Transnistrian separatist leaders don’t want to lose control of money and power

With the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Transnistrian issue has been brought back to the attention of global leaders. There is no doubt that without the integration of the breakaway region east of the Dniester, Moldova’s accession to the EU remains just a wish on paper. In this context, Sidonia Bogdan of PressHUB spoke to Angela Grămada, president of Experts for Security and Global Affairs Romania, an expert specialising in research on the former Soviet space, about how difficult this process is.

For the integration of Transnistria into Moldova to become possible, a political compromise between the leadership in Chisinau and Tiraspol would be needed. Realistically speaking, the Tiraspol leadership should be convinced by Maia Sandu’s team that it will not lose its economic and political advantages if it accepts integration. Could this be positive? How hard would it be for Transnistrians to give up the idea of living in a separatist region? Do Transnistrians see themselves as different from Moldovans? Do they have a different identity from Moldovans?

Angela Grămada: It won’t be easy, that’s a given. Residents of the eastern districts have “benefited” or rather have seen their political and civil rights and freedoms traded in exchange for certain economic facilities. I say certain, because their standard of living is not higher than on the right bank of the Dniester. On the contrary. But natural gas prices have been much lower for a long time, and the debt is extremely high.

With limited access to other types of benefits, some of them have overcome the concept of separatism, conformed and accepted a state of affairs, but have also tried to access opportunities offered by the constitutional authorities. No remorse for betraying their homeland, whatever it may be. Surely 30 years after the war in Transnistria we can argue that there are many differences between the two sides of the Dniester. And, let’s face it, considerable efforts have been made to create a different identity, primarily a political one, as the one in the eastern districts is still anchored in the Soviet past.

But if you want to get out of there, you can. The separatist regime is happy to remain loyal to Moscow, but also to take less responsibility for the well-being of the people of Transnistria. Perhaps only during so-called democratic exercises things change, because there is competition for resources and power there too.

Otherwise, business is done with everyone interested. Regardless of what economic model this so-called leadership chooses to promote, i.e. one in which private property is or is not respected.

Do you think that there might be resistance to change among the Transnistrian population in the scenario of full integration of the region into the Republic of Moldova? Will it be easy for them to see themselves as part of the same people?

The answer is on the surface and is in a much greater correlation than we realise with the political, social, economic and cultural identity that has been worked on over the last 30 years to convince the people on the left of the Dniester that they are different from those on the right. It will be difficult because the means that have been used to fuel this dichotomy have been many, and the constitutional authorities have not been able or willing to change the situation too much.

In addition, with a bad justice system, with macroeconomic indicators falling dramatically with each major crisis, energy or on the international financial markets, with a less attractive standard of living, Chisinau has not had the necessary props to make itself attractive.

On the other hand, the authorities in Chisinau have also negotiated benefits for the inhabitants of the left bank of the Dniester by signing the GSP+, without strategically communicating about it.

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

A personal observation is that this conflict is no longer high on the agenda of Moldovan citizens. There are other priorities that need more immediate attention. Moreover, political actors over time have also failed to provide consistency in their approaches to conflict resolution, subliminally suggesting that the current status quo is acceptable in the absence of an optimal solution.

But no one has worked towards that optimal solution. All those who have tried to come up with proposals have not been transparent and have rather traded on political objectives, consciously neglecting national interests. Hence the people’s resistance to the talk of Transnistria and tacit acceptance that perhaps nothing more can be done to bring them closer.

How do you see this conflict resolved? What are the most important obstacles to its resolution?

It requires ownership, courage and internal political will, first and foremost in Chisinau. We need to bring back elements that were intentionally forgotten, to put them in a new perspective of analysis, with an insistence on the transparency of the decisions taken that are not known to the public.

It is important to objectively analyse the impact on the various social issues in the region, in order to identify not only the sources of human rights violations, but also to punish them – an objective that is quite difficult to achieve if there is a lack of political will and consensus in Chisinau.

There is a need to avoid sterile discussions about what neutrality is, but rather to accept the presentation of the elements that it comprises so as not to prejudice its de jure meaning, as laid down in the Constitution.

What does neutrality mean de jure, what exactly are you referring to?

Most of the governments in Chisinau have interpreted it in the sense of non-alignment, which also brings minimal investment in the country’s defence and security system.

But if we start looking at models that are not too far away geographically, we see that neutrality does not mean that the state does not act in the sense of designing strategies for national security. Much has been said in recent months about the Austrian and Swiss models. The Swedish and Finnish models no longer seem to be relevant, because these countries have a new perspective on their own security needs.

But in addition, there is still a need not only for an international context, but also for a solution that represents the interests of all parties affected or potentially affected, i.e. by rebound.

In the current geopolitical context, we can of course refer here to Ukraine first and foremost, but also to Romania, which only has sufficient capacity to influence the discussions as a member of the European Union, which also has observer status.

Probably, as in the case of Ukraine, there will be an insistence on certain guarantees that the international community can and must offer, which will leave out the part of the trade-off between Moldova’s national interests. Moreover, there is a need to avoid scenarios in which Transnistria could become a precedent for other areas with similar problems.

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

Russia has no interest in recognising Transnistria’s independence because it would lose an instrument of pressure on the decision-making process in Chisinau. At the same time, however, the war in Ukraine is considerably changing the perspective on the conflict negotiation format in Moldova’s eastern districts.

Ukraine will insist even more on this, because it will not allow Russia, which it considers an aggressor state, to be the main decision-maker over its security. Russia, whichever way you look at it, will lose a lot in this war.

Since Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have 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?

Separately will be more difficult. This is why the strategy of adopting joint declarations, either at the level of parliaments or at the level of country leaders, has been pursued. The cohesion of territorial integrity interests puts more pressure on the aggressor and compels him to adopt a certain attitude. To act, even by using weapons. But as we see in the case of Ukraine, the insistence on certain processes of integration into regional or international cooperation formats has revealed Moscow’s real intentions, showing not only Kiev but also the West why it is not good to support projects that diminish your ability to make internal decisions independent of foreign interests.

How difficult is a Chisinau-Tiraspol political agreement for the Tiraspol leadership to agree to the integration of Transnistria into Moldova?

It is very difficult. Can you imagine how difficult, and frustrating at the same time, it might be for separatist leaders in Tiraspol to lose control of financial flows and control of power, even in a region with as little economic potential as Transnistria?

Moreover, in the event of reintegration, many of the separatist leaders will be called to account for their illegal actions, undermining sovereignty, territorial integrity, violation of human rights. I do not believe that they are willing to give up their own freedom to become “messengers” of reintegration.

How could the leadership in Chisinau convince Victor Gushan, probably the most powerful figure in Transnistria, that it would be to his advantage if he accepted integration into the mother state?

Here things are both simple and complex. From the war in Ukraine and regional instability, the Tiraspol regime loses and Victor Gushan loses. Following reintegration, the same may happen, because this character has supported separatism.

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

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