How do we reunite with the Transnistrian region?

Perspective of an PhD student in political studies at the University of Bucharest and German Marshall Fund expert

Laurențiu Pleșca, Agora.md, 16 January 2024

The entry into force of the new Customs Code of the Republic of Moldova on January 1, 2024 has provoked virulent reactions from the so-called authorities in Tiraspol. At last, we are also seeing fairness. Transnistrian companies must now pay customs duties into the budget of the Republic of Moldova, just like any other Moldovan company. It is important to point out that this Customs Code has been approved as early as 2021, and the consternation shown by Transnistrian leaders can be interpreted as a reaction to the new realities concerning trade and customs relations, but also the fact that they sense that measures will follow which will cut the leverage that the Transnistrian region has.

In response, Tiraspol has threatened to introduce customs duties for farmers in several villages in the Dubasari district who own agricultural land along the route between Rybnitsa and Tiraspol controlled by separatist forces. The authorities in Chisinau reacted promptly and announced their support to the targeted farmers if this threat materialised.

The self-proclaimed authorities on the left bank of the Dniester River are beginning to realise that, step by step, there will be further legal adjustments in the legislation of the Republic of Moldova that would homogenise the rights and obligations of individuals and legal entities on both banks of the Dniester. This is the new reality and there is no turning back. Next, the most pressing problem which, in fact, fuels the regime in Tiraspol, that of gas for electricity, will also be addressed.

Of course we are still vulnerable. An overnight reintegration is unlikely, just by locking the economy on the left bank in corpore. This is unlikely, given how prepared the state institutions and budget are now to reintegrate a region that has been separated for more than 30 years. Moscow is aware that Moldova’s greatest vulnerability is the Transnistrian region. It is precisely there that Russia will be pushing the hardest in the coming months, especially on the state security dimension.

Moreover, a dangerous dynamic has been observed since the beginning of the year. The Institute for the Study of War claims that it is Russia that will organise “false-flag” attacks in Transnistria to give the impression that Ukraine is carrying out sabotage actions on the separatist territory of the Republic of Moldova. All this to create the conditions to justify the opening of a new front. Surely, with the end of the war and Ukraine’s victory, the Transnistrian problem will be much easier to solve.

For the local elections, Russia has committed huge financial resources and tried to influence the Moldovan elections through methods such as illegal campaign financing, vote buying and disinformation campaigns. Of course, the stakes for the presidential elections are huge, and if we add to this the referendum on EU membership, Moscow will be fully involved and at speeds we have not seen before in plans to thwart the future of Chisinau.

The only viable solution: the “1+1” negotiating format

Today, 16 January, talks between the Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration, Oleg Serebrian, and the representative of the Transnistrian side, Vitali Ignatiev, started at the OSCE office in Tiraspol. Topics discussed include new amendments to the Customs Code, as well as issues related to neutral vehicle numbers and freedom of movement. But more importantly, it was explained to the Transnistrian side that equal rights for the two sides of the Dniester is the only option for Chisinau. This 1+1 dialogue is the only official channel of communication and the only viable option at the moment. It is obvious that the 5+2 initiative cannot produce significant results in the near future, given the current geopolitical climate. The two main mediators, Ukraine and Russia, are practically engaged in a state of war, while the third mediator, the OSCE, is facing an existential crisis – Russia’s role within the organisation.

Moldovan citizens must understand that everything depends on the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine. A Russian victory could lead to a much greater Russian presence in the region, which would have clear implications for Transnistria. In contrast, a Russian defeat could undermine the viability of independence and increase Transnistria’s dependence on Moldova and the EU.

The Transnistrian regime must ask itself what scenario it wants to follow. Reintegration in Moldova would offer some substantial benefits, given the fast approach to the European Union. In this sense, Moldova’s European integration process could serve as a catalyst for Transnistria’s reintegration. The two-step reintegration option is increasingly being discussed. However, it remains to be seen whether the Transnistrian regime is content to remain with the status quo or whether it intends to push further towards independence. For there is no other option on the negotiating table than ensuring equal conditions for both sides.

Photo: The Republic of Moldova and Transnistria (source: Bogdan Giușca, Wikipedia Commons)

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