Andrey Devyatkov: Normalization of Russian-Moldovan relations and its implications for the Transnistrian issue

In the last months some important shifts can be identified in Russian policy toward Moldova. Firstly, on June 7th the prime-minister of the Republic of Moldova Pavel Philip met with his Russian colleague Dmitry Medvedev in Bishkek on the margins of CIS heads of government meeting. The chief executives discussed “the necessity of continuing the political dialogue and renewal of economic relations” between two countries. Besides, it was agreed that at the beginning of July Dmitry Rogozin would visit Chisinau to co-chair the intergovernmental commission on trade and economic relations in order to work out “a road map” for lifting up the ban against Moldovan products on the Russian market. The Moldovan government shows actively its interest toward the idea of bringing Moldovan producers back to Russia after 2-year trade embargo.

Secondly, Russia presented in March a non-paper to the parties in the Transnistrian conflict which contained ideas how to unblock the negotiation process within 5+2 format after it has been at a dead end since 2012. This document became practically the basis for resumed negotiations which took place in Berlin on 2-3. of June. The conflict parties adopted a protocol which is a road map for further negotiations in various sectoral issues – transport, ecology, recognition of documents issued by Transnistrian state bodies, mutual prosecution of officials etc. The first agreement was signed very quickly and was devoted to issues of hydrometeorology. Till the Bavarian conference on confidence building measures which will take place in Germany in second half of July, conflict parties are stimulated by mediators to do the “homework” in all sectors enlisted in the Berlin protocol. Besides, Russian delegation passed to conflict parties during the Berlin meeting a project of a treaty on the implementation of arrangements reached within 5+2 format. Such a document seems to be very important for any progress in the conflict resolution because if signed it would create an obligatory framework for both parties to carry out their accords.    

These shifts could be explained by a series of causes. First of all we should look at the dynamics in the Moldovan politics. It can be argued that the government of Pavel Philip managed to remain in power in spite of all activities of oppositional forces. Vlad Plahotniuc, who is supposed by many observers to be a grey cardinal behind the scene, has already met with representatives of some important external powers. For example, he paid visits to Washington (where he met with US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland) and Bucharest (having a meeting with party chairman Victor Ponta). Many influential politicians like Angela Markel and Jose Manuel Barroso have also expressed their support toward the Moldovan government established in January 2016.

It could be suggested that now a competition for the external loyalty of the new Moldovan government has begun and all powers which are interested in the Moldovan affairs are participating in this process. It is still not clear which geopolitical orientation the new government in Chisinau will choose. The Western powers propose their support but at the same time they demand structural reforms. It can be argued that it is able to become a stumbling block in Moldovan-Western relations. Consequently, the new Moldovan government seems to be inclined more to a classical multi-vectoral foreign policy (like it was the case during Voronin’s presidency in 2001-2008). Moscow sees here its “window of opportunity”, proposing to lift up trade restrictions. Besides, any progress in the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict can be used by the Moldovan government as a positive argument in relations with the European Union which would prefer to see Moldova reintegrated before any discussions about the country’s further Europeanization.

The second motive for Russian diplomacy is the current dynamics in the implementation of the Minsk agreement. Obviously, Russia, the US and the EU are working now intensively on a peace deal, negotiating on various aspects of the conflict settlement – eventual deployment of the police mission, organization of elections in Donbass, total demilitarization of the conflict zone etc. Russia seems to be interested in resumption of security dialogue with the West in general and on Ukraine in particular. Through the interaction with Berlin (which now carries out the OSCE Presidency) on the Transnistrian issue Moscow tries to rebuild trust in mutual relations and to demonstrate its positive contribution to the regional security.

Not to forget is about the current economic and monetary crisis in Transnistria which heavily challenges Russia as Transnistrian donor. If to make Transnistria to a full Russian protectorate it would mean the increase of Russian financial support for Tiraspol by hundreds of millions dollars. That’s why Moscow is interested in favorable conditions for Transnistrian economy which to a great extent suffers from external transport and fiscal restrictions imposed first of all by Moldova and Ukraine.

To sum up, the political motivation of Russia is about restoring positive climate in relations with Moldova, Germany and the EU as well as supporting to ease the current economic situation in Transnistria. Logically, these shifts in Russian policy are already facing much mistrust. For example, Russia (even with EU and US) is being accused by some analysts of imposing arrangements on Moldova which would allegedly lead to de facto recognition of Transnistria. Nevertheless, such ideas are not provided with any argumentation why Russia needs such recognition at the moment and how the implementation of recommendations on sectoral issues worked out by international experts (including those in EUBAM) could undermine the national integrity of Moldova.

Any progress in the Transnistrian issue would now substantially contribute to confidence building, not only at Nistru river, but in East European politics in general. But of course the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict depends first of all on the dynamics in resolving the Ukrainian crisis and developments in relations between Russia and NATO. The latter heavily deteriorated after military activities of both sides drastically intensified along common borders and will eventually improve in the aftermath of the NATO Warsaw summit at a meeting of the NATO-Russia council. At the moment diplomatic efforts on resolution of conflicts and military demonstrations of Russia and the West in Eastern Europe coexist. What will take the lead, diplomacy or militarism, will be clear already in coming weeks.