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Why is Russia threatening to kick the hornet nest in Transnistria after the success of Maia Sandu’s party in the parliamentary elections?


Russia’s first reactions to the success of President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) in the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova are direct threats to escalate the conflict in Transnistria. Is Russia concerned by the pro-European alignment of this future cabinet, or are there other interests at hand?

Konstantin Kosachev, the vice-president of Russia’s Federation Council, the upper chambers of the Russian Parliament, threatened the election winners with forcing events in Transnistria. Konstantin Kosachev posted his views on the Moldova parliamentary elections on his Facebook page, which were then retold by the TASS news agency. The Chișinău media then reproduced part of the post, emphasizing that the Russians are bothered by the election results or that they are worried by the pro-Western alignment of the Republic of Moldova.

Kosachev is aware of the strong pro-Western alignment of the future cabinet, nevertheless hoping that it would be tempered by a cohesive left-wing opposition in Parliament. The worst-case scenario in the pro-Western policy of the future cabinet in Chișinău would be “forcing events in Transnistria”, a conflict seen as an obstacle in Moldova’s Euro-Atlantic integration. He considers that the provocations which took place on the eve of the elections show that there are radical individuals ready for such a scenario. The results are “quite alarming”, according to Kosachev, who pleaded that the future cabinet be open to dialogue regarding all issues of bilateral relations.

He asserts that foreign interference took place in the Moldova elections: by the European Union, Romania and the United States. At the same time, Kosachev admits that Russia interfered in the elections, when he underlines its role in retaining the 41 polling stations for the Transnistrians: “we were literally forced to fight for the 41 sections on the elections’ eve” (и за 41 пришлось побороться буквально накануне выборов).

On July 8th 2021 the Chișinău Appeals Court agreed to the request of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party, led by Andrei Năstase, to reduce the number of polling stations for Transnistrians from 41 to 12. On the eve of the elections, on July 10th, the Supreme Court of Justice indefinitely annulled the decision of the Appeals Court, retaining the 41 polling stations. Thus, the Russian senator Konstantin Kosachev admits Russia’s intervention in the Moldovan Supreme Court of Justice decision: “we were literally forced to fight for the 41 sections on the elections’ eve”!

Who is Konstantin Kosachev? Born in 1962 to a family of Soviet diplomats, he’s worked in Soviet, then Russian diplomacy since his youth, mostly regarding relations with Sweden and Russia’s policy in the Arctic region. From 1999, he was elected as a deputy in the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, where he led the Foreign Policy Committee. He entered the upper chambers of the Russian Parliament – the Federation Council – in 2014, where he led the Foreign Policy Committee. As a politician, he was noted for his opposition to ratifying the UN Anti-Corruption Convention.

Leonid Kalashnikov, the leader of the State Duma Committee on Issues of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Contacts with Fellow Countryman, released a more nuanced statement. During a statement for the Russian news agency, TASS, he noted that Russia must expect provocations regarding Transnistria, a region stuck between two hostile states, Ukraine and Moldova, and that Russia would have to stand up to these provocations, as 200.000 Russian citizens live there: “one should expect, among other things, provocations against Transnistria, which turned out to be locked between two hostile lands – Ukraine and Moldova… Provocations, in which, unfortunately, Russia may be get dragged into, are inevitable there, because more than 200,000 people there are Russian citizens”.

During another interview for the Interfax news agency, cited  by Agerpres, and from there by the Moldovan and Romanian press, the same Leonid Kalashnikov stated that “Russian policy towards Moldova will depend on the elected power: if this power will stray away from Russia, then, of course, we shall act accordingly. We shall especially consolidate the Transnistrian factor”, admitting then the difficulty of such an act, as the region is placed between two hostile states: Moldova and Ukraine. He believes that “the conciliatory PAS statements regarding Russia made before the elections will turn into pro-European and pro-NATO ones and will once again bring up the scenario of using force against Transnistria, and later of a possible union with Romania… It is precisely what the Russian and Gagauz-speaking communities (of Moldova) cannot accept”.

Leonid Kalashnikov, was born in 1960. After working for a short while in Odessa, he became an activist in the Communist Party, employed in important roles since the communist period. From 1996, he held various leading positions in private energy enterprises, and was elected to the Duma in 2010. Currently, he is the president of the State Duma Committee on Issues of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Contacts with Fellow Countryman.

From the statements of these two high-ranking, though secondary Russian politicians, one can clearly see a warning aimed at President Maia Sandu regarding Transnistria. Russia’s main focus seems to be on the possibility of a firm policy by the Moldovan president regarding Transnistria. Obviously, Kalashnikov’s more nuanced statement for Interfax must be separated from his apocalyptic views, as Moldova simply does not have the military capability to forcefully intervene in Transnistria.  It should also be noted that the Union with Romania is also a ‘bogyman’ – if perhaps not for Russia – then certainly to justify any potential Russian unrest in Transnistria and Gagauzia in the near future.

The first institutional statement came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, through its spokeswoman, Maria Zaharova, whose opinion is much more balanced than of the above mentioned politicians. After acknowledging the election results and inviting a dialogue, Maria Zaharova also alleged foreign interference in the elections. She obviously forgot about Russia’s direct interference, freshly uncovered by Konstantin Kosachev.

Does Transnistria represent an issue of strategy and security for Russia? After occupying the Crimean Peninsula and turning it into a military base – equipped with missiles and other weapons with a range of thousands of kilometres – Transnistria became strategically irrelevant. It’s more a question of Russian ego, which cannot allow itself to lose influence in the various parts of the former Soviet empire, whose borders, power and influence are yearned for by the Kremlin leaders.

Transnistria is, on the other hand, a topic of prime economic importance, as it has become a hub for transiting high quantities of goods, where businessmen from at least four states are involved: Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Yes, Romania too.

Transnistria enjoys a special customs regime, as it is not subject to the authority of Moldova’s institutions, yet benefits from Moldova’s economic relations with the European Union. On the other hand, the production of goods in Transnistria benefits from dumping prices on electricity and gas, making it extremely profitable. The economic networks in and around Transnistria are interconnected to the highest level with politicians from the four previously mentioned countries. Some businesses are even “exported”, take place under the umbrella of legal EU companies as far as Germany. The economic stake in Transnistria is much higher than the strategic one. The rest, such as defending Russian citizens from Transnistria, the issue of the Russian language or of the status of the two separatist provinces – Transnistria and Gagauzia – are merely a smokescreen.

Moldova has no political strategy for resolving the Transnistria conflict, frozen in place for almost 30 years and managed by the OSCE. Despite the large number of specialists in the ‘Transnistrian issue’ and of a high number of bureaucrats in Moldova’s respective institutes, there is no clear and generally-accepted strategy for the situation.

Whereas President Maia Sandu has no means of directly intervening in the ‘Transnistrian issue’, she can at least ask for realistic solutions from the crowd of specialists in Kishinev’s institutes – Moldovans or foreigners. This is nevertheless unlikely. The main task of the future PAS cabinet is reforming the state and fighting corruption, necessitating an enormous quantity of resources, which does not allow for an active and direct policy regarding Transnistria. President Maia Sandu will not take any measures which risk alienating the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Moldova, as she is – at least official – avoiding any geopolitical approach.

There is an inherent link between the anti-corruption efforts and the Transnistria issue. The economic networks surrounding Transnistria involve the corruption of many politicians and bureaucrats from Moldova and beyond. Thus, an eventual success for Maia Sandu in the fight against corruption in Moldova will directly impact upon the Transnistrian issue, firstly by limiting the corruption surrounding the business undertaken in Transnistria. Only limiting, since completely eradicating corruption, a plague which grips the entire world, including democratic countries, is only possible in political statements. Konstantin Kosachev and Leonid Kalashnikov’s warnings actually refer to the business interests surrounding dealings in and through Transnistria. The rest is just bravado for the press and the electorate…

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