A Fragile Compromise on the Banks of the Dniester

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Sergiu CEBAN
Recent events have somewhat reduced tension on the banks of the Dniester, but the authorities’ inaction in the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict is totally inconsistent with the current situation
Last week it was reported that the Cuciurgan power station, located in Transnistria and owned by the Russian PJSC InterRAO, signed a long-term contract with the state enterprise Energocom JSC for electricity supply until the end of 2024. Comments on this issue, which is not convenient for the country’s leadership, varied from electoral-political to purely financial and economic ones. What matters is that such deal proves that the situation in relations between the banks of the Dniester has so far developed in a relatively stable and predictable manner. Obviously, the energy contract is a starting point that triggers other solutions in which both Chisinau and Tiraspol are interested. For example, on Monday, at a regular meeting of the Commission for Emergency Situations, the Moldova Steel Works in Ribnita had its environmental permits extended until the end of the year. In the coming weeks, we can probably expect other counter steps, that will at least prevent tensions from escalating, if not defuse them. An equally significant factor for de-escalation in our region is the plans to launch an additional railway route for Ukrainian transit through Transnistrian territory. Amidst Kyiv’s almost regular threatening statements about its readiness to de-occupy the left bank, it is noticeable that in recent months this rhetoric has not been used by the Ukrainians. Despite the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, life and the economy on our perimeter seem to be entering some new direction, bypassing obstacles of the complex geopolitical collapse in the entire region. Meanwhile, the scandal with the transfer of new Russian textbooks to educational institutions in Transnistria emerged literally as a “black swan”. The authorities were suddenly angered by the fact that school students in the region will study modern history as shaped by Moscow. It seems that our officials have absolutely no idea of the situation and do not even know how life, including the educational process, is organized on the opposite bank of the Dniester. Apparently, no official with a long institutional memory was found in the government’s corridors who could suggest or inform that no one has been interested in Transnistrian schools for the last three decades. For this reason, the entire educational system of the Transnistrian region works predominantly according to Russian programs and uses only methodological and teaching textbooks from the Russian Federation. By the way, in 2015 Transnistrian schools received about 360 thousand new Russian textbooks, which somehow made their way to the left bank. And at that time, we did not hear a single public outrage from the pro-European government, although the issue of Crimea was probably already described in the textbooks by Russian specialists in an appropriate manner. The situation with the textbooks is a clear example of the fact that, despite the geographical proximity of the two banks, our authorities are absolutely far from understanding the real picture of what is happening a few tens of kilometers away from Chisinau. Most likely, this omitted state of affairs is the reason why our president continues to persistently declare for the second month in a row the priority of integration into the European Union first of all for right-bank Moldova. In addition, according to Maia Sandu, we have a very clear vision that, if things go well, Moldovans from both the right and left banks will live in a united country, in good conditions and in line with the European standards. At the same time, the government allegedly already has a plan to achieve this goal, which, however, is waiting for “the right moment” to “unlock” the settlement. This moment is apparently linked to the end of the hostilities in Ukraine, as a result of which Kyiv is expected to win. Of course, this viewpoint looks idealistic, while life dictates its own rules, and no one is yet willing to state even approximately what the fate of Ukraine will be. Therefore, the choice to keep waiting until the clouds of war dissipate in order to look for an optimal trajectory towards the settlement of the Transnistrian issue seems, at the very least, immature and a waste of time. It seems that the authorities’ ingenious plan is to organize one grand meeting at one point - within the EU. Thus, it is proposed to implement a conventional unirea within the common space of the European Union and, to all appearances, to approach the resolution of the conflict in Transnistria in the same vein. President Maia Sandu’s statements that the way to reunify the country is to “get rid of the separatist regime in Tiraspol” are also somewhat concerning. In other words, it appears that we are considering, among other things, the option of a settlement not on a treaty basis, but through the elimination of the current Transnistrian leadership. It is not yet clear how these statements relate to the constantly repeated mantra on the exclusively peaceful way of resolving the conflict. Even if someone in the corridors of power decided to think about the Azerbaijani scenario and put this idea to the head of state, its authors should take into account that the elimination of the Karabakh regime was preceded by two rather bloody phases of hostilities. Most likely, we should simply admit that in the current conditions there is no alternative to negotiations. By the way, the Tiraspol leader has already spoken in favor of their resumption in the 5+2 format at a recent meeting with the head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova. It is clear that through the restoration of negotiating platforms, Moscow and Tiraspol are trying to solve their tactical objectives, including diplomatic self-actualization as parties to a separate international process. Be that as it may, this is at least a proactive position, but what does Chisinau oppose in response? Sooner or later, there will be no sense in keeping the settlement frozen, and some kind of compromise will have to be reached. The President believes that the 5+2 format is no longer functional because Russia, as an aggressor country that also clearly plays along with Tiraspol, cannot act as a mediator. Moreover, based on the goal of European integration, the European Union, according to Maia Sandu, should play a much bigger role in the Transnistrian settlement. All this, alas, looks like another attempt to shift own domestic problems to Brussels. Experts would probably like to hear statements from our officials that Chisinau intends to play a much bigger role in resolving the conflict. A number of specialists are of the opinion that the current conditions, when Chisinau and Tiraspol have fixed their business relations, represent the most appropriate moment to start a particular political dialogue. This is especially important amidst the fact that old unresolved conflicts are being unfrozen one after another because international deterrence and early warning mechanisms no longer work. In our case, it is really necessary, if not to finalize a settlement, then at least to accelerate the negotiation process in order to minimize the risks of a sharp loss of sustainability in the current shaky compromise between the banks of the Dniester.