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The Transnistrian gambit

Over the past few weeks unprecedented progress in the negotiations between the government in Chișinău and the authorities of the breakaway-separatist region of Transnistria has unfolded. The progress has caused modest hope for a breakthrough in this 25-year-long frozen conflict and it should rather be seen as a tool in Vlad Plahotniuc’s political game. The oligarch ruling over Moldova cleverly draws on a beneficial international environment and the favourability of Moscow and Tiraspol.

December 21, 2017 - Kamil Całus - Analysis

Image by president.gospmr.ru

Successes and Plans

On November 18th, as a result of a recently signed agreement, Pavel Filip, the Moldovan prime minister, and Vadim Krasnoselsky, the “president” of the unrecognised republic, together opened a bridge over the Dniester River in Gura Bîcului. The bridge, which is a crucial transportation link between the two territories, was destroyed during the Moldova-Transnistria conflict in 1992 and rebuilt at the beginning of the 2000s. However, until now, due to political reasons (objections from the Transnistria side) the bridge had remained closed for traffic.

One week later on November 25th in the city of Bender (located on the territory under the separatist’s control), the Moldovan vice president for reintegration, George Balan, and Vitaly Ignatiev, head of the Transnistrian “ministry of foreign affairs” signed another four agreements. The agreements allowed Moldova to recognise diplomas issued by Shevchenko Transnistria State University; facilitated the functioning of Moldovan schools; reintroduced direct telephone communication service between the two sides (and legalising mobile service in Transnistria as well); and enabled Moldovan farmers to gain access to their land on the territory under the rule of separatist authorities.

Two days later on November 27th in Vienna for the first time in almost two years, new international negotiations took place within the 5+2 format (Moldova and Transnistria plus Russia, the United States, Ukraine, the European Union and the OSCE). During the meeting, the two conflicting parties officially confirmed what they had agreed on earlier. Additionally, they committed themselves to resolving other key problems within the upcoming months. These problems include introducing standardised motor vehicle registration (for Moldova and Transnistria) which would allow cars registered in Transnistria to travel outside of Moldova.

At the same time, Moldovan media reported on Chișinău’s planned publication of its vision for resolving the conflict with Transnistria. According to leaks in the media, beyond reintegration of Transnistria into Moldova based on rights of autonomy (similar to Gagauzia), the plan calls for a formal recognition of Romanian, not Moldovan, as one of the three official languages of Transnistria, a withdrawal of the Russian army from the region and to replace the current peacekeeping mission (operating in the region by the Moldova-Russia ceasefire Agreement of 1992) with an international civilian police mission.

“Reintegrate and rule”

Undoubtedly, the main impulse for the negotiation process was the advantageous political atmosphere that has taken shape over recent months in Chișinău, as well as in Moscow and Tiraspol. Successfully resolving the Transnistria matter is particularly important for Moldova’s authorities and even more significant for oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc who essentially controls the Moldovan government and administration through a parliamentary majority (formally he is only a chairman of the nominally pro-European Democratic Party). Plahotniuc is accused of turning Moldova into a “captured state” and is treated with suspicion in most western capitals. Hence, a success on Transnistria would give him a significant boost in the eyes of the West (especially the EU and the US). In exchange, Plahotniuc likely hopes the West would turn a blind eye to his growing abuse of power and influence, especially with the recent dubious electoral system change which favours Plahotniuc’s party.

Gaining greater legitimacy from the West is crucial for Plahotniuc also domestically. His party claims it is the only grouping in Moldova which is pro-West and able to oppose pro-Russian forces including, above all, the Socialist Party of the current president Igor Dodon. Scaring the pro-European electorate that the pro-Russian socialists could come to power is one of the key ways for Plahotniuc to garner support for his unpopular party which is seen as a disgrace by most of the Moldovan electorate (it currently has between six and nine per cent support).

Success on the Transnistrian matter for Plahotniuc could also be a serious blow for the image of Dodon and the socialists who campaigned on the same issue. Despite any movements made by Dodon since becoming president in November 2016, he has been unable to find any agreement, and in fact his relations with the separatist authorities have significantly worsened over the last months. Moreover, the government’s activities have all but marginalised the other pro-European opposition groups (Maia’s Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity and Andrei’s Nastase’s Dignity and Truth Platform Party) which are not visibly participating in discussions on the future of Transnistria. From Plahotniuc’s perspective, the fact that the Transnistria matter dominates the local media is also significant. One could easily argue that the November 25th meeting in Bender was a way to distract the Moldovan audience from possible European disapprovals on the lack of reforms and growing corruption and oligarchy heard during the last Eastern Partnership Summit held just a day before.

Transnistria fights for survival…

The recently approved agreements (and those which are planned to be signed within the next few months) are politically and economically crucial for Transnistria. For the last few years, this region has been immersed in the biggest economic crisis in its history. Poor economic policies led by Yevgeny Shevchuk, the former “president”, and limited access to Russian and Ukrainian markets (connected mainly with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict) together with the financial crisis in Moldova (a key trading partner of Transnistria) which escalated at the start of 2015 led to a significant decrease in the living standards for those in the separatist republic. Limited financial support from Moscow for the region (as a result of the West’s sanctions) made matters worse. As a result, the political forces representing the most powerful business structure in the region – Sheriff holding – came to power. The parliament is dominated by the Obnovlenie party – which serves as the political arm of Sherrif – while the ‘president’, Vadim Krasnoselsky, was elected in December 2016 as a direct representative of Sheriff’s interests.

The new authorities (with Victor Gushan the chairman of Sheriff ruling the region from the backseat) as a de facto business structure are mainly interested in improving the economic situation in the region in order to maximise their own profits. At the same time, they want to improve the living standards of the people living the region in order to strengthen electoral support and domestic stability. The agreements signed in Chișinău fit into these well-defined goals. Not only will the agreements provide an opportunity to reinvigorate trade (the Gura Bîcului Bridge is part of an important transit route), but will also make life in Transnistria easier – by providing cheaper phone connections outside Transnistria, recognising diplomas and facilitating transport.

Equally, the political costs, not to mention the economic costs, for the region as a result of the agreements are practically zero. For Tiraspol, the lack of significant financial support from Russia (despite numerous requests from Transnistria) has facilitated the decision to accept the compromise deal with the Moldovan side. It is also worth mentioning that on the rhetorical level the authorities of the separatist region plainly emphasise that the compromise reached in Chișinău is not a preamble to Moldova’s annexation. Instead, it is being presented as a pragmatic step which is meant to make life easier for those living in the breakaway region.

… and Moscow fights for Ukraine  

Russian interests and its advocacy for a Moldovan-Transnistrian agreement appear to be quite unambiguous. First, Russia (together with Transnistria) had long insisted on renewing negotiations in the 5+2 format. From the Kremlin’s perspective, success in this format is politically significant as it can be used in the context of the Minsk Protocol in eastern Ukraine as proof of Russian goodwill as well as a clear sign for the West that if all the sides of the conflict are open to compromise (Chișinău in the case of Transnistria and Kyiv in the case of Donbas), it is possible to achieve measurable results and stabilisation in the region. At the same time Moscow is also interested in economic progress in the separatist region, mostly to defuse potential social unrest. Second, and probably more importantly, is Russia’s aim to limit the costs of sponsoring Transnistria. These costs – together with free gas delivered to Tiraspol through Gazprom – over the last few years has reached an annual amount of almost one billion US dollars.

A false dawn

Unfortunately, the current revival of the negotiation process should not bring any real expectations for a breakthrough or a final resolution to the Transnistria issue in the near future. There is nothing to indicate that Moldova’s unusually high interest and activity is anything more than just an interim gambit. This gambit is calculated for short-term external and internal gains for the government and Plahotniuc himself. It should be taken into account that during the following weeks the process of coming together with Transnistria will gradually slow down. Although the signed agreements will likely be implemented, the publishing of the government’s vision to solve the Transnistrian problem (likely to be in the first half of December) will presumably face criticism from both Tiraspol and Russia. Withdrawing armed forces from the region will be unacceptable for Moscow whereas Transnistria will under no circumstances agree to step back on such a delicate issue as the name of the Moldovan language. From Chișinău’s perspective, the negative reaction of those two sides will not be significant. By publishing the vision, Moldova can deflect any charges of passivity (indeed, by now it has not worked out any real concept of reintegration) and pass the buck to Moscow and the Transnistria side, whom it can then blame for a potential dead-end in the negotiations.

Additionally, the resistance of President Dodon may pull back further discussions in the matter of Transnistria’s special status. The president announced on November 29th that he does not agree with the proposed project (although still not revealed by the government) of solving the matter of Transnistria separatism. As a result, the 5+2 negotiations will probably reach a dead-end for months, remaining a comfortable substitute hiding the real problems and pushing the opposition aside. Plahotniuc, however, will continue to exploit the hope for further progress in the Transnistria issue as long as he can in order to gain even minor support from western partners.

Kamil Całus is an analyst with the Warsaw based Centre for Eastern Studies.

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