Moldovan lessons for the Ukraine conflict

Relations between Moldova and Transnistria seem to be losing some of their traditional hostility. But, if Russia is in a hurry to achieve a public relations victory in Moldova, Chisinau will find it difficult to make progress in talks with the Transnistrian authorities.

fficial visit of the President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu to Kyiv, January 12, 2021. Meeting with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi

While tensions rise over Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the diplomatic atmosphere is showing signs of improvement in another long-standing post-Soviet problem area: the unrecognised ‘republic’ of Transnistria in Moldova. At the very least, relations between Moldova and the Transnistrian authorities seem to be losing some of their traditional hostility. Moldova initially resisted Russian pressure to link Transnistria to other issues in difficult negotiations over gas prices last autumn. And it is far from clear that it achieved this. Moldova paid its December gas bill, but gas prices went up by 17.5 per cent in January – forcing Moldovagaz, the national energy firm, to ask for an extension on its repayments. Another small-scale energy crisis is on the cards.

But, on 12 December, Transnistria’s de facto president, Vadim Krasnoselsky, was elected to a second term with 79 per cent of the vote. He followed up his victory with a letter to Moldovan President Maia Sandu proposing negotiations in the 5+2 format (comprising Moldova, the Transnistrian authorities, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with the European Union and the United States as observers). He also published a commentary pledging to “intensify our bilateral dialogue at the highest political level for an early settlement of the entire range of accumulated problems”.

Krasnoselsky’s publication of the letter and claim of equal status between Transnistria and Moldova irritated the government in Chisinau, which was unsure whether the initiative resulted from Russian pressure. The government’s suspicions were heightened by talks in Vienna on 29 December between Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at which he expressed Moscow’s interest in “boosting this dialogue”. Russia recently tabled proposals on weapons stored at the Cobasna ammunition depot in northern Transnistria, one of the largest in eastern Europe. But it is unclear whether Russia plans to destroy the weapons there or move them elsewhere. And Russian military exercises in December included Transnistria (Moldova itself has only a small military).

On 19 January 2022, Chisinau appointed Oleg Serebrian – a former ambassador to France and Germany – as the new deputy prime minister for reintegration, a post that had been vacant since November. Chisinau is wary of Russia’s aims but, of course, wants to talk with the Transnistrian authorities. It will not pass up an opportunity to make progress on such a long-standing problem. Nonetheless, that means returning to the same issues the sides have discussed since the 1990s, such as freedom of movement and access to farmland. The bilateral relationship may have improved a little, but it could change for the worse at any time.

Moldova does not want a quick solution to the dispute but a more sustainable process that involves its international partners and Moldovan civil society

Russia is still showing every sign of hostility towards Sandu’s reformist government. Chisinau needs to coordinate with its international partners on the talks and communicate with the public in line with this. But, with the international community focused on the Russia-Ukraine confrontation, Moldova’s partners may be distracted. Its negotiations with the Transnistrian authorities will take time, as will their efforts to harmonise legislation. Moldova does not want a quick solution to the dispute but a more sustainable process that involves its international partners and Moldovan civil society. If the Russians and the Transnistrians are in a hurry to achieve a public relations victory, the talks may become bogged down in bureaucratic details.

Why now? Sandu has a majority in parliament – something that her predecessor, Igor Dodon, always lacked. In theory, she could implement a deal that resulted from the talks. But she may need to save her political capital for domestic reforms. There is also a ‘Nixon in China’ principle at play: the Moldovan centre-right is more capable of implementing a deal than Dodon’s pro-Russian Socialist Party was. A sceptic might conclude that Russia seeks to split Sandu’s party and derail its reform agenda – or waste valuable time and divert its attention away from that agenda.

The EU, the US, and the United Kingdom should support the negotiations between Chisinau and the Transnistrian authorities. But, as with their approach to Kyiv on the Donbas conflict, they should be wary of pressuring Chisinau to do more on Transnistria – as this could leave it with less time and fewer resources to devote to domestic reform.

It is also possible that Russia aims to create a visible contrast between Moldova and Ukraine. The Kremlin may want to demonstrate that Moldova’s neutrality allows it to achieve the type of progress over Transnistria that eludes Ukraine over Donbas. This would purportedly show a positive side to Russia’s anti-NATO and neutrality agenda in its neighbourhood: neutral countries could find it easier to reintegrate breakaway regions – a lesson that may apply to Ukraine in time.

It might also be that Russia wants to advertise the benefits of a direct dialogue between Moldova and the Transnistrian authorities in the 5+2 format. Ukraine refuses to recognise or negotiate with the leaders of the rebel ‘republics’ in Donbas (despite briefly calling for the creation of a Consultation Council in 2020). Russia may eventually want to draw on the Moldovan negotiating format in Donbas. Again, if Russia’s approach to Moldova is primarily guided by its thinking on Ukraine, the disagreements between Chisinau and the Transnistrian authorities will become harder to solve.

Another factor is Krasnoselsky. Newly re-elected, he is aware that Transnistria’s position may weaken in future. The territory’s population is shrinking, and its economy looks set to deteriorate in the long term. Russia would find it harder to reach a settlement on its terms in ten years’ time – and Moscow is aware of this. 

The most difficult aspect of the talks will likely concern the stark differences between the political and legal cultures of the two sides. Transnistria will have to move closer to Moldova’s legal code, which is shaped by its membership of the Eastern Partnership, rather than the other way around. Transnistria has some autonomy, but it is not genuinely independent from Russia. In dealing with all these challenges, Sandu’s government has a full agenda.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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