Andrey Devyatkov: Securitized economy: Is stability on the Dniester under threat?

On May, 19 the Transnistrian media announced the intention of Ukraine to prohibit since May, 20 the import of foodstuffs from Ukraine to the break-away republic if it is not provided with licenses of Moldovan phytosanitary control. This information came after it became known earlier that Moldova and Ukraine are going to establish a joint control of the Transnistrian segment of the common border (first of all at the main checkpoint Cuchurgan). That’s why the new Ukrainian initiative was a real bombshell.

This decision was provided exceptionally with logics of security. The Transnistrian media reported: in a letter sent by the Ukrainian side it was argued that the decision on import of foodstuffs to Transnistria was taken by Economic department of Ukrainian Security Service and was aimed at “localization of national security threats”. Earlier there were lots of other securitization acts undertaken by Ukrainian officials. For instance, a close associate of president Poroshenko Irina Friz, a member of national security committee of the Ukrainian parliament, made a couple of statements arguing that Transnistria is one more example of Russian policy of annexing parts of neighboring countries and that Ukraine should launch economic blockade against Tiraspol if needed. In parallel the Ukrainian media like with references to high-ranking officials from Ukrainian security services and military began to draw much attention to security threats coming allegedly from the Transnistrian territory, including “operations of Russian intelligence” and “possible invasion of Russian military”.

On the Moldovan side the officials tried to interpret the situation in a way that statements of Transnistrian authorities on subsequent “economic blockade” are nothing more than propaganda. In their comments it is argued that economic agents from the left bank of the Dniester will not face any problems with obtaining new licenses and that the Moldovan relevant agencies could even assist them in fighting against common threats like animal epidemics. But some Moldovan media close to the authorities reported that “project PMR is death sick” and that Moldova should be ready to propose to Tiraspol a reintegration, but on the basis of the current Moldovan constitution. Some right-wing politicians from the Moldovan opposition, despite their constant discontent about the government, also applauded the decision.

It is pretty clear that Moldova and Ukraine fully coordinate their activities towards Transnistria. A further proof of that can be seen in how Kiev and Chisinau organized on May, 15-25 first round of joint “anti-terrorist” drills called “Safe border”. For Ukraine the decision about increasing conflict potential around Transnistria is a quite explicit attempt to put pressure on Moscow, along with a series of other economic measures against Donbass and Russian economic agents in Ukraine. For Moldovan authorities managed destabilization of the situation is interesting predominantly in face of coming parliamentary elections which the current ruling coalition is risking not to win because of its attempt to change the electoral system in its own favor. Through such actions like promotion of country’s reintegration (without any “federalization”), even if simulated, the Moldovan authorities are trying to get support from the right electorate (including those who previously supported the Liberal Party) and conservative political forces in the West.

Why did this decision about phytosanitary control appear? Actually it turned out that the establishment of joint border control did not produce enough political effect. Actually the process of establishing joint border checkpoints is under financial and technical control of the European Union which is hardly interested in any intensive conflict close to Ukraine now. The EU promotes a “phased approach” which presupposes that joint customs offices will control not all movements across the whole border from the very beginning but will start with export operations. But export operations have already been taking place under full control of Moldovan customs service since 2006. Import operations, which Tiraspol is still able to carry out without direct participation of Moldovan custom services, would probably follow only in a mid-term perspective. The demand to provide imported foodstuffs with new licenses from the Moldovan relevant agency can be seen in this context as an attempt to make the first step in controlling the Transnistrian imports too.

The Transnistrian reaction is also politicized. Not the economic reasons are dominating Tiraspol’s agenda. Economic agents from the left bank will definitely face some financial losses because the Ukrainian side implements its decision in fact immediately without giving enough time for economic agents to adjust to new rules. But they will able to trade further without any new substantial barriers. The amounts of import going from Ukraine to Transnistria are quite big: according to Tiraspol’s statistics, in January-November 2016 goods for more than 80 million dollar were imported while in 2015 this volume had been twice bigger.

It is also hardly believable that the Transnistrian authorities are worried about saving any smuggling activities which have lost any meaning because of Ukrainian authorities’ determination to control the Transnistrian segment of the border since 2014, as well as improved border management in the whole region. Economic crisis in Transnistria with subsequent decrease of demand should also be mentioned. The Transnistrian authorities seem to be worried first of all about alleged attempts of Kiev and Chisinau to reintegrate both banks of the Dniester by economic force. The story is not only about checkpoints and export-import operations, but also electricity contract for the coming year, which was given to Ukraine despite of high technical risks of supply interruptions.

All the local actors have already exchanged with tough talk. In his interview to RIA Novosti the Transnistrian foreign minister Ignatiev said: “It is not impossible that Transnistria will address Russia with the aim to engage Russian representatives as a force which would guarantee security at border entry points”. Irina Friz from the Ukrainian parliament immediately reacted with a statement that if Transnistria will ask Russia to do that, Kiev “will initiate full closing of entry points at these segments of the border”. On May, 20 the Moldovan authorities announced that three citizens of Moldova were beaten by “representatives of Transnistrian special police force” in the Security Zone.

Nevertheless, it offers hope that all the parties involved still prefer to talk to each other. For example, latest meetings between president Krasnoselsky and US Ambassador Pettit as well as between deputy prime-minister Bălan and representative of Russian MFA Gubarev should be mentioned. Foreign actors like Russia, EU and US seem to be interested in keeping stability on the Dniester while any destabilization of the status quo, even if promoted by economic power, has some potential of dramatic worsening of the security situation.