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Moldova's new government has an old problem: Transnistria. Can it solve it?

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By Madalin Necsutu
Maia Sandu speaks to people during a meeting in Loganesti, Moldova.
Maia Sandu speaks to people during a meeting in Loganesti, Moldova.   -   Copyright  Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Maia Sandu won both Moldova's presidency in November and a majority in parliament in July with a promise to re-orientate her country towards Europe and fight corruption.

An issue that did not feature heavily in either Sandu or her former party's manifesto was Transnistria, the breakaway state that encompasses 11% of Moldova's territory and is home to 500,000 people.

But it could be problems in Transnistria that emerge as the new president’s first major challenge. It is certainly on the radar of Moscow, which is licking its wounds after losing an ally in Chisinau in former president Igor Dodon and his coalition of Communist and Socialist parties in parliament.

Just a day after the early parliamentary elections in Chisinau on July 12, Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian integration, and relations with compatriots, said that Russia was waiting to see how Sandu approaches Transnistria, where Russia has 2,000 soldiers.

“If this government repels itself from Russia, then, of course, we will act accordingly," he said, "by strengthening our Transnistrian factor."

Sandu was careful not to upset Moscow during her election campaign, a fact that was noted by the Kremlin, but Kalashnikov said that Russia was concerned about her "pro-Europeanism" and that she would seek to "merge" Transnistria - or even Moldova - into Romania.

Since 1992, Transnistria has been separated from the rest of the Moldovan territory after peace talks broke down following a conflict between separatists and the Moldovan military.

Transnistria is now split more or less into three equal minorities: Ukrainians, Russians, and Moldovans and in some cases have four passports, Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan, and Romanian. Around half of those who live in Transnistria have Russian citizenship and its government is close to Moscow.

Russia has between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers in Transnistria, ostensibly as peacekeepers, and the status quo remains one of central Europe's longest "frozen conflicts".

That suited Moldova and the Kremlin over the decades of mostly pro-Russian leadership, but the election of a pro-European president with a parliamentary majority - the first in Moldova's history - raises the prospect of a change of tack when it comes to Transnistria.

PAS obtained 52.80 percent of the votes, while the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, BECS, scored 27.17 percent, and Ilan Shor - 5.74 percent. PAS will have 63 seats, BECS 32, and Ilan Shor Paty only six out of 101 seats in the Parliament.

Support for Sandu

AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Moldova's president Maia Sandu review the honor guard during a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine.AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Transnistria has, traditionally, played an outsized role in elections in Moldova.

Moldovan citizens in Transnistria have long been bussed over the River Dniester to vote, with special voting stations organised to cater for them.

In previous years, votes from Transnistria were enough to win elections for pro-Russian candidates, including the former president, Igor Dodon, who lost power to Sandu in November 2020.

In July, of the 28,173 that voted from Transnistria, 62.21 percent voted for the pro-Russian BECS.

But in November’s presidential and July’s parliamentary polls, a surge in support for Sandu and the PAS from the Moldovan diaspora managed to unseat Dodon and his BECS - even with Transnistria.

Even Vadim Krasnoselsky, the pro-Moscow leader of the breakaway region of Transnistria, has said that the result on July 11 was "predictable" and has promised to continue the dialogue with Chisinau.

"The current changes in Moldova have an evolutionary character, and not a revolutionary one, as it happened before: the people supported the course established by the political elite," he said.

Krasnoselsky's spokesperson did not respond to questions from Euronews.

Restrained approach

When it comes to Transnistria, the new government in Chisinau and Sandu herself have refrained from commenting on the issue.

The PAS manifesto included a pledge to continue talks with the European Union, the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia with the OSCE as mediators, known as the 5+2 framework, which has achieved little so far.

Talks have tended to focus on security, free movement, human rights, and economic issues rather than the elephant in the room: namely, whether Transnistria and its population will rejoin Moldova.

Speaking to Euronews, newly-elected PAS deputy Rosian Vasiloi said that discussions on these topics would continue, specifically on smuggling across the territory's border with Ukraine.

"The national authorities must take over the border. They will ensure effective management so that the citizen does not feel intimidated, as is happening today. In addition, there must be a barrier for thieves doing business in the region," Vasiloi said.

Interim PAS leader, Igor Grosu, meanwhile, said political will is needed to end the Transnistrian conflict, including from the Kremlin. If it is solved, it could be an example of how to end so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

"We need to explain to the interlocutors in the Russian Federation that the resolution of this conflict is much more natural than other conflicts in the CIS space," said Grosu in a TV political show aired on July 13 by TVR Moldova.

'Internationalise the issue'

Valeriu Ostalep, a political analyst and former Moldovan diplomat, told Euronews that while relations were good right now, that could change in the future depending on who becomes deputy prime minister, the position that traditionally has responsibility for relations with Tiraspol.

The Socialists, now in opposition, may try to create problems for the government in Transnistria, he said, but it would not be in Tiraspol’s interest to create issues with Chisinau.

"I believe that the Transnistrian region will have no reason to disturb the waters. Under regional conditions, a peaceful approach would be a plus for Moldova," he said.

Regarding Kalashnikov's statements, Ostalep said that this a "preventive blackmail and it is annoying", and the Russian official engaged before in such rhetoric on the Transnistrian dossier.

Others hope that there genuinely is a focus on improving the lives of residents of Transnistria.

Political expert Mihai Isac told Euronews that Moldova’s new government has pledged to fight corruption and many of the country’s shadiest businesses are closely linked to Transnistria.

"The solution of the Transnistrian problem will lead to the elimination of a grey area and increase the attractiveness of the state for foreign investors," said Isac.

As for the bigger picture, Isac believes that President Sandu is hoping that the involvement of the global community will grease the wheels.

"She wants to internationalise the issue to get Russia to start negotiations for the region's political status,” he said.

“International support, including from the US and the EU, will hang heavily in the coming period.”

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