Andrey Devyatkov: EU soft power projects in Transnistria

Application of soft power instruments has become a well-regarded tool for international actors to achieve their goals abroad by power of attraction, not coercion or bribery. This issue is particularly interesting when soft power is used in areas with unfavorable political conditions for the initiating actor.

How the European Union used to apply its soft power instruments in break-away republic of Transnistria is a good example in this regard. The Transnistrian authorities have kept their geopolitical loyalty toward Russia and abstained from active contacts with international organizations, the EU or its member states. At the same time Russia started in 2012-2016 its own soft power activities via a tailored non-commercial organization “Eurasian Integration”. 10 ambitious projects were realized (construction of 5 new kindergartens and 1 school, full modernization of medical faculty and hospitals’ departments for tuberculosis and oncology, training for health workers etc.). Moscow donated about 100 million US dollar for these initiatives, and the local authorities were actively informing the population about them, particularly in face of the presidential elections at the end of 2016. So, for the EU there was much to compete with.   

Therefore, it was difficult for the European Union from the very beginning to launch any soft power projects in Transnistria. But all the risks were considered. “The implementation of the activities will be planned and approached with caution, including the timing, visibility and presentation issues. In case of significant changes in the context, and impossibility of implementation of projects on the left bank, interventions will focus on the right bank Security Zone”, a EU/UNDP policy document tells us. Formally all the EU initiatives are entitled as Confidence Building Measures, i.a. supporting the existing 5+2 negotiation format.         

The EU approach to soft power activity in Transnistria was based on a couple of important principles. Firstly, all the projects planned were non-politicized, so they were not about promoting democracy or defending rights of, for instance, LGBT community. There have been no education activities for Transnistrian students or politicians which would have tried to convince them of desirability of European integration or democratic values. The term “human rights” has been applied toward rights of people with disabilities or HIV, victims of domestic violence or human trafficking. That’s why the EU projects can be classified as development cooperation only.

Secondly, the EU used a phased approach, and at the end of each phase EU/UNDP stuff made a review of projects with the aim to have some lessons learnt. Despite of the phased approach the funding from Brussels has never been terminated since 2009, increased a little from one phase to another, and the budget donated for projects has always been exhausted (about 25 million Euro of only EU funding for 2009-2018). Finally, the EU tried to coordinate all the Western donors which are active on the left bank of Nistru river. A special coordination group headed by EU Ambassador in Moldova was established, and the meetings of this group have been taking place every 2-3 months.       

In terms of content the EU soft power approach covers three main types of activities. Firstly, the EU launched a series of seminars and roundtables for training and certifying local professionals in export domain in line with EU standards. Besides, some institutional projects are sponsored which are aimed at disseminating best practices in the export sphere. For instance, organic farming consultancy center in the Transnistrian village Sucleia was opened in January 2018 due to the support of the EU. The aim of all these initiatives is to empower local producers to export their goods to EU market and use all opportunities delivered by DCFTA. It should be mentioned that like in Moldova the local producers have some potential to increase their export to EU market: according to the information provided by Transnistrian Customs Committee, in 2017 the republic exported sunflower and rape seeds, wheat, vegetables, barley and maize for more than 70 million dollars. At the same time agriculture and food stuff for almost 7 million dollars was sold to EU countries only.  

The second type of activities embraces projects aimed at (re)construction of social infrastructure which is crucial for people from both banks of Nistru. Like in the Russian case, special attention is paid to health services. For instance, the Health Care Center in Varnița village was renovated and became more spacious as a new annex with physiotherapy wards, diagnosis rooms and family doctors’ offices was built. The Center can annually see about 13 000 patients, and a large amount of them comes from Transnistria too. The second example is how Swiss government in coordination with the EU contributed to a better equipment and training of local personnel at 5 perinatal institutions in Transnistria.

Thirdly, EU sponsors cultural and sport events which brings together representatives of both banks. For instance, the participation of over 100 sportsmen in a sport marathon in Chisinau was supported. With the support of the EU Moldova National Youth Orchestra gave a concert of classical music at Bendery Fortress in July 2017.   

Consequently, despite of absence of politicization all EU activities are aimed at achieving one important political goal – to reintegrate Transnistria and Moldova in the framework of EU-Moldova Association Agreement. To increase its structural power the EU is active in terms of development cooperation in the whole Moldova, also in Transnistria, despite of local political circumstances. The Russian approach to soft power differs a lot from the EUropean one: Moscow has invested much into development projects, but only in Transnistria, while on the right bank the Russian approach is predominantly about promoting Russian language, culture and education. In 2012, when development projects were launched by Dmitry Rogozin in Transnistria, a precondition for starting the same initiatives on the right bank was clearly formulated – namely the rise of “pro-Eurasian forces” to power in Chisinau.        

The EU soft power projects could hardly contribute to a transformation of Transnistrian foreign policy. For instance, Transnistria’s de-facto incorporation into DCFTA was much more influenced by Ukrainian policy, EU initiatives in improving border control in the region and Russia’s unwillingness to make Transnistria to its own financial protectorate. Nevertheless, EU initiatives in soft power domain contribute a lot to the situation, when the administrative border between Moldova and Transnistria remains symbolic and businessmen as well as ordinary people from left bank are stimulated to cross this border more often to get profit, health services or to participate in a cultural event.