Transnistrian Settlement Is No Longer in Balance

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Sergiu CEBAN
The unfolding conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol completely disrupts the status quo in the Transnistrian settlement and, apparently, will require changes in the “game rules” between the two banks of the Dniester
The warm atmosphere of the passing 2023 developed amidst the opening of negotiations with the European Union and the imminent referendum on EU membership, was disrupted by an unexpected cold snap in relations between the two banks of the Dniester. Although just before the New Year holidays, none of the experts could even imagine that the situation would suddenly change so dramatically, with the risk of getting out of control. Tensions between Chisinau and Tiraspol arise regularly, and last year was no exception. However, loud statements by individual politicians did not turn into really tough mutual decisions. This fact could be viewed as evidence of a certain coherence between the parties, who sought to avoid undue tension in an already tough regional environment. But, apparently, something went wrong this time, and the previous “communication channels” together with the decision-making procedures failed. As a result, from 1 January, to the great surprise of the left-bank administration, all economic agents from the region were obliged to pay customs duties and other payments to the central budget. It is worth recalling that since August 2023, Transnistrian business has started to pay customs clearance fees and environmental charges, and, except for the outcry, no retaliation from Tiraspol followed. It is not yet clear why the left-bank authorities expected a different approach. After all, back in October Oleg Serebrian openly said from the parliamentary rostrum that Chisinau intended to abandon the practice of economic preferences for Transnistrian economic agents. The reasons included the lack of anticipated results, while the excessively loyal trade regime granted to the region negatively affects the compliance of Moldovan legislation with the EU norms. In terms of chronology, Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky, apparently having received no explanations from Chisinau, publicly appealed to the central authorities only on 5 January requesting not to apply new economic policy measures and to return to negotiations. There was an impression that the contact persons in the capital switched off their phones or stopped answering calls, which made it necessary to act through the press. It turned out to be a kind of “warning” shot, because since Monday Tiraspol authorities started to accelerate the flywheel of escalation by adopting a series of countermeasures. In particular, the local collegial body introduced a mandatory requirement for the payment of so-called “customs payments” to the Transnistrian budget by farmers operating under Moldovan legislation and cultivating land in the Dubasari district, most of which is controlled by Tiraspol. In addition, the favorable regime for the entry into the region of vehicles with national number plates was terminated, and now owners of these cars will pay the corresponding local fee. Another measure was aimed at legal entities and individuals related to constitutional bodies, but residing and carrying out their activity on the territory controlled by Tiraspol administration. As of 1 February, the amount of utility tariffs for them will increase to the level applied on the right bank of Moldova. There is no doubt that such flurry is coordinated with Moscow. The simultaneous appearance of the Transnistrian leader’s interview in one of the Russian state media and Tiraspol’s countermeasures is a vivid example of this. The additional purpose of this “information bomb” was apparently the desire to openly state their own position on the political fate of the region, which Tiraspol had previously refrained from doing: “We are a separate subject of international relations. Neither the EU nor Moldova can decide for us. Therefore, if a neighboring country wants to join somewhere - go for it, but our fate is up to us to decide.” Periods of receding and rising tension between Chisinau and Tiraspol are a matter of routine, given that the conflict has been unresolved for such a long time. Something similar happened about 10 years ago, when the Transnistrian administration aggravated the land and school issue by introducing a special tariff schedule and increasing rent for the institutions located in the region but governed by the constitutional authorities. So far, Chisinau has remained silent at the official level and is apparently watching the development of the situation and how far Tiraspol will go. For now, there is only an interim comment from the Bureau for Reintegration, which promises to claim explanations from the Transnistrian side about its recent decisions. In addition, Oleg Serebrian’s office expects that this issue will be addressed at the next meeting of political representatives for the Transnistrian settlement this month. In fact, the beginning of this year has put an end not only to the usual negotiating formats, but also to the package agreements reached with the assistance of international actors in recent years. Among them is the notorious “Berlin Protocol”, which, to all appearances, has already become part of history and archives of the negotiation process. The range of actions for further step-by-step escalation of the conflict is actually very broad, given the close interdependence of Chisinau and Tiraspol, which has only been strengthened as a result of large-scale hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. By the way, other participants to the Transnistrian settlement may well fuel contradictions between the banks of the Dniester. Kyiv, as we know, has long been seeking some destabilization in Moldova and dragging our country into the vortex of a tough geopolitical confrontation between the West and Russia in order to ramp up arms deliveries. Therefore, the subpoena addressed to the Tiraspol negotiator Vitaly Ignatiev appearing yesterday in the media was quite an anticipated move, indicating that the neighboring country does not rely on negotiation mechanisms. Chisinau, of course, has something to say to Tiraspol’s attacks and its desire to force the government into some negotiations and compromises. The only question is where these countermeasures will lead to – de-escalation or another outburst and even greater destabilization. Taking into account the fact that the first persons of the state introduce the preservation of the dialogue with the left-bank administration as their important achievement, most likely, the parties will find ways to stop and not to inflame the situation further, which can lead to undesirable scenarios for Moldova. Meanwhile, the main conclusion that can be drawn from this situation is that the changed geopolitical and regional circumstances have long ago knocked the negotiation process out of balance that was found in previous periods and only nominally maintained over the past two years. The last week seems to have put an end in this matter completely destroying the previously relevant treaty construct. Therefore, in the near future, the parties will have to make some kind of “fresh start” by working out a new regime of coexistence and a model for addressing current problems in order to reach a new balance in their relations.