Transnistria: ‘Freezing’ as the Lesser Evil (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 102

(Source: EPA)

Ambassadors from Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, and the European Union, collectively the mediators and observers to the Transnistria conflict-settlement negotiations, held talks in Chisinau and Tiraspol on July 12. This group seeks to promote the resumption of active negotiations after last month’s regime change in Moldova. The negotiations’ professed goals are a) “small steps” to upgrade Transnistria’s distinctive prerogatives, leading toward b) a “special status for Transnistria within Moldova” (, July 12).

Moving through “small steps” toward a “special status” is inherently dangerous to Moldova, and is a matter of concern to neighboring Ukraine. Apart from the primordial Russian inspiration of the whole process (which should have invalidated this process from the outset), any acceleration of these negotiations could break apart Moldova’s coalition of Western-oriented and Russia-friendly parties that took office one month ago. Even Moldovan President Igor Dodon, for all his links to Moscow, has said that Transnistria is a divisive issue that should be handled cautiously and even be left in abeyance for the time being, lest it bring the ruling coalition in Chisinau down (IPN, June 28).

Given that Russia designed this process at origin, with some Western chancelleries (from varying considerations) tagging along, and given the risk it now poses to Moldova’s internal stability, a “freeze” on this process would be the lesser evil, compared with continuing these negotiations in their present form (see Part Two).

The “small steps” and “special status” are old goals on paper, but they are being pursued seriously as operational goals since 2016, inherited from Germany’s then–minister of foreign affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the US’s Barack Obama administration. Both were then in their final year in office, groping for some sort of legacy; and they viewed the “Transnistria conflict” as susceptible of resolution by agreement with Russia, potentially an example for a “special status” by agreement with Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas. This necessitates mischaracterizing the “Transnistria conflict” as internal to Moldova, rather than a Russia-Moldova inter-state conflict; and Russia as “mediator,” instead of aggressor. The flaws in these assumptions remain unexamined and continue to inspire the negotiations, to Moldova’s direct detriment and potentially Ukraine’s as well.

The “Transnistria conflict” is a unique case in which Russian and Western (European and US) diplomats have acted in consensus, without exhibiting any differences in their approach, in contrast to the other “frozen conflicts.” Germany is not one of the “mediators and observers” on this conflict, but has gained an influential role since 2018 by taking charge of the OSCE’s Chisinau Mission, which administers the negotiating process, overshadowing the US and EU, which merely hold observer status. Italy held the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship in 2018 and appointed the outspoken Russia-friendly politician Franco Frattini as the organization’s special representative on Moldova. The OSCE’s Slovakian chairmanship in 2019 unnecessarily (and departing from standard practice) has reappointed Frattini to this post. Moldova’s former governments, most recently that controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc, passively accepted the “small steps” and the political objective of a “special status” for Transnistria.

While Russian and some Western diplomats seem interested in mechanical “progress” toward those goals (see above), serious reservations are heard from both sides of Moldova’s bicephalous authorities who took office one month ago. The ACUM (“NOW”) bloc disagrees with the negotiations’ goals in their substance, while President Dodon has grown cautious and would play for time rather than be rushed into political negotiations.

Moldova’s new prime minister, Maia Sandu (from ACUM), surprised the ambassadors’ group by challenging some fundamentals of these negotiations head on: the political objective, the direction of the “small steps,” and the impunity tacitly granted to Transnistria’s organized crime (Moldpres, July 12).

“We owe some answers to our citizens,” Sandu told the ambassadors. “What is the goal of these negotiations? On the one hand, it is to settle this conflict politically, based on Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the other hand, Tiraspol pursues the goal of independence. Where, then, is the end station of this process, given these mutually exclusive objectives? And which one of these objectives is being served by the policy of small steps? Throughout these years Chisinau has manifested openness toward Tiraspol. The latter has been accepted as a side to the negotiating process. Transnistrian residents enjoy freedom of movement in Moldova and beyond, benefit from various projects, and Transnistria itself is part of Moldova’s free-trade-zone with the EU. And yet, we are no closer to a political settlement… The negotiating process must help combat Transnistria’s corruption and smuggling; this [anti-crime effort] must become a priority. As long as Transnistria remains a major source of illegal enrichment for certain people, there cannot be any real progress toward a political solution” (Moldpres, July 13).

The OSCE Mission’s chief, German diplomat Claus Neukirch, responding on the ambassadors’ group’s behalf, did not address those points. He simply reaffirmed that the goal is indeed to advance by small steps toward a special status for Transnistria (Moldpres, July 12). This repartee reflects: a) the OSCE’s de facto seniority over the mere “observers,” the US and the EU, in this negotiating process, b) Russia’s insurmountable influence in the OSCE, and c) the German government’s considering a possible accommodation with Russia in Moldova, after Berlin’s failed attempts (2014–2017) to promote the Russian-drafted special status for Ukraine’s Donbas.

The ambassadors’ group met as well with President Dodon and Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Vasilii Shova, in Chisinau. Even Dodon expressed serious, if implicit reservations about the prompt resumption of negotiations that the OSCE, Moscow and Tiraspol seem keen to launch now. Instead, Dodon suggested delaying any political negotiations into next year and adopting a different set of three priorities instead: “democratization of Transnistria, free movement of people and goods throughout Moldova’s territory, and reestablishment of a single economic space in the whole of Moldova” (Moldpres, July 12). Without repudiating the small steps, this new set of priorities reflects Dodon’s reluctance to accelerate the political negotiations (see above). What Dodon has explicitly cast aside is his old, pet “federalization” project (see Part Two).

*To read Part Two, please click here.