A Transdniestrian Trap for Moldova?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The energy crisis in Moldova this year is closely intertwined with the Transdniestrian issue. Perhaps the obvious signs of coordination between Moscow and Tiraspol are the reason why the authorities have so far refrained from decisive steps in relation to the uncontrolled region, despite the calls of some politicians and experts to expedite reintegration
The scandalous leak into the web of the private correspondence of the Minister of Justice has definitely upset the plans of the ruling party, which continues to trip over nothing. For several days prior to this, all attention was basically focused on the U.S. elections, the outcome of which is believed to determine the future trajectory of the international situation and the conflict in Ukraine. Some argue that the Democratic Party losing its position in Congress could not only affect the amount of aid to Kyiv, but also indirectly affect sub-regional areas. This includes Moldova with its specific problems, including the longstanding frozen conflict. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that the White House’s administration is currently in talks with the Kremlin to seek a deal on the Ukrainian issue. Moldova, of course, is not that important to the key global actors, but its geographic proximity to Ukraine is forcing them to extend diplomatic efforts to the entire Black Sea region, which we belong to. Tensions around our country have increased so dramatically over the past few weeks that it would be more helpful than ever to come under Ukraine’s broad de-escalation process ahead of winter. As you know, the key destabilizing factor for both Kyiv and Chisinau is the energy sector which remains unstable and unpredictable, despite the assurances from our officials. As expected, due to force majeure, the electricity tariff hiked and, based on the statements of deputy prime minister Andrei Spinu, another surge can be expected by the end of the month. The current situation is influenced by several factors at once, which will determine the final state of affairs in the Moldovan energy sector. The most pessimistic scenario for Moldova would be the destruction of several high-voltage power lines during the Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian power facilities. Under such circumstances, the government will most likely have to channel gas reserves to MGRES to generate electricity and cover the power shortage. The daily 5.7 million cubic meters of Gazprom gas received this month help keep the situation relatively stable. However, the reports of the Moldovagaz chairman about the growing consumer debt, which has reached the 60 million lei mark, again prompt gloomy forecasts about the prospects of gas payments before the next deadline of November 20. We can only guess what the government and Moldovagaz will invent this time and whether their new move will provoke Gazprom’s tougher reaction, such as further cuts in supply volumes in December. Except for the financial aid from the U.S. and Germany, as well as the 250 million euros pledged today by the European Commission chief to maintain energy sustainability, there is little reason to be optimistic. As of today, the natural gas reserve is close to 160 million cubic meters, which Energocom will apparently continue to accumulate. However, this volume is only enough for both banks of the Nistru for a month in case supplies are interrupted. Meanwhile, the government has not yet found real alternatives for emergency supplies of natural gas if the agreement with Gazprom is terminated. Strangely enough, there is no sign that Tiraspol is ready for a compromise and, judging by the statements of local officials, has imposed a regime of strict economy. In addition, the Transdniestrian administration makes no moves at all to start new talks on the contract with MGRES, continuously lashing out accusations at the central authorities. The impression is that the left bank does not believe in a favorable outcome and expects further aggravation of the energy crisis. This is supported by the recent information that Tiraspol wants to purchase fifteen electric generators for educational, medical and social institutions. While the available well-diversified gas transportation routes allow Moldova to receive blue fuel from four different entry points, we are much more dependent on Tiraspol in terms of electricity. Even if we do not consider the risk of disabling the energy infrastructure in Ukraine, MGRES is in any case technically capable of disconnecting the right bank from high-voltage lines and, therefore, of blocking Romanian electricity supplies. Events in the energy sector, and around the world in general, are unprecedented in their scale and offer a lot of food for thought in the national expert and political community. Some believe that the current developments for the first time in thirty years open up opportunities for Moldova to break the Transdniestrian regime and proceed with the accelerated reintegration of the region. Others think that Chisinau has found an opportunity for gentle pressure on the left bank authorities, so a new configuration of relations based on the national interest and aspirations of both populations should be quickly imposed on Tiraspol. On the contrary, Oleg Serebrian, Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration, makes cautious and conciliatory statements about Tiraspol, pointing to the interdependence of the two banks of the Nistru River and the undesirability of drastic steps from either side. Unlike ordinary politicians and public leaders, the official directly involved in negotiations with Tiraspol representatives is probably well aware of the scope of the current crisis, which is only partially related to the energy sector. Apparently, these subtle linkages discourage excessive “gestures” towards the left bank. At the same time, we must recognize that the events of recent years, and especially this year, have seriously undermined Russia’s influence on our regional space, including the Transdniestrian settlement process. Does this mean that it is necessary to use the situation and make a breakthrough to take the place of the retreating Moscow? Historically, the Russians always retreated, trapping the enemy. In our case, the statements of the Transdniestrian administration and their interviews with the Russian media clearly show that the actions of Tiraspol and Moscow are coordinated. Therefore, our authorities should primarily figure out where Chisinau is really being dragged – into a diplomatic deal or a skillfully made trap.