Dodon`s Transnistria visit and what it means for other frozen conflicts
Moldova`s newly elected president, Igor Dodon, paid his first official visit to Transnistria and held talks with Vadim Krasnoselsky, the head of the breakaway region, on January 4th. The information was provided by Dodon on his Facebook account. According to the Moldovan leader, he congratulated Vadim Krasnoselsky on his victory in the December presidential election, discussed a wide range of issues, including simplifying the movement of people between Moldova and Transnistria. He also wrote about establishing good relations, emphasised the readiness of both parties to look for compromise and promised that the agreement will produce tangible results in 2017. Dodon did not miss the opportunity to touch upon the issue of religion, the Orthodox faith, which according to him “alongside the common history, unites our citizens on both banks of the Dniester.”
Although Moldova`s official contacts and negotiations with Transnistrian authorities were held also during the presidencies of Petru Lucinschi (for example, “Memorandum on the principles of normalisation of the relations between the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria” signed in 1997) and Vladimir Voronin (Voronin-Smirnov meetings), and within the framework “5+2 Talks” (Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and OSCE, plus the United States and the European Union as external observers) which took place in 2011, Igor Dodon`s recent visit and the following statements might open a new chapter for frozen conflicts in post-Soviet space. Especially in light of the sharpening geostrategic struggle in Eastern Europe.
Moldova is one of the four countries (with Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan) which established GUAM, a pro-Western organisation with an aspiration to leave the Russian sphere of influence, at the turn of millennium. Interestingly, all the member states have experienced ethnic conflicts and territorial losses since their independence in 1991. Those conflicts have been referred to as “frozen” due to their irresolvability and uncertain future.
Azerbaijan became the first republic within the Soviet Union to fall victim to such a territorial conflict. An ethnic turmoil, which broke out as local clashes in 1988 in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan`s mountainous province, soon escalated into a bloody war (1991-1994), as a result of which the Armenian separatists strongly backed by the Republic of Armenia occupied both the region and the adjacent districts. Although Nagorno-Karabakh was declared an independent republic, its government is controlled by Yerevan, while the region itself is run as one of the provinces of Armenia. Azerbaijan does not recognise the separatist government in Nagorno-Karabakh and prefers to negotiate with officials of the Republic of Armenia, albeit without results. Despite the 1994 formal ceasefire, shooting is frequent along the contact line, taking dozens of lives every year and regularly developing into full-scale hostilities: the most recent one, the so-called “four-day war” took place in April 2016, when Azerbaijani forces regained some of the occupied territories.
Georgia seems more unfortunate in terms of territorial losses. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two provinces, which were autonomies during the Soviet time, seceded from Georgia during the wars in early 1990s. The tensions, which continued between Georgia on the one side and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other, reached their climax in August 2008, when Georgia`s pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili strove to restore his country`s territorial integrity. The attempt failed as Russian forces became involved in the conflict. The 2008 war further pushed the breakaway regions from Georgia, while Moscow recognised the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the aftermath. The fact that Russia has been issuing passports to all Abkhaz and Ossetian residents complicates the situation further, as it enables the country to be directly engaged in the conflict in order to protect its citizens. The situation most likely will not get resolved any time soon also because Georgia has opted for European integration, which is conflicting with the interests of Russian authorities, who, through their influence in both breakaway provinces try to remain in the region and influence the situation.
While Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova faced territorial disputes in the early 1990s, Ukraine managed to survive those turbulent years without any major troubles. However, the recent history shows that the problems in Ukraine needed time to unfold: the country underwent similar processes in the second decade of the 21st century. Firstly, Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. Simultaneously, Russia-supported forces launched a separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk. Despite constant fighting and shelling along the contact line, no territorial changes occurred. The agreement known as Minsk II seems to cement the current state rather than bringing an end to the conflict. Such a stalemate and lack of any prospective solutions makes this conflict frozen and is likely to create another black hole on the European map.
Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Georgia refuse to recognise the separatist regimes installed in their breakaway regions. The situation in Moldova has been different: Chișinău and Tiraspol have always been in contact with each other. Yet, the election of Igor Dodon opens a new chapter, while his visit to Tiraspol may bring mutual sympathy and trust between the conflict sides.
A Russia sympathiser, Igor Dodon called Crimea “a Russian territory” and his Facebook account is full of posts not only in Romanian/Moldovan, but also in Russian. He advocates for federalisation of Moldova and granting special status to the Transnistrian region (similarly, Russian authorities insist that Ukraine ought to federalise and grant wider autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk). He therefore may divert Moldova from its European course and seek integration with the Eurasian Economic Union.
It is highly unlikely that Russia will allow Transnistria to rejoin Moldova even if the latter accepts closer cooperation with Russia and/or integration with Russia-led organisations. Nevertheless, Moldova’s actions can indeed create a precedent for other similar conflicts in the region: refraining from military solutions, maintaining direct contact between the conflicted parties without any mediators, and most importantly, developing goodwill and mutual trust between the populations on both sides of the contact lines. At a geostrategic level, Dodon`s politics may strengthen the position of Russia in the region (in one of his recent interviews, he noted it would be impossible to solve the conflict without Russia), especially in light of president-elect Donald Trump`s statements about reducing United States’ activities in Eastern Europe and the weakening of the European Union following Brexit.
Rusif Huseynov is a Baku-based independent researcher. He holds a bachelor degree of international relations at Baku State University and was recently admitted to SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.