At the crossroads of worlds, the Republic of Moldova manages to draw the attention of the Western community either through sudden changes in domestic policy (e.g., changes in seemingly unshakable regimes/ such as Plahotniuc’s; pro-European victory in 2020/2021 elections), as a victim of Russia (like the episode regarding the energy blackmail in the autumn of this year), or as a result of certain developments in the Transnistrian dossier.
The Transnistrian conflict is about Russia’s relationship with the West, at least as much as it is about Russia’s relationship with the Republic of Moldova. With a bankrupt 5 + 2 format – as long as the parties do not discuss the third basket regarding the political issues – the Transnistrian region has the potential to become the spark that ignites a powder keg at the intersection of West and Russia. Literally a spark, due to the ammunition depots in Colbasna (an explosion could at any time cause a tragedy the size of the one in the port of Beirut in August 2021), but also figuratively a spark – in case of the worsening of the security situation in the CIS region.
The end of this year is a symbolic moment of balance for the Transnistrian dossier: on the one hand, it’s the end of Maia Sandu’s first year as president of the Republic of Moldova, on the other hand, December 12, 2021 may mark a new victory for the Transnistrian leader, Vadim Krasnoselski, in the so-called presidential election that are to be held in the republic.
In this context, it is useful an analysis of the way in which Chisinau and Tiraspol have interacted during the 2021 on themes such as the regulatory process and the future of the Transnistrian region as a whole. The actors of the analysis will be Maia Sandu and Vadim Krasnoselski, alongside their main advisers and vectors for foreign policy messages.
The comparison between Sandu’s rhetoric vs. Krasnoselski’s is also a comparison between a leader who is still getting used to the exercise of power (with all that entails – responsibilities and risks, but also with the privilege of setting directions for action) and the other – a “leader” at the end of his first term, who must secure a new one (especially by proving his loyalty to those who placed him there) and not give the impression that he is less relevant than his competitor (the one on the other bank of the Dniester).
How does Chisinau relate to the Transnistrian conflict?
The settlement of the Transnistrian conflict was not an important campaign theme in 2020 for Maia Sandu or in 2021 for PAS. However, with the ascension to power, the new officials in Chisinau had to formulate a vision, a point of view on the stage and prospects of the conflict. Analyzing the public statements of the main political actors in the Republic of Moldova, two main elements that define the perception of the Transnistrian region appear.
First of all, they insist on a peaceful settlement, without strong geopolitical touches. In fact, this is what President Sandu pointed out during the conference at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, a vision focused on a causal/ subsequent logic: reforming the Republic of Moldova, significantly improving living standards on the right bank of the Dniester, easing the cleavages of identity and geopolitics, convincing “Transnistrians” that reintegration will ensure a better life and then, the advancement of a pragmatic and balanced reintegration project.
For now, Chisinau is pursuing the first goal on this path: reforming the Republic of Moldova – the most important, but also the most difficult to achieve, both due to internal resistance and to pressure from Russia (this year’s energy blackmail being, among others, and a reiteration that Moscow always has the leverage to change the agenda of Chisinau leaders).
It is interesting to note that this logic of resolving the Transnistrian conflict – a reform followed by settlement – was supported/ promoted by people in Maia Sandu’s foreign policy team even before they held decision-making positions in the state. Such an example is Nicu Popescu, the current foreign minister, who published in 2012 – as a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations – a study entitled Transnistria: A bottom-up solution (co-author: Leonid Litra). At that time, Popescu pointed out that in Chisinau prevailed an indifference to the resolution of the conflict, an indifference that at least kept the conflict frozen, but in fact did not lead anywhere because it was a symptom of a gross lack of vision. The same study stated that the Europeanization of the Republic of Moldova will increase the attractiveness of reintegration, and visible improvement in living standards on the right bank of the Dniester (especially in the border towns) will determine ordinary “Transnistrians” to ask for reintegration.
Correct or not, difficult or not-so-difficult, the path adopted by the current establishment in Chisinau is at least consistent. The public statements and actions of the current leaders are in full agreement with what they said in the past and in their various capacities.
The second element of Chisinau’s vision for resolving the Transnistrian conflict is the withdrawal of Russian troops. The thesis was resumed by practically all the important leaders, in moments of maximum public visibility. Maia Sandu promoted it in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2021 and also presented it in an interview with Kommersant immediately after signing the contract with Gazprom for the supply of natural gas.
Regarding the Kommersant interview, one element draws the attention: no media institution in Chisinau and/or Bucharest noticed the aggressiveness of the questions from the Russian journalists, both on the subject of the contract on natural gas supplies and on the Transnistrian settlement process. Regarding the latter, in response to Maia Sandu’s remarks, Kommersant pointed out that in Chisinau there should first be a vision on the settlement, especially on the future status of Transnistria (although Maia Sandu’s statements were a vision per se and not a nuanced plea for a particular outcome).
The coordination between Maia Sandu and Nicu Popescu is also noticeable on the point regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops. The Moldovan Foreign Minister spoke at a press conference after meeting with his Russian counterpart that the Operational Group of Russian Forces in the Transnistrian region is violating Moldova’s neutrality.
As can be noticed, Chisinau – especially through the voices of Maia Sandu and Nicu Popescu – has a coherent and coordinated approach to the Transnistrian region. Basically, it is more about the steps that need to be taken to create the conditions for a successful reintegration. The reintegration plans can only follow a reorganization of the administration and political eco-system in Chisinau, together with the reduction of Russia’s presence in the Transnistrian region (that would be the happiest scenario for Chisinau).
The fight against corruption in the Republic of Moldova as a first step in facilitating the reintegration of Transnistria is not just a nice slogan. Corruption networks in the Republic of Moldova have multiple ramifications in Tiraspol, and dismantling them in Chisinau would also affect the Transnistrian vein. This is also demonstrated by statements by former so-called Transnistrian officials: “ex-president” Evgheni Shevchuk declared in June 2019, referring to representatives of the former regime in Chisinau, that “those in Chisinau have incomes from illegal financial flows from Transnistria”. Shevchuk’s statements explain much more practically Nicu Popescu’s 2012 assessments on Chisinau’s indifference to taking real steps towards settlement.
How does Tiraspol see the settlement?
Most likely, Krasnoselski will win the elections of December 12, 2021, just as he won the elections of December 2016, when he easily obtained over 60% of the vote (the voting process started de facto since December 6/ for early voters; those who will not be in the region on December 12 can vote in person on December 10-11). His opponent, Serghei Pânzari (a “People’s Deputy” from Grigoriopol), has little chances of producing a surprise, and three other potential electoral contestants did not participate for various reasons: Anatoli Dirun, Nikolai Malishev and Serghei Decev.
As in the case of Chisinau, Tiraspol has its own perception of the future of the region. Krasnoselski insists on the maximum option: Transnistrians feel part of Russia – far from being a new thesis, but meant to be a form of renewal of vows of vassality to Moscow.
Reiterated on the occasion of Russia’s National Unity Day (November 4), the idea of Transnistrians belonging to the Russian world is also a counter-argument to Maia Sandu’s vision for the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. In essence, Krasnoselski rejects the idea of a Moldova that could become a center of attraction for Transnistrians (as they – in his logic – would never join another community of values except Russia).
The Transnistrian leadership is also showing unity in public messages. In addition to Krasnoselski, the so-called Foreign Minister Vitali Ignatiev has been in a real campaign of self-victimization and blaming Chisinau for the past year. In interviews with foreign media – the Danish National Public Radio, the Spanish news agency EFE and the newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun – Ignatiev constantly pointed out that: a) the negotiation process is blocked by Chisinau, who only sends provocative statements, b) it cannot be a reintegration with the Republic of Moldova since, historically, there has never been a common form of political organization, c) expects the international recognition of the statehood/ independence of Transnistria.
In addition, not only Krasnoselski and Ignatiev are working for the goal of connecting the Transnistrian region to Russia, but also the so-called Transnistrian Representation in Moscow, through Leonid Manakov (its head). Like Ignatiev, Manakov has frequent meetings with Russian decision-makers, representatives of other unrecognized CIS republics and, of course, at the level of the Russian MFA.
If Maia Sandu’s vision for the reintegration of Transnistria involves diminishing geopolitical asperities, Krasnoselski is acting in exactly the opposite direction, seeking to deepen the cleavage between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The Transnistrian “president” claims that cooperation with Russia is needed, especially on the mil-mil dimension, in response to a so-called “Americanization” of the Republic of Moldova.
Such messages were voiced by Krasnoselski at a meeting with a delegation of Russian soldiers (May 2021). On the Russian side: Russia’s military attaché to Moldova, Andrei Pribatkov and the head of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, Dmitri Zelenkov. On the Transnistrian side, Krasnoselski was accompanied by the head of the presidential administration, Sergei Belous, the Minister of Defense, Oleg Obruchikov, and the presidential adviser Vitali Razgonov. All these names are important because they could provide a clue about the core of siloviki around Krasnoselski that imprints and maintains the harshness of pro-Russian geopolitical messages. In fact, the so-called Transnistrian state is undergoing a profound process of influence consolidation from the part of power structures, the army becoming – as Obruchikov declared in November 2021 – “a full member of the socio-cultural life of the state and a platform for the development of patriotic youth movements”.
In the same line of geopolitical revenge are to be read Krasnoselski’s statements on Transnistrian Army Day (September 2). The leader from Tiraspol accused the Republic of Moldova of “still not answering for the war crimes committed”, going even further by claiming that Chisinau “does not regret the genocide committed”. In these circumstances, Krasnoselski considers that the Transnistrian army is a fundamental pillar of the territorial integrity of the republic, especially given that the security situation remains volatile. Not only do such statements show that the so-called Transnistrian president has no intention of looking to the future without geopolitical biases, but also his public gestures are a clear indication in this respect – gests such as the congratulatory message to Igor Smirnov (the first Transnistrian “president”) on his 80th anniversary.
I mentioned earlier that the journalists from Kommersant blamed Maia Sandu for the lack of a vision regarding the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. Such an accusation can also be found in Krasnoselski’s public propaganda, either in interviews with the Russian or Tiraspol press, or in meetings with various Russian officials.
For example, the alleged leader of Tiraspol was in Moscow in November 2021, where he had meetings with officials from Russian institutions (e.g., Foreign Ministry, State Duma), but also at the level of major Russian political parties (e.g., United Russia, Just Russia). Among the public appearances (Russian authorities provided ample opportunities for Krasnoselski’s visibility), the Transnistrian “president” gave an interview to the Parliamentary Gazette.
Improperly said an interview (compared to the episode Maia Sandu vs. Kommersant), the dialogue focused almost exclusively on blaming the Republic of Moldova for the lack of vision on how to resolve the conflict and for blocking the 5 + 2 format. The request of Chisinau (and the USA) regarding the withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of the Republic of Moldova was also criticized. In Krasnoselski’s logic, these are a deterrent to a potential military aggression by Chisinau.
The blaming rhetoric against Chisinau continued at the most recent press conference with representatives of all media outlets in the Transnistrian region. In fact, there were no new elements compared to the previous statements of the so-called president: Chisinau was presented as responsible for the stagnation of the Transnistrian conflict settlement process, plus the classic accusations of a financial and a banking blockade against Tiraspol. Chisinau has also been accused of doing its utmost to prevent medical equipment and vaccines against COVID-19 from reaching Transnistria.
As can be seen – at least from the comparison of the public statements made in Chisinau and Tiraspol on the future of the Transnistrian settlement – there are no preconditions for a peaceful settlement in the near future.
Overall, Maia Sandu’s strategy is correct – the transformation of the Republic of Moldova into a pole of attractiveness for the “Transnistrians” – but, in reality, it is a vision almost impossible to be put in practice, especially given that Chisinau’s vision is opposed by a totally opposite one – Tiraspol’s (controlled by Russia).
What Chisinau can do at the moment is to focus on the internal developments, without losing sight of the Transnistrian region, from the perspective of both risks/ vulnerabilities and opportunities.
Unfortunately, the current regional context, marked by the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, is far from being a favorable one for Chisinau. In the worst-case scenario, Krasnoselski’s dream could come true and the Transnistrian region could become part of Russia.
The settlement of the Transnistrian conflict could be Putin’s legacy, especially if he decides to withdraw in 2024, and could take two forms: a) the federalization of the Republic of Moldova, with Transnistria permanently geopolitically linking Chisinau to Russia or b) a Novorossia that could incorporate the region led by Krasnoselski.
Regardless of the short-medium term developments, it is also important to pay attention to some references to Romania promoted by Krasnoselski. For example, in the above-mentioned interview with the Parliamentary Gazette, Krasnoselski pointed out that the West makes a mistake when talking about Transnistria, because “this is the name of the territory from the German-Romanian occupation of 1941-1944, the name being introduced in the political lexicon by the Romanian nationalist Alexis Nour, in 1915”.
Russian propaganda is well-known for the historical cherry-picking process meant to denigrate Romania. What is surprising about this episode is Krasnoselski’s error: Alexis Nour (1877-1939) was born in Bessarabia, and in this context, by calling him Romanian nationalist Krasnoselski only demonstrates the continuity of identity and values between the Republic of Moldova and Romania.