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Moldova vs. Transnistria: Thinking Beyond Pragmatism

Changes in the Transnistrian conflict are presenting an opportunity for Europe that could offer it a win in the Eastern Neighbourhood and at the same time reshape its relationship with Russia. But the European Union has to step up and think beyond soft power.

August 6, 2012 - Andrey Devyatkov - Bez kategorii



In years past, the Eastern Neighbourhood of the European Union has rarely brought positive news. But some change came unexpectedly from Moldova, where the central government has been in conflict with the breakaway region of Transnistria for more than twenty years. In the aftermath of the breakaway region’s December 2011 elections, Igor Smirnov—Transnistria’s seemingly unshakable leader—was replaced by Yevgeny Shevchuk. As president, Shevchuk openly criticised the former government for making Transnistria into a “besieged fortress” with a ruined economy, and called for a policy of “small steps” in improving relations with Chisinau. For his part, Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat proved ready for such dialogue, motivated first of all by a desire to demonstrate positive political results both internally and externally to the European Union, to which Moldova is nearing and integrating.

The conflict sides have reached important compromises on some technicalities regarding socio-economic issues—such as resumption of railway traffic and withdrawal of radioactive materials from the Transnistrian territory—as well as the formalisation of the 5+2 negotiation format on the conflict settlement (in which Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE are presented as mediators and the EU and the US are observers—alongside the two opposing claimants). The compromises mean a return to the situation which existed until the beginning of 2006, when both Chisinau and Tiraspol began to break off all ties (diplomatic, infrastructural, economic and social) between the two banks of the Dniester River. At present, both Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities acknowledged such severed relations as damaging to the lives of ordinary people and economic freedom. The authorities organised a series of meetings to build a positive atmosphere and establish good personal relations beyond official contact. Additionally, the negotiations are now very close to strategic decisions about other technical issues like the resumption of telephone communication, mutual recognition of educational standards, the establishment of a program of free access for Transnistrians to medical care in Moldova, etc.

In parallel, Transnistrian and Moldovan governments try to present their rapprochement to internal audiences couched in terms of pragmatism. No other tactic is viable in this case, because the political discourse on both sides of the Dniester assume opposing versions of how to solve the issue of Transnistria’s status; the Transnistrian side seeks to obtain independence while the Moldovan side seeks to grant Tiraspol autonomy within a unified state. During the period of intensive communication between Chisinau and Tiraspol, negotiators were constantly challenged by the internal politicisation of some issues. The key discussions in the last half-year were held in regard to a formal framework of the negotiations. Political opposition in Transnistria and Moldova (in Moldova this also included opposition within the coalition government) as well as some local mass media and political analysts actively criticised the respective governments for the closed nature of negotiations and readiness to compromise on the status of Transnistria within the 5+2 format. The Transnistrian leadership in particular was challenged by its political adversaries, but thanks to an active media campaign, it managed to push the compromise forward. In the end, both sides saved face, and equality was established as the principle of how both sides should treat each other stylistically, together along with a principle of mutual respect.

But a return to reality as it was before 2006 also means that Transnistria once again acknowledges its legal status is not equal to the status of Moldova. In the Principles and Procedures of Negotiations, agreed on during the last round of negotiations and published recently by the Transnistrian Foreign Ministry, the left bank is called simply “Transnistria,” not by the political entity’s official name, the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.” Moreover, Transnistria has now returned to a position of political uncertainty: On one side, Tiraspol still states that the decision to pursue independence was made by the people, and it should be the quasi-state’s strategic aim, and on the other side, Transnistria is now accepting the partial re-establishment of a common economic and social space with Moldova, including its administrative consequences. It demonstrates how the more the compromises that are made by Transnistrian and Moldova authorities the more vulnerable the two sides are to political attacks by their opponents.

Sooner or later, the politicisation of seemingly technical issues will return as it was in the Smirnov era, but in much greater proportions. It can be surmised that the Transnistrian opposition is only waiting for the popularity of Yevgeny Shevchuk to fade before it begins a harsher campaign against him. Both Chisinau and Tiraspol still do not have a clear vision of how they are going to treat the political aspects of the conflict settlement. Thus, the local-level potential which contributed substantially to the dynamism reached in the conflict settlement process in the last few months is close to its exhaustion. Stronger external support is needed for any further progress in the peace process.

But the prospects are not encouraging. The key external players—namely the European Union and Russia—do not have a clear, feasible plan of how they would like to see the Transnistrian conflict resolved. The strategy of the EU—which the burden of the conflict settlement should apparently rest on—is still in the making. Many experts agree that the solution of the Transnistrian dispute should take place at the level of EU-Russian relations, or that an understanding between Brussels and Moscow is needed to support conflicting sides in reaching a solution. But the EU has no approach developed, least of all in such nuanced and complex issues as how to engage constructively with Russia, or how to motivate the Moldovans and Transnistrians to breach difficult topics of conversation. The EU’s only presence in the settlement is “soft power,” suggesting finances for common Moldovan-Transnistrian programs in the socio-economic field, border management and so on. Since 2010, Germany has been trying to engage with Russia in the framework of the Meseberg process, but despite all of Berlin’s efforts, the Transnistrian issue has not become a Russian-EU issue yet. It is still being discussed bilaterally or trilaterally at best (with engagement of another large European player such as France) and without any clear results.

An alternate version of EU strategy would be to advocate for the implementation of the Cyprus model in Moldova, which would mean the integration of Moldova into the EU and the subsequent marginalisation of Transnistria. But this approach also does not gain a majority among European decision-makers. This variant would apparently be the best option for the Moldovan political elite, but Filat’s treatment of Transnistria demonstrates that this course, however desired, has not yet found enough support in Brussels.

On the other side, the engagement of Russia is in itself a puzzle. The real problem is the lack of a positive track record for Russian-EU cooperation in the security area. When examining Russian motivation toward the EU, we can see that its aims are rather technocratic (creation of common market, visa liberalisation, etc.) without touching the more complicated political and security issues. Vladimir Putin has shown himself very sceptical to date regarding any close cooperation with the EU in the common neighbourhood, and it would be quite optimistic to conclude that Russia is interested in pursuing any real rapprochement with Europe in the region. The March 2012 appointment of the sharp-tongued Dmitry Rogozin to the position of presidential representative in Transnistria is indeed a symbolic step, but it is a step of detachment. Consequently, Russia will sponsor further technical decisions within the 5+2 negotiation format, but despite the gradual diminishing of its own instruments of influence over Moldova (as its integration with the EU increases) and even over Transnistria (as shown in the December 2011 elections, where the Russian-backed lost) Moscow will remain rather sceptical about any radical changes in status quo.

The big question is when the Russian government will be ready to accept that the uncertain de facto status of Transnistria is not viable in the long term and pursue multilateral solutions to retain its influence in the region.   

Andrey Devyatkov, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Human Sciences of the Tyumen State University and a recent visiting fellow at the New Europe College, Bucharest. His research focuses on the Transnistrian issue, as well as Russian and Romanian foreign policies toward Moldova. 

Marcin Kosienkowski, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. His research focuses on the post-Soviet area, mainly Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria. Kosienkowski is co-editor and author of Moldova: Arena of International Influences (Lexington Books, 2012). 


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