Moldova’s President-elect Maia Sandu fought and won on an anti-corruption platform with few, if any, references to geopolitics. But within days of her victory, one of the longest-standing and most delicate geopolitical problems the country will continue to face under her leadership has re-emerged – the protracted conflict over Transnistria.
Sandu emphasized the need for constructive relations when he met Russia’s ambassador to Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov, three days after her victory. With regard to Transnistria in particular, she admitted that a solution to the conflict would be impossible without Russia.
Given that President Putin recognized Sandu’s victory almost immediately and congratulated her the day after the election, the first signs were promising. Although the almost three decades old conflict was not expected to be resolved soon, there were also no fears that the conflict would worsen relations between Russia and Moldova again.
However, this honeymoon was very short-lived. Ten days after her victory, Sandu mentioned in an interview with TRM1 that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria was on her agenda. Similarly, in an interview with the BBC on November 30, when asked if Russia would allow Moldova to join the EU, she told the BBC that her country was an independent and sovereign country that had made its own decisions. In this context, she also mentioned that “Russian troops still need to be evicted from Moldova’s territory”. This was not a very different statement from the one she had made ten days earlier in an interview with the Ukrainian Pravda, when, in response to a question about the status of Transnistria after its future reintegration in Moldova, she stated that any agreement “should include the complete withdrawal of the Russian troops from Moldova territory. “
Russia’s reaction to this was predictable. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists at a November 27 briefing that Russia viewed such demands as “the target of undermining efforts to resolve the Transnistrian problem through peaceful means”. Four days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated at a press conference after the CSTO Foreign Ministers Council meeting in Moscow that Sandu’s comment on “the need to withdraw Russian peacekeeping forces … will hardly facilitate the peace settlement, and Russia is unlikely to be quite irresponsible Claim is accepted. “This view was also reflected in Moldova, where outgoing President Igor Dodon insisted that the peace mission“ must continue until a political solution to the Transnistrian conflict is found ”, a view that was repeated in Transnistria .
The battle lines are clearly drawn again. All pages have their respective red lines defined, but with sufficient scope for (re) interpretation. Nothing in Sandu’s statements so far suggests that she will insist on the immediate withdrawal of the operational group of Russian forces in Transnistria (the remnants of the Soviets and then the Russians 14)th Army guards approximately 22,000 tons of largely derelict military equipment and ammunition. Likewise, its proposal to convert the multilateral peacekeeping force established under the 1992 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Moldova into an OSCE-led civilian mission is not entirely new and, in principle, has never been excluded by Moscow.
In addition, Sandu has repeatedly called for the 5 + 2 conversations to be revived. Sandu’s support for this format should ultimately lead to more formal conversations between all parties that have not taken place since October 2019. This will be the case almost regardless of Sandu’s views, given her limited powers as President and given that the current government, led by Dodon’s Socialist Party, continues to advocate conversations in the 5 + 2 format, as seen recently in a phone call between has been confirmed to the Russian and Moldovan Foreign Ministers.
After a meeting with the Head of the OSCE Mission in Moldova, Claus Neukirch, Transnistria’s Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatyev stated that his side was “ready to resume talks in the 5 + 2 format without any preconditions”. In the Transnistrian context, it is also important to note that the recent parliamentary elections in the region cemented the Obnovlenie Party’s hold in power, having secured the presidency in 2016. The political front of the sheriff conglomerate, which controls almost every aspect of life in Transnistria, secured 29 out of 33 seats in the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet, albeit on charges of election fraud and a gloomy turnout of just under 28%. Obnovlenie and the sheriff business empire behind it are still very interested in maintaining relations with Chisinau and Brussels, as around 70% of all Transnistrian exports enter the EU market via Moldova via Moldova under the country’s DCFTA agreements the EU.
This creates the prerequisite for a return to more than a decade of a simulated settlement process in which the immediate parties to the conflict – Moldova and Transnistria – can hold talks that occasionally lead to agreements on issues that both consider important to resolve. As the main facilitator of these talks, the OSCE will continue to support and maintain the 5 + 2 process. This was confirmed by the Special Representative of the incumbent OSCE Chairman of Albania for the Transnistrian settlement process, Thomas Mayr-Harting, as only in June of this year. Likewise, the other international actors in this process, Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU, have few incentives to derail a process that may not have resulted in an actual agreement, but certainly contributed to a very stable status quo Has.
A Sandu presidency, despite the recent excitement over its statements on Russian troops in Transnistria, will not result in a radical break with a long-established practice of “small steps” that lead to nowhere else but constant, albeit minor, improvement thus stable status quo. Ultimately, this is the lowest possible common denominator that is currently possible and which all parties involved inside and outside Moldova can agree on. It avoids potentially destabilizing outcomes while maintaining the possibility of a future settlement, not least because it keeps the communication channels between the parties open and, with appropriate international support, builds and improves their capacities for constructive engagement. In view of the recent violent escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, this cannot simply be rejected.