Being Friends with Transnistria: Emotional Politics via State Awards

By Andreas Pacher | 18 February 2017

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “Being Friends with Transnistria: Emotional Politics via State Awards”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 18 February 2017,, displayed on 29 February 2020

By exclusively targeting foreign citizens, the Transnistrian 'Order of Friendship' is confined to a limited scope: The tiny republic enjoys recognition only by a few Russian-backed breakaway regions. The recipients therefore consist of the disputed leaders from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some Russian politicians with influential NGOs, and a Soviet-era singer whose connection with the Donbass placed him on the EU’s list of sanctioned people. The political logic revealed in the government’s implicit criteria for “awardworthiness” is that of a narrow understanding of diplomacy.

If diplomacy is, as defined by Adam Watson, the „negotiation of political entities which acknowledge each other's independence”, then Transnistria’s diplomatic leeway must be very limited. The disputed region between Moldova and Ukraine can only claim to have three international friends – or perhaps four, if we count Russia’s placing of a consulate in the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol as an unacknowledged sympathy. The three others are, likewise, Russian-backed breakaway regions that suffer under frozen conflicts and limited recognitions: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia.

The Transnistrian government has gilded itself with all the state symbols that solemnly signal unchallenged sovereign authority: a constitution, a flag, a coat of arms, a national anthem. At one point, the anthem asks: “What is love without notice?” – So let us try to notice Transnistria’s emotional affairs, let us look at how another of its symbols expresses love and friendship, and how it stirs up feelings such as honor, gratitude, pride and loyalty: State awards.

Targeting Foreigners with the Order of Friendship

Various governmental medals honor the glorious achievements of its citizens. By doing so, they foster the recipients’ loyalty towards the disputed government, they create emotional bonds, and they signal appetizing incentives to all the others who could provide useful services to their beloved fatherland. These people, thus, may eye the fulfillment of their humane craving to obtain a distinct status; they just need to mobilize their resources and ostentatiously demonstrate their love towards their country.

One state award of this tiny republic looks even beyond the Dniestr: The so-called Order of Friendship, established in 2012, only honors foreign citizens. By the way, 'Order of Friendship' – or Орден Дружбы (Orden Druzhby) in Russian, Transnistria’s official language – is a widespread name for such state awards that foster cross-boundary ties between peoples in the post-Soviet and (post-)Leninist regions, the latter of which include North Korea and – China. China’s Order of Friendship was, to continue this side-remark, just established one year ago, in 2016, indicating that doing politics via awards remains quite fashionable. But then again, that has been so at least since the founding of the British Order of the Garter in the 14th century. . . and it persists, without ever having been studied by scholars of International Relations.

State Awards: Symbols of Sovereignty, Tools of Foreign Policy

Now who are the foreigners honored by the Transnistrian Order of Friendship? Moldavians? Romanians? – That, probably, would be too risky. The government cannot dare reaching out to a foreigner who is backed by a hostile Other who, in turn, denies the Transnistrian Self’s right to exist. By utilizing state awards, governments ostentatiously signal that they are blessed with powerful friends somewhere out there. August ceremonies where the venerable President decorates lofty personalities with the precious Order may temporarily blend out that the government is, in reality, dolefully marginalized. Whatever may prompt debates about Transnistria’s suspicious raison d’être is carefully avoided. Therefore, no state awards to Moldavians or Romanians. . .

Remember the traditional definition of diplomacy. Yes, governments still communicate with other governments, but they also interact with people. This strategic government-to-people interaction is called public diplomacy, and it often seeks “to influence the behavior of a foreign government by influencing the attitudes of its citizens” (Gifford D. Malone). Since they are tools of public diplomacy, state awards first and foremost follow a foreign policy logic when they honor citizens who are rich in politically useful resources. The traditional logic of diplomacy prompts them to primarily eye only those citizens whose governments have recognized the giver’s independence.

It is therefore not surprising that Transnistria’s Order of Friendship has so far only honored citizens from none other than South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Russia.

The Recipients

So, who are the recipients of the Transnistrian Order of Friendship? What kind of foreign constituents are the ‘strategic publics’ (Fitzpatrick 2011) with whom Transnistria’s public diplomacy maintains relationships? Into whose human hearts does Transnistria reach by stirring up emotions of honor and pride with illustrious ceremonies, and by implanting deep bonds of loyalty that can be called up in times of need? Who are the ones who receive that medal on which Transnistria’s fruity emblem with the hammer and sickle glitter, with the threefold inscription “ПМР” (PMR) – Transnistria’s official state name’s abbreviation in Russian – as if to garishly reassure itself of one’s own existence? My research so far has found seven recipients:

In 2012, the year of the Order’s establishment, three personalities were honored. The first one was the South Ossetian Presidential candidate Stanislav Kochiev. The two others are Russians who head influential NGOs: Modest Kolerov, the Chief of the officially non-governmental REGNUM news agency, and Aleksey Martynov, Director of the International Institute of the Newly Established States. The former’s news agency has been repeatedly accused of being one of Kremlin’s most influential foreign policy tools, making the Order’s recipient a persona non grata in the Baltic states. The latter recipient heads a highly active Moscow-based think-tank with a branch in Tiraspol, involving policy-makers into various debates and offering geopolitical expertise to the so-called “newest states”.

The next recipient, in 2014, was another interesting Russian politician named Aleksey Zhuravlyov. He had founded a NGO called Eurasian Integration which provides funding to Transnistria’s health and education system. Inter alia, the NGO received the Transnistrian President’s approval to build a military academy in Tiraspol in January 2017. Zhuravlyov is also chairman of the nationalist Rodina party, politically close to Vladimir Putin, and a deputy to the State Duma in which he has become a member of the International Affairs Committee in 2016. As a sidenote, just a year after receiving the Transnistrian Order of Friendship, Zhuravlyov was honored by another breakaway region, this time the Republic of Crimea, with the Crimean Order for Faithfulness. . .

The next two recipients (from 2016) are both internationally unrecognized Heads of States: President Leonid Tyblov of South Ossetia, and President Raul Khajimba of Abkhazia. They did not miss to state solemn pledges to continue their fraternal solidarity based on so many commonalities, among which their people’s deep love for their countries as expressed in their militaries’ firmness ranked the highest.

The politician-turned singer Iosif Kobzon was so far the last one to be honored in a solemn ceremony in which he could shake hands with the Transnistrian President. Kobzon is originally from Donetsk and had always been beloved in the whole post-Soviet region for his patriotic engagement – at least until he signed an open letter in support of the Russian-Crimean “reunification” in 2014. Kobzon, who is listed in the Russian Guinness Book of Records as the most decorated artist, saw himself scrapped off from all his Ukrainian honors, but he was soon compensated with new ones from the Donetsk and the Lugansk People’s Republics – inter alia, he has accepted to be Donetsk’s Honorary Consul in Russia. Accepting the Transnistrian Order of Friendship was just another part of the singer’s routine, although that did not even come close to the singer’s greatest honor, which was his inclusion in the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals in 2015. While Kobzon delightfully responded with gratitude to be internationally recognized as not being “indifferent to the fate of internally displaced Russian-speakers in Donbass”, the EU’s sanction also sparked a “Je suis Kobzon” movement among some of the Russian State Duma deputies. . .


And so the story of Transnistrian friendships continues. What we can see is that the ‘strategic public’ targeted by Transnistria’s state awards is limited to the traditional understanding of diplomacy – diplomatic recognition being a prerequisite for “awardworthiness”. The recipients are heads of states, resource-rich politicians and other prominent opinion-leaders mostly from Russia, but also from the trivium of post-Soviet separatist regions with which Transnistria enjoys diplomatic ties. It is understandable – our psyche is reluctant to receive information that threatens our system of beliefs. As psychologist Greenwald once said, every Self – be it individual, be it governmental – is prone to distort reality, for “whatever makes it look good is exaggerated. Whatever makes it look bad is downplayed, discredited, and denied.” It is thus no wonder that Transnistria’s public diplomacy activities – or what they call friendships – are restricted to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and some Russian politicians who lead influential NGOs with shady funding. Only Nagorno-Karabakh is still waiting to have a citizen, presumably its self-proclaimed leader, honored. Could it not provide a grand opportunity to solemnly affirm the many commonalities between Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria? Which one could you think of first . . . ?

Aller plus loin:

  • Camerer, C. (1988). Gifts as Economic Signals and Social Symbols. American Journal of Sociology, S180-S214.
  • Faizullaev, A. (2006). Diplomacy and Self. Diplomacy & Statecraft, 497-522.
  • Fitzpatrick, K. (2012). Defining Strategic Publics in a Networked World: Public Diplomacy's Challenge at Home and Abroad. The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 421-440.
  • Frey, B. S., & Gallus, J. (2016). Honors: A rational choice analysis of award bestowals. Rationality and Society, pp. 1-15.
  • Nagle, J. (2014). From the Politics of Antagonistic Recognition to Agonistic Peace Building: An Exploration of Symbols and Rituals in Divided Societies. Peace & Change, 468-494.
  • Wallach, Y. (2011). Creating a country through currency and stamps: state symbols and nation-building in British-ruled Palestine. Nations and Nationalism, 129-147.


Source Photo: Tiraspol, "In Unity Lies Our Strength" with the flags of Russia, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, by Raymond Zoller.


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