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The New (Old) Moldovan-Transnistrian Border Conflict

Transnistria, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is a breakaway territory located between the east bank of the River Dniester and Moldova to the West. It borders Ukraine to the East.

October 30, 2013 - Agnieszka Tomczyk - Articles and Commentary

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The PMR is an autonomous geopolitical unit that aspires to be recognised as an independent state. Since proclaiming its declaration of independence in 1990, Transnistria still claims the right to the land of the city of Bender with surrounding localities on the west bank and the area to the East of the River Dniester. Despite all efforts, the PMR remains a state with limited recognition. Formally, the Moldovan authorities recognise it as the autonomous territorial unit with special legal status – Transnistria, and consider almost all of its territory as a part of the Republic of Moldova.

Lasting for a few months, a military conflict between Moldova and Transnistria, that started in March and ended in July 1992, resulted in a ceasefire supervised by the Joint Control Commission (JCC). The JCC consisted of officials from Moldova, Transnistria and Russia. Despite security arrangements in the demilitarised zone, the political status of the PMR still remains internationally unregulated as well as its border claims. However, in early 2013, territorial disputes between Moldova and Transnistria flared up again. These tensions did not come out of the blue, although they may have had a negative impact on the initialling of the Association Agreement between the Moldovan government and European Union representatives during the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, scheduled to take place in November 2013.

Border and customs disputes

Between 1996 to 2001, Transnistria was granted official permission to use Moldovan customs seals, which meant that its import and export products were not subjected to taxes. According to the agreement between Chișinău and Kyiv signed on December 30th 2005, all Transnistrian entrepreneurs wishing to export their goods over the Ukrainian border had to first be registered by Moldovan officials. Earlier that year the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Moldova and Ukraine was launched. Its task was to support customs offices in both countries from preventing contraband activities that took place along the Transnistrian border. Nearly half a year later, on March 3rd 2006, Ukraine imposed new customs regulations on its border with Transnistria. The authorities in Kyiv announced that its government would import Transnistrian goods relying on a prior agreement with Moldova as a part of the joint customs protocol agreed in 2005, but Tiraspol, supported by Russia, defined this act as an “economic blockade”. Transnistria, additionally, responded by imposing the two-week blockade on Ukrainian and Moldovan transport at its borders. However, in a short period of time the PMR experienced deteriorating economic conditions described as humanitarian catastrophe, as its exports went down drastically.

In order to overcome the impasse in Moldovan–Transnistrian relations the mediation efforts on the part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) became involved. Since 1997 its actions have been carried out mainly to stabilise the peaceful process by removal of restrictions on the movement of people and trade flows between Chișinău and Tiraspol.

Redrawing the borders

During the first half of 2013, the volume of tension between Moldova and Transnistria has considerably increased. On June 10th, the separatist President Yevgeny Shevchuk, issued a decree on the “state” border which points to the further extension of the territory of Transnistria. According to this document, the PMR area would extend to the town of Varniţa and several other villages that are currently controlled by the government of Moldova. The decreecalled for the creation of an institution responsible for the border protection. By contrast, Nicolae Timofti, then-President of the Republic of Moldova, strongly criticised this act considering it a threat to the territorial unity of Moldova. It seems that his concerns were justified at this point because separatist activities can be seen as the next stumbling block in the painstaking process of Moldova’s integration with the EU. This situation is reminiscent of a game of table tennis where both sides of the conflict react alternately. As soon as the Moldovan decision-makers adopted a declaration that was against Transnistrian policy, PMR guards forbade four Moldovan policemen to cross the entry to the city of Bender by locating the garrison in this area. At the same time, villagers from Varniţa prevented Transnistrians from installing sentry boxes on their land. Today, the inhabitants of the Dubossary region have also cause for concern as separatists are still usurping the right to control the whole territory to the East of the Dniester River.

It is predicted that in the coming months, the Transnistrian army will strive to take control over all of the towns that have been already indicated in the border decree. This situation may be exacerbated by citizen checkpoints located in an extremely unfavourable place – along the administrative line between Transnistria and Moldova. Surely, this will have negative consequences for those Transnistrian inhabitants who do not hold Moldovan passports. According to Tiraspol, they will be recognised as foreigners without registration of residence, who live in the Republic of Moldova. Chișinău, on the other hand, refutes all allegations explaining that none of the Transnistrian residents will be forced to register at the checkpoints. Moldova is obliged to resolve this issue in order to launch a visa-free regime with the EU.

It seems that Shevchuk’s decree on the border should be seen in the broader context of the different measures undertaken by Moscow. Russia, as a major supporter of Transnistrian statehood, is actively engaged in activities aimed at changing Moldova’s pursuit towards EU membership. The Kremlin is seeking to block the signing of the trade contracts and hampering the framework of the 5+2 (OSCE, United States, EU, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Transnistria) negotiation process. Moscow is likely to escalate the tension at the administrative line between Moldova and Transnistria. In addition, the Russian authorities fear that more and more Transnistrian inhabitants will ask for Moldovan citizenship. Previous rounds of negotiations on the Transnistrian border conflict took place in Vienna (February 2011) and in Odessa (May 2013). Besides these co-called “5+2 Talks”, the format of the 2+1 (Moldova and Transnistria as parties, Russia as a mediator) have been also used.

Remarkably, Shevchuk’s decree refers not only to the protection of the “border” with Moldova, but also recognises the “border” of Transnistria and Ukraine as the border that separated the former Ukrainian and Moldovan SSRs in Soviet times. Thus, separatist officials claim the right to redraw the border line with Moldova in their own way. According to Moldovan analysts, recent tensions between Transnistria and Moldova may pose a real threat to the upcoming 3rd Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius planned on 28-29th November 2013. It has been argued that Kremlin policy seeks to keep Chișinău in the Russian sphere of influence and promote the idea of the Eurasian Union as an alternative to Moldova membership in the EU. A statement made by the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, on the Transnistrian co-called legal act on the border emphasises the need for a peaceful and forward-looking “solution that will respect the fundamental rights of all the citizens residing within the internationally recognised borders of the Republic of Moldova that will be able to bring a viable settlement conducive to lasting peace and prosperity on the Nistru/Dniester River”.

In conclusion, tensions that increased during the night of April 26-27th in the border security zone of Moldova have contributed to the deterioration of the political plight of Chișinău. It appears that President Shevchuk will continue his policy of expansion. On the other hand, having almost finalised negotiations on a free-trade agreement with the EU, Moldova faces the threat of a hostile military confrontation. One of the Moldovan daily newspapers, Timpul, called the Varniţa incident a “sword of Damocles” and recognised the Shevchuk border decree as a “declaration of war”, which could herald an armed conflict as in Georgia in 2008. Russian diplomat on Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict, Sergey Gubarev remarked: “Ten years of negotiations are better than one day of war.” These words allow us to hope that the current tensions do not escalate into military action. Hopefully, the current border dispute will not put a strain on Moldova efforts on the initialing of the Association Agreement with the EU.

Agnieszka Tomczyk is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at Warsaw University, currently involved in an international research project on transformation and political elites in the post-Soviet area. Her primary research focuses on breakaway territories in the Caucasus region, East European politics, the post-Soviet space, the Eastern Partnership initiative and diplomacy.  

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