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Andrey Devyatkov

PhD in History, senior research fellow, Center for Post-Soviet Studies, Institute of Economics, RAS; associate professor, Department of Regional Issues in Global Politics, Lomonosov Moscow State University; RIAC expert

A number of events have taken place in the past few months sparking a new wave of conspiracy theories about the possibility of Transnistria reintegrating into Moldova in the near future. Some observers believe that the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, something only President of Moldova Igor Dodon would speak about until recently, is gradually turning into a tangible possibility. Is it possible to reach any progress in resolving the Transnistrian problem politically, given all the existing contradictions in regional and global politics?

It is likely that the Transnistrian settlement agenda will continue to develop, but mainly along the existing tracks. This is why the consummate professionals Dmitry Kozak and Claus Neukirch have been called upon to support this complex process.

A number of events have taken place in the past few months sparking a new wave of conspiracy theories about the possibility of Transnistria reintegrating into Moldova in the near future. Some observers believe that the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, something only President of Moldova Igor Dodon would speak about until recently, is gradually turning into a tangible possibility. Is progress possible in resolving the Transnistrian problem politically, given all the existing contradictions in regional and global politics?

Piecemeal signals and structural preconditions

The recent appointments made in connection with the Moldova–Transnistria issue in Russia and the OSCE served as one of the first signals of the current process and clearly indicated the growing importance of the Transnistria issue for the key stakeholders. On July 11, 2018, the President of the Russian Federation dismissed Dmitry Rogozin from the post of special presidential representative for Transnistria, replacing him with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, but in a slightly different role as special representative for the development of trade and economic relations with Moldova. In other words, Russia’s relations with Transnistria are now part and parcel of its relations with Moldova unlike in the past. In addition, Kozak is strongly associated with the plan to settle the Transnistrian problem by creating an asymmetric federation. The plan was first proposed back in 2003, after Kozak had spent several months conducting shuttle diplomacy between the parties to the conflict.

The second development, which caused numerous rumours of changes in the Western (rather than the Russian) approach to the Transnistrian settlement, was the appointment of German diplomat and expert on Moldova Claus Neukirch as Head of the OSCE mission to this country. What is particularly remarkable here is that the position was previously held exclusively by U.S. diplomats. It is Germany who has been demonstrating consistent attention to the Transnistrian issue since 2010. In particular, German diplomats have made every effort to support confidence-building measures between Tiraspol and Chisinau. In 2009, for example, the German side established an annual format for informal consultations (the so-called Bavaria Conference) and Germany’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2016 laid the foundations for a confidence-building agenda through the signing of the so-called Berlin Protocol. The agenda later became unofficially known as Berlin+, after Chisinau and Tiraspol had adopted the eight confidence-building measures that were being implemented by the OSCE in 2017 and 2018, at that time under the chairmanship of Austria and Italy, respectively. These measures included the nostrification of Transnistrian university degrees, the opening of a bridge across the Dniester River, the renewal of direct telephone communications, etc.

However, apart from these piecemeal signals, there are more important structural preconditions for discussing the possibility of Moldova reintegrating Transnistria. These are primarily due to the fact that Moldova has been gradually extending its jurisdiction over Transnistria in recent years. Chisinau has been doing this both in the framework of confidence-building negotiations with Tiraspol and unilaterally, by amending the border crossing procedures on the Transnistrian section of Moldova’s border with Ukraine (Kiev supports these measures). For example, in order for degrees awarded by universities in Transnistria to be recognized in Moldova, they must have apostille stamped by the relevant Moldovan authorities. Also, the solution to the problem of schools using the Latin alphabet involves Transnistria, where the Cyrillic alphabet is used to represent the Moldovan language, finally recognizing the existence on its territory of several schools whose curricula are modelled on the Moldovan educational system. Thanks to the opening of the joint Ukraine–Moldova border crossing station in Kuchurgan, which processes up 90 per cent of all trade with Transnistria, control of not only Transnistrian exports (which has been controlled by Moldova since 2006) but imports as well is being gradually relegated to the Moldovan customs service. Transnistrian importers are now being forced to comply with the requirements of Moldovan legislation, including with regard to veterinary measures or the regulations governing the circulation of medical devices.

Tiraspol and Chisinau have already started to reach a mutual understanding on politically sensitive issues. This does not just concern the problem of schools using the Latin alphabet or Moldovan farmers using land in Transnistria’s Dubasari District, but also the issue of neutral number plates which now allow Transnistrian drivers to travel internationally. The first such number plates were issued in September 2018 through joint offices in Transnistria, which are co-run by Moldovan and Transnistrian officials.

In light of the above, the escalation in the two sides’ political rhetoric has been accompanied by the creation of several common institutional and legal mechanisms which regulate the everyday life of ordinary people and business on either side of the border.

It is also important to note that President of Moldova Igor Dodon, who promotes the reintegration of Transnistria, is being careful not to repeat the mistakes of the 2003 talks on the so-called Kozak Memorandum. In particular, Dodon has stated that the final draft of the settlement is to be approved through a national referendum, rather than by a theory-based decision. He also believes the draft document will have to be a compromise between Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine. Finally, Dodon is not fixated on the idea of federalization which, after 2003, became toxic in Moldova because it is associated with the notion of pro-Russian Transnistria and Gagauzia receiving disproportionate levers of influence on Moldova’s domestic and foreign policy. In this sense, it would appear more realistic for Transnistria to secure the status of an autonomous region, just like Gagauzia did.

How frozen is the conflict?

Sergey Markedonov, Aleksandr Gushchin:
Transnistria: Dilemmas of Peaceful Settlement

Can all the aforementioned factors have a cumulative effect? It should be noted that a number of circumstances have up to now made hardly any radical changes to the status quo in the region undesirable for local and global players.

To begin with, the worsening confrontation between Russia and the West is evident in Moldova, meaning that any win-win scenarios are highly unlikely. This does not mean that the Transnistrian settlement process is doomed as such. On the contrary, the global powers aim to contain conflict situations, whose active phase may require the use of significant political, military, financial and other resources. In fact, both Russia and the West consider it important to de-escalate the Transnistrian conflict against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis and the surge in military activity in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016. However, it would not be entirely correct to say that attempts will be made to “federalize” Moldova in order to actually launch the Minsk Agreements process in Ukraine: nobody in the West or Russia actually believes in the feasibility of the Minsk Agreements anymore. It is the Syrian settlement that appears to be the most important issue for investing political capital from the viewpoint of all the key global players.

Second, when assessing the prospects for the resolution of any regional conflict it is always necessary to take local political developments into account. The Transnistrian settlement is one of the key issues for both Moldovan and Transnistrian domestic policies. In Moldova, whose politics are characterized by geopolitical splits and identity wars, the polarization processes are only intensifying. The key conflict here has to do with the right-wing extra-parliamentary opposition’s fight against what is being perceived as a secret pact between Vladimir Plahotniuc, the country’s biggest oligarch and leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova, and Igor Dodon, whom the opposition suspects of supporting the existing power system in Moldova. For this reason, any initiatives coming from Dodon are met with hostility. In particular, this concerns initiatives related to the problems of national identity and the country’s foreign policy. The right-wing opposition tends to interpret the possibility of resolving the Transnistrian conflict through a multilateral compromise as Moldova deviating from the pro-EU vector and the country’s surrender to Russia. The flames of this alarmist position are also being fed from abroad, particularly from Romania.

In other words, inducing Chisinau to adopt a settlement plan for Transnistria that would grant Tiraspol any significant powers would be akin to making Kiev grant autonomy to Donbass. The situation is bound to worsen with the upcoming parliamentary election in February 2019, which will likely be used by the right-wing and centre-right forces as an opportunity to state their position. As a result, the global media agenda will contain federalization mainly as a projection of the political battles on Moldova’s home front.

In the Transnistrian discourse, the possibility of reintegration with Moldova has been off the agenda for a long time. Back before the mid-2000s, Tiraspol was at least rhetorically prepared to discuss a confederation or at least a federation with Moldova. However, following the 2006 referendum, all Transnistrian politicians began stating that independence and joining Russia is the only development path possible for the self-proclaimed republic. Tiraspol’s main problem is that Moldova is not a law-bound state that could guarantee Transnistria’s interests when it comes to the recognition of property rights, the use of Russian language, and the personnel policy. A good example for Tiraspol is Gagauzia, whose actual rights within Moldova are still not fully exercised, a fact that is constantly being criticized by the OSCE. In addition, Moldova’s domestic political landscape is extremely unstable, and any agreements reached today may become invalidated tomorrow. Transnistria has been in a state of economic crisis for several years now. The elites of Moldova and Transnistria have been able to reach agreements on a number of issues (foreign trade, free movement of citizens, etc.), but this does not mean that they are prepared to discuss a common political future.

To conclude, it seems likely that the Transnistrian settlement agenda will continue to develop, but mainly along the existing tracks. This is why the consummate professionals Dmitry Kozak and Claus Neukirch have been called upon to support this complex process.

Out of the eight confidence-building measures, only two or three have been fully implemented so far. The sides have until the end of the year, with the support of Italy’s chairmanship in the OSCE and the country’s special envoy Franco Frattini, to implement the agreement on the restoration of normal relations in the field of telecommunications in practice. Certain progress may also be made on the cancellation of mutual criminal cases against officials from both sides: Tiraspol and Chisinau pledged to reach an agreement by the end of 2018 under the Vienna Protocol of November 2017. In addition, during the spring consultations in Chisinau, Franco Frattini attempted to promote the idea of expanding the confidence-building agenda, including measures to resume normal settlements between banks. However, Moldova has not yet undertaken any obligations in this respect.


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