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Chișinău-Tiraspol: One piano, four hands

In the last few weeks there has been an increase of tension in relations between Moldova and the breakaway territory of Transnistria.

May 12, 2013 - Piotr Oleksy - Articles and Commentary

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Do the events which took place in the small village of Varniţa on April 26th and 27th 2013 involving the local population, the police and the Transnistrian Spetsnaz forces, pose some important questions on the future of this conflict?

There have been a series of serious misunderstandings between Moldova and the breakaway territory of Transnistria unfolding recently. First, the authorities of Bender, a city under the control of Transnistria, demanded the Moldovan policemen who work there not to walk around the city in their uniform. This, in turn, upset Chișinău. Based on a 1992 agreement, the city is served by both the Transnistrian militia and the Moldovan police.

In fact, the real source of this conflict lies with the two Moldovan prisons located in the city. The authorities in Tiraspol claim that for each prisoner, the Moldovan authorities provide 25 heavily armed guards (apparently Moldova has equipped them with heavy weaponry). In the eyes of the Transnistrian authorities this is tantamount to building a military base on the territory of the disputed city. The reaction of Tiraspol was to increase prices for public utilities used by these prisons, which Chișinău refused to pay. As a result, the prisoners and the prison staff were cut off from access to water, electricity and gas.

The next step was an announcement made by Moldova that it would set up six new check points in the security area which divides the conflicted sides. In response, Transnistria began building their own new check points in Varniţa, a village under Moldovan jurisdiction. Varniţa and its neighbouring villages are a permanent point of conflict between the two sides.

Tiraspol argued that the goal of building these new checkpoints was to reduce the smuggling of Moldovan alcohol. This angered the local population, and especially the policemen, who live there. The locals decided to dismantle the check points on their own accord, and as a result, the Transnistrian border control called in a Spetsnaz (a Russian term meaning “special forces” – editor’s note) division. A fight broke out (thankfully no shots were fired and nobody was killed) and, for a few days, the Transnistrian army remained in a state of military readiness.

Although Moldova is not particularly innocent in this conflict and has made some decisive and provocative steps, the international community has been left wondering why Transnistria has decided to escalate this conflict? The logical answer might be that Tiraspol is trying to get something at a time of serious political crisis in Moldova, which is without a prime minister and speaker of parliament.

In the interview below, Transnistrian political scientist Andrey Safanov presents his own opinion and interpretation on the recent events and escalating tension.

PIOTR OLEKSY: What is happening between Transnistria and Moldova?

ANDREY SAFONOV: In 2012 the relations between Moldova and Transnistria were based on the policy of “small steps”. Generally speaking, this meant serious concessions by Tiraspol towards Chișinău. When it became clear that no country apart from Russia would provide Transnistria with economic aid, we started to see a vengeful attempt at pay back as well as an attempt to show the stability of its position. And this is why we can see a cooling down in Moldovan-Transnistrian relations. Unfortunately, this is taking extreme forms and the latest events in Varniţa are an example of this.

These decisive steps or provocations were taken by both sides. Why?

The conflict which took place in the Varniţa region is useful for both sides: President Yevgeny Shevchuk on the Transnistria side, and former prime minister, Vlad Filat, on the Moldovan side. At same the time as the “small step” policy, it has became clear that both groups are interested in the mutual strengthening of their own internal policies. Hence, in my subjective view, this conflict is a “piano four hands”, which serves to strengthen both sides’ internal position. Both politicians are trying to strengthen their own positions in their own states to beat their opponents. For Shevchuk it also helps to distract society’s attention from the tragic economic situation.

Do you think this could lead to a significant escalation of the conflict or even war?

I don’t think that it will lead to war, but I can’t exclude a short local conflict – one which could, of course, lead to human casualties. This will completely change the political situation between Moldova and Transnistria.

Escalation of the conflict could lead to an increase in the number of Russian soldiers stationed on Transnistrian territory. Do you think Russia has an interest in escalating this conflict?

Quite the opposite! I believe that in this case escalation of the conflict is in the interest of the West. Russia has always proclaimed that the peaceful operation is effective and there is no alternative to it, and that the current form of peaceful actions is ideal, etc. On the other hand, both Chișinău and the West would be able to say that Moscow can’t play its role adequately. I can’t exclude that part of the Transnistrian authorities is more West-oriented. They are using pro-Russian rhetoric to give the West a reason to proclaim the need for Russian troops to leave the territory of Transnistria and create a new mission under the aegis of the OSCE. For Russia, the ideal solution is to maintain the status quo in the region and this is easiest to achieve when nothing serious is happening.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Andrey Safonov is chairman of the Transnistrian Society of Independent Political Scientists. In 2011 he was a presidential candidate in Transnistria. He is a critic of the current Transnistrian president, Yevgeny Shevchuk.

Piotr Oleksy works at the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland.

For more on the topic of Transnistria please see Piotr Oleksy’s co-authored analysis in the current issue of New Eastern Europe: www.neweasterneurope.eu/current

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