Transnistrian Settlement: Quiet Before a Decisive Move?

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Sergiu CEBAN
So far, no major tension or a new “thaw” can be observed around the Transnistrian issue. The situation is frozen, but it will hardly last long: all key players keep their hand on the pulse and are in full "combat readiness" to start working out the final settlement model to meet their own interests at any moment
The complex regional situation, coupled with the accelerated Euro-Atlantic progress of Moldova, keeps the issue of the Transnistrian settlement within the constant attention of diplomats, politicians, and experts. Lately, this long-standing problem has been the subject of many different speculations, which make it more difficult to understand, as well as to find possible resolution models in the newly emerging geopolitical context. Yesterday, the main negotiators from Chisinau and Tiraspol met in Bender after a long hiatus. The right bank traditionally stakes on human rights, land use in the Dubasari district and free access to the Transnistrian region. The left bank representatives, among other things, put in the forefront the import of medical equipment, and continue to criticize the "law on separatism". The latter, however, as predicted by experts, has created more difficulties for Chisinau, and at the same time has hardly made the representatives of Transnistria more conciliatory in negotiations, as promised by the parliament speaker Igor Grosu. In addition, Tiraspol, unlike other negotiators, once again advocated the resumption of the ‘5+2’ format. As is known, it is within the general framework of this format that the meetings of the political representatives of the sides have been held in recent years. How high is the probability of holding an official meeting in the traditional composition is a tough question. At least, no one is likely to dare to voice an unambiguous opinion on this issue. However, for all the doubts about working in one format or another, all the participants, in one way or another, are articulating their positions. This confirms the fact that the Transnistrian issue is not on the periphery of international attention, and other major processes in the region depend on its prospects. When it comes to the position of the central authorities, it has recently fluctuated between “when Ukraine wins, the conflict will be resolved” and “the Transnistrian problem will settle itself when Moldova joins the European Union”. It turns out that all the intriguing early-year statements about the development of some “comprehensive strategic vision” on conflict resolution were just a propaganda maneuver. It is not clear why and for what it was done, but we can assume that something went off plan. Meanwhile, vice premier for reintegration lately voiced various standpoints and for some reason drew parallels between the Transnistrian region and the European micro-states, which are not part of the EU. For specialists, it is obvious that the main starting point is not European integration, but the situation in the field of European security, depending on which it will be clear how to proceed with the peacekeeping operation, the Russian contingent and armament depots. Tiraspol, as ever, has its own worldview. Although they do not see any signs of preparations for an attack, they do not exclude the danger of provocations. Therefore, the Transnistrian representatives are trying to promote the idea of signing a certain document on guarantees of peace and security in the region in the ‘5+2’ format. Apparently, Tiraspol considers this condition as a fundamental starting point in case official negotiations on a final settlement formula start. The position of the European Union also looks scattered. On the one hand, Josep Borrell, European diplomacy chief, states that the conflict is not an obstacle to Moldova’s accession to the EU. On the other hand, the head of the EU Delegation, Janis Mazeiks, says that Brussels does not understand how to deal with the Transnistrian issue, which is burdened with other numerous problems. There is no clarity as to how Moldovan integration and reintegration can be combined. The Cyprus scenario, which we kept as a backup option, to put it mildly, does not encourage European officials. It means that our maneuver space is not that wide, and we will have to come to an agreement with Tiraspol in the next few years. Ukraine’s attitude towards settlement between the banks of the Dniester remains one of the most unstable and unpredictable. There are periods when Kyiv makes belligerent statements and offers our authorities to take control of the left bank by force, admitting the 5+2 format demise. Sometimes Kyiv does not rule out a peaceful form of settlement after the end of hostilities and in a new format, which will be reassembled with Ukraine’s participation. It is clear that our government does not enter into any discussions with Kyiv and tries to carefully withdraw the Transnistrian issue from the focus of the Ukrainian leadership and military, trying not to complicate an already difficult situation. The US, as one of the main moderators of the regional situation, monitors the unfolding situation and controls the dialogue between Chisinau and Tiraspol through its diplomat who heads the OSCE Mission to Moldova. Since the OSCE is currently engaged mainly in operational and organizational work, the turning point in the Transnistrian settlement has not come yet. However, there is no doubt that Washington will attempt to resolve the issue and force Moscow to accept the new regional reality in which Russian interests no longer have a place. We cannot exclude that the OSCE will eventually fall victim to such a US-Russian collision and, to weaken the United States’ capabilities, Moscow will decide to slacken the mission’s mandate in Moldova. Russia’s position on the Transnistrian issue has not changed much. However, Moscow feels certain pressure and obvious attempts to squeeze it out of the region. Perhaps as a further warning, the Russian foreign ministry recently issued another batch of threats that any action against the Russian military and warehouses will be regarded as an attack on the Russian Federation. Most probably, the Kremlin prepares for the upcoming diplomatic encounter with the US on various fronts. Thus, it is very likely that the settlement of our territorial conflict will become one of the points of talks on a temporary truce between Ukraine and Russia. So far, there is no strong tension around the Pridnestrovian issue, nor a new ‘thaw’. Rather, the situation looks like an attempt by all participants to keep their hand on the pulse and be on full ‘alert’ to develop a final settlement formula at any moment. It is almost certain that the key figures are struggling for the main mediation initiative and the opportunity to propose their own plan to the parties.