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Strong institutions, economic success and political consensus: Moldova’s vision for the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict

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Speaking at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna the president of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu expressed her views on the Transnistrian conflict settlement process, highlighting three main principles. The president stated that: ‘1. First of all the solution should be peaceful, diplomatic- this is the most important.2. The solution should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country 3. And the solution should result in a functional state’ meaning that ‘the solution should not destabilize the country’. Moreover the president added that ‘the solution should be developed at home and of course discussed in the 5 plus 2 formats’.

The current position expressed by the president stems from an understanding that a solution to the Transnistrian conflict can only come about through 1. Strengthening the institutions on the right bank  in order for them to be able to deal with the complexity of the reintegration process 3..Improving the living standards of the population on the right bank of the Dniester and providing an attractive economic model to Transnistria 3. Finding an internal consensus for this solution and consolidating the support for the 5 plus 2 negotiation framework. The president was also clear that in the current geopolitical climate in which Transnistria and Gagauzia remain split between the Russian and European development model, she favours the later – as the right model for Moldova – that the government is currently trying to build. Since the elections, Maia Sandu has sought to distance herself from her predecessors in terms of her government’s approach to geopolitics and Russian-Moldovan relations. The president stressed that: ‘We do want to have good relations with Russia and we do not see why us choosing the European model of development should impede us having good relations with Russia’ adding that she does not want to use geopolitics as previous irresponsible politicians have done, with the sole purpose to accede to power.

The talk at the Diplomatic Academy was carried on the occasion of President Maia Sandu’s official visit to Austria between the 21st and the 22nd of October which included meetings with the Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen and the OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid. It was an opportunity to express the current vision that the authorities in Chisinau have towards the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, one that relies on the continued continuation of 5 plus 2 OSCE- sponsored dialogue towards advancing cooperation in the areas of security, human rights and the fight against corruption. 

These statements came a month after the President’s speech at the 76th  Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where Maia Sandu re-iterated her government’s main vision towards international security as being grounded in a commitment to ‘identifying a peaceful political solution to the conflict in the Transnistrian region (…), a solution based on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognized borders’. On that occasion the President re-affirmed Moldova’s ‘position on the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces’ which ‘includes the removal or destruction of ammunition from the Cobasna depots, which pose a threat to the security and environment of the region as a whole.’

Strong institutions, economic success and political consensus

For more than two decades, both political decision-makers and academia have been confronted with the idea that peace cannot be imposed from the outside and that, within each conflict, internal conditions – socio-economic and political – are much more important when it comes to finding a solution.  Likewise, the legitimacy of any regulation of these conflicts must be based on bottom-up approaches that are supported by the people whose lives are affected by the consequences of these conflicts. This has led to an expectation on the part of states affected by unresolved conflicts over the role of the international community in supporting such measures, rather than proposing a model political formula. In the present context, the conflicts in the post-Soviet space remained unresolved, the parties being stuck in their incompatible positions and often using multilateral diplomatic forums to reiterate their own incompatibilities.  Is there currently a way to avoid this in the context of the Transnistrian conflict?

President Maia Sandu has previously stated that ‘At some point, a political opportunity will arise for Moldova’s reunification and we need to be ready for it. In any case, it should be a peaceful solution acceptable for all of Moldova. Moreover, I am sure that there needs to be an action plan developed in Moldova and approved by all political forces and society’ .Since her election the President is now providing more details regarding her vision towards the settlement of the conflict and specifically vis-à-vis the role that existing parties involved in the negotiations might play in its resolution.  If in the immediate aftermath of her election the President declared that: ‘It is impossible to resolve the Transnistria issue without Russia’ and that: ’there are things that we can do to resolve the conflict, which include the fight against corruption and smuggling of goods’, it has now become much clearer that Moldova favours a bottom-up approach solution to peace through the strengthening of institutions on both banks of the Dniester. There is indeed an emphasis that Moldova should resolve this conflict internally through an insistence on economic development and the consolidation of reliable and accountable institutions.  But most importantly the President has made it clear at the UN that in doing so and in resolving some of the hardest questions of the settlement process- namely the withdrawal of Russian troops – Moldova is counting on the ‘support of the international community in its endeavour.’

Pragmatic approaches and concrete actions

Since the new government was formed this issue has remained an important topic both in Chisinau and Moscow. What could  a bottom-up approach to peace-building that prioritize socio-economic factors as conducive to conflict resolution and takes into account the current geopolitical situation in the region mean  in practice for the Moldovan government ? As part of the government’s vision for the reintegration of the country, the goals emphasized by the president in her talk aim at delivering on specific pledges, with perhaps the most important one being the need to find an internal consensus between the political forces in Chisinau regarding the principles of the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict as well as the consolidation of a national consensus on this matter.

Furthermore, if looking at strengthening the institutions on the right bank the government is committed to undertake ‘concrete actions in areas of major interest to people, such as the fight against crime, the development of agriculture and the protection of the environment on both sides’ of the Dniester. By fighting contraband and corruption – as a clear states goal as part of a peaceful settlement of the conflict, the government aims to ensure the quality of governmental services for citizens from both banks; Secondly, when it comes to improving the living standards of the population on the left bank of the Dniester the current government‘s goal is to ensure the availability of certain public services to citizens on the left bank that are currently available to those on the right bank.  For these two goals the government of Moldova has already pledged a total of 15000 Moldovan Lei as part of its budget in order to carry out the implementation of socio-economic development programmes through the Ministry of Reintegration.

Looking at the government’s actions in the context of the pandemic it should also be noted that since its inauguration the Moldovan government has also sought to engage the Transnistrian region in addressing the effects of COVID-19 through donations of vaccines, having pledged in its programme to provide ‘the necessary support to the inhabitants from the left bank of the Dniester in combating the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, including through vaccination programs’

These are of course important aspects that the government has started to act upon. Questions nevertheless remain regarding the political and diplomatic steps that need to be undertaken not just by the government in Chisinau and the Transnistrian authorities but also in partnership with those involved in the 5 plus 2 negotiation framework.   Firstly, the government has so far embarked on diplomatic actions as the ones in Vienna and at the UN and made clear its position on the need to find a solution that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova. Secondly when it comes to stronger cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova has been keen to send important signals that such cooperation is needed through bilateral talks with Ukrainian leaders. Finally, as President Maia Sandu stated in Vienna she does not have special channels on the Transnistrian side that she can use to advance the negotiations and yet she believes that ‘the more successful the government is going to be on improving the living standards on the right bank, the more interest is going to increase among the people on the left bank to actually support the reunification’. Perhaps such context makes it even more important for the current government to deliver on specific aspects that affect the lives of the people on both banks of the Dniester such as energy issues, human rights and freedom of movement before the topic of a political formula can be re-addressed as part of the settlement process.

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