Cooperation or Conflict: Test for the Transdniestrian Settlement

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The Ukrainian conflict creates a completely different background for the Transdniestrian settlement, giving its participants the opportunity to change the usual trajectory
The beginning of a full-scale war in Ukraine found the Transdniestrian settlement in an extremely negative situation. The negotiation process is constantly stalling or even rolling back, there is almost no communication betweenthe parties (Tiraspol in particular complained about Maia Sandu’s refusal to engage in dialogue), problems are not solved, the “5+2” format is not functional. Against this background, Chisinau and Tiraspol continue mutual accusations, without mincing words. For example, the central authorities expressed dissatisfaction with the deteriorating human rights situation, military exercises conducted by the peacekeeping contingents of Russia and Pridnestrovie. Also, they demanded to provide additional premises for Latin-scriptschools and normalize the situation with farmlands in the Dubasari district. Tiraspol constantly complains about Moldova’s refusal to implement the so-called Berlin package of agreements, about criminal cases against its officials and transport blockade. In general, both sides demonstrated a lack of intentions to negotiate and only aggravated the diplomatic and informational confrontation, which even the visits of various representatives of Poland, the OSCE chair, and the Russian Foreign Ministry could not stop. Nevertheless, both Moldova and Transdniestria’s response to the war in Ukraine was expressly peaceful and cautious. Obviously, Chisinau has qualified thecurrent events as a huge risk for itself, due to the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria, and at the same time as a unique chance to accelerate integration with the European Union. It is possible that the appeal with such a request will be handed over to the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, today. Maia Sandu’s party, along with the parliament and the government, even looks into the scenarios of abandoning the territory of Transdniestria and unifying with Romania as a way to peacefully preserve the de facto balance of forces in the region. However, the public rhetoric of the authorities is as correct and pacifist as possible: along with support for Ukraine and slight condemnation of Russia, only calls for peace and negotiations are voiced. Moreover, Moldova has banned its citizens from any participation in the conflict, has no intention to facilitate military transit to Ukraine or join the economic sanctions of the European Union against the Russian Federation. In turn, Transdniestria is obviously hopeful watching the advancement of Russian troops, albeit sympathizing with the civilian population of Ukraine. For the left bank, squeezed between right-bank Moldova and Ukrainefor many years, unblocking the eastern border and the perspective of a friendly Odessa region is largely a matter of long-term survival. Yet, officially, Tiraspol is still extremely cautious stating only that the situation is under full control, that there is no shortage of food and essential goods and that the peacekeeping forces are ready to fulfill their military duty. Meanwhile, both sides had actively accepted refugees until Ukraine decided to close the central section of the border. Interestingly, it was exactly due to Tiraspol's persistency that the meeting of official negotiators took place yesterday in Chisinau, in a face-to-face format. Following the results, some encouraging signals were voiced. Thus, Transdniestrian representatives highlighted the risks arising from the border with Ukraine being closed for the import of consumer goods, and it seems that they received confirmation from Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian about assistance in the prompt delivery of necessary goods, including medicines. That both banks have chosen not to escalate the situation to date is also indicated by the contract for the Moldovan GRES electricity supply extended without a tender.Given the regional deficit, the international market reality and relations that have deteriorated in recent years, the current authorities can consider the conclusion of a profitable deal as their undoubted success. Perhaps Russia’s voice was critical in the talks, since Moscow is not yet interested in tensions between Moldova and the Transdniestrian administration. It is also relevant that the military control commission in Bendery continues its work, and as such serious incidents between the armed formations of the two Dniester banks, as well as the combat activity of Russian troops deployed in Transdniestria, are almost impossible. Tomorrow will be a kind of test day when both sides will hold mourning events in the Security Zone localities dedicated to the anniversary of the armed conflict on the Dniester. If no serious aggravation occurs, it will be possible to assert the peaceful mood - again, at least until the situation in Ukraine clears up. Yet, despite some sobering effect of the Ukrainian conflict, Chisinau-Tiraspol relations still remain tense and may well turn into a big fire. In this sense, a continuing fuss over the Transdniestrian-type license plate blanks is totally incomprehensible. At the very least, it is strange to keep in the foreground such an insignificant, but at the same time toxic issue, which also forces Tiraspol to block the work of vehicle registration offices, the creation of which was considered a serious success in the negotiation process back in 2018. However, problems faced by the Rybnita MMZ plant are of greatest concern. Since last October, supplies of raw materials (scrap metal) from the EU countries, primarily Romania, have been stopped (Ukrainian scrap supplies were curbed through protective duties back in 2019). While blaming Chisinau for everything, the Transdniestrian authorities do not stop the enterprise. Yet, according to media reports, Moldovan scrap supplies have been blocked for almost a week. In parallel, the MMZ is subject to information attack by Andrei Nastase's DA platform. He is actively assisted by some stakeholders of the domestic metallurgical market who are interested in reselling Moldovan scrap metal to Turkey. It is not very clear how exactly these people paved the way to President Maia Sandu's administration and why blatant fakes relayed by Nastase's wards are taken seriously by the government. MMZ products accounted for over 40% of Transdniestrian exports last year, while deliveries to Poland alone, currently chairing the OSCE and, accordingly, the Transdniestrian settlement, exceeded 120 million US dollars. The temptation to deprive the Transdniestrian administration of the lion's share of income can be a serious argument. But shutting down the production in Rybnita will hit local scrap collectors, destroy a dozen transport companies, reduce the profits of commercial banks and railway industry, and leave more than two thousand people unemployed. There is no doubt that Tiraspol will do everything possible to boost the anti-Moldovan hysteria at home against this background and will again talk almost about the genocide of the Transdniestrian population - in the hope that in the current context its voice not only will be heard but also taken into account. The question of MMZ might eventually serve as an indicator of whether Chisinau and Tiraspol are ready to take a pragmatic look at their relations in the face of the Ukrainian crisis, or will continue the "zero-sum game". If so, any other forms of mutual aggravation and confrontation cannot be ruled out in the current nervous situation.