The change of leadership in the Republic of Moldova (presidential elections in November 2020 and early parliamentary elections on July 11, 2021) brings about the need to reflect on a wide range of problems or dilemmas that this country has been facing for almost 30 years and for which previous governments have failed to identify solutions. The Transnistrian problem is just one of them.
Although many politicians speak of European integration as a foreign policy objective or national interest, they are often reminded, in one form or another, that without a viable solution, the status of a member country of the European Union may not be obtained.
Getting back to the change of government and, therefore, to the decision-making process paradigm with regard to the Transnistrian conflict, it is important to highlight the way in which the new leadership relates to the negotiation format of the conflict. In several public interventions, President Maia Sandu has stated that the ‘5+2’ negotiation format is the framework in which discussions should continue in order to identify solutions to the problems faced by the residents of the left bank of the Dniester.
Officials are very careful that their speeches do not lead to public dissent. It is not about lack of courage and attempts to spare Russia because the Republic of Moldova is energy and also economically dependent on Moscow. It is about assuming a balanced discourse, which does not lead to waves of protests. The aim is therefore to avoid criticism primarily internally that can affect the governance act. The current political elite of the country did not talk too much in the election campaigns about Transnistria, but promised reforms, fair justice, and welfare.
Only occasionally can we highlight an inclusion of the electorate from the left bank of the Dniester in the speeches of various political actors during the electoral campaigns. Moreover, all previous attempts to ‘resolve’ the conflict have been limited to the promotion of schemes and interests of representatives of decision-makers, and this issue has remained impregnated in the retina of society.
Too few politicians have reflected on concrete attempts to ensure and protect the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Transnistrian region and of those residing on the territory controlled by the authorities. In April 2009, Vladimir Voronin reacted harshly to the protests and said that the new political crisis had postponed the solution to the Transnistrian conflict indefinitely. And those who followed him, including Igor Dodon, operated in the public space with similar messages. Thus, the country's leadership has always blamed the citizens for their lack of vision and their own inability to provide solutions.
For the current government, the biggest dilemma or challenge will be to limit the access to ‘opportunities and benefits’ of the separatist leaders in Tiraspol, but also Russia’s interference into the internal affairs of the Republic of Moldova, that is in the decision-making process.
Kiev, more attentive to the Transnistrian case
Another challenge is the inclusion of the residents on the left bank of the Dniester in political, economic, and social processes carried out by the country's leadership, taking responsibility for identifying an optimal solution to the conflict, avoiding dissensions with partners, especially those participating in the ‘5 + 2’ negotiation format, and holding the mediators accountable. Obviously, at the moment it is about Ukraine which is very attentive in assessing not only the security threats on the Transnistrian perimeter that is not controlled by Chisinau, but also the decision-making in the Republic of Moldova, as it can have a very big impact on the settlement process in the Donbas and Lugansk regions.
The analysis of the ‘5 + 2’ format potential to produce recommendations for different types of problems faced by the residents of the Transnistrian region, but also the solution accepted by all parties involved, which can no longer be re-assessed, starts today from public speeches and new official documents. In their public discourse, the political leaders try to avoid such debates and only randomly mention the issue. This determines experts to use position papers or government programmes. The government programme presented in August 2021 contains two references to the ‘5 + 2’ format:
The first refers to “intensifying the dialogue in the ‘5 + 2’ format, which aims at restoring the state integrity through peaceful, diplomatic negotiations, ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognized borders.” The second talks about “the inclusion in the ‘5 + 2’ format negotiations of socio-economic issues, human rights, free movement and political settlement of the conflict”.
The first reference is about the interest of the Chisinau authorities to act peacefully, through discussions and negotiations, but respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. There is no deviation from official discourse and domestic law.
Dilemmas with regard to the relationship with Tiraspol and confusing communication
The dilemma in this case is the ability of the Republic of Moldova to cope with the aggressive rhetoric coming from the unrecognized regime in Tiraspol and to communicate to the internal public and partners its own vision on how to intensify the dialogue so that it can lead to a solution given that until now Moldova's position was quite weak in promoting its national security interests and protecting its citizens.
In the second reference of the programme we can see how the new government is trying to timidly propose the debate on the political settlement of the conflict - an aspect aggressively postponed by the separatist leaders in Tiraspol, supported by Moscow.
The revival of the ‘5 + 2’ negotiation format of the Transnistrian conflict will be very difficult, and the latest events that have taken place further discourage citizens' confidence in an optimal solution.
Taking into account the official discourse displayed in the last almost a year, but also what was mentioned in the government programme and previous official documents, the Chisinau authorities must go through a serious self-assessment process. This self-assessment process should include reflections on:
In conclusion, the mandate of the current government is quite complex with regard to resolving the Transnistrian conflict. The ‘intensification of dialogue’ should not be reduced to multiplying the number of meetings with separatist leaders in Tiraspol. It presupposes the ability of the Chisinau authorities to come up with a new vision, increased responsibility and a communication and advocacy strategy that does not allow the separatist authorities in the Transnistrian region to capitalize on moments of hesitation. The discourse should be firm in promoting the territorial integrity and protection of the rights and freedoms of all citizens of the Republic of Moldova.
Editorial by Angela Grămadă, director of Experts for Security and Global Affairs Association (ESGA) from Bucharest, Romania