4 July 2023Moldova

An outpost with feet of clay

How the war between Russia and Ukraine has changed the situation around Transnistria

by Vladimir Soloviev
© Vladimir Soloviev

Before Russia’s incursion in Ukraine Transnistria was used by Moscow as a tool of influence on Moldova. The war greatly reduced Kremlin’s ability to influence the situation on the Dniester and made и made the unrecognised republic vulnerable.

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In the solitude of non-recognition

There is no country questioning Transnistria being unrecognised and her territory being part of Moldova, and this is what makes the situation on the Dniester different from all others. Therefore, since 2022 the Transnistrian conflict can be considered the only unresolved territorial conflict in pure form in the post-Soviet space.

The Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts as well as the conflict in the Donbas that escalated into Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, remain unresolved from the viewpoints of Georgia and Ukraine, correspondingly, and also of most UN member states. However, for Russia, at least under its current government, these issues have been resolved. Moscow recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Syria soon did the same.

In February 2022 Russia repeated the recognition procedure with regard to the unrecognised – and Moscow-supported – Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Two more UN member states, Syria and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, followed suit. The Donbas republics did not remain partially recognised for long. On September 30, 2022 treaties of accession of the DPR and LPR as well as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine to Russia were signed. Although the war with Ukraine is going on, and Kyiv and the West consider the actions of the RF annexation, Moscow assumes that a new reality has emerged in the region and there is no way back.

However, the story of Russian troops invading Kherson and then pulling out of it, the retreat of the RF Army from the Kharkiv region, and Kiev’s unwillingness to accept territorial loss give reason to believe that the new reality created by Russia is unsustainable.

Another long-lasting territorial dispute is the Karabakh conflict. According to Azerbaijan, it has been resolved. After the 2020 victory over Armenia, the remnants of the unresognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) equate less than 30% of the territory the NKR had before the Second Karabakh war. The Armenian-populated enclave is not under full control of Azerbaijan yet but the process is moving in that direction. Baku considers the Karabakh problem solely as an issue of the Armenian minority rights in the Azerbaijani territories that it intends to address without regard to external actors. This has recently been demonstrated by the setting up of a checkpoint to the Lachin Corridor.

Therefore, today the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is left in the solitude of non-recognition. In autumn 2023 the PMR will celebrate 33 years since the proclamation of its independence from Moldova. This independence was not recognised by any UN member state but was formalised in a way that allows Russia the opportunity to change the status quo on the Dniester.

Moscow can do it, for example, by responding to the will of the Transnistrian people as expressed in several referendums. The latest referendum took place in September 2006: 97.1% participants were in favour of independence of Transnistria and of its subsequent accession to Russia.

A special case

During the entire existence of Transnistria Moscow has not ever openly raised the issue of recognising the region’s independence from Moldova. In March 2008, after the independence of Kosovo was recognised, Russia simulated preparations to recognise the PMR, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

When the three unrecognised republics approached the Russian authorities with a request to this effect, the signal was heard. The State Duma held hearings to consider all three requests simultaneously. But the radical scenario – recognition of independence – was put on the backburner. In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not for long: five months later the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 broke out, after which Moscow finally recognised the independence of the two Georgian regions. But back then, in March 2008, State Duma deputies merely recommended the Russian government to work out the issue of changing the format of relations with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

At the same time, a special opinion with regard to Transnistria was recorded. Following the hearing, a statement was made that Russia sees Moldova as a united state where the PMR, as its constituent part, enjoys a special status.

This statement reflected the Kremlin's standpoint which is not about helping Chișinău restore the territorial integrity. This, certainly, was always stated but served merely as superficial layer, a cover that camouflaged, fairly clumsily, Russia’s aims in the Moldovan direction.

Moscow has always treated the Transnistrian conflict not as a problem but rather as a useful asset. The unrecognised Moscow-oriented republic didn’t take up a lot of resources and didn’t cause much trouble. The conflict has always been useful in its frozen state: it served as an anchor that kept Moldova from drifting towards the West. Apart from that, under certain circumstances this conflict could have delivered substantial geopolitical gains.

In 2003, Russia tried vigorously to resolve the Transnistrian conflict at a request from Chișinău. The request originated from the then Moldovan Communist president Vladimir Voronin who had the ambitions to unite the country.

Putin complied with the request of his Moldovan counterpart and commissioned Dmitry Kozak to settle the conflict – then, as now, he was deputy head of Putin's administration. With the participation of Dmitry Kozak who engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Chișinău and Tiraspol, the Memorandum on the Basic Principles of the State Structure of a United State in Moldova, later also known as the Kozak memorandum, was signed.

Under the memorandum, Moldova had to transform itself into a federation with Gagauzia (an autonomy since 1994) and Transnistria as federal subjects. The federal state was to remain neutral and totally demilitarised, the Russian language was to have a state language status along with the Moldavian language. Moreover, at the demand of the Russian side, Russia’s military presence was to be kept in the united state for 17 years, until 2020, as a ‘stabilization peacekeeping force.’

Benefits to Russia in case of signing the memorandum in 2003 were evident. Firstly, having reconciled Chișinău and Tiraspol, Moscow would have been hailed as chief peacemaker. Secondly, Moscow would have kept its troops in Moldova. Thirdly, the neutral status would have blocked Moldova’s hypothetical attempts to join NATO. Finally, the country’s reunification would have altered the electoral balance in favour of pro-Russian political forces. In other words, Russian influence in and on Moldova would have become nearly absolute.

But the idea didn’t work out. At the last moment, Vladimir Voronin refused to sign the memorandum already initialed by him and by Transnistria's leader Igor Smirnov. The relations between Moscow and Chișinău were soured for a long time. The Transnistrian conflict remained unresolved and since then the negotiation process on its settlement has never been anything close to a substantive discussion of parameters of Moldova’s unification.

A complex simple conflict

The Transnistrian conflict has always been regarded as the most conflict-free of all the post-Soviet territorial disputes. The healing of the wound has been facilitated by the absence of inter-ethnic and religious components, by the small scale of hostilities compared to other early 1990s wars in the ex-USSR territory and, importantly, by the fact that the bloodshed on the Dniester was stopped in 1992. Isolated incidents, some fatal, were tragic exceptions, not routine matters.

The peacekeeping mission on the Dniester that began in 1992 has been carried out jointly by Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistrian military contingents headed by the Joint Control Commission (JCC). Members of Moldovan and Transnistrian military serve together at joint peacekeeping outposts in the Security zone of the Transnistrian conflict.

There is relatively free movement of persons and goods between the two banks of the Dniester. This movement is relatively free because the Transnistrian authorities set up customs border posts along the Dniester where documents of all travellers are checked and all vehicles are searched. The posts were set up within Security Zone contrary to the agreement that no checkpoints are allowed there without the consent of the JCC.

In spite of these violations of the agreements, of the political and geopolitical differences, Moldova and the runaway Transnistrian region over decades have got used to each other. Economic, social, and business connections have woven into the fabric of relations that may be formal or informal but all are conflict-free and pragmatic at every level except political.

People on both banks of the Dniester have learned to coexist peacefully, to make money together and eventually have become interdependent. Chișinău buys from Tiraspol electricity generated by HPP Dubăsari (owned by the Russian company Inter RAO). Tiraspol exports electricity to Europe and Russia as generated in Moldova. This is just one of the many examples.

When such a level of interaction has been reached, the country’s reunification doesn’t appear to be an unsolvable problem. But over three decades a formula for sustainable settlement has not been found – due to internal and external factors.

Among the internal factors is the unwillingness of all parties who benefit from the conflict to change the decades-old situation. It would be a mistake to think that the only beneficiary is Tiraspol. There are cases where non-transparent schemes, for example, of electricity purchase were used in the interests of government-affiliated business structures in Chișinău.

The same can be said of the gray import to Transnistria and through it to the right bank of the Dniester and into Ukraine of a wide range of goods: chicken leg quarters, cigarettes, alcohol, and fuel. An important link of the supply chain of smuggled goods have for a long time been the ports of the Odessa region of Ukraine. Documents for the necessary cargo were prepared in Transnistria, then, using the benefits of the CIS free trade zone, the cargo would go in different directions. Part of it would end up in Transnistria’s domestic market, part would get into Moldova’s and Ukraine’s markets. Sometimes, cargo transported by sea to Odessa and Chernomorsk (formerly known as Ilyichevsk) never left the port area: the only thing that actually moved were the cargo documents.

The rules common to recognised states make such economic miracles difficult to come by. That is why the non-recognition of Transnistria has an understandable commercial and financial rationale. However, the war launched by Russia against Ukraine affected this business. Today Kyiv sees Transnistria where Russian troops are deployed as a territory from which the threat comes. As a result, Ukrainian troops are massed along the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.

The business on non-recognition is not the only obstacle to the reunification of the two banks of the Dniester. Transnistria has large enterprises, its own institutions of power, defence, law enforcement, and security agencies: the army, the militia, and the secret service. Transnistria makes its own laws. In many spheres including legal framework formation Tiraspol looks to Moscow rather than Chișinău. The Transnistrian elites feel more comfortable within the non-recognition reality they can understand rather than within Moldova that has its own elites with their own ambitions and appetites.

‘Uniting these institutions, these people in one state is a difficult task. And it seems to me, those who say that it should be easy and fast simply pay no attention to the existing reality. This needs to be considered when resolving the conflict. Difficult does not mean impossible. It just means that we must ensure that the local elites, the society are not offended and that they offer no resistance,’ William Hill, a former head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova and an expert on the region, told OSTWEST MONITORING.

Until now the Moldovan authorities, however, have shown no diplomatic activity on the Transnistrian track. Chișinău does not propose its own options for resolving the conflict, despite the fact that today, which is a rare case in the recent Moldovan history, all levers of power are in the hands of one political force, the pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity. It was founded by Maia Sandu, the current president. The party controls the majority of seats in the Parliament and has appointed its own government.

Nevertheless, the Transnistrian problem, judging by the fact that it receives next-to-zero attention, is clearly not among the ruling party’s priorities. And this is also one of Moldova’s peculiarities. The Transnistrian problem is traditionally ignored by pro-Western parties, which are almost always right wing. They are able to negotiate economic agreements with Tiraspol but prefer not to raise the issue of political settlement.

There is a widely held view that one of the reasons for this inaction is the concern over the mentioned scenario where in the case of the country’s unification hundreds of thousands of the PMR residents will shift the electoral balance in the entire Moldovan Republic not in favour of the pro-Western parties. Another possible explanation is that Transnistrian issues are unpopular among that part of the electorate who traditionally support the pro-Western forces.

These voters have always been suspicious, if not hostile, towards everything related to Russia. In its turn, Russia keeps insisting on a special status for Transnistria within Moldova, which for many equals the country’s federalisation with a subsequent potential for complications in the form of the necessity to come to terms with the Tiraspol authorities.

As to the case of Gagauzia – a region in the south of the Moldova Republic known by its frequent conflicts with Chișinău, where in the early 1990s separatism was dealt with through the creation of the Gagauz autonomy, – not everyone perceives it as a formula suitable for the resolution of the conflict.

The war changes everything

The Russian-Ukrainian war could not but affect the situation around Transnistria. At the beginning of 2022 some opinions were heard in Russia that one of the objectives of the ‘special military operation’ was gaining access to the unrecognised republic.

Achieving this objective and turning the Moldovan-Ukrainian border into the Russian-Moldovan border could have changed the situation in the region dramatically and brought about two main scenarios of further developments. Scenario one: the PMR has been annexed to the Russia-occupied territories in the south of Ukraine. Scenario two: Chișinău has been pressured into accepting Russia’s preconditions for the reunification of Moldova, for instance, through the creation of a federative republic. That would have entailed a change of Moldova’s foreign policy vector from West to East.

Today both scenarios are no longer relevant. Ukraine’s resistance not only made such developments impossible but also put an end to Russia’s influence on Moldova.

‘Everything that provided stability of Transnistria as a separatist project before the war has lost its relevance after the war broke out,’ says Alexandru Flenchea, a former Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration of Moldova, says to OSTWEST MONITORING. ‘This is true of Russia’s political and diplomatic support,’ observes the expert. In his opinion, the same goes for Russia’s military presence on the Dniester, ‘On the scale of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Russian military contingent is not a serious force and cannot ensure the security of Transnistria in military terms. On the contrary, it attracts unwanted attention and the mere fact of its existence deep behind the frontlines is a serious irritant for Kyiv. This creates problems for Transnistria rather than solves them.’

Moscow’s loss of positions is also stated by William Hill, ‘Russia’s influence will weaken, compared to the preceding decades. Of course, it irritates the Kremlin. It is trying to put up a fight, to take measures to restore its influence in Moldova [editor’s note: Russia openly supports Moldovan politicians critical of the current pro-Western government]. But at the moment in Moldova, local politicians have the opportunity to take decisions without influence from Moscow.’

Kyiv’s influence, on the contrary, has grown. Over the past year in Kyiv, the opinion has been repeatedly expressed that Ukraine can help Moldova regain control over the unrecognised republic, if Moldova asks for it. Although there has been no action yet, it is significant that such ideas are spoken out loud.

The beginning of this year saw another event that would have been hard to imagine in pre-war times. The Parliament of Moldova approved a set of amendments to the country's criminal code to include separatism. From now on separatist activities are punishable by imprisonment. Under the new criminal article, any government official of Transnistria including the republic’s leadership can be treated as a separatist. Chișinău is in no rush to invoke the new law. However, the instrument has been created, which means that it can be used.

The Moldovan authorities introduced criminal liability for separatism despite criticism from Russia. And it is another illustration that Moscow has lost its influence on Chișinău and in general on the situation on the Dniester.

Before the war, Moldova and Russia contacted at different levels: foreign ministers held meetings, the two presidential administrations had their own communication channel. With the outbreak of the war not only Chișinău severed all ties except those at the ambassador level, but also started divorce proceedings with the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk

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