January 1, 2025 – culminating point of Transnistrian conflict. Op-Ed by Laurențiu Pleșca

“The self-proclaimed authorities on the left bank of the Nistru are beginning to realize that legal adjustments of the legislation of the Republic of Moldova will follow, homogenizing the rights and obligations of individuals and legal entities on both banks of the Nistru. The pressing problem of the Tiraspol regime, the receipt of gas from Chisinau in exchange for electricity, will be further addressed, especially after Ukraine announced that from January 1, 2025 it will no longer allow the transit of Russian gas through its territory...”

The Speaker of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, Igor Grosu last week suggested that Tiraspol should be penalized for allowing “criminal groups” to use the “Mir” banking infrastructure to destabilize the country. He mentioned the transfers of money from Russia to pensioners and state employees in the Gagauz autonomous unit, involving the convicted fugitive Ilan Shor and associated groups in the use of banks on the left bank of the Nistru for this purpose.

In recent months, the relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol has become even more tense. The use of the banking infrastructure in the Transnistrian region for purposes that can affect the stability of the Republic of Moldova is only the latest controversy in the Transnistrian settlement process.

80.9% of Transnistrian region’s exports go to EU

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions in Transnistria have increased significantly. The adoption of the new Customs Code of the Republic of Moldova, which entered into force on January 1, 2024, provoked virulent reactions from the so-called Tiraspol authorities. They claim that the new regulations will worsen the economic situation and create additional obstacles for Transnistrian trade, further straining the fragile relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol.

The Transnistrian region depends economically and politically on Russia’s support. Russian natural gas, paid for by the official Chisinau, allows the region’s metallurgical sectors and heavy industry to produce goods and electricity. Thanks to the 2014 Association Agreement between the Republic of Moldova and the European Union, Transnistrian enterprises registered in the Republic of Moldova can import and export to the European market at preferential tariffs. Tiraspol benefits from this agreement, and 80.9% of the Transnistrian region’s exports in the first three months of 2024 went to European Union countries.

Companies on the left bank of the Nistru now have to pay customs duties in the budget of the Republic of Moldova, just like any other Moldovan company. It is important to note that this Customs Code was approved in 2021. The Transnistrian leaders’ consternation can be interpreted as a reaction to the new trade and customs realities, but also as a signal that they expect future measures that will reduce the levers of the Transnistrian region.

In response, Tiraspol threatened to introduce customs duties for farmers from several villages in Dubasari district, who own agricultural land beyond the Rybnitsa-Tiraspol road that is controlled by the separatist forces. The authorities in Chisinau reacted promptly, announcing that they will provide support to the affected farmers and have implemented this aid.

The self-proclaimed authorities on the left bank of the Nistru are beginning to realize that legal adjustments of the legislation of the Republic of Moldova will follow, homogenizing the rights and obligations of individuals and legal entities on both banks of the Nistru. The pressing problem of the Tiraspol regime, the receipt of gas from Chisinau in exchange for electricity, will be further addressed, especially after Ukraine announced that from January 1, 2025 it will no longer allow the transit of Russian gas through its territory.

Under these circumstances, one of the options being discussed is for EU member states to purchase gas from Azerbaijan and use Ukraine’s pipeline infrastructure for transport. This strategy would allow the European Union, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova to reduce dependence on Russian gas, thus diminishing Moscow’s influence in the region.

The Republic of Moldova is in a vulnerable position. An overnight reintegration is unlikely, while a complete lockdown of the economy on the left bank is not a viable option, given how prepared the state institutions and the budget are to reintegrate a region separated for more than 30 years. Moscow is aware that the greatest vulnerability of the Republic of Moldova is the Transnistrian region. That is why Russia will insist the most on this area in the coming months, especially in terms of state security.

Moreover, since the beginning of the year, dangerous dynamics have been observed. The Institute for the Study of War claims that Russia could organize “false flag” attacks in Transnistria to give the impression that Ukraine is carrying out sabotage actions in the separatist region of the Republic of Moldova, creating conditions that justify the opening of a new front. Certainly, together with the end of the war and Ukraine’s victory, the Transnistrian problem will be much easier to solve.

Tiraspol’s plan

In order to understand the intentions of the Transnistrian authorities in organizing the extraordinary congress in February, we need to analyze the reasons and assess whether they are part of a well-designed strategy. Such actions are often accompanied by manipulation and threats. Thus, we could conclude that they aim to block Chisinau’s efforts to reintegrate the region.

The strategy begins by expressing shock and disapproval of the imposition of customs duties starting January 1, 2024, although the new Customs Code was approved in 2021 to avoid unpleasant surprises. The next stage focuses on the escalation of the situation, stressing that Chisinau is seen as imposing economic restrictions on the Transnistrian region through coercive measures. This allows Tiraspol to present itself as a victim and justify harsh reactions. Consequently, the Transnistrian administration hopes to strengthen its position, both locally and internationally.

Tiraspol also insists that the dialogues with government officials be exclusively in the “5+2” format. This is despite the Republic of Moldova’s preference for direct “1+1” negotiations under the supervision of the OSCE, excluding the Russian Federation, which it considers an aggressor state.

Further, Tiraspol mobilizes Transnistrian trade unions and corporate organizations to organize protests, apparently to create the impression of a popular reaction. But investigations reveal that the leaders of these demonstrations are closely linked to Vadim Krasnoselski and Victor Gusan, respectively, the political and informal economic leader of the region.

The Transnistrian plan was intensified by the threat to convene a “congress at all levels” to discuss critical resolutions, including the possible unification with Russia. There were discussions about holding an “independence” referendum if Chisinau does not cooperate. These topics were to be addressed at the congress scheduled for February 28, and Vladimir Putin’s annual speech in the State Duma could have reinforced these threats. However, in his speech, the Russian president did not mention Transnistria.

The main goal of the authorities in Tiraspol is to force Chisinau to abandon its reintegration efforts, maintaining the status quo prior to the imposition of customs duties. The objective is to prevent the adoption of any decisions that could diminish the autonomy of the separatist region or increase its dependence on Chisinau. The progress of these tactics depends on the reactions of Chisinau, the directives from Moscow and the decisions of the Sheriff holding in Tiraspol.

Negotiation or independence?

On January 16, at the Office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Tiraspol, talks began between Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Oleg Serebrian and the representative of the Transnistrian side Vitaly Ignatiev. Among the topics discussed were the new amendments to the Customs Code, issues related to neutral-design license plates and the freedom of movement. In particular, the Transnistrian side was told that equal rights for the two banks of the Nistru are the only acceptable option for Chisinau. This direct “1+1” dialogue is the only official communication channel and the only viable option at the moment.

Ukraine intensifies its role in the Transnistrian problem by appointing Alexei Danilov as ambassador to Chisinau. The announcement that the foreign minister from Tiraspol, Ignatiev, is wanted signifies an increased involvement by Ukraine in the efforts to dismantle the Transnistrian separatist regime. This is a clear signal that Ukraine is taking a firmer stance towards the pro-Russian separatist regime in Tiraspol, which hosts a contingent of 1,500 Russian soldiers from the Operational Group of Russian Forces (GOTR) on the left bank of the Nistru River, without Chisinau’s consent, and controls a sizable weapons depot in Cobasna, just 7 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. In addition, Kiev’s position on the Transnistrian negotiation process is radically changing. The Ukrainian authorities have stressed for several times that they will no longer participate in talks at the same table with representatives of Russia, which, according to the “5+2” format, was the guarantor and mediator in the Transnistrian problem.

The Ukrainian ambassador with special missions for the Transnistrian file, Paun Rohovei, said that Ukraine supports the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict exclusively through diplomatic means and in cooperation with Chisinau. He stressed that Ukraine will support Chisinau’s reintegration initiatives, as they will bring economic benefits to both sides of the Nistru.

It is clear that the “5+2” format has a slim chance of producing significant results in the near future, given the current geopolitical context. Ukraine and Russia, the two main mediators, are involved in an open conflict, and the OSCE, the third mediator, is facing an existential crisis over Russia's role in the organization, according to academic observations.  

To follow...

The Moldovan citizens must understand that the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict depends entirely on the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine. A Russian victory could bring a stronger military presence in the region, with significant consequences for Transnistria. On the other hand, a Russian defeat could undermine Tiraspol’s independence and increase Transnistria’s dependence on the Republic of Moldova and, implicitly, on the European Union. These complex dynamics will continue to influence the situation in Transnistria in the near future. The culmination of the Transnistrian dialogue will take place at the end of the year. Tiraspol will have to choose between benefiting from resources or managing on its own.

The Transnistrian regime should reflect on the direction it wants to follow. Reintegration into the Republic of Moldova could bring significant benefits, given the rapid rapprochement with the European Union. The European integration process of the Republic of Moldova could stimulate the reintegration of Transnistria. Ensuring fair conditions for both banks of the Nistru remains the only real option on the negotiating table. However, it is uncertain whether the Transnistrian regime will accept the cardinal changes of the status quo or will continue to claim independence.

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