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An Ideal Conflict on the Dniester

Twenty five years after the end of the war, a resolution to the frozen conflict over Transnistria seems no closer; this situation suits plenty of people at the top just fine. From openDemocracy. by Vladimir Soloviev 24 July 2017

On 21 July 1992, the armed conflict in Transnistria came to an end. A Russian peacekeeping mission was introduced to this self-declared republic on the east bank of the Dniester river, internationally recognized as Moldovan territory. After a quarter of a century, Chisinau and Tiraspol still haven’t agreed on a final settlement to the conflict. Nevertheless, both Moldova and breakaway Transnistria often interact with each other as though they were still one state.

 

The war along the Dniester river, the bloodiest moment of which occurred in June 1992, ended with the signing of the “Agreement on the principles of a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in the Transnistrian region.” The agreement was signed by the then presidents of Moldova and Russia, Mircea Snegur and Boris Yeltsin, in the presence of Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov.

 

This document launched a peacekeeping operation on the banks of the Dniester that continues to this very day. Contingents from Moldova, Russia and unrecognized Transnistria all participate in it. As a result, the operation is frequently referred to as “unique” — soldiers who had formerly fought one another now man the same roadblocks, sporting the same blue helmets.

 

From Transnistria’s perspective, the peacekeeping operation was important for another reason. It kept the conflict ticking over, albeit frozen, allowing the territory’s elites to rebuild working institutions of state and effective power structures, including an army and security services.

 

These days, the ongoing negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol are carried out in the spirit of a civilized, but final, divorce with Moldova. It’s worth pointing out that the very formula of a “civilized divorce” was the brainchild of Evgeny Shevchuk, who ruled Transnistria from 2011 to 2016. In a stroke of irony, he and his wife Nina Shevchuk (neé Shtanski, she served as the territory’s de-facto minister of foreign affairs) now comfortably and peacefully live in Moldova, a state which both had routinely criticized in the strongest possible terms. 

 

The kind of transformation undertaken by Shevchuk would surprise only those who know little about the often-overlooked Transnistria dispute. Barely a day or two had passed after the conflict came to an end before participants on all sides returned to visit each other’s houses as welcome guests.

 

A Frozen Settlement

 

Twenty-five years have passed since the end of the war, but Moldova and Transnistria seem no closer to a political settlement to the conflict. Both sides are conducting drawn-out negotiations under the 5+2 format (in which Moldova and Transnistria are recognized the conflicting parties, the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine as mediators, and the EU and U.S. as observers), in which they generally discuss economic and humanitarian issues. So far negotiators haven’t even pressed the key matter: whether Transnistria will be included in a united Moldova.

 

The position of the conflicting parties is as follows. Moldova stands for the full restoration of its territorial integrity. Chisinau’s approach is shared by all mediators and observers, including Russia. Although Moscow supports Transnistria economically and politically, it does recognize that a settlement to the conflict can only be achieved through negotiations, which would result in Transnistria receiving some special political status.

 

The War and Glory memorial in Tiraspol. Image via Erik Torner/Flickr Commons.

 

What exactly that status should be has also not been established. Officially, Chisinau doesn’t even have a concrete answer. The Moldovan government promises that this year, it will finally finish developing its approach to resolving the conflict. That is to say, some 25 years after the end of the war in Moldova, Chisinau will finally have some view of how to settle matters.

 

However, against the backdrop of a bickering and undecided government, Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon appears to have taken a determined and strong stance for the return of Transnistria to Moldovan jurisdiction.

 

This position has already caused a rift between Dodon and Transnistria’s new leader Vadim Krasnoselsky. The fact remains that Tiraspol is the only participant that insists that negotiations must end with the recognition of Transnistria’s independence. Krasnoselsky stresses that at every available opportunity. In June, he even took the opportunity to say so on British soil, after an invitation to speak from the Oxford Union. The Transnistrian authorities also speak of the unrecognized republic eventually becoming part of Russia, on the basis that over 90 percent of the territory’s residents voted for such a move in a 2006 referendum.

 

Moscow prefers not to recognize Tiraspol’s dream of annexation. But negotiations for a settlement to the conflict stand still. Their dynamic can be summed up with one simple fact: since the beginning of this year, not one summit for negotiations in the 5+2 format has been held. Russia and Tiraspol have called for another round of negotiations on several occasions, but Austria, which presides over the OSCE this year, is categorically against. Vienna believes that negotiations should not be held for their own sake, insisting that they must end with concrete agreements. And that’s a result nobody can guarantee. 

 

Separate, but Together

 

If you ignore the rhetoric of Moldovan and Transnistrian politicians, their attacks on one another, you realize that Moldova and Transnistria have far more in common than you might expect at first glance.

 

The geopolitical divergence between the two — Chisinau is covered in EU flags, Tiraspol - the Russian tri-colored flag — doesn’t prevent either side from finding points of common interest, particularly when it comes to business.

 

The most scandalous example is energy. Right-bank Moldova and Transnistria both use Russian gas. Tiraspol, however, doesn’t pay its debts to Gazprom, and, given that Transnistria remains just another Moldovan district for Russia, Moscow views the debt that forms as a result as belonging to Moldova. The size of the debt has long tipped over the $6 billion mark, and 90 percent of this is down to Transnistria.

 

A no less interesting situation has emerged with electricity production. Chisinau buys it from the Cuciurgan power plant, which is in Transnistrian territory, and thus provides a much-needed source of currency for Transnistria to survive. Under Evgeny Shevchuk, Transnistria began selling Chisinau electricity via intermediaries. This opaque scheme of delivery quickly attracted the attention of the media and experts, who connected the middlemen to Shevchuk and Vladimir Plahotniuc, the influential oligarch and leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova.

 

This might explain why Shevchuk recently fled to Moldova (and not anywhere else) when the Transnistrian authorities opened a criminal investigation into corruption, contraband and abuse of power against him. Here, the ex-president of Transnistria lives in an elite apartment block in the centre of Chisinau (where a flat will cost you 1,300 euros, or around $1,510, per square metre) and is driven around town in a luxury red Mercedes together with his bodyguards. It’s hard to imagine this kind of scene in other countries locked in “frozen” conflicts across the post-Soviet space.

 

There are other examples that show how Moldova and Transnistria are actually cooperating with one another effectively, and without problems. Trade is one such sphere. Tiraspol trades with the outside world, including the EU, via Chisinau: Transnistrian producers get their goods certified in Moldova, and register them in Moldovan customs offices. Indeed, since 2016, the Association and Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Moldova has basically been in effect in Transnistria.

 

There are more than 300,000 Moldovan passport holders on the left bank of the Dniester, and this number is constantly rising, given that Moldova entered into a visa-free regime with the EU in 2014. Even Transnistrian public officials take Moldovan citizenship. Transnistrian athletes participate in international competitions under the Moldovan flag, and are members of the national team. Tiraspol’s football club, Sherif, has won the Moldovan league several times over. For landlines and mobile, Transnistria uses the Moldovan international telephone code.

 

Recently, Chisinau took another important step in Transnistria’s direction. On 17 July, the first joint Moldovan-Ukrainian border and customs post opened at the international border crossing at Cuciurgan-Pervomaisk. At the same time, with Kyiv’s help, Moldova has launched the process of establishing control over the Transnistrian section of the border with Ukraine, which has been out of its control for 25 years. Now, Moldova plans to open 13 border and customs posts — five international and eight intergovernmental.

 

The many years of the Transnistrian conflict have shown that Chisinau and Tiraspol have completely adapted to co-existing in the status quo. And elite groups on both sides of the Dniester have even learned how to extract mutual benefit from the situation.

Vladimir Soloviev is founder and editor-in-chief of Newsmaker. He is also Moldova correspondent for KommersantThis article originally appeared on openDemocracy.org.

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