An unlikely silver lining for conflict resolution in Moldova6 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics, War in Ukraine
Moldovans are keeping a careful eye on the developments next door as Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on. Since the large-scale invasion was launched in February of this year, political commentators were quick to point out the existential insecurity Moldova faces. Most experts agree that Moldova’s resistance would not be strong enough to hold off Russian forces, and the relations with Transnistria – previously considered a ‘frozen conflict’ – are again a major security threat. 

As Russian troops failed to accomplish their initial strategic goals and were forced to retreat out of large areas of northern and northeastern Ukraine, Moldovans took a short breath of relief. Nevertheless, the risk is omnipresent: Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko clumsily revealed that the Kremlin at least considers an offense in Transnistria in March, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in June that a “second Ukraine” will be made out of Moldova amidst tensions between the autonomous region of Găgăuzia and the central government in Chișinău. Things are looking bleak, but there might be a silver lining. 

The situation in Moldova

The topic of conflict resolution is complex in Moldova. It’s been thirty years since the Transnistrian war; Transnistrian territories have never been under the control of an independent Moldova and all attempts at a resolution over the past three decades have failed. The status quo has become second nature, and much of the population seems content with it. Nevertheless, there are significant differences now compared to 30 years ago, and these shifts could well put conflict resolution back on the agenda.

Improved Relations with the EU

Since Moldovan independence from the Soviet Union, the country has slowly shifted westward. Currently, 70% of Moldovan exports go toward the EU and more than twice as much money in remittances comes from the EU than from Russia. This is due to the increased westward migration of Moldovans and relatively higher wages in the EU. Many Moldovans work or study in Europe, or even take on European (especially Romanian) citizenship. This Western influence is strongly felt in domestic politics, recently giving pro-European forces the upper hand. Not only has Moldova profited from better relations with the EU, but a majority of Transnistrian trade is also with the EU since Moldova signed the DCFTA. Similarly, Transnistrian residents benefit from Western remittances, European-funded projects, vaccines, development aid, and visa-free travel to the EU with Moldovan passports. 

Normalization of Relations between Сhișinău and Tiraspol

Despite the war in 1992, relations between the citizens and governments of Moldova and Transnistria are not as hostile as one might think. Free movement between the regions is generally unproblematic, many people have family on either side, and Transnistrians have easy access to Moldovan citizenship. Former Moldovan President Dodon met with Transnistrian president Krasnoselskyy on several occasions. Since the pro-EU Maia Sandu took office in Moldova, Krasnoselskyy asked Moldova to appoint a new representative to resume negotiations. Since February, suspicious violent activities have taken place in Transnistria – including bomb threats, a blast in southern Transnistria, and an explosion in a government office. Yet despite this, the two sides still seem committed to de-escalation and trusting in non-engagement. 

Radicalization of Russian foreign policy

Not only has Moldova had increasingly positive incentives to turn westward, but Russia’s authoritarian and imperialist policies have also made looking the other way less and less popular. Russia has long practiced an abusive foreign policy towards Moldova, with Moscow’s tactics including gas price hikes, artificially increasing Moldovan debt, and other threats made to influence domestic politics. Despite promises over the years, Russia still has not removed its troops stationed in Transnistria. Now, Moldovans don’t trust the Kremlin not to use these troops and others to invade the country as they did in Ukraine. Transnistrian elites, with particularly close business ties to Ukraine, are also wary of the war spreading and do not want to fight. In Transnistria, certain defiance against Russia is developing for the first time: Tiraspol police have not aggressively prohibited anti-war protests, news about the war is not as controlled as in Russia, and Krasnoselskyy was photographed helping Ukrainian refugees. Transnistria is showing a stark contrast to its patron state.

Lack of Russian control over Transnistria

One other major factor could positively affect conflict resolution. The Transnistrian monopoly, Sheriff, has essentially consolidated all economic and political power in the de facto state. Due to Sheriff’s dependence on Moldova, as all exports must pass Moldovan border control, there is little incentive to allow Moscow to drive a wedge between Chișinău and Tiraspol. The ‘Russian troops’ stationed in Transnistria are under Russian command, but the unit is mostly made up of locals with Russian passports – there are doubts that they would obey Russian orders to attack Moldova, and Transnistrian officials have reiterated that they pose no threat. Moscow is losing its grip on all of Moldova, Transnistria included.

Moscow losing its grip

European integration has decreased Russian economic leverage in Moldova, and the Kremlin has made itself unpopular in the region with its aggressive foreign policy. Russian propaganda has even lost some of its ability to incite hate between Moldova and Transnistria as they have successfully normalized relations, particularly in the last decade. Furthermore, Transnistria’s local oligarchy has more political influence than many Russian officials. As it seems, Gazprom is one of the last carriers of genuine Russian leverage both in Moldova and Transnistria – something Moldova is ready to combat.

Due to the atrocities in Ukraine, Moldova’s government feels emboldened to take action in leaving Russian influence behind once and for all. Moldova is now an official EU-candidate state, and the country banned certain imagery tied closely to the Russian army. The EU candidacy outraged the Kremlin, but Transnistria has remained remarkably quiet in its critique of Moldova. While Moscow is so focused on Ukraine, even Transnistria has acted defiantly toward its patron, though more subdued than in Moldova. 

Future of Inner-Moldovan Relations

For some, conflict resolution in Moldova means unification of territory or recognition of Transnistrian independence. Both scenarios remain unlikely for now. Nevertheless, the Russian-induced chaos in the region has created freedom for Moldova to increase trust-building measures and cooperation without the interference of Moscow. This is good for Moldova because it means Transnistria has lost significant leverage in negotiations. Moldova’s bold political moves show that it recognizes this moment of opportunity; Chișinău recently blocked entrance for Russian military servicemen. 

Together, these factors could result in new agreements on bilateral security, economic, and political relations. In the best-case scenario, there may be an agreement on removing the Russian commando of ‘peacekeepers’ in Transnistria, a normalization and stabilization of relations, and the continuation of negotiations without Russia. Tensions are high, and an expansion of the Russian war to Moldova still cannot be definitively ruled out. But authorities on both sides of the Dniester have remained calm, giving hope to further positive diplomatic engagement. 

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