Is the Zero Hour Coming in Moldova-Russia Relations?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Moldovan delegations went to Russia to talk about the gas contract and the Transdniestrian settlement. What concessions does Moscow expect from Chisinau?
So far, the only relatively successful activity of our country’s new leadership is the development of international cooperation, the pace of which continues to grow every month. However, it is extremely curious that the link to the Transdniestrian settlement has become a distinctive feature of almost all distinguished guests’ recent visits to Chisinau, and in this context – the complete silence of the authorities, who are limited to plain announcements and press releases. Let's look at specific examples. The OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde visited Moldova the other day - by the way, for the second time this year. It is clear that she intended to get acquainted with the current state of affairs in relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, as well as outline possible steps that could rebuild the clearly shaken trust between the parties. Importantly, in addition to the willingness of the Swedish chairpersonship to organize a “result-oriented” 5+2 meeting in Stockholm before the end of the year, Ann Linde made several interesting “remarks”. First of all, she pointed out the importance of further implementation of the so-called Berlin+ package, as well as the development of new areas of interaction between the two banks of the Dniester. And even with the prospect of entering into negotiations on political topics, not just socio-economic, as it has been going on for the last ten years. The seeяingly ordinary visit of the OSCE delegation to examine the situation on the ground and learn the prospects of the Swedish chairmanship with regard to the significantly stalled Transdniestrian settlement, appeared to have somewhat unexpectedly turned into ambitious plans to carefully shift the negotiation process to the discussion of the final conflict resolution model. A few days earlier, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central and Eastern European Affairs Robin Dunnigan visited Moldova. According to official reports, the Moldovan leadership and the American official discussed issues of the country's development, reforms promoted by the current government, bilateral relations with the United States, development assistance programs, etc. At the same time, the Moldovan leadership stressed that our country wants to significantly deepen the strategic dialogue with Washington. Intentionally or not, the information support of the visit of the American emissary diligently avoids the Transdniestrian issue, although Ms. Dunnigan is the new representative of the United States in the 5+2 format and it is no coincidence that on the second day she went to Tiraspol to meet with representatives of the left-bank administration. Moving on. At the end of September, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Moldova, having long been well acquainted with the subject of the Transdniestrian settlement. Judging by the fact that Steinmeier also held a separate meeting with Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Vladislav Kulminski and the head of the OSCE Mission in Moldova Claus Neukirch, there are indications that Berlin is not losing interest in the Transdniestrian issue and is trying to keep abreast. At the same time, many experts highlighted the fact that during the final press conference the German president somewhat ambiguously expressed the hope that Chisinau would take all necessary steps so that the conflict with Transdniestria would not escalate, and also expressed the opinion that the continuation of the “small steps” policy (in which Moscow and Tiraspol are primarily interested) would eventually help find a way to resolve the conflict and achieve its de-escalation. The trip of two Moldovan delegations to Moscow and St. Petersburg completes this entertaining cycle of international visits. In fact, the key gas problem, which at first glance can overshadow any other topic, is only part of a complex relief context. In the run-up to the trip to the Russian capital, Chisinau was consistently preparing its negotiating stance throughout a month and made several signal decisions for the Kremlin. Among them are a demonstrative increase in the rates on the gas contract, the refusal to admit a Russian peacekeeper, a firm and uncompromising position regarding Transdniestrian transport, as well as statements by the Moldovan leadership about the need to withdraw the Russian military group and dispose ammunition from the depots in Kolbasna. It must be assumed that the public statements by the incoming US Ambassador to Moldova Doyle Logsdon on the eve of the Moldovan delegation's visit to the Russian Federation were also far from accidental. The American diplomat, apparently, was instructed to voice a tough position that in relations with our country the settlement of the Transdniestrian conflict remains a priority for Washington and that further pressure on Moscow is necessary to force it to abide by its obligations for troops withdrawal and ammunition removal from Moldova. Certainly, the meeting of our delegation headed by Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Vladislav Kulminsky with the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian President Dmitry Kozak will be the focal point of the program of stay in Moscow. Given all the circumstances, the discussion is going to be extremely tough. First of all, attention is drawn to the fact that the Kremlin, for the first time in a long time, exerts blatant energy pressure on Chisinau, communicating threats about possible interruptions in the natural gas and electricity supply through the loyal Moldovagaz JSC and MGRES. Hopefully, our delegation, with the support of international partners, has carefully prepared for a difficult talk with the Kremlin, which, apparently, resorts to traditional methods of pressure and tries to force our side to make any concessions and show more pliability on issues of interest to Moscow. If we look at the situation from a slightly different angle, especially at the strange excitement mentioned above and the activation of the main stakeholders who have long been deeply involved in the process of resolving the Transdniestrian conflict, then the state of affairs for our political class seems to be even more alarming. Especially in the light of possible attempts to convince Chisinau in the near future to decide on its clear stand regarding the political settlement. After all, as already seen, the country's new leadership is not as good at producing conceptual solutions as it is at coining slogans.