The Complicated Relations on the Dniester

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Sergiu CEBAN
Politically, Chisinau and Tiraspol are raising the stakes, showing no signs of rapprochement. However, in this context, the two banks are forced to seek temporary solutions for important economic issues, which, owing to the low level of trust in each other, are subject to deadlines with the possibility of extension. This model of relations is still working, but its reliability leaves much to be desired.
The Transdniestrian settlement is not a particularly “hot” topic at the moment, although many of our politicians and experts refer to it from time to time. The long-standing conflict is clearly not only of direct importance for Moldova’s relations with Ukraine, especially in the context of the ongoing hostilities, but is also inextricably linked with the further process of European integration. As we can see, representatives of the two banks now barely communicate officially, and the overall impression is that the negotiation process has been put on pause. At the same time, the public exchange of unfriendly remarks continues. For example, last week the leader of Tiraspol sharply accused the West of wanting to drag Moldova into a war with Transdniestria. For its part, the Reintegration Bureau called these statements unfounded and devoid of evidence, stressing that the central authorities have always insisted on settling the Transnistrian problem peacefully. However, as the recent months has shown, the lack of activity in the negotiation process does not mean that the parties do not communicate at all. Rather, it is just the opposite. The facts (the energy contract has been extended again, and now for two months; the Rybnitsa metallurgical plant has received environmental authorization for the same period; a special mechanism for converting revenue from the sale of Transdniestria electricity has been launched) show that Chisinau and Tiraspol not only interact, but also tend to find compromises even on the most difficult issues. Of course, these latent “deals”, of which the public learns only at the final stage of their completion, cause acute dissatisfaction among some politicians and various opinion leaders. As a result, the authorities face a barrage of accusations of hidden agreements with the left bank. It is hard to say how justified such harsh criticism is. On the one hand, current regional conditions offer plenty of opportunities to bring the two banks closer together. On the other hand, a complex system of interdependencies and a rather unpredictable security situation, apparently, force Chisinau and Tiraspol to find a balance of interests, so as not to generate unnecessary tension and not to become a target for one of the warring countries. Especially since the last visit to Kyiv clearly showed that there is a risk of involving (part of) the territory of our state in an armed conflict, and it is quite serious. That is why it was not without Volodymyr Zelensky’s preventive warnings to the Transdniestrian administration, which, by the way, were left unanswered by Maia Sandu. However, we should not rule out the possibility that our authorities took a different path, and eventually the pacifying response was broadcast directly from Tiraspol at the level of the local parliament and the Transdniestrian leader, who assured in the absence of aggressive intentions. Kyiv will also keep a close eye on how everyone will behave in view of the 30th anniversary of the entry of Russian armed forces into the conflict zone. Judging by the peacekeeping commission meetings, our authorities are doing everything to dissociate themselves from the left bank “celebrations”. According to Chisinau, the actions of the Transdniestrian representatives run counter to the July 21, 1992 Agreement, and their attempts to distort the facts and interpret the documents of the peacekeeping operation lead to the blocking of the JCC activities. It has become known that in the next few days an OSCE delegation will visit Moldova to assess the prospects for a Transdniestrian settlement, which in the current circumstances has lost any clear guidelines and is moving more by inertia. According to some experts, the status of a candidate country for EU accession can finally block the process, in fact relevant Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian does not hide this, openly declaring the absence of negotiations. Despite certain tactical agreements, the Transdniestrian administration’s assessments of strategic issues are becoming increasingly harsh and politically uncompromising. In response to statements from Tiraspol that the left bank wants nothing to do with Moldova, because of different identities and foreign policy directions, the Moldovan authorities asked the Constitutional Court to interpret the constitutional provision on usurpation of state power by representatives of the Transdniestrian regime, and whether they could be held liable for non-compliance with the basic law. Most likely, politically, both sides will keep raising the stakes, observing what the geopolitical configuration in the region will be as the armed conflict in Ukraine ends. However, Chisinau and Tiraspol will be forced to seek temporary solutions, which, owing to the low level of mutual trust, are subject to deadlines with the possibility of extension (the energy contract, Moldova Steel Works authorization, land use, customs control in Cuciurgan). External players may consider this relations model as a stabilizing factor, so they will encourage and support their productive forms of cooperation in every possible way. However, several experts familiar with Transdniestrian issues believe that this chain of complex interrelated decisions creates a very fragile balance, and even one wrong move can destroy the entire structure. Sadly, the fate of the Transdniestrian settlement today looks as uncertain as everything else. The only thing that keeps it afloat is many years of experience and the ability of political elites on both banks of the Dniester River to find a consensus even in the most difficult circumstances. Besides, the differences between the openly harsh level of relations and the one hidden from the public are becoming more and more evident. This is a clear sign that they lack a realistic and balanced approach, in order to even out the disparities and to bring the parties to an objective understanding of what a model of “definitely settled relations” should look like.