Azerbaijan’s recovery of control over the unrecognized statelet in Karabakh by military means unsurprisingly has been seen by some in other countries as a precedent for action against breakaway republics elsewhere (see EDM, September 20). This is true for Moldova, where several nationalist politicians and commentators are calling for Chisinau to follow Baku’s lead and use force to retake Transnistria. So far, there is little evidence that their appeals are winning support among Moldovan leaders. They are having an impact in Moscow, however, where several commentators are urging the Kremlin to expand its support for Transnistria lest Moldova, backed by Romania and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), move militarily against the pro-Russian breakaway republic.
Whenever a major development occurs in one area of the post-Soviet space, many officials and analysts in Moscow and other capitals often ask whether it will be repeated in another. The Kremlin seems to have a bit more propensity for this approach due to continuing assumptions and hopes that the various countries still see fundamental commonalities with the entire region. Yet, this attitude is not absent elsewhere as the peoples in other countries are watching to see which actions fail and which ones succeed elsewhere. They also keep a sharp eye on the reactions to such developments coming from Moscow and the rest of the world. The danger is that peoples throughout the post-Soviet space will take actions that overstate regional commonalities and understate the differences between situations that seem similar on the surface. This, in turn, can exacerbate issues and lead to moves with explosive results (see EDM, November 17, 2020).
Baku’s recent operation in Karabakh is no exception. Some Russian commentators are now suggesting that Georgia and Moldova—both with breakaway republics of their own—will be inspired by the events in Azerbaijan and that Moscow must take action to counter their moves (Newdaynews.ru, October 2). There has been little evidence of such thinking in Georgia, perhaps due to the stronger positions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia compared to that of Transnistria. In the Moldovan case, discussions have proliferated in both Chisinau and Moscow about what may happen with Moldova’s breakaway republic. The situation could seriously devolve if either side miscalculates. As such, the views of those Moldovans who see Karabakh as an analogue to Transnistria and those in Moscow who believe Russia must act on the assumption that such ideas will guide Moldovan policies deserve the closest possible attention.
The most prominent Moldovan to draw this analogy is Anatol Șalaru, former Moldovan defense minister and current secretary-general of the National Unity Party. He argues that Chisinau should follow Baku, stop relying on international negotiations to solve the problem of Transnistria, and instead use force as Azerbaijan did. According to Șalaru, “Azerbaijan has shown everyone that problems can be resolved not only during coffee breaks and unending conferences” but also by the use of force (Fondsk.ru, September 29). He argues that this is an urgent task because Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, must not be allowed to slow Moldova’s integration with Romania, the European Union, and NATO. This is precisely the kind of statement that sets off alarm bells in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, where Șalaru’s remarks have received prominent coverage (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1).
Other Russian commentators have expressed skepticism that Șalaru speaks for the Moldovan leadership, reasonably pointing out that other Chisinau politicians have not gone as far. Yet, even they suggest that some variant of Șalaru’s thinking is infecting others in Moldova and that Moscow must be ready to respond. Among these voices is Andrey Safonov, a Russian political scientist with close ties to the Putin siloviki. In an article for the most recent issue of NG-Dipkuryer, he says that Moldovan elites are drawing “lessons” from what Azerbaijan has done in Karabakh for Transnistria and that Moscow cannot afford to ignore them (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1).
Moscow’s inaction in Karabakh has galvanized some in Moldova to support the use of force in Transnistria, no longer fearing Russian retribution. According to Safonov, “As soon as the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh was declared, a systematic plan for the demoralization of Transnistria was put in place. The plan is simple: since ‘Russia didn’t act in support of Karabakh,’” it will not act in support of Transnistria (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1). This gives Chisinau an opening to solve the long-running conflict with Tiraspol militarily rather than through negotiations. It needs to be determined, the Russian political scientist continues, whether this is simply Internet talk or the beginnings of a real attack on Russia’s ally. Safonov believes it is the latter given that Chisinau has been breaking its ties with Moscow and falling into line with the West in the hopes of gaining support from NATO, the European Union, and the United States. Moldova has already acquired drones from Germany and others in the West and is using them over Transnistria, the first stage of what Safonov says is likely to be Moldovan military action unless Moscow steps in.
The Transnistria issue is very much tied to the question of Moldova’s access to the European Union and its integration with Romania. These two issues are at the heart of lively discussions in Chisinau and the root of growing concerns in Moscow. On the one hand, Moldovan President Maia Sandu and others believe that Moldova can join the European Union even without Transnistria. The idea is that, once Moldova is an official member, the breakaway republic will want to follow suit. On the other hand, Șalaru and other former officials follow the Romanian line of thinking that Moldova must recover Transnistria before it can integrate with the West. Sandu’s position has now become dominant in Chisinau, Safonov acknowledges. Yet, after Karabakh, who is to say that “circumstances have not changed?” The Russian commentator asserts that Moscow needs to make clear that it is not about to allow that to happen and that it remains committed to “preserving its positions” in Moldova (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1).
While there is still room for both sides to back away from the use of force, that space is narrowing. A renewed assessment of realities on the ground may be needed. The specter of violence will continue to hang over the region so long as both Moscow and Chisinau view Transnistria through a Karabakh lens.