ZOiS Spotlight 35/2017

A challenge of diverging interests

by Nadja Douglas 13/12/2017
Breakthrough of symbolic importance: In November, the Gura Bîcului–Bîcioc Bridge, the fastest route between Chișinău and Tiraspol, was reopened. It had been closed since 1992. moldova.org

The latest talks in Vienna on the Transdniestrian conflict have resulted in agreements on several long-term socio-economic problems and commitments to solve further issues in 2018. Some observers have even talked about a breakthrough and important improvements for thousands of people on the ground. Many of those involved have a vested interest in positive outcomes. However, progress towards a sustainable political settlement needs a better understanding of what could become a win-win situation for all sides, because opportunity costs are not going to decrease with time for anyone.

Resumption of official negotiations

After stalling for more than two years, official negotiations in the 5+2 format (the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine as mediators; the United States and the European Union as observers; and Moldova and Transdniestria as parties to the conflict) resumed in 2016. The talks resulted in the signing of the Berlin Protocol in June of the same year. The parties agreed on a road map containing four solvable issues that would improve the everyday lives of people on both banks of the River Dniestr. Under the 2017 Austrian chairmanship of the OSCE, another four issues were added to the portfolio of „Berlin Plus“.

Before this year’s 5+2 talks in Vienna, an important step forward was taken with the joint opening of the Gura Bîcului–Bîcioc Bridge, which links the two villages of Gura Bîcului and Bîcioc on the fastest route between Chișinău and Tiraspol. The bridge had been closed for traffic for over twenty years, to the detriment of the local population.

Agreements that benefit the people

Before the official negotiations in Vienna, the chief negotiators on both sides signed a number of agreements. These included the apostillisation by the Moldovan authorities of higher-education diplomas issued in Transdniestria (a step that will permit students from Transdniestria to study abroad in countries other than Russia), the facilitation of telecommunications links between the two banks of the river, further regulation of the functioning of Moldovan-administered Latin Script Schools in Transdniestria, and access for Moldovan farmers to their lands in the Transdniestrian-controlled Dubăsari region.

The signing of the protocol in Vienna on 28 November confirmed these agreements and emphasised the two sides’ commitment to reach another accord by February 2018 on the form and registration of licence plates for Transdniestrian vehicles, so they conform to international road traffic rules.

Diverse agendas

Despite the recent achievements in the settlement talks, which the OSCE praised as ‘substantial progress’, the past year has been characterised by tedious negotiations on the ground. The Moldovan and Transdniestrian sides have been pursuing diverse agendas. In early 2016, Moldovan officials announced for the first time the development of a new strategy document, also called „vision“, on a special status for Transdniestria. However, so far there are only rumours about when this paper will become public and what it will contain.

Nevertheless, some details have been leaked. The document seems to call for the need to withdraw the Operative Group of Russian Forces and munition from Transdniestrian territory, and to transform the current peacekeeping forces into a multinational civilian mission with an international mandate. Yet these are not new initiatives, and Chișinău has reiterated this call frequently this year. Moreover, the proposed status of Transdniestria within Moldova is said to resemble the current status of the Gagauz autonomous region, but with fewer legal powers.

The Transdniestrian side, by contrast, has been occupied with an entirely different issue: trying to persuade international partners of the necessity to discuss the recent installation of the first joint Moldovan-Ukrainian border and customs control in Kuchurgan-Pervomaisk, which Tiraspol considers part of the Transdniestrian-Ukrainian border. Although Tiraspol regularly bombarded international partners and media with the alleged negative results for Transdniestria of this unilateral measure, members of the 5+2 format did not concede to the Transdniestrian demand to add this issue to the official negotiation agenda.

Underlying interests

Asked about the recent agreements and the outcome of the 5+2 talks, Moldovan parliamentary speaker Andrian Candu stated that ‘we need to realize that the reality is that we do not reintegrate today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or next year’. At the same time, authorities in Tiraspol do not tire of talking to Moscow about their status and repeating the result of the 2006 referendum in which over 90 per cent of Transdniestrian citizens voted for independence, with the possibility of eventually joining the Russian Federation.

Another important factor that drives and shapes the Transdniestrian position is pragmatism. There are plain economic interests, since financial support from Russia has waned in recent years. For the time being, the agreement on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU could help stabilise the Transdniestrian economy.

Finally, various sources suggested that no agreement would have been realised without the involvement of key figures in the background. Oligarch and head of the Moldovan Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc, and his Transdniestrian counterpart, the owner of the Transdniestrian holding Sherif, Victor Gushan, are said to have endorsed the negotiation process from behind the scenes.

Avoiding a geopolitical twist

Last but not least, it is unclear how the interests of the international partners in the negotiation process will evolve. The US has not contributed to increasing the confidence of Transdniestrian and pro-Russian groups in Moldova since it endorsed the opening of a NATO liaison office in Chișinău on 8 December. The Russian Federation, despite being part of the problem in this conflict, uses its participation in the 5+2 format as a fig leaf and as evidence that Moscow should not be seen as a spoiler in ongoing efforts at conflict resolution in the region.

All this notwithstanding, for the OSCE, Transdniestria remains one of the few relative success stories in which conflict prevention and mediation efforts have not led to a deterioration of the situation on the ground. It remains to be hoped that the incoming Italian chairmanship of the OSCE will continue to avoid making the conflict geopolitical.

Nadja Douglas is a research associate at ZOiS.