Catch-22 in Moldova: Maia Sandu and the Transnistrian question6 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics
Most people outside of Eastern Europe and Russia have never heard of the Transnistrian frozen conflict, yet the future outcome of this strife will have repercussions for the whole of Europe. Moreover, the apparent inextricable nature of the conflict illustrates well how complicated things can get in international relations when different actors want different things. 

Transnistria or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a thin strip of land located between Moldova and Ukraine, home to approximately 470 000 people. A de facto state; lacking international recognition, the territory exists in diplomatic limbo, a continual source of tension and conflict since it broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s following a two-year physical confrontation aided in part by Russian intervention. Today, more than thirty years later, the Transnistrian conflict remains frozen, neither active nor resolved. The region’s de facto independence has put Moldova’s new president in an impossible situation that seems to have no possible outcome.

Transnistria – a nation in the making?

Since its de facto independence Transnistria has continuously and actively developed its institutions, as well as the feeling of nationalism of its population. This implies that Transnistria has had time to grow a solid base to its nation and state-building process and therefore developed a strong sense of internal legitimacy without obtaining the normally corresponding external legitimacy (putting the country in a delicate position). Unrecognized Transnistria now operates politically with a presidential system and owes the development of its state structures to the support it received from Russia.

Both the direct confrontation between Transnistria and Moldova and the subsequent long-term frozen conflict have received little international consideration, being lost amidst larger regional crises following the collapse of the USSR. The only international actor who got involved in the conflict was the OSCE. Therefore, outside of its regional context, Transnistria has not received much attention and is not as well-known as other post-Soviet conflicts, nor has there been much pressure or assistance in resolving the conflict. Consequently, the regional entity has been nicknamed ‘the black hole’.

The election of a pro-EU president

Currently, the most concerned by this deadlock is Maia Sandu – Moldova’s president since 24 December 2020. Sandu’s party, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) is axed around a centre-right, liberal, pro-EU ideology. Regarding Transnistria, Sandu said in an interview with the German news outlet DW, that ‘Transnistria is part of the Republic of Moldova; the people there are our citizens’ and ‘We will do whatever it takes to bring these people together’. Her stance on Transnistria is hence straightforward, as she does not consider any form of independence possible for Transnistria.

This optimistic and action-driven narrative is hindered by reality; Moldova’s president and her party are deeply pro-EU whereas Transnistria’s presidents have consistently been pro-Russia. Furthermore, this ideological dichotomy between Transnistria and Moldova extends to the population. Academic research has uncovered that Transnistrians identify mostly with the Russian world and trust Russia more than the EU. Seeing that Sandu’s pro-EU campaign got her elected with 57.75% of the votes, it is safe to claim that most Moldovans are now in favour of furthering European integration.

Why Transnistria is a brainteaser for Moldova

This reality puts Sandu in a complicated position on different levels. Firstly, Transnistria undermines Moldova’s candidacy to the EU, as the EU has been very critical of Transnistria, imposing restrictive sanctions on some of its leaders. Furthermore, if Moldova would become an EU-member, Transnistria would directly border the EU, which would undermine the EU’s external borders, owing to the de facto state’s greyness in international law. This reality implies that Moldova cannot be considered as a serious candidate until this territorial dispute is resolved. 

For Moldova, resolving the Transnistrian question practically implies the full reintegration of the territory to Moldova. However, this also puts Sandu in a difficult position, since Moldova has no bargaining power on Transnistria and no means to coerce the region by force. Moldova is not economically or socially better off than Transnistria, and by getting closer to Moldova, Transnistria would also undermine its beneficial relationship with Russia. Therefore, if Moldova and Transnistria were to negotiate the status of the region, Transnistria would have more bargaining power than Moldova. This implies that if Sandu wants to break the Transnistrian deadlock, she may have to give up some of her beliefs, such as her pro-EU stance.

Transnistria – a pawn in regional politics?

Since the beginning of its de facto existence, Russia has been involved in Transnistria. This has strained Moldova’s relationship with Russia and its involvement has further reinforced the Transnistrian deadlock. Even when Igor Dodon – Sandu’s pro-Russian predecessor – was in power, the Transnistrian question remained extremely sensitive. Thus, when in December, Sandu explicitly claimed her desire to pull Russian troops out of Transnistria, it might have worsened the situation. The absence of Russian troops is not something Transnistria desires, and Sandu’s claim could hinder Transnistria’s motivation to cooperate with Moldova. Moreover, this desire also further hinders Russian-Moldovan relations, which in turn is detrimental to finding a solution for the Transnistrian conflict. Furthermore, if Moldova’s relations with Russia deteriorate further, the country’s need to grow closer to the EU will increase. Yet, the EU won’t consider membership or even a strong partnership with Moldova until it resolves the Transnistrian question (and it needs Russia to accomplish this).

Russia is, hence, for Moldova an essential player in the Transnistrian game. However, Transnistria is, in itself, a pawn in Russia’s regional hegemonic game. Scholars and experts have questioned and analyzed what exactly is Russia’s modus operandi in its quest to strengthen its hegemonic position within the post-Soviet sphere. Supporting Transnistria, according to experts,  is an effective way for Russia to get closer to Europe’s sphere of influence. If this perspective reflects the truth, Russia who refused to co-operate with Dodon has no reason to undermine its personal hegemonic-motivated plans in Transnistria for pro-EU Maia Sandu. Therefore, it remains to be seen how Sandu will balance diplomacy and persuasion with Russia.

An impossible situation for Moldova

Sandu is thus left in a doubly impossible situation. Firstly, to reintegrate Transnistria into Moldova, Moldova needs to counter Russia’s influence, yet countering Russia’s influence undermines Transnistria’s already limited desire to cooperate with Moldova. And secondly, for Moldova to integrate the European Union, Sandu needs to normalize the Transnistrian situation, yet normalizing the Transnistrian situation would pull her away from the EU. For Moldova, the possibility to acknowledge Transnistria’s independence remains inconceivable as it would be detrimental to the country’s international credibility and be a source of national shame. 

The Transnistrian situation, despite its lack of international attention, is therefore actually as intricate as it is important. The current status quo will not stay in place forever, and despite the appearance that Moldova is tied down by the complexity of the conflict, a diplomatic solution must be somehow found to avoid any escalation of the conflict.

Featured image: Maia Sandu’s choice / Amanda Sonesson
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