Of all conflicts in the post-Soviet space, the Transnistria conflict is the easiest to resolve

Saint George Chapel is across the street from the Supreme Council, the Transnistria parliament building at Tiraspol.

The war in Ukraine has brought the Transnistrian conflict back into the public spotlight, especially in the context of Moldova’s official application for EU membership. Without a solution to this conflict, Moldova’s chance of European integration remains a utopia. How difficult could it be to resolve? Sidonia Bogdan asks Stefan Morar, a political science researcher at the University of Montreal who spent three years studying Transnistrian public administration.

What does Transnistrian identity mean?

Ștefan Morar: When we talk about Transnistrians, we refer primarily to the population composed of Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians in the proportion of about one third each, living on the left bank of the Dniester and citizens of the (de facto) Transnistrian state.

The Transnistrian identity built around the Russian language was referred to as such in Report No 13 of the CSCE (OSCE) Mission to Moldova in 1993. It stated that the population on the left bank of the Dniester has developed a sense of its own identity, shared by both Slavs and Moldovans. Numerous other serious studies also show the mechanisms by which Transnistrian identity has been developed and instrumentalised by the authorities on the left bank of the Dniester.

Thus, for Transnistrians, the term separatist region is nonsense. This is primarily because of the pejorative connotation that the term has acquired in Chisinau, but also because the authorities in Tiraspol have been able to offer citizens all the benefits of a viable state, as far as possible.

After all, the unrecognised republic has control over a territory, a permanent population, a government (with administrative capacity, social protection, tax collection, etc.) and even (limited) capacity to enter into relations with other states.

As the results of the 2006 referendum showed, the majority of citizens wanted to separate from Moldova and join the Russian Federation. The percentages have probably changed recently, but the trend remains the same. The Transnistrian mental universe is strongly anchored in the Russian world, Russkiy Mir.

The only valid option to give up the idea of living in an unrecognized state would be to implement the result of the independence referendum, i.e. international recognition and joining the Russian Federation. Because of international non-recognition, the de facto state lacks external legitimacy.

How difficult could it be for Transnistrians to be reintegrated into Moldova?

There are several possibilities in the scenario of the reintegration of the Transnistrian region, depending on the form it takes. If the form is one agreed with the Tiraspol authorities, resistance will be low or limited.

After all, many Transnistrians work on the right bank of the Dniester and are integrated into Moldova. On top of that, a strong indicator is also the rather large vote given for Maia Sandu in the last presidential elections, as well as the large number of Moldovan passports and driving licenses.

However, if the form of reintegration is not agreed with Tiraspol, resistance to change will increase. Political tension will rise, anti-Moldovan discourse will intensify and the risk of social unrest will be very high. Many Russians regard ethnic Moldovas as still socially unemancipated and thus inferior. They also have a special word with which they classify them – “bardak”. The bardaks were the lowest peasant class during the Tsarist Empire. They were peasants who had no land and generally worked for the peasants of the upper classes.

As far as the people are concerned, thirty years of state and nation building in Transnistria make cohabitation in a nation state almost impossible. That is why a consociational power-sharing formula will be needed.

This is one of many memorials and plaques in the city of Bender conmemorating a victim who fell at this place during of the battle for the city, the bloodiest episode of 1992 war between Moldovan and Transnistrian forces. Memory of 1992, together with the Great Patriotic War, plays a key role in the distinct Transnistrian identity. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

And the other way around? How do Moldovans view Transnistrians, as their fellow countrymen or not?

Surprisingly, Moldovans on the right bank of the Dniester are very sceptical about the Transnistrians’ regional identity. However, Transnistrians have been exposed to a different value system, different state practices and different political dynamics for 30 years. At the same time, the image of Moldovans on the right bank of the Transnistrians is a sum of contradictions. It ranges from “separatists” to “our Moldovans” depending on political and social concerns.

In times of major political and social tension, they are seen as separatists, Russophones, Russophiles, etc. But we should not forget that in recent years, Vladimir Putin has been the political figure with the highest confidence rating in the Republic of Moldova, somewhere around 70%.

Therefore, the image that Moldovans project on Transnistrians is heterogeneous and dynamic. There is no concrete image, especially as Moldovans on the right bank are generally not interested in Transnistria and Transnistrians.

How could this conflict be resolved?

It must be said from the outset that over the last 30 years there have existed, and still exist, internal and external factors that have prevented and continue to prevent a viable resolution of this conflict.

Both sides want peace, but according to their own rules.

As a protracted conflict, expectations of a quick resolution have diminished considerably and the actors involved are looking for small and short-term gains.

In order to see the resolution of the conflict we also need to understand its roots. Unlike other separatist conflicts in the post-Soviet space, the Transnistrian conflict has lacked the ethnic factor. The territorial separation was politically motivated. This is why many authors agree that this would be the easiest post-Soviet conflict to resolve.

At the same time, politicians on both sides have profited from the status quo for 30 years, and certain circles of interest prefer to prolong this state of affairs indefinitely. And this would be the most important obstacle to resolving the conflict.

A second would be the 5+2 international negotiating format, which has often proved its limitations, its syncopations and its ineffectiveness in resolving the conflict. Small steps have been made towards transforming the conflict, but a solution is highly unlikely through 5+2, where Russia and Ukraine must sit at the same table as mediators.

Thirdly, the form of resolution is a major stumbling block. The 1993 CSCE (OSCE) Report 13 said that neither a unitary state nor a confederation would work in Moldova. This was also seen in the failure of the Kozak memorandum in 2003, which built sensitivity to any federalisation plan into the collective mind.

Moldovans seem to prefer the status quo to any form of federalisation, which is also visible in the fact that resolving the Transnistrian conflict is among the last priorities of citizens in most opinion polls.

Another major stumbling block is the failure of the Meseberg Memorandum, which supported the creation of an institutional dialogue at foreign minister level between the EU and Russia to resolve the Transnistrian conflict.

Last but not least, the low capacity for compromise of politicians on both sides of the Dniester is also a stumbling block. Resolving the conflict requires concessions from both sides, but this is a major risk for the politicians involved. So they prefer a zero-sum game, where one side has to win everything and the other side has to lose everything. Or that is in no way beneficial to anyone.

Another stumbling block is the low capacity of the EU to resolve the conflict, which either does not have the necessary tools for such an approach or does not have the effective power to change the perception of politicians in Chisinau towards a new approach.

Thus, conflict resolution seems increasingly difficult and we need to start thinking more and more about conflict transformation. This requires a very long period of time, during which the banks of the Dniester gradually come closer together, until eventual re-integration. But until then it will take many years, political will and institutional capacity, as well as a favourable geopolitical climate.

One of Moldova-Transnistria border crossings: unofficial, yet existing in reality. Hundreds of citizens cross them every day, as there are communications between Moldova and Transnistria and the two societies are not separated.

Is the Russian-Ukrainian war a favourable context for resolving this conflict or the opposite? Would the Russian Federation be willing to lose on several fronts?

Ukraine war is a real window of opportunity for resolving the Transnistrian conflict. However, three months into the war, no steps have yet been taken. The problem is that neither side is willing to accept the other’s terms, nor does it have a serious plan to resolve the conflict. It prefers the inertia induced by regional and international geopolitical movements.

Neither side is willing to take the first step of offering a vision, a strategy, a serious action plan to open bilateral negotiations.

However, it should be noted that the informal talks between Chisinau and Tiraspol have resulted in a fairly calm political climate. Although there have been tensions induced by some Russian false-flag operations, Transnistria has remained militarily stable. The Russian Federation has so far shown no signs of using Transnistria in the war against Ukraine. Nor has it recognised it, as it has done with other de facto states in the post-Soviet space.

The question arises, what does conflict resolution actually mean? Because it can take many forms.

If settlement means reintegration, the question will be in what form? In the form of a federation, a confederation or a special status for Transnistria.

If settlement means disintegration, then it means that the Republic of Moldova will have to recognise Transnistria’s independence, which is unimaginable for the moment for the administration in Chisinau. Either way, Russia does not lose. As we saw with the Kozak memorandum, in any reintegration constellation, Transnistria will have to be given a veto over Chisinau’s foreign policy. And that is only to Moscow’s benefit. The Russian Federation would probably have more to lose if Chisinau gave up Transnistria, as it would no longer be able to control Moldova and Transnistria would become just an enclave between two pro-European states.

Since Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia all applied to join the EU at the same time, and all have unresolved conflicts with Russia, do you think they could be resolved together, “as a package”, or will each state seek to negotiate separately with the Russian Federation?

There is no other way than a package solution, but taking into account the specifics of each conflict. They are very different from each other, although all have the Russian Federation/Soviet Union as their source. The format of conflict resolution should be international, between the EU/US and Russia and the affected states, under the coordination of an international organisation.

In any case, EU candidacy is by no means accession. Turkey was granted candidate status at the Helsinki Summit in 1999, after applying in 1987, but is still far from membership.

So for the three post-Soviet states we can expect a fairly long period of time to see them full members of the European Union. This also gives a considerable time horizon to imagine some kind of conflict resolution scheme on their territories.

The text was first published in Romanian by PressHUB. It is republished on the basis of an agreement between PressHUB and Cross-Border Talks.

Cover photo: Transnistria parliament, or the Supreme Council, in the self-proclaimed capital, Tiraspol.

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