowest birth rate and the highest mortality rate in Eastern Europe (UNFPA 2018). The violent separation of Transnistria from Moldova and the ensuing conflict resulted in a number of economic, social, and political changes, which have also affected the demographic development. The region of Transnistria was the most developed and industrialised region of the former overwhelmingly rural Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Prohnițchi 2012). Since gaining independence, the Republic of Moldova has been in a state of continuous socio-economic crisis. In Transnistria, this crisis is aggravated by the lack of international recognition. The separation of Transnistria from Moldova had severe social and economic consequences for Moldova due to the loss of its industrial base and the unresolved conflict on its territory that not only affects economic development prospects but also the social, territorial, and political cohesion of the region as a whole (O’Loughlin, Toal, and Chamberlain-Creangă 2013). With these conditions in mind, our study focuses on how the demographic composition and development of the region is characterised, contextualising this in the general economic and demographic transition, and how this may affect the further development of the conflict and attempts at conflict resolution.
The Region, Its Borders, Data Availability, and Demography of De Facto States
The Republic of Moldova (RM) proclaimed independence and announced its secession from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on 27 August 1991. Almost a year earlier, on 2 September 1990, the Declaration on the Formation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR) and its separation from the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR) was adopted. A year later, it was renamed the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), or Pridnestrovie. In English, the term Transnistria has been established.
Within a short period of time, administrative structures were created, whose power extended to most of the territory of the left bank of Moldova, as well as to the city of Bender and its environs on the right bank. A short armed conflict took place in the spring and summer of 1992. There are still discrepancies between how the authorities of the RM and the unrecognised PMR interpret the borders of the territory (Figure 1). According to documents of the PMR (Prezident Pridnestrovskoj Moldavskoj Respubliki, 17 July 2002), all settlements of the Dubossary and Slobodzeya districts of the former Moldavian SSR on the left bank are included in the territory of the PMR, including those that have never been administered by the PMR authorities.
Studies have been published about demographic developments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe in relation to the transformation experienced by postsocialist and post-Soviet countries (Holubec and Tomka 2020). However, research about the demography of conflict and violence is limited (Brunborg and Tabeau 2005; Brunborg and Urdal 2005), and there are almost no studies about the demographic development of the post-Soviet conflict areas, especially de facto states. One reason may be that demographers tend to present population development in the context of broader trends, rather than in relation to the short intense effects of military conflict and violence (Holubec and Tomka 2020, 237–8).
There are a number of issues inherent in the demography of conflict and violence that apply to Transnistria. Known consequences of war and conflict reported in the media are deaths and migration. However, there are many more demographic consequences and causes that are part of the unresolved conflict surrounding the existence of a de facto state.
The Transnistrian Statistical Service (State Statistical Service of Transnistria) was organised on the basis of the regional divisions of the Statistical Service of the former Moldavian SSR. After the self-proclamation of Transnistria, the statistical services of the right and left banks began to separate, and in 1998 finally split. In the years that followed, the statistical service of Moldova (National Bureau of Statistics 2022) was significantly reorganised and began the process of adapting the national statistical system to the standards of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN). The Transnistrian State Statistical Service, on the other hand, continued to use outdated methods of collecting data without any significant modernisation. As a result, it lagged behind in the collection of demographic data, the processing of that data and making it available to users. That said, with the help of the Russian Federation, it was able to independently conduct quite successful population censuses in 2004 and 2015. However, detailed census data was not made publicly available.
Who the territories belong to is important for collecting statistical data on the population. Thus, the National Bureau of Statistics of the Republic of Moldova only collects data on those settlements under the control of the country’s authorities, and the same can be said about the territories controlled by Transnistria and covered by the State Statistics of Transnistria. As far as the censuses conducted by the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria are concerned, only the settlements that are actually controlled by each of the parties are covered. Since 1998, the Transnistrian State Statistical Service has not shared statistical information with the National Bureau of Statistics of the Republic of Moldova. Thus, Moldova does not collect data on the territory controlled by the PMR authorities. These imprecisions need to be taken into account when comparing data on the population size.
Along with the current statistical registration of the population, the State Statistical Service of Transnistria carries out surveys and population censuses that cover all territories it controls, with the first census being conducted in 2004 and the second in 2014 (Moldova) and 2015 (Transnistria). In both cases, the divided censuses of the two parts of the country were carried out independently of each other and their results only reflect data pertaining to the left or right bank of the Dniester River. Both data sources, in Moldova and Transnistria, have their shortcomings. Nevertheless, they provide the only available official data to work with. Given these difficulties of obtaining reliable data, we also draw on media reports and social research (Brunborg and Tabeau 2005), since the official sources only provide limited data about outmigration in an unresolved conflict, in particular (Lubkeman 2005). If not otherwise stated, the quantitative data on the demographic development of the PMR is based on unpublished data from the State Statistical Service of Transnistria. In addition, field notes taken during a research trip in 2019 were used.
Population Development in the Region. The Problem of Determining the Basic Population of Transnistria
According to official data, the estimated number of residents living in settlements under the control of the PMR in 1990 was 706,300 people. This data was based on the last census of the USSR, conducted in 1989, and seems to be the most suitable data to use as a baseline indicator for analysis and comparisons. Negative demographic trends in Transnistria emerged in the early 1990s, which, in general, is typical for the European part of the post-Soviet space and is a consequence of the decrease in the birth rate as well as the increase in mortality and an aging population (e.g. Chawla, Betcherman, and Banerji 2007; Gagauz et al. 2016).
Equally importantly, the evolving conflict in the region, with its short, violent war in 1992, played a role as well. In 1990 and 1991, the absolute population growth was maintained. In 1992, a significant migration outflow caused by the military–political events led to an absolute population decline (Figure 2; Supplementary Material Table 1). The closure of a number of industrial enterprises and, as a consequence, the reduced number of potential employers, as well as the low level of wages in comparison with foreign countries, were significant push factors for emigration. In addition, the protracted conflict and the development of a de facto state caused social and economic insecurity, which, in turn, had medium-term demographic consequences. Over the past 25 years, there has been a steady decline in the region’s population.
The abrupt decline in the population recorded in the 2004 and 2015 censuses is a consequence of the discrepancy between the data collected by these censuses and the current population count, which led to migration outflow being underestimated for many years. An analysis of the dynamics of the total population of Transnistria in subsequent years indicates a steady decline, due not only to high mortality and emigration, but also to a decline in fertility. Over the period from 1990 to 2004, the population decreased from 706,000 to 554,000 (a decline of 151,000 people, or 21.5%). According to the preliminary results of the last census, which took place in October 2015, the population of the PMR was 475,665 people, comprising 332,490 urban (69.9%) and 143,175 rural dwellers (30.1%). In comparison with the results of the previous census, conducted in 2004, over a period of 12 years, the population of the republic decreased by 14.3% (Figures 3 and 4).
Migration: Absent Population, Internal and External Migration
In 1990–1991, a long period of the region of Transnistria maintaining a positive balance of migration, with the commensurate beneficial demographic impact, came to an end. The collapse of the USSR, the military–political conflict of 1992, the absence of an international political and legal status, and the socio-economic crisis led to Transnistria becoming a less attractive place to live, resulting in significant outmigration, as well as a decline in the region’s immigration potential. While increased migration is something that is happening across the post-Soviet space and within Europe, due to their relative geographical proximity, but also towards the rest of the world, the number of citizens leaving Transnistria is significantly underestimated in the data provided by the State Statistical Service of Transnistria.
There are objective difficulties related to Transnistria that do not allow for an accurate account of migration flows. The registration system is only mandatory for foreigners. Local residents only have to register if they officially declare a change in place of residence or go abroad to work on a contract. Cyclical labour or educational migration, when residents go abroad for a limited period of time to earn money or study, but then return to Transnistria, is not registered. Moreover, in addition to their PMR passports, residents of Transnistria often have passports of different states such as Russia, Moldova, or Ukraine, which makes it impossible to keep adequate records at the border or use data on migrants from foreign sources.
Incomplete accounts of migration flows, and, consequently, the inability to obtain adequate data on the population size, its age structure, and other characteristics, is a serious obstacle in generating estimates regarding the population. According to the official data of the current registration of the State Statistical Service, by the beginning of 2004 there were 623,900 people in the PMR. The natural decline in 2004 amounted to 3200 people, and the migration decline (taking into account data on external and internal migration) was 4200 people. Thus, the estimated population size by the beginning of 2015 should have been 616,500 people. However, the population census recorded a resident population of just 554,400. The difference of more than 62,000 people is accounted for by the underestimated migration outflow of the population, which has been accumulating since 1989. There was a similar situation with the 2015 census. This revealed the underestimated migration losses since 2004 to be 22,000 people, or an average of 2000 people per year.
A first indicator showing the migration outflow is the ratio of present to temporarily absent population during a census. According to the results of the 2004 census, the current population was 363,000 people less than the permanent one. Preliminary data from the 2015 census indicate that the absolute number and the share of temporarily absent population has increased significantly compared to the 2004 census data (Supplementary Material Table 3). Between the 2004 and 2015 censuses, the absolute number of temporarily absent persons almost doubled (the increase was 94.4%). In relative terms, the positive dynamics of the temporarily absent population can be observed in all administrative territorial units (Supplementary Material Tables 3 and 4), which is a clear indication of a deteriorating socio-economic situation.
The official data also show a significant migration outflow. Especially noteworthy is 1992, when, because of the military conflict, the highest negative balance was recorded in the contemporary history of the region. Around 100,000 refugees were registered. Approximately 60,000 fled to Ukraine, 17,000 to Russia, and about 20,000 to countries outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Another 50,000 fled to the right bank of the Dniester (Mosneaga 2013). After the end of hostilities in August 1992, most of the refugees returned home. In 1993, the country as a whole recorded a positive balance of migration, which was of a compensatory nature. During this period, a certain number of immigrants settled in Transnistria due to the linguistic policy in the Republic of Moldova, which limited the use of the Russian language. This drove a significant number of the Russian-speaking population to leave, some of whom moved to the PMR (Vendina 2001).
However, since as early as 1994, the number of people who have left has exceeded the number of arrivals every year (Supplementary Material Table 5). When it comes to the structure of the migrants, external and internal migrants are dominated by young people aged 15–34. In recent years, the percentage of men among external and internal migrants has fluctuated around 42–43%, and the share accounted for by women has been around 38–45% (Table 1). The share of children among migrants slightly increased from 12.5% in 2012 to 15.3% in 2018.
|Total of which, aged||100.0||100.0||100.0||100.0||100.0||100.0|
|14 and younger||14.74||13.22||16.24||14.84||16.29||14.48|
|65 and older||5.38||7.75||4.18||6.34||5.54||8.08|
Source: State Statistical Service of Transnistria.
In 2017, for the first time in many years, a positive migration balance was documented; in 2019 and 2020, an influx of migrants was recorded. This can be partly explained by the fact that the region is attractive for certain groups of migrants, mainly those from the Republic of Moldova. Relatively low housing prices and lower utility costs (gas, heating, electricity) make Transnistrian cities attractive for some residents of Moldova, primarily pensioners. At the same time, the standard of living on the two banks of the Dniester was approximately the same thus not resulting in any significant movements of labour migrants between Transnistria and the rest of Moldova. Detailed data on migration to Transnistria by age group is not available, but it is occasionally reported on by the state-owned media (Iz Moldovy v Pridnestrov’e, Novosti PMR, 18 December 2019). The educational migration factor has a twofold effect. On the one hand, graduates from Transnistria leave for higher education institutions in Moldova and Russia (de Waal and von Löwis 2020). On the other, the Russian-speaking population from the right bank (for example from the Gagauz region) choose to study in Transnistria. There were about 650 foreign students at the Pridnestrovian State University (Pridnestrovskij gosudarstvennyj universitet imeni Tarasa Ševčenko, PGU) in 2020 (Liahova 2020). To attract foreign students, the university offers free tuition opportunities, so-called budgetary places, which are paid by the state budget and not the students themselves, e.g. budgetary places were reserved for students from Gagauzia each year (V Pridnestrovskom gosuniversitete vydeleny …, IA REGNUM, 17 August 2007; V PGU im. T.G. Ševčenko sokratitsja …, Pervyj Pridnestrovskyj 29 April 2015).
People also move from rural to urban areas. Tiraspol and Bender are the most attractive cities. The suburban settlements of the Slobodzeya district adjacent to Tiraspol are also attractive for migrants from other regions of Transnistria. An analysis of the data on the distribution of the population by place of birth shows that only about half of the inhabitants of Tiraspol and Bender were born in these cities, while more than 40% moved there from abroad, mainly from Moldova, Ukraine, or Russia (Supplementary Material Tables 6 and 7). In the Kamenka district in the north of the country, locally born residents make up the majority of the population (76%).
External and internal migration has been dominated by urban settlements, including the large cities. The mobility of urban dwellers has been higher than that of rural dwellers. The rural population has played a decisive role in internal migration as well as in pendulum movements, while the urban residents have dominated when it comes to external migration. In 1992, for instance, the share of urban dwellers among the arrivals was 73.9%, and among those who left, it was 79.1%; in 2000, the respective numbers were 68.7 and 77.5%, in 2012, 69.7 and 73.2%.
The data also indicate that there is a tendency towards an increase in mobility of the rural population and thus in its role in migration flows. In general, a decrease in the number of arrivals and departures both in urban and rural settlements can be observed, which indicates a reduction in the potential of many settlements to absorb migrants.
There are no reliable statistics or official system registering outmigration in Transnistria. Migrants mainly head towards Russia, to a lesser extent they move to Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and other European countries, as well as Israel. Reasons for outmigration can relate to repatriation programmes. People of German and Jewish origin left the region with the help of programmes organised by Germany and Israel. There are also political migrants, most of whom left during the military conflict of 1992, with some departing at a later point. Some migrants leave for socio-economic reasons. Others left for political reasons after the 2011 and 2015 elections, which resulted in discord between the authorities and the new political leaders. Many apply for political asylum in Germany, for instance. The biggest group, however, are labour migrants, who these days consider their available options very carefully. The status of labour migrants in the countries they choose has been improving and work is increasingly more in keeping with their skills. In addition, people are now tending to leave for good and take their whole families, since the legal conditions have improved too (Ostavnaia 2017).
Students leave to pursue higher education in Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania, as well as other countries, with the aim of receiving an internationally recognised diploma. Some countries offer quotas for Transnistrian students, who usually do not return to the region after completing their degrees (de Waal and von Löwis 2020; Fomenko 2019). Some centres and schools in Transnistria even prepare young pupils to enrol in foreign higher or vocational education institutions (Ostavnaia 2017, 28–37). For example, a few schools, such as the Tiraspol Humanitarian and Mathematical Gymnasia, offer advanced English courses. The PGU offers specialised exams and training that enable students to enrol in Russian universities.
Natural Demographic Development: Fertility and Mortality Rates
The natural development of the population relates to the migration of people and to socio-economic and cultural developments. The socio-economic upheavals associated with the collapse of the USSR also affected reproductive behaviour. However, a decline in fertility was not only observed in the countries that had belonged to the USSR, but also in those in Central and Eastern Europe and other regions, reflecting a worldwide demographic transition. According to the World Bank database, the total fertility rates in the region are among the lowest: 1.27 births per woman in Moldova, 1.23 births per woman in Ukraine, and 1.76 births per woman in Romania in 2019.
The deterioration of socio-economic conditions associated with the disintegration of the former USSR and the weakening of the social functions of the state was an important factor. Usually, the “total fertility rate” indicator is used to show the number of children one woman gives birth to during her reproductive period. However, the Transnistrian statistical service does not calculate this indicator. We therefore only have access to the “crude birth rate”, which reflects the number of births per 1000 inhabitants, regardless of their sex and age. This is not a very satisfactory indicator. What the crude birth rate shows, however, is that there were relatively high birth rates in the 1980s, which had then declined by 1992. In 1990, the crude birth rate exceeded 17‰, but by 1993 it was less than 12‰ and declined even further in subsequent years. In addition to the effects of the postsocialist transformation, the first rapid fall in the birth rate may also be related to the 1992 conflict. During periods of conflict and war, birth rates fall due to the separation of families, as well as “delayed” childbearing, when families postpone having children to a later time, when it is hoped that the situation will have normalised (Li and Wen 2005).
However, in Transnistria the rate never recovered, with the lowest crude birth rates (7–8‰) observed in the first half of the 2000s representing a significant turning point. In subsequent years it stabilised at a low level of 8–10‰, but in recent years has dropped again below 8‰ (Supplementary Material Table 8). Comparing these rates to the change in the age and sex structure of the population, we find that the proportion of women of reproductive age in the total population has decreased. In addition, women are having fewer children. By comparison, the total fertility rate in Moldova in 2015 was 1.3, in Ukraine 1.5, and in Romania 1.6‰. If the Transnistrian trend persists, we would expect a further reduction in the average number of children born during the reproductive period of women born in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are differences between urban and rural areas (Supplementary Material Table 9). In rural areas, women in all age groups show high birth rates, especially younger women. Thus, 18–19-year-old women in rural areas give birth 1.7 times more often than women of the same age in urban areas. However, the dramatic decline in the number of women of reproductive age (15–49 years) in the countryside counteracts the positive effect of a higher birth rate there.
On the whole, Transnistria corresponds to the general European trend of an increase in the average age of childbearing and a decrease in the share of young mothers (under 18) in the total number of women giving birth (Supplementary Material Table 10). However, the declining birth rates not only indicate a European trend, they are also a consequence of the unresolved conflict, the social and economic insecurity, and anxieties about the future. Changes in the reproductive behaviour of families as well as the deformation of the age structure of the population might lead to a further reduction in the birth rate, both in absolute and relative terms.
Dynamics of Mortality Rates and Life Expectancy
In the period from 1990 to the present, Transnistria has seen a significant increase in the crude death rate (approximately 1.5 times from 10 to 15‰). Over the past 15 years, this rate has remained consistently very high at 14.2–15.6‰ making it one of the highest in Europe. This is typical for the countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, however (Supplementary Material Table 11). The reasons for the high mortality rate in Transnistria are the increasing age structure of the population, as well as a relatively low life expectancy, which is largely a consequence of a flawed healthcare and social security system. Over the past 20 years, there have been some changes in the structure of causes of death, however. Short-term increased mortality rates were, like all other statistics, linked to the violent conflict of 1992, whose death toll was reported at 585 by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (2021). In addition, however, the unresolved conflict and international non-recognition overlaps with the ongoing socio-economic transformation that has sustained unfavourable social and health security. This not only leads to immediate deaths but also to longer lasting effects on the mortality of men and women, leading, in turn, to low life expectancy and continuing high mortality rates, as also evidenced in other conflict societies (Ghobarah, Huth, and Russet 2003; Li and Wen 2005). The increase in mortality due to non-violent reasons is still either directly or indirectly related to the unresolved conflict, which is responsible for reduced health performance (Lacina and Gledditsch 2005). This has become particularly noticeable in the current Covid-19 pandemic (Golunov 2021).
The minimum pension in Transnistria is not enough to provide adequate food and medicine and pay utility bills. This and the deterioration of the medical system are the most important causes of high mortality in Transnistria. Life expectancy has tended to increase slightly in previous years, but the Covid-19 pandemic led to a slight drop in this indicator in 2020 (now 68.0 years for men and 76.9 years for women). Poverty is the main problem reducing life expectancy in Moldova, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent also in Russia and Belarus (Supplementary Material Tables 12–15).
Diseases of the circulatory system remain the leading cause of death in the region (58.1% in 2018; 50.1% in 1998). The mortality due to cancer significantly increased from 13.0 to 18.8% over the same period (Supplementary Material Table 12). In the Republic of Moldova, similar mortality rates were recorded in 2018. Over the past 20 years at least, mortality due to accidents, poisoning, and injuries has significantly decreased from 10.5 to 4.7%. Another positive trend, one of the most important indicators of the demographic situation, is the infant mortality rate, which reflects the number of children dying during the first year of life in a given year per 1000 live births in the same year. In 2020, the infant mortality rate was 4.1. A long-term retrospective analysis (1990–2020) shows a steady downward trend in both absolute and relative indicators of infant mortality (Supplementary Material Table 13).
The Changing Age and Gender Composition of the Population
During the period 2004–2015, as alluded to above, there were changes in the sex and age structure of the population of the PMR: aging accelerated and the share of women in the total population increased slightly. In general, there are slightly more women than men: in 2004, there were 1172 women for every 1000 men, whereas in 2015, there were 1201 women. The prevalence of women is observed at the age of 35 and older.
An analysis of changes in the age structure shows that a decrease in the absolute population occurred along with demographic aging. The aging process is the result of a stronger decrease in the birth rate vis-à-vis a smaller increase in the average life expectancy. Thus, an increase in the proportion of the elderly above the working age can be observed, from 19.91% in 2004 to 27.7% in 2015, while the share of the working age population decreased from 62.8 to 58% (Figure 5).
Since 1995, therefore, deaths have exceeded births, and there has thus been a natural population decline. Moreover, in rural areas, a surplus of deaths over births was noted in as early as 1991, compared to urban areas where it has been observed since 1996. This is explained by the younger age structure in the latter and the characteristics of migration, bringing an influx of young people from rural areas to the cities, as well as the fact that childbirth (and thus the registration of children) occurs predominantly in city maternity hospitals. In 1994, the crude birth rate equalled the crude death rate, and natural population growth came to an end.
Effects of Demographic Decline
The fundamental structure of Transnistria’s demographic decline is thus a threefold transformation, affecting micro and macro levels: from a socialist to a capitalist economy; from the Soviet Union to independent republics with all the consequences of these (dis)entanglements; and the violent separation from the Republic of Moldova along with the effect of international non-recognition. The first of these factors are similar to those in other regions of (South-)Eastern Europe experiencing a dramatic decline in population; the third factor, war and international non-recognition, is something Transnistria only shares with the other post-Soviet de facto states.
Depopulation of Cities and Villages
Internal and external migration impacted on the size, location, structure, and dynamics of Transnistria’s population (Erőss and Karácsonyi 2014). The steady decline in the population as a whole led to an absolute depopulation of a number of rural settlements. Transnistria has a relatively high population density, being one of the most densely populated territories in the post-Soviet space. In 1989, the Moldavian SSR had a population density of about 130 people per square kilometre, but in Transnistria in the same year, it was almost 190. The loss of residents in absolute terms then led to a significant reduction in the population density. By the beginning of 2019, it was less than 130 people per square kilometre or 1.46 times less than in 1989 (Supplementary Material Table 16). The decrease in population was significant across all administrative–territorial units and settlements. The population of the Kamenka, Grigoriopol, and Dubossary districts decreased the most. The southern part of Transnistria, comprising the Slobodzeya district and the cities of Tiraspol and Bender, was somewhat less affected by the demographic crisis (Table 2).
|Administrative–territorial unit||Population at the beginning of 1989 people*||Population in 2015, people (2015 census)||Absolute population decline for the period 1989–2015, people||Ratio of the population in 2015–1989, in %||Ratio of the population in 2015–2004, in %|
*According to the 1989 Soviet census, in the settlements that were subsequently under the control of the PMR.
Source: Calculated based on the 1989 USSR census, as well as the 2004 and 2015 PMR censuses.
Between 2004 (according to the census) and 2015, the urban population decreased by 11.9%, and the rural population by 19.6%. Between 2004 and 2015, the number of settlements with a population of up to 500 increased significantly. For example, in the Kamenka district this figure increased from 45.5 to 60.9%, in the Rybnitsa district from 59.6 to 63.9%, in the Dubossary district from 42.9 to 70.0%, and in the Grigoriopol district from 44.9 to 48.3%. According to a local study, in 2015, there were 40 villages with less than 100 inhabitants (Burla 2019, 238).
The Soviet censuses conducted in 1979 and 1989 indicate demographic problems in the northern part of the region. As mentioned, there are long-standing reasons for the depopulation of rural areas, and the events of the early 1990s only exacerbated the situation. For example, according to the 2015 census, the population of the settlements of the Kamenka district in the PMR was less than 58% of the population of the same settlements according to the 1979 census (Supplementary Material Table 17). In comparison, towns and suburban settlements in the southern PMR prospered demographically in the 1980s (Supplementary Material Table 18). They, too, have experienced the impact of the demographic crisis since the 1990s, but to a somewhat lesser extent than the villages in the central and northern parts of the region. The average number of deaths per 100 births clearly shows this development. In the early 1990s, the number of births exceeded the number of deaths, while in the years that followed the natural decline led to more deaths than births. Mortality in rural areas has been more than double the birth rate (Supplementary Material Table 19). In the future, the migration outflow of young people and the overall aging of the population is expected to further aggravate the demographic situation in Transnistria’s rural areas, and this will be especially acute in the northern regions.
The negative demography of the region’s rural areas can be explained by the severe crisis in agricultural production and, as a consequence, the degradation of the technical and social infrastructure. Many villages have lost their productive function, retaining only a consumer function. The food industry, the production of containers and packaging, agricultural machine building, and the production of fodder for farm animals declined and ultimately closed down.
The role of larger rural settlements in attracting migrants will thus increase even further due to compensatory migration flows from small villages to larger ones. The latter are also more stable and have better transport connections.
Job Market and Economic Development: The Composition of the Population
The region’s negative economic development, and the loss of jobs and low wages that accompanied it, is the main cause of the demographic crisis, as it triggered both the natural and the migratory population decrease. The proportion of people of retirement age has increased in absolute numbers and led to an increase in the demographic load per one employed person (Table 3). The total number of labour resources has dropped, as have production rates, which in turn have led to a decline in the number of available jobs and has further reduced the absolute number of employed (Supplementary Material Table 20). The rate of decline of employment indicators significantly exceeded the rate of decline of the total population, mirroring the decrease in the share of employed in the total population.
|Year||Population||Number of pensioners||Share of pensioners in the total population, in %||Employed||Load ratio for pensioners, number of pensioners per 1000 employed|
Source: Statistical Yearbook PMR.
Between 2009 and 2020, the number of people employed in industry and agriculture declined by a third. While industry was most severely affected, the concentration of agricultural land in the hands of large tenants who mainly cultivate non-labour-intensive crops has also led to a significant reduction in employment options in rural areas. The labour-intensive work on the Kvint vineyards in the Dubossary district is an exception. At the same time, the number of people employed in the tertiary sector has remained relatively stable. A significant increase in employment is observed in retail and public services, and this is also true, albeit to a lesser degree, in sectors such as housing and communal services, culture and art, banks and lending, and government bodies. However, in the service sector, the number of employed decreased significantly during the period under review. No data is available on the large number of employees working in the power structures of the PMR, including the army, police, and state security, as well as customs. Another negative economic consequence is the reduction in demand for material assets and services, which, in turn, has triggered a multiplier effect: A decrease in sales volumes leads to a narrowing of the tax base, which, in turn, reduces budget revenues and further limits the state’s ability to implement effective social policy measures (Lupuşor et al. 2016; Radeke, Petersen, and Giucci 2016).
The Load Factor of Pensioners
A decrease in the number of employed people leads to an increase in the dependence coefficient, which reflects the ratio of the number of pensioners to people of working age. The value of the load factor for pensioners is growing especially rapidly, reflecting the number of pensioners per 1000 employed people. Between 1997 and 2012, this figure increased from 577 to 1005 pensioners. However, in the years since then the coefficient decreased due to a significant share of Transnistria’s pensioners moving to the Russian pension system (Table 3).
The plight of many pensioners, who have to rely on meagre state social benefits, serves as a warning for those of working age and is another push factor for migration. An additional demographic burden on those employed in material production is exerted by those employed in the power structures of the PMR, who are not taken into account by the calculations of the statistical services.
Lack of Labour Force
Significant labour outmigration causes shortages in the supply of labour, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Qualified staff are needed in the fields of healthcare and education, but also in industry, for example in the textile industry. The brain drain leads to a lack of qualified personnel, which hinders the development of the region’s economy. Berlin Economics, a Berlin-based macroeconomic consulting firm that advises a number of East European countries, as well as Transnistria, named migration processes and the aging of the population as two of the main reasons for the problems on labour markets facing a declining number of able-bodied citizens, including for natural reasons (Liahova 2019). According to the list provided by the Unified State Social Insurance Fund of the PMR (Edinyj Gosudarstvennyj Fond Social’nogo Strachovanija PMR, Vakansii), among the professions most in demand in Transnistria’s labour market (as of October 2020) are seamstresses, construction workers, police officers, military personnel, drivers, medical workers, call centre operators, as well as teachers in schools and preschools. The low salaries make the above professions unattractive and are a significant push factor for emigration. If they can afford to do so, qualified young people tend to study abroad and not return. Those that are not able to leave are mostly the less educated, who are consequently unable to fill the vacancies mentioned. This is a vicious circle: the education needed for the competitive industries cannot be offered as the most qualified teachers are leaving and the students enrolling in educational programmes tend to reach only poorer quality.
Brain Drain and Remittances
It is largely people of working age who are migrating, including a significant number of scientists and graduates of educational institutions with high intellectual potential. Every year, the poor prospects in Transnistria and preferential conditions for admission provided by universities in Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, and beyond, attracts graduates from the PMR’s educational institutions resulting in the aforementioned brain drain (de Waal and von Löwis 2020). The outflow of a highly qualified, young and active part of the region’s population contributes to the imbalance in the age and sex composition of the population described above and, as a consequence, in the structure and quality of labour resources. Moreover, this is highly relevant since the reproduction of the human resources of the engineering industry and technical personnel remains at a very low level.
Due to the unresolved conflict and its social and economic consequences, people continue to leave. In a survey conducted in 2019, an average of 21% of those questioned had been abroad for work or studies, and 7.2% of these planned to do so again, while another 5.8% of the people interviewed planned to leave within the next six months. These trends are especially pronounced in the younger generations. A total of 31.2% of survey participants aged 18–29 had been abroad for work or studies and 14.4% of them planned to leave again, while another 12% had not yet been abroad but planned to do so within the next six months. In addition to the intended and/or actually experienced outmigration, a large majority of respondents (72.5%) saw their children’s future as being outside of Transnistria (Cojocari, Dungaciu, and Cupcea 2019, 32–3).
Sara Randall has conceptualised a model of phases of forced migration, which very much applies to the demographic situation in de facto states. The difference is that her model identifies three phases—“disorder”, “limbo”, and “new order after conflict”—whereas de facto states clearly remain in the “limbo” phase, as people live in conditions of unresolved, and thus protracted, conflict, which creates socio-economic and psychological forces characterised by continuous uncertainty, a low quality of living, and despair (Randall 2005, 294–6).
On the other hand, in 2019, emigrants provided remittances of up to 11.4% of the GDP of Transnistria, which had a significant impact on the economic situation. Remittances came from Russia (63%), EU Member States and other European nations (about 10%), as well as other countries (e.g. USA, Israel, Turkey) (Economic Monitor Transnistria, Berlin Economics, 5 June 2020). They were used for private consumption and related imports; and to a limited extent for investment (Ostavnaia 2017, 139). The remittances maybe be even higher than this—approximately 20%, as in 2012—because some people may have transferred them privately. In 2013, the proportion of income accounted for by foreign currency sales in the structure of the population’s monetary incomes was at 35.5%, dropping to 10.7% in 2016 (Ostavnaia 2017, 130–1). Not unexpectedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had significant effects on many people’s income. Quarantine restrictions on the foreign travel of citizens of Moldova and Transnistria have led to a temporary reduction in the migratory outflow. The remittances, which are an important part of the GDP and individual incomes, have decreased and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Education, Healthcare System, and Public Health
The long-term consequences of an unresolved conflict affects the soundness of the state and its ability to fulfil its social responsibilities due to non-recognition and isolation (Lacina and Gleditsch 2005, 150). In Transnistria, the healthcare system is one of the biggest problems. In a 2019 survey, 60% of respondents rated the healthcare system as “somewhat” or “very” unsatisfactory (Cojocari, Dungaciu, and Cupcea 2019). The healthcare system is rather outdated and a topic of negotiations between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria (Selari and Bobkova 2015). The difficult demographic situation and migration outflows described above impact the healthcare and education systems further.
In fact, the PMR authorities see the shortage of medical personnel as a key problem (Ministry of Health of Transnistria 2020):
There is a shortage of emergency doctors, therapists, paediatricians, and specialists […]. Among the main reasons for the current situation, according to the head of the PMR government, are insufficient wages, lack of prospects for obtaining housing and an effective system of advanced training, as well as working conditions which are not always satisfactory (deterioration of infrastructure, equipment, shortage of medicine). (Problema No. 1 v sfere zdravoochranenija—kadrovyj deficit, 20 August 2018)
The constitution of Transnistria includes the provision of free medical care in public health organisations. However, due to growing underfunding, there has been a significant expansion of paid services, which are provided both by public health institutions and by private medical institutions, such as Medin, a medical centre linked to the Sheriff Group, one of the biggest private business conglomerates in Transnistria. Medin offers all kinds of paid medical services (Medin Medical Center 2021). In addition to Medin, there is Tiramed, Holy Hope, a physiotherapy clinic, an eye microsurgery ophthalmology clinic, and many more. Field research showed that people’s choice of healthcare facilities in Moldova was based on quality and range of specialists. In fact, of the money sent home by labour migrants, a significant share goes towards healthcare for their family (Ostavnaia 2017, 134). Medical services in Moldova do not differ much in price from those in Transnistria, but in the Moldovan capital Chișinău there are a larger number of specialist doctors. In addition, clinics here often have more modern medical equipment. One of the most frequently mentioned topics in the interviews conducted as part of the authors’ fieldwork was the high cost of medical treatment and how pensioners struggle to afford it (von Löwis 2019). At the same time, there are dozens of small dental clinics in Tiraspol. The services of these clinics are used by both locals and visitors (due to the low cost for foreigners), as was reported by the Ukrainian citizens we interviewed, for instance (Interview in Kuchurgan (Ukraine), January 2019).
The Covid-19 Pandemic
De facto states, with their intrinsically weak healthcare systems, have struggled much more than recognised states to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic (Golunov 2021). From the very start of the pandemic in March 2020, Transnistria recognised the need for close cooperation with the healthcare structures of the Republic of Moldova. Assistance in the fight against the coronavirus provided to Moldova from abroad, especially for vaccines, has also been distributed to the territory of Transnistria. Vaccination certificates issued in healthcare institutions of Transnistria comply with the uniform standard of the Republic of Moldova and are recognised as legal (Ministry of Health of Transnistria 2021).
In March 2020, an operational headquarter for the pandemic was created under the president of the PMR with the authority for this being transferred to the ministry of internal affairs. Quarantine measures were introduced, one of which was a restriction on crossing the border (including to Transnistria). This compulsory measure seriously limited the ability of Transnistrian residents to commute for work, as well as to shop, receive medical treatment, and visit relatives on the right bank (Golunov 2021). As a result of these restrictive measures, however, the Transnistrian authorities were able to keep the morbidity rates of the pandemic at a lower level than in Moldova (see Supplementary Material Tables 21 and 22 for total numbers). In comparison with other European countries, the morbidity and mortality rates in Moldova and Transnistria were quite high at the beginning of 2021. On 2 February 2021, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 per one million people in Moldova was 57,325 (62,465 in Transnistria), and the Covid-19 mortality rate per one million people was 1234 (1346 in Transnistria). For comparison, at the same point in time, the number of cases of Covid-19 per one million inhabitants in Germany was 26,594, in Romania 38,100, in Bulgaria 31,743, and in the Czech Republic 92,766. The mortality rate per one million inhabitants was 696 in Germany, 960 in Romania, 1322 in Bulgaria, and 1543 in the Czech Republic (Worldometer). As is the case in other countries, the official data do not reflect the full scale of the pandemic in Transnistria or Moldova, since many mild cases do not undergo testing or receive treatment in medical institutions, but, following the recommendation of local medical services, simply spend 14 days self-isolating at home.
In fact, the Transnistrian authorities organised a fairly effective system of combatting the pandemic. They established a large number of facilities to treat Covid patients and isolate those with mild symptoms. Hospitals with non-infectious patients (neurological, therapeutic, etc.), as well as sanatoriums and military schools were equipped for this purpose. The production of disinfectant and protective masks was increased to an adequate level. In 2021, the authorities purchased the necessary medication to treat patients. Due to the scarce resources in the state budget, the supply of some of the drugs needed was financed by the aforementioned Sheriff Group. Despite these measures, as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the mortality rate of the population, especially of the elderly, both due to the virus and other diseases, as access to medical services was restricted because medical institutions are overwhelmed or required to focus on Covid-19 patients.
The Poverty Factor
Another important factor influencing demographic processes is the growing poverty of the population. Low incomes limit citizens’ access to high-quality food and medical services, which hampers growth in life expectancy. Poverty is an important push factor for migration, as it forces the population (including the younger age groups) to leave the region in search of work. There are difficulties associated with measuring poverty, since assessments of the average level of wages and pensions need to consider the situation on the consumer market. Moreover, the subsidised nature of some types of utilities (heating, gas, and electricity), educational services (preschool establishments), as well as some food products (bread) needs to be taken into account. Using budget subsidies, the state lowers the price of such services and goods, which somewhat alleviates the burden of the poor.
In Transnistria, the official value of the subsistence minimum has been calculated at approximately 1300–1700 Transnistrian rubles (about 67–87 euros), while the minimum wage is set at around 1650–1850 Transnistrian rubles (about 85–95 euros) (Ministerstvo po social’noj zaščite i trudu PMR). In the first half of 2010, the average level of salaries and pensions at their nominal value was slightly higher in Transnistria than in Moldova. However, the reduction of pension payments and wages in the public sector, adopted by the Transnistrian government in 2015, sharply reduced the level of income of the population by 30% (Verchovnyj Sovet Pridnestrovskoj Moldavskoj Respubliki, 15 March 2019), so that by 2015, the income levels of the population of Transnistria and the Republic of Moldova were comparable (Crivenco et al. 2017).
Transnistria’s Demographic Policy
The demographic policy of Moldova only applies to the territory of Transnistria in a declaratory manner. State demographic statistics de facto exclude Transnistria from their coverage, meaning that the population in this region is mostly only subject to the demographic policy of the local Transnistrian authorities. Several international organisations, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have, for many years, sought to involve the Transnistrian side in projects aimed at analysing the demographic situation in Moldova (see e.g. the reports of Ostavnaia 2017 for IOM, Crivenco et al. 2017 for UNDP).
The Transnistrian authorities have been implementing a policy aimed at reducing the migration outflow and encouraging the birth rate. They have especially been focusing on the development of the education, healthcare, and cultural infrastructure in villages. By 2015, a legal framework was in place that addressed the demographic situation, and included the Constitution of the PMR, the Code on Marriage and Family, as well as laws “On the Rights of the Child”. A “Fund for the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood” was created, as were a number of targeted programmes aimed at maintaining an acceptable level of public health and limiting the spread of a number of diseases. In accordance with Article 12 of the PMR Law “On State Benefits to Citizens with Children”, a monthly allowance is granted for parental leave until the child reaches the age of one and a half (Edinyj Gosudarstvennyj Fond Social’nogo Strachovanija PMR, Graždane). However, the size of the allowance—1067 Transnistrian rubles (less than 60 euros)—does not cover the cost of caring for a child. In many other respects too, the measures taken remain rather declarative and ineffective. As the burden of pensioners on the population grows, the additional costs of meeting their needs conflict with the decline in the economically active population. Consequently, budget replenishment is also steadily shrinking, resulting in a significant proportion of the resources nominally dedicated to supporting motherhood and childhood being diverted towards the retired populace.
Conclusion: The Socio-Economic and Political Implications of Shrinking Transnistria
The demographic development of Transnistria has rapidly and dramatically declined, essentially because of three factors: It is a potracted conflict society suffering from the consequences of the violent conflict of 1992, which brought death, trauma, and outmigration. It underwent the post-Soviet transformation, which brought deindustrialisation, a loss of jobs and social security, as well as market liberalism, which again led to outmigration. Lastly, it has existed as a de facto state since 1992, which has significantly affected its social, economic, and political cohesion (or lack thereof), leading, once more, to outmigration and also to declining birth rates.
These processes have taken place in the context of general trends of population decline in Europe. Moldova, too, has experienced demographic decline; as well as suffering from the military conflict of 1992, a conflict which remains unresolved to this day. This calls for further, more integrated research regarding the demographic development of Transnistria and Moldova.
With our study, we seek to address a blind spot in both the research about de facto states and in demographic research. Any analysis of the shrinking de facto state of Transnistria will face the methodological and statistical problems of how to adequately measure its population dynamics. Not only did the war of 1992 cause a sudden break in the statistical handling of data, the subsequent separation from Moldova and the development of an unrecognised state led to the establishment of statistical institutions and procedures, which are also perceived as illegitimate.
Our study offers a first insight into the demographic situation in Transnistria. The population trends here are similar to those in Southeastern Europe more widely, but seem to be more extreme and devastating (with the possible exception of Ukraine). The labour force has been restructured; economic outputs and tax income have been reduced. A low level of innovation and an insufficiently qualified workforce has reinforced Transnistria’s negative economic performance. Rural and partly also urban areas have been deserted, and sustaining an adequate social and technical infrastructure for the remaining population has increasingly become a problem (von Löwis, Neumann, and Wickel 2006). Operating as a de facto state, Transnistria has been hit much harder than other regions by the processes described, due to its limited scope of action when it comes to economic and administrative measures, caused by external dependencies, as well as limited contact and exchange with other countries.
Depopulation, and its interaction with economic factors, has had an impact on both society and the political situation. Both in Moldova and Transnistria the attitude towards the authorities has become increasingly critical (Kolosov and Crivenco 2021). The leadership of the Obnovlenie party, which has held the parliamentary majority in the Supreme Council since 2005, is closely connected with the above-mentioned Sheriff corporation, which controls a significant part of the Transnistrian economy and has practically no competitors (Dirun 2020). The problem of depopulation thus adversely affects the legitimacy of the political regime. The authorities do not have legal grounds to exclude temporary or permanent labour migrants from the electoral lists, since these people are not removed from the administrative register due to Transnistria’s inconsistent migration register. Thus, in Bender, for example, where the region’s share of temporarily absent population is the highest, at one of the polling stations, less than 25% of those eligible to vote actually took part in the by-elections to the parliament of the republic. Such cases prompted the authorities to remove the 25% voter turnout requirement from the legislation in order for the elections to be valid. Moves like this have clearly not benefitted the authorities’ legitimacy among citizens.
Administrations of de facto states may actually be relatively secure, as their increasingly elderly electorate does not tend to revolt. As recently observed in the Arab world and elsewhere, it is the younger generations who are susceptible to political protest and have been at the centre of upheavals (Cincotta, Engelman, and Anastasion 2003; Urdal 2011). In Transnistria, however, they are the ones who are leaving the country and have even been encouraged to do so by local policies. On the other hand, with the exodus of young people, the potential for social, economic, and cultural innovation decreases, and it is this which is most needed to deal with the challenges of conflict transformation and resolution (Crivenco and von Löwis 2021).
Taking our study as a blueprint, future research may like to look into the demographic development in conflict areas and especially de facto states in more depth. This would help us to better understand the composition of the population and its social, economic, and political prospects. This applies both to the demographic consequences of the conflict as well as the data and methods to measure the demographic impact more broadly and the ability to capture the potential of this to support conflict transformation (Brunborg and Tabeau 2005).
Postscriptum, 15 March 2022
The war the Russian Federation started on 24 February on the territory of Ukraine not only has devastating effects on Ukraine itself, but will also severely impact the demographic development of the whole of Eastern Europe. According to information from the Transnistrian Operational Headquarters, as of 13 March 2022, “over 20,000 people had entered Transnistria from Ukraine in 15 days. A total of 16,000 stayed for a while, and 6,000 remained here (Vdali ot vojny i ot doma, Televizionnyj kanal TCV, 13 March 2022). These figures testify to the heavy burden on the region’s social services, which are not yet benefitting from international assistance. In future, there may be even steeper growth in the number of refugees, which could lead to the collapse of Transnistria’s state support systems.
On the other hand, the demographic impact of the influx of refugees will be temporary. Since the low standard of living is not attractive to migrants, many of them will leave the region in the future, heading home to Ukraine or on to more affluent countries in Western and Central Europe.
In addition, with hostilities potentially reaching the territory of Transnistria, the insecurity faced by the region has significantly increased. This may, in turn, result in a large-scale exodus of the population.
About the authors
Andrei Crivenco is a geographer. He works as a researcher for the Regional Studies Laboratory at the Pridnestrovian State University in Tiraspol. In his research, he studies aspects of socio-economic development, demographic problems, and migration of Transnistria, as well as issues related to the spatial development of cities and villages in the region.
Sabine von Löwis is a geographer. She coordinates the Research Cluster “Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions” at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin. In her research, she focuses on conflict dynamics, border regions, and space and time relations in Eastern Europe.
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