“Forum vs Congress”: Attempt to Guess the Settlement Course

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Sergiu CEBAN
The Transnistrian settlement, as before, is in thrall to external circumstances, and Chisinau’s decisions do not lead to a conceptual change of the picture or to a softening of Tiraspol’s position. Apparently, the current authorities are at a crossroads and are not sure which of the strategies will be justified and, more importantly, feasible
Last week was rather full of visits and events directly related to the Transnistrian settlement, which is almost three decades old. Chisinau and Tiraspol are approaching this milestone date in a complex regional context, with a pile of unresolved problems and no clear vision of a way out of the current deadlock. Recently, for some reason, they have exchanged signals in absentia, using the press and official resources to clarify some important points in their positions. It is noticeable that contradictions and internal tensions on both sides are growing and sometimes take emotional form. The reason for this is not only disputes in relations, but also external circumstances coupled with geopolitical uncertainty, which keep both sides still on diametrically different poles. At the end of the first quarter, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Maltese Foreign Minister Ian Borg, decided to personally inspect the Transnistrian settlement. At meetings in Chisinau, our relevant officials told him that the 5+2 format was both non-functional and outdated in the current realities, while the status of candidate country and deepening relations with the EU would help boost the reintegration policy. Tiraspol habitually declared “readiness for dialogue”, expecting at least some positive results for itself in the next eight months. They do not forget about the previous agreements, which may indicate that the Transnistrian administration is not ready to start from scratch in the new geopolitical circumstances, which, whatever the case may be, have strengthened Chisinau’s position. Ian Borg did not say anything remarkable as a result of his meetings, and in fact, perhaps because of his age and little experience, he looked rather bewildered. This once again suggests that we should not expect anything from the OSCE: completely different factors will influence the dynamics of the processes. Obviously, it is not just the coincidence that the day before, a long overdue event took place in the capital, which caused a strong resonance not so much on the right bank as in Tiraspol and Moscow. For some reason, the region decided that the authorities' desire to discuss with international partners the further reintegration strategy was in fact an attempt to impose some particular version. Of course, the forum can to some extent be considered a “revenge” to the March congress in Tiraspol, which aroused emotions not only in Chisinau. In fact, however, things are somewhat different, and the open conversation about a settlement model is not based on the influx of additional strength and opportunities for the central authorities, but rather on a certain disorientation and the need for further clear routing of the process. Apparently, no one will continue to talk in vain about the parallelism of European integration and reintegration, and the country’s leadership is expected to provide something more concrete. One must assume that Brussels needs answers as to how and when the conflict will be resolved in order to talk to each European capital. We cannot rule out that the current uncertainty around the (in)tractability of the Transnistrian issue is a significant negative factor slowing down the decision to open accession negotiations with our country. At the forum, our officials were again, unfortunately, engaged in rhetorical equilibrium, insisting that “the greatest attention should be paid to European integration and its interrelation with reintegration”. Oleg Serebrian, as if in the role of an expert or a third-party observer, for some reason aloofly suggested that the authorities think about how to extend European standards to the entire territory of the country in terms of taxes, customs and environmental standards. Then, as it turns out, the settlement would not be something parallel, but an independent process driven by European integration. It seems once again that Chisinau wants to use the resources of its older comrades and to shift the burden of the settlement as well as all the responsibility for the result or lack thereof on their shoulders. In a certain sense, the 5+2 format can be considered to have exhausted its former content, but it has clearly not exhausted itself. If anyone in the corridors of power thinks that now only the EU and the OSCE will be in charge of the settlement, this is a huge mistake. The other two mediators, despite the direct military confrontation, do not take their eyes off the banks of the Dniester and try to be inclusive about everything that happens there. Everything suggests that neither Kyiv nor Moscow are ready to be mere observers, therefore they remind themselves, their ambitions and principled positions that can change the dynamics and configuration of the Transnistrian settlement. For Kyiv, the issue of the region’s demilitarization is predictably a priority. That is why the special representative of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has recently spoken again about the disposal of ammunition and weapons from the depots in Cobasna, as well as about the withdrawal of Russian troops and the reformatting of the peacekeeping mission. This, in his view, will together create favorable conditions for dialogue on the resolution of the long-standing conflict. By the way, two weeks ago, under strange circumstances, another drone flew over one of the military facilities in the Ribnita district, where the very Russian arms depot is located. Whether there is any connection between the drone and the subsequent statements of the Ukrainian diplomat, further developments will show. It is only noteworthy that this time the OSCE Mission to Moldova responded to the incident by requesting access for its monitoring teams and expressed its readiness to assist in finding suitable international experts to conduct an impartial investigation. Moscow also expresses its own assessments, dissatisfied with Chisinau’s unwillingness to take into account Tiraspol’s opinion and the forceful scenarios for resolving the Transnistrian problem promoted by Kyiv. The Russians are also dissatisfied with attempts to bury the 5+2 format. The Transnistrian settlement, as before, is in thrall to external circumstances, and Chisinau’s decisions do not lead to a conceptual change of the picture or to a softening of Tiraspol’s position. Apparently, the current authorities are at a crossroads and are not sure which of the strategies will be justified and, more importantly, feasible. Therefore, it is safe to expect more forums and events, where officials will try to guess the optimal trajectory of reintegration depending on international partners.