The true purpose of the Tiraspol congress. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



Understanding this should serve as a warning signal for authorities in Chisinau, which must take all the measures needed to counter the threat of destabilization ahead of the presidential election...


Anatol Țăranu

On February 28, Tiraspol hosted the so-called “congress of deputies of all levels”, which, as was speculated, was supposed to formally ask Russia to annex Transnistria under the pretext of “mounting pressure from Chisinau” and “worsening socioeconomic conditions” for the local population.

Such reports immediately made headlines in the national and even international media. Adding to the plausibility of this speculation was that the next day, on February 29, Vladimir Putin was slated to deliver his state-of-the-nation address, and making a fresh annexation announcement would not be out of character for the Russian dictator. But no, in his speech that stretched north of two hours, Putin never mentioned either Transnistria or Moldova proper.

A ruse coordinated with Moscow?

This prompted the conclusion in multiple media pieces that maybe the Tiraspol congress hadn’t been coordinated by the local initiators at all with their handlers in Moscow. But one would be excused to think so only if they have an approximate understanding of the true relationship, or rather dependency of the Transnistrian separatist regime on Moscow.

But, of course, there is now way the event hadn’t been planned in coordination with Moscow as part of a broader strategy for Moldova.

It has to be mentioned in this context that, after the war broke in Ukraine, the usual assurances of respect for Moldova’s territorial integrity have completely disappeared from Russia’s official discourse. Instead, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has started talking about the 200,000 Russian citizens living in Transnistria, expressing its concern about the eventuality of them becoming “victims of another Western escapade”.

Preserving the status quo

But considering that Russia has always held the breakaway region as a lever against Chisinau, it becomes obvious that recognizing Transnistria’s independence, let alone enlisting it as an exclave, and a quite remote one too, would do Moscow more harm than good.

With a population believed to be mostly pro-Russian, the Transnistrian region would better serve Moscow’s hegemonic interest as a definitive Trojan horse in the government citadel of Chisinau if returned to the country’s internationally recognized borders with a privileged status. So, one goal of the congress was to preserve the region’s status quo against Chisinau’s attempts to find a way forward.

Russia seeking to break the isolation

Another goal of the separatist get-together was to warn the international community to an “imminent humanitarian crisis” due to the “economic blockade” supposedly inflicted by Chisinau on the breakaway region. A boisterous convention, where Chisinau was on trial for being the cause of all Transnistria’s troubles, was a sure-fire way of attracting some attention abroad.

This is in line with Moscow’s desperate effort to resuscitate the so-called 5+2 talks, where Chisinau and Tiraspol are the negotiators, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE play the mediators, and the US and EU are the observers. Suspended in 2019, the format has been clearly rendered impossible by Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Kyiv insisting that Moscow has indefinitely lost its moral right to participate in such talks. Despite this, Transnistria and Russia are adamant the 5+2 talks are the only way to go, or the only way to avoid an escalation even.

With 5+2 adding up to nothing, Chisinau is free to decide as it sees fit as regards Transnistria. Not only Tiraspol, but Moscow too, hate this situation. But more important for Russia is to see the 5+2 talks resume so that it can reprise its role as the good peacekeeper and mediator (in a conflict of its own making). By achieving this, Russia hopes to send cracks into the international isolation that it has brought onto itself after waging war against Ukraine. Not incidentally, the Russian foreign minister Lavrov recently said the following at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum about the suspended 5+2 talks: “We will do everything to reverse this trend and restart the political process.”

Talks sans Russia

The Russian war in Ukraine opened special opportunities for the Moldovan authorities, who now feel more confident in relation to Transnistria. Chisinau is gradually increasing the economic and legal pressure on Tiraspol, clearly showing that the Transnistrian dispute can be settled without negotiations of old designs, which achieved nothing but freezing the conflict. Tiraspol tries to resist this newly created situation by crying for its patron, but Moscow is too busy holding the lines in Ukraine and cannot come immediately to the rescue.

By putting economic “pressure” on Tiraspol, for the first time in decades, Chisinau decided to change the usual rules in the Transnistrian issue. In early 2023, the Moldovan Parliament adopted amendments criminalizing “separatism”. In theory, almost any Transnistrian official should feel liable. And while there are no known charges actually brought under these amendments, Transnistrian officials, especially first-tier ones, are now avoiding travel to the western bank.

In early 2024, Moldova enacted amendments to its fiscal code, putting an end to a decades-long policy of tax-free import and export clearing proceedings for Transnistrian businesses. Meanwhile, the 2024 action plan of the Moldovan Government considers a definitive step towards outlawing Transnistrian license plates. What Tiraspol fears more still is that Chisinau could start levying VAT and introduce excise duties on fuel, alcohol and tobacco as well.

It seems that Chisinau, without making loud statements, is inclined to demonstrate that the Transnistrian dispute can be settled in negotiations without the participation of Russia. While extremely frustrated, there is little Tiraspol and Moscow can do about it.

In the past, the Transnistrian authorities enjoyed Kyiv’s duplicitous and often lenient position. Now Chisinau and Kyiv are on the same team. After the war started, Ukraine shut its border with Moldova along the Transnistrian segment, meaning Transnistria’s imports and exports can only go through Moldova proper. Add to this the fact that over 70% of Transnistria’s exports go to the EU, meaning the flows are controlled by Chisinau and its ally, the European Union.

Destabilization is the final goal

This leaves Tiraspol and Moscow with pretty much with one course of action: to try and destabilize the security situation, maybe even with a military plot. But this would be extremely risky, since Ukraine will be pressed to respond fast and hard. It is unlikely that Transnistria will be able to successfully resist the Ukrainian army, and having no direct land access to this area, Moscow will not be able to come to the rescue. Plus, the fall of the Tiraspol regime and the liquidation of the Russian military presence in Transnistria would deal a serious image blow to Putin and negate any effects of the relative success achieved by the Russian offensive on the eastern front in Ukraine.

Tiraspol and Moscow cannot ignore these risks, but they cannot afford to sit and do nothing either. Most likely, Moscow and Tiraspol will try to escalate the situation through hybrid warfare, using the opportunity of the presidential ballot to be held in Moldova later this year. They will try to portray the Moldovan authorities as jeopardizing peace and stability through their policy in relation to Transnistria.

So, justifying future destabilization actions seemed to be the true purpose of the separatist congress held in Tiraspol. Understanding this should serve as a warning signal for authorities in Chisinau, which must take all the measures needed to counter the threat of destabilization ahead of the presidential election.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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