Expert: Chisinau and Tiraspol Enter the Period of Uncertainty

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Sergiu CEBAN
A new reality seems to be emerging in relations between the two banks of the Dniester instead of the status quo established after February 2022, but is still obscure due to major regional processes
The Transnistrian topic has been debated for the third week in a row. Apparently, Western partners are trying to prevent the unnecessary conflict on the banks of the Dniester, which was the reason for a series of visits to Moldova by U.S. Department of State officials and various ambassadors. Only the French ambassador is still keeping a low profile, which is probably a good sign, since there are too many instigators around the Transnistrian issue. The economic disputes of recent months have suddenly turned into military adventures, especially after the recent visit of a Sandu-led delegation to Paris. This trip was preceded by Emmanuel Macron’s calls to consider the deployment of NATO contingents in Ukraine (and possibly Moldova as well) in case Russia breaks through the front and further advances along the entire line of the Northern Black Sea coast. In addition, the French leadership unexpectedly declared its ambitions to make a serious contribution to the settlement on the banks of the Dniester. In fact, such counter measures are rather understandable, especially after Moscow has harshly squeezed Paris in its traditional zone of influence in Africa. The OSCE, directly responsible for the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, has also decided to try to reduce tensions. That is why the OSCE special envoy Thomas Mayr-Harting visited Chisinau and Tiraspol the other day. In a month, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Maltese Foreign Minister Ian Borg, is due to follow the same route. Ahead of Borg’s trip, Harting decided to clarify whether not only de-escalation between the sides is feasible but also compromise solutions. Well, the diplomat is rather optimistic. Meanwhile, the situation is as follows. Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian stated quite unambiguously that the problems with the foreign trade activities of Transnistrian economic operators, as well as the import of various categories of goods, including medicines and radiological equipment, would be solved in accordance with the current legislation and with the aim of reuniting the country’s common economic space. The foreign ministry expressed concern to the OSCE delegation about the poor human rights situation in the eastern parts of the country and the harassment of citizens by Tiraspol. The OSCE Mission to Moldova was invited to contribute to the resolution of this problem. Meanwhile, Mihai Popsoi reiterated his commitment to a peaceful political settlement of the conflict. Tiraspol, on the other hand, decided to give a demonstrative reprimand to the OSCE representatives by publishing a half-hour video full of criticism both to the organization and Chisinau. Recently, the Transnistrian administration has clearly become much more assertive and even defiant, threatening to stage not only broad congresses but also some other actions, with a possibly even more serious resonance both in Chisinau and across the region. This may well be due to some guarantees from Russia, which in recent years has been focused on more important topics than the situation in the Transnistrian region. Dmitry Peskov, one of the Kremlin’s main spokesmen, tried to avoid any comments on the topic. It is therefore remarkable that last week he personally voiced, in fact, the position of the Russian presidential administration on the “dire living conditions on the left bank of the Dniester” and openness to aid the region in dealing with problems which the Russian Federation “prefers to solve to the last by means of political dialogue”. We cannot ignore the fact that the international media is increasingly reporting that Moscow has moved into high gear and re-introduces the principle of protecting “its compatriots” and the interests of “Russian minorities” wherever they may be, which were the basis first for the annexation of Crimea and then other regions of Ukraine. Such narratives in the Kremlin’s official rhetoric are traditionally a very worrying sign and an indication that it has started fulfilling some extra-territorial plan. We may consider the bill recently introduced in the Russian parliament to invalidate the decision to cede Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as one of the proofs. Thus, Moscow is beginning to demolish the legal framework formed during the Soviet period, which made it possible to delineate new post-Soviet states. It seems that Russian elites do not mind taking advantage of the current situation and creating a legal vacuum to launch the process of territorial revisionism. This situation is rather dangerous for Moldova, especially considering the idea of “unformalized break-up of the MSSR into two entities” actively exploited by Tiraspol. The fact that the heating up of the conflict on the Dniester continues and the Transnistrian issue is once again discussed in the Kremlin offices contradicts to what our strategists intended to achieve. Therefore, the government and the presidency should carefully analyze how well our actions have been calibrated and how much closer we have become to the country’s reintegration. Haven’t we reached quite the opposite effect? Who will be held accountable for it? The fact that the decision to open so-called “polling stations” on the territory of the left bank was kept secret until the last moment, or was awaiting a principled approval from above, can be considered a clear sign that Russia was probably not prepared to engage in additional aggravation with Moldova. However, the development on the banks of the Dniester apparently became a decisive argument and swayed the balance in favor of another Moldovan-Russian diplomatic scandal. Given what’s happening, there are various voices and proposals in Chisinau, including the need to use the opportunity to step up reintegration, as well as the formation of a post-conflict programme for the socio-cultural and political adaptation of the Transnistrian population. This, in turn, indicates a certain anxiety in expert circles, fearing that the authorities won’t be able to make the most of the current unique geopolitical conditions. Over the past week, the concentration of signals from various centers of international influence calling on Kyiv and Moscow to start peace talks has become so high that their possible (re)launch will offset any regional factors that may distract or hinder Russian-Ukrainian contacts. It seems that after two years of relative calm and predictability, relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol are entering a period of uncertainty under the influence of both internal and external factors. Instead of the status quo established after February 2022, a new reality is setting up, which is still obscure due to major regional processes. Most likely, the conflict on the Dniester will inevitably become part of the larger Ukrainian-Russian negotiation process, and it would be better if preparations were already underway.