Home / Analytics / Moldova Is Slowly Reshaped
Vladimir ROTARI
In the course of joining the European Union, the authorities plan to resolve the issue of “special” regions within Moldova, depriving them of their unique status and identity different from the rest of the country
Just over a year ago, I reflected on how the central authorities wanted to achieve complete unitarity of the country by removing entities with a specific status and identity from it. I am talking, of course, about Gagauzia and Transnistria. Although it is impossible to draw direct parallels between them due to their great differences, certain similarities in Chisinau’s current relations with these territories are quite obvious. One of them is the lack of willingness to negotiate with local administrations and the intention to maximize political concessions through administrative and economic pressure. This approach persists to this day, causing increasingly fierce resistance in these regions. Thus, in Gagauzia, a protégée of the fugitive oligarch Sor, one of the main opponents of the regime, was elected as the new bashkan. This was not only a kind of sensation, but also, in a sense, a challenge to the central authorities from the population of the autonomy, which is well aware of both the background of its new head and her patron, and of his uneasy relations with the incumbent regime. On the other hand, the anchoring of nominally pro-Russian and oligarchic forces in Gagauzia in the person of Sor allowed Chisinau to make more decisive steps in this direction, both symbolic and quite practical. The former includes the eight-month delay in Maia Sandu’s decision to admit Evghenia Gutul to the government, despite the legal requirements. The latter implies the amendment to the Tax Code which shifts the reimbursement of VAT to economic agents from the central to the local budget. The estimated losses for Comrat resulting from this measure are about 100 million lei, a rather tangible sum. Moreover, the ruling party, through deputies with an odious reputation, publicly made it clear that the decision on VAT is more about politics than finances, and may be reconsidered if the Gagauz behave more “correctly”. As for Transnistria, we also see that money is withdrawn to benefit the central budget. For the first time in more than three decades of reintegration, Chisinau has started levying customs duties on exports and imports from economic agents of the region since the beginning of the year. Interestingly, in recent years, Tiraspol regularly accused Moldova’s authorities of various restrictions, but exactly the issue of duties turned into a trigger that literally exploded the region. If the statistics provided by local authorities can be trusted, the losses from the charging of duties to the central budget are rather significant. In both cases, the financial and economic pressure is exerted in the absence of normal communication between Chisinau on the one hand, and Comrat and Tiraspol on the other. Thus, resonant steps are born in the capital’s offices and implemented without any discussion with their addressees. The Gagauz have long complained about the unwillingness of the country’s leadership to communicate with their representatives, as well as about the suspension of traditional formats of interaction, such as the parliamentary working group. The ill-fated visit of the president to the autonomy in September 2022, which ended in a big scandal, seems to have drawn a line under the desire of the ruling regime to establish some kind of dialogue, and Evghenia Gutul’s victory was an additional motive for this. The negotiation process with Tiraspol is also stalled, which now looks outdated and faded. The 5+2 format is frozen until better times: although no one is talking directly about its elimination, there is a general consent that, at the very least, it will not meet until the war in Ukraine is over. In fact, the entire settlement has gone into behind-the-scenes contacts, which are only needed to agree on urgent issues – for example, the energy contract or the license for the metallurgical plant in Ribnita. However, it is clear that the authorities do not plan to conclude any more long-term agreements with Tiraspol, and the current model of reintegration consists in the gradual dragging of the region in the common Moldovan legal field. Comrat responded to the pressure with attempts to mobilize internally and last year announced a congress of deputies at all levels, hinting at the possibility of secessionist solutions. But this was too obvious a bluff, which had to be quickly discarded, and the event itself was postponed indefinitely. Instead, the autonomy’s authorities are acting conventionally, appealing to Moldovan authorities, such as the Constitutional Court, which yesterday suspended the VAT amendment until the final verdict on 5 March. Transnistria signals that it will not back down under pressure and is also engaged in consolidation of society and elites. After a rally of thousands in the center of Tiraspol, the local authorities announced a congress of deputies of all levels to be held next week. This is quite an interesting decision, as all past events of this kind have had far-reaching consequences. Some experts anticipate something similar now; there are even opinions that a request to join Russia will be voiced at the congress, and allegedly Vladimir Putin will mention it a day later in his address to the Federal Assembly. In my opinion, nothing of the sort will happen, as there have been no signals about the possibility of such radical steps, not to mention the regional situation, which is absolutely disadvantageous to them. Most likely, the congress will be concluded with the “idle threat”, but without any high-profile political decisions affecting relations between the two banks of the Dniester right now. And therein lies the main problem of Gagauzia and Transnistria. It is the meagre set of response tools that enables Chisinau to act so assertively and outside the old bounds of decency. Two regions with very complementary identities to Russia, one of which is governed by an appointee of Moscow’s current political ally Sor, and the other contains Russian troops and has long been considered an enclave under Russian control, find it very difficult to rely on the support of Moldova’s Western partners, who could use their political influence to amend the policies of the central authorities. However, assistance to “pro-Russian” regions is now unthinkable and inexplicable from the point of view of the current geopolitical conjuncture. Probably, Western embassies care only about the fact that the merger of these territories into the common Moldovan field on equal terms with others should take place without undue excesses. In my opinion, this is the ultimate goal of Chisinau - to get rid of any elements of diversity in the Moldovan unitary state. Gagauzia is being deprived of powers de facto and its autonomous status is being devalued, and we see proposals from members of the ruling party to do this de jure as well. The topic has already gone public and, according to the principle of the “Overton window”, will gradually become less and less radical. Transnistria should not hope for anything as well – after all, have you all noticed how the condition of granting it a special status, indispensable for all the past decades, has actually vanished? So far, only Ukraine has openly declared this, which does not “care” on what grounds the left bank will be returned. But there is reason to believe that a similar transformation is taking place in the stance of other actors, except for Russia. Turning Gagauzia into an ordinary district and reintegrating Transnistria in the same capacity will lead to a blurred identity in these regions. Probably, part of the population will leave regions, which the central authorities are unlikely to consider as a significant loss. Especially since this could play a positive role in the next electoral cycles and in the referendum on EU accession – I am talking about the present one, not the one planned to be held in autumn, and in the case of a hypothetical unirea. Thus, the process of establishing a Romanian identity across Moldova which took place in early 1990s will be revisited. At that time, it led to a national catastrophe – the secession of two regions, only one of which managed to return to the constitutional framework due to the granting of broad autonomy, the armed conflict with Transnistria, which inflicted a great ancestral trauma on the newly emerged republic. At the time, the country was literally on the verge of an armed conflict with Gagauzia. Today, the authorities believe that times are different. Comrat and Tiraspol are closely linked by economic interests with both Chisinau and the European Union, which now relies only on the central authorities for any cooperation with these regions. The situation around Moldova does not favor them either, depriving them of hope for support from outside. All this is likely, in the opinion of the ruling regime, to be a safeguard against military escalation on the Dniester, while the usual disputes with occasional political and economic blows do not cause much fear. However, as always, everything looks smooth only in theory. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, few people in Chisinau could have imagined that the recently united banks of the Dniester would so quickly start shooting at each other.