From 1990 to 2019, Transnistria’s population decreased by an estimated 35 per cent, from around 706,000 to 465,000. Unofficial estimates put the population at an even lower figure. The proportion of pensioners in the population is on the increase, while the number of young people is falling continuously. This has implications for regional stability and for the unresolved conflict over this de facto state on the territory of the Republic of Moldova.
Lack of perspective for young people
Since the end of the Cold War, population figures in the Eastern and South-East European countries have been falling rapidly. Company closures, job losses and low wages are driving large numbers of people to migrate. The effects on de facto states in the post-Soviet space, such as Transnistria, are particularly severe. Displacement of the region’s population during the armed conflicts in 1992 is now compounded by the highly problematic situation caused by the lack of international recognition, which poses lasting economic challenges and greatly limits people’s prospects for the future.
It is difficult to obtain reliable figures on migration movements in and out of Transnistria. Although foreign nationals are registered, no complete records are kept on people exiting Transnistria either temporarily or permanently. Residents of Transnistria hold various passports which allow them to cross the border but give no indication as to whether they are travelling as Moldovans, Romanians, Russians or Ukrainians. It is mainly young people in the 15-34 age group, with men and women in roughly equal proportions, who leave the country for work or study. From 2012 to 2018, the proportion of children leaving the country rose from 12 per cent to 15 per cent – an indication that many people are now taking their families with them and that their departure from the region is permanent.
But there is also another factor driving this continuous decline in population numbers, namely the falling birth rate. Not only are there fewer young women living in the region; those who remain are having smaller families. This has resulted in a shift in the de facto state’s age composition: between 2004 and 2015, for example, the proportion of persons of retirement age rose from 19.9 per cent to 27.7 per cent, with a corresponding decrease in the size of the working age population.
Rural exodus and inter-regional migration
The general population decline in Transnistria is accompanied by depopulation of rural regions and migration to the cities. Rural-urban migrants are particularly attracted to Tiraspol and Bender/Tighina, where they hope to find higher wages and improved educational opportunities. As the flipside to the high numbers of incomers in these urban centres, the older generations are left behind in rural areas and villages stand empty. Population losses in districts such as Camenca in the north or Grigoriopol and Dubăsari in central Transnistria reach from 25 to 40 per cent. It is the rural population that drives internal migration flows – and once people have moved to the city, the next step is often migration abroad. Overall, however, the flow of rural-urban migrants is slowing as the young generations exit the country, leaving mainly pensioners behind.
There is also a trend towards small-scale migration between the Republic of Moldova and the de facto state, pointing to positive links between the two. For example, some Russian-speaking students, but also pensioners from Moldova, opt to move to Transnistria due to the lower costs of living and for studying in Russian language. But there is also movement in the other direction, with many residents of Transnistria commuting to Moldova on a daily or weekly basis for work or study.
Depopulation and dependence
A population decline of 35 per cent in less than 30 years has major repercussions on diverse aspects of life and on economic, social and political stability in the Transnistria region.
The loss of its well-qualified young generations and the low population density, particularly in rural regions, are leading to skills shortages in schools, higher education and the health sector. In an ageing society, there is also an increased demand for medical care, with the additional costs that this entails. This is particularly noticeable in the current coronavirus pandemic, with Transnistria having been in almost complete self-isolation for months in order to minimise the number of infections.
The shortage of well-qualified young people affects not only the health and education sectors but also industry. Although the number of available jobs has substantially decreased, skilled workers are still in demand here. However, the extremely low wages encourage out-migration: almost every family in Transnistria has relatives working or studying in Moldova, Russia or an EU country. Indeed, Transnistria actively encourages out-migration, thus perpetuating the dilemma it faces, namely that it needs well-qualified young people in all sectors but is unable to offer them decent wages.
In the centre of Tiraspol, there is an agency that officially places workers in employment abroad. Large advertising boards invite passers-by to apply for all manner of jobs in other countries – and these jobs mean remittances, which not only provide livelihood security for many residents of Transnistria but also indirectly benefit the state. The Pridnestrovian Republican Bank (PRB) estimated that in 2012, remittances totalled USD 200 million, equivalent to approximately 18 per cent of the de facto state’s GDP. Around 85 per cent of these remittances came from Russia. The amounts have conceivably increased rather than decreased in recent years.
For the society left behind, this out-migration means an ageing population, with all the consequences that this entails. With a shrinking working and consumer generation, the de facto state faces increased spending on pensions and healthcare, combined with falling tax revenues. The weakness of the de facto state increases the dependence of its own population and the wider region, making them more vulnerable to external influence. Russia supports Transnistria and funds a proportion of local pensions. At home, a significant role is played by Sheriff, a business consortium with a chain of supermarkets which offer pensioners and large families discounts on staple foods. This safeguards the company’s monopoly position and boosts its political influence, clearly evident during the recent parliamentary elections in November. All elected candidates are affiliated with the Renewal party, set up and supported by Sheriff. In this way, the consortium is constantly expanding its economic, social and political dominance in the region.
In sum, the vicious circle of ongoing population decline and ageing is driving the out-migration of the younger generations and reinforces external and internal political and socioeconomic dependences and finally affects further conflict negotiations.
Dr Andrei Crivenco is an economic and social geographer at Taras Shevchenko State University of Tiraspol.
Dr Sabine von Löwis is a researcher at ZOiS and coordinates the ‘Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions’ Research Cluster.