Chisinau and Tiraspol Started a “Transportation War”. What’s next?

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Sergey CHEBAN Relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol predictably enter the phase of an acute crisis, with the “transportation war” as its first manifestation. The freezing of negotiations and a slightly decreased international attention to the Transdniestrian settlement quickly backfired right at this year’s beginning:  Moldova and Transdniestria are gradually falling down to the logic of confrontation. Transportation remains the most problematic and therefore the most conflicting issue. As you know, in April 2018, the Chisinau and Tiraspol negotiators signed an agreement allowing the left-bank car owners to receive the so-called “neutral” numbers and enter the EU countries with them. At that time, this arrangement seemed a great success, but soon Tiraspol officials began to complain about the inefficiency of the mechanism due to Moldova’s failure to recognize driver’s licenses issued on the left bank. Since that time the flow of people wishing to receive neutral numbers has sharply decreased. Apparently, Chisinau has decided to stimulate the Transdniestrian residents to more actively re-register their vehicles to neutral license plates and receive Moldovan driver’s licenses. Since January 10, a ban has been introduced on the Transdniestrian vehicles travelling to Ukraine through the Chisinau-controlled checkpoints. In response, the Tiraspol authorities threatened that they would take similar measures for Moldovan vehicles on the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and gave Chisinau a week to “change their mind”. As a result, the crisis was resolved personally by President Igor Dodon, who, in a telephone conversation with Vadim Krasnoselsky, agreed to recover the situation. Today the ban for the left-bank cars was removed, which in theory should prevent further escalation. Interestingly, it was president of Moldova who addressed the Transdniestrian leader by phone from Moscow with the proposal to find a compromise, not any of the influential Russian officials. This suggests that although the Russian side failed to support Tiraspol directly in this whole story, it nevertheless fixed Chisinau with liability, having recommended Igor Dodon to solve the problem on his own. The statements made later in this regard by Prime Minister Ion Chicu and his deputy Alexander Flenchea about the test (temporary) regime of the ban did not leave much doubt that the problem would nevertheless be resolved. At the same time, such explanations by senior officials strangely contradict the statements made by Moldova’s border police, whose leadership, while implementing the restrictions, did not hear anything about a test mode of a relevant Moldovan law. Such inconsistency among Moldovan officials suggests that the decision on the ban was taken in a hurry and, apparently, without any minimal calculations of possible future developments. This largely adventurous behavior was also detected by Moldovan opposition politicians, who accused Dodon and his team of a fair weakness in relations with Tiraspol. In what way this story is assessed by international participants in the negotiation process will become clear this week, in view of Thomas Mayr-Harting’s visit to the region in the capacity of a Special Representative of the OSCE Albanian Chairman.  Meanwhile, the possibility should not be excluded that it was with a hint of irritation that the Kremlin reacted to the crisis provoked by Chicu Cabinet of Ministers, who was loyal to Moscow, which, by the way, was not typical under the previous pro-European governments in Moldova. At the current stage, the crisis has not yet been settled, and even stopping the transport problem gives no guarantees that the situation around the Transdniestrian settlement will not be derailed in the future. The trust between Chisinau and Tiraspol, as it has happened more than once in the history of the negotiation process, is at its lowest point. Therefore, the risks of another exacerbation in another area are very high. In such conditions, it would be right for Chisinau to carefully analyze what had happened, including personnel reshuffle, and reconsider the tactical line, which seems to have been left at the mercy of several inexperienced officials. If interpret the latest events from the political and electoral logic, rash actions taken by (ir)responsible officials have considerably “perplexed” the Moldovan president, who was forced to make public concessions and ask Tiraspol for something. There is reason to believe that Chisinau will “probe” Tiraspol more than once this year in order to achieve any concessions. The current brief “transportation war” is most likely not the last one. Unless, of course, international mediators take firmly on the issue, while they are in a position to keep the parties from further tension escalation and propose a constructive agenda. Chisinau and Tiraspol alone have not succeeded so far.