Moldova’s regime change in June 2019 has overtaken some of the key assumptions of Western diplomacy in the Transnistria conflict-settlement negotiations.
One Western assumption relates to the settlement’s content. It holds that the settlement (“special status”) must be negotiated and enacted with a Russian-installed, Moscow-loyal leadership in Tiraspol. This would conserve Transnistria’s existing geopolitical role and socio-political system, as Tiraspol itself describes it: a strategic outpost of Russia, and a showcase of political-cultural assimilation of non-Russians into the Russian World. At no point did Western diplomacy contemplate requiring political change in Transnistria as a prerequisite to any settlement. Instead, by dint of inertia, the “small steps” have been moving forward toward the goal of a special status. Russia could not alone have advanced its interests as it has through these negotiations. Western indifference or, since 2016, Western consent allowed this evolution, enabling Moscow to pose as a team player in the 5+2 format. The direction of this movement is a piecemeal sovereignization of Transnistria and corresponding de-sovereignization of Moldova in that territory (see EDM, September 20, 26, 2018).
Moldova’s new prime minister, Maia Sandu, however, has called for linking the negotiations with internal change in Transnistria. Combating Transnistria’s corruption and smuggling must become a priority, failing which there cannot be any real “small steps” toward a political solution, Sandu told a large visiting group of ambassadors involved in these negotiations. Even President Igor Dodon, who had earlier been keen to accelerate the negotiations with Tiraspol, suggested to the visiting diplomats to prioritize “human rights and democratization in Transnistria” over political negotiations (Moldpres, July 12; see EDM, July 17). Thus, slowing down and rethinking the negotiations, and linking them to internal change in Transnistria, is an idea that is taking shape in Chisinau following the regime change.
A related Western assumption relates to the settlement’s process, both formal and, especially, informal. The assumption previously held that Moldova’s informal ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc and President Dodon would, through parallel efforts, continue to deliver “progress” in the negotiations. This assumption has also been invalidated—on both counts—following Moldova’s recent regime change. Plahotniuc had delivered on the “small steps” in 2017–2018, using both his internal authority and direct relationship with his separatist counterpart, Viktor Gushan, Transnistria’s informal “oligarchic” ruler. However, Plahotniuc fell from power in June 2019. For his part, Dodon was thwarted in his frantic efforts to negotiate with Transnistria’s “official” leader, Vadim Krasnoselski, toward a faster resolution. The Kremlin, content with the “small steps,” has declined to nudge Krasnoselski into negotiations with Dodon. Instead, Moscow wants Tiraspol to deal with Western diplomats directly. This has worked well for Tiraspol until now.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s triple-headed management of these negotiations (Slovakian rotational chairmanship, German leadership of the OSCE’s Chisinau Mission, and Italian occupancy of the Special Representative’s post) undoubtedly planned for 2019 on that old, accustomed basis. But Plahotniuc is no more; and Dodon is deeply frustrated by Moscow’s preference for direct negotiations between Tiraspol and Western diplomatic envoys, bypassing Chisinau and depriving Dodon of his domestic political card as Moldova’s reintegrator. This helps explain Dodon’s remarks to Western diplomats about the need for political change in Transnistria (see above).
A third Western assumption, invalidated by Moldova’s regime change, concerns the internal political basis for negotiating a solution to the Transnistria conflict. That assumption held that it was at least desirable, perhaps necessary, to bring Plahotniuc and Dodon to a consensus on this issue. However, three changes have intervened: a) Plahotniuc’s fall, b) Dodon’s official abandonment of the goal of federalization and his new, go-slow approach to political negotiations (see EDM, July 18); and c) the sharp questioning of the “small steps” policy by the ACUM (“NOW”) bloc in the ACUM-Socialist governing coalition. These recent developments have totally changed the prerequisites to a political consensus in Chisinau regarding the resolution of the Transnistria conflict.
The only consensus in Moldova’s bicephallous governing coalition is that a faster pace of international negotiations (in the 5+2 format) could fatally split the coalition. Both of its components prefer to delay any such denouement as long as feasible. Both prioritize cooperation on pressing domestic issues over divisive “geopolitical” issues.
The coalition’s two components will be equally influential in shaping Chisinau’s position in these negotiations; and they will not necessarily come into confrontation with each other. The chief negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Vasilii Shova, closely linked with Dodon, has handled the Transnistria dossier in one way or another ever since 1991 (Noi.md, July 1, 2019), personifying Chisinau’s institutional-bureaucratic memory on this issue. Shova is hardly a strategic conceptualizer but rather a meticulous executant of presidential instructions.
On the ACUM side, a number of parliamentary deputies, first and foremost Oazu Nantoi and Igor Munteanu, are the top experts on the Transnistria conflict from the perspective of the pro-Western civil society, and now as parliamentarians. They have a strong track record of resisting “federalization,” “special status” or “small steps,” and of proposing alternative concepts of conflict-resolution. These include a concept of Transnistria’s political transformation and demilitarization as a prerequisite to any settlement of the conflict, but also a blocking concept of the unacceptable “Red Lines” of an externally-driven solution.
These two centers of influence will probably balance each other out in the governing coalition. Such balance—and, probably, informal consultations between them—should avoid both pitfalls that lie ahead: either continuing “small steps” (sovereignizing Transnistria, de-sovereignizing Moldova) or a breakup of the governing coalition over this issue.