Chisinau-Tiraspol: Is There Any Premise for a Compromise?

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Sergiu CEBAN
After another flare-up in relations, the two banks of the Dniester are now facing a simple dilemma: to continue aggravation or switch to “détente”
While Prime Minister Dorin Recean is in Davos, Switzerland, attending the World Economic Forum, his deputy for reintegration Oleg Serebrian visited Tiraspol yesterday. The reason for such a trip is obviously the crisis overtones in relations between the banks of the Dniester river amidst the entry into force of the new Customs Code on 1 January. Meanwhile, the issue of duties is just the tip of an iceberg which hides under dark waters a lot of other problems that have accumulated over the past year. Experts did not expect much from the first meeting of political representatives since June 2023. Curiously, the OSCE Mission somehow played in Tiraspol’s favor ahead of the event confirming that the left bank indeed had not prepared to pay customs duties. Before the meeting, the Head of the Mission recommended that the delegations hold both formal and informal talks in order to “minimize the risk of unexpected escalation”. Based on the final press releases and statements of the negotiators to journalists, the impression is that yesterday’s contact was relatively peaceful. It is noticeable that, despite the usual exchange of accusations and veiled threats, Chisinau and Tiraspol are still willing to avoid excessive force majeure and unpredictable developments. As for the main customs issue, we can hardly speak of any compromise so far. Chisinau presents the issue as overly “hyped” by the left bank administration, which, in its opinion, reacted quite emotionally and disproportionally. Judging by the right bank’s assessment, the additional customs payments should not have a painful impact on the Transnistrian economy and are more a step to bring activities of the left-bank entrepreneurs into the national legal field in line with the rules of fair competition and the country’s international obligations. Chisinau further emphasizes that the new requirements do not concern the fiscal component and reserve for the Transnistrian economic agents the possibility of benefiting from Moldova’s bilateral and multilateral agreements, primarily with the European Union. Tiraspol offers a completely different picture, citing preliminary calculations which show that the annual financial losses from customs payments to the central republican budget are close to $16 million. Apparently, the negotiation tactics of the region’s representatives is based on that calculations, arguing the substantial costs and inability to fulfil obligations of their local budget. Another interesting detail concerning the risk for the left-bank enterprises to fall out of the free trade zone regime with the European Union also draws attention. This may deprive Chisinau of one of the weighty arguments about Tiraspol’s dependence on European markets and be of service to those who talk about the need to integrate into Europe without Transnistria. To sum up, we have the following. While the official position remains unchanged, the central authorities, through Oleg Serebrian, are voicing an amicable message, including publicly to the press, that Chisinau intends to resolve problems exclusively by peaceful means. This can be construed as a signal of the intention to seek ways of de-escalation. Tiraspol says that it has allegedly caught some hints about Chisinau’s readiness to discuss the issue of customs duties. Admittedly, everyone is quite cautious, and chose to leave the intermediate results of the conversation along with details behind the doors of the negotiation room, without making their future plans public. And apparently there is a lot of work to do. For instance, the usual list of middle-level enterprises on the left bank, whose products can cause questions from our European partners, was unexpectedly extended by the wine and cognac industry flagships in Moldova - KVINT and Bouquet of Moldova. The state cares a lot about our traditional production, however, as it turned out, since the 1st of January both enterprises lost the possibility to export the production to foreign markets. Although, according to representatives from the left bank, Moldova expressed readiness to help resolve the problem. In any case, this situation is extremely bad, as it harms the overall image of the country. Toxic issues in health care sector which only reduce the credibility of both sides and damage the reputation of the negotiation process are still on the agenda. Instead of attempts to increase cooperation and develop ties in this vital humanitarian sphere, they continue the sad experience of previous years, including during the pandemic. Working groups are expected to meet in the near future to decide on a mechanism for medical equipment delivery to the left bank. Certain progress can be expected in the road transport issue. Reports say, the parties intend to resume the operation of the Tiraspol and Ribnita offices where neutral license plates are issued. In addition, the central authorities seem to be softening their position and do not plan, at least this year, to restrict the movement of the Transnistrian-plated vehicles on the right bank (although the government’s annual plan mentions this). One way or another, Chisinau and Tiraspol need to get out of the current situation, and it would be wise to show restraint in their actions and statements. For example, unlike Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian, who openly claims that Tiraspol’s retaliatory measures will not force Chisinau to backtrack, his direct supervisor Dorin Recean (who has a long-standing relationship with the Transnistrian administration) has so far refrained from making public assessments about the new crisis in relations between the banks of the Dniester. It is necessary for any negotiator to leave the widest possible room for maneuver in order not to get into an obvious political deadlock and not to become a hostage of one’s own statements. So far, based on the moderate tone of the statements, we can conclude that the parties are refusing further escalation and toughening of positions, but are trying to (re)convince each other of something seeking ground for compromise. As a result, the expert community is increasingly questioning why they started all this and whether the time and context were right to try to change the status quo in trade and economy.