On July 26 Moldova was visited by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was acting in the role of OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. On one side, this visit can be interpreted as a mere routine: German high-ranking diplomat went earlier also to South Caucasus to speak there on local conflict issues, so Moldova is simply one more country on the list where Berlin tries to demonstrate within the OSCE Chairmanship its engagement and also results of its “outcome-based approach” to protracted conflicts. But on the other side, German Foreign Ministry could have limited itself to sending its political representative during the OSCE Chairmanship to the region. The visit of Steinmeier underlines the attention which is being paid in Berlin to post-soviet protracted conflicts in general which can easily return into military dimension again, so Steinmeier during the press-conference in Chisinau. The personal commitment of German Foreign Minister to solving the conflict issues in Eastern Europe, including those in relations with Russia, has already been many times publicly praised by the Chancellor Angela Merkel. Transnistrian conflict settlement is not interpreted by German diplomacy as a “simple issue” any more (as it used to be before), but still as a case where in certain circumstances a sustainable resolution is possible due to diplomatic efforts and political will of conflict parties and international mediators.
During his visit to Moldova Steinmeier abstained from outstanding political statements but his approach to the conflict settlement became quite clear. On one side, German foreign minister stressed that any sustainable resolution of the conflict can be gained only on the basis of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova. But on the other side, any substantial compromise between conflict parties, so Steinmeier, can be achieved due to confidence-building measures, “small steps”, which contribute to restoring mutual trust. In this sense Steinmeier fully associated himself with the position of Russian and Transnistrian diplomacy. Both Moscow and Tiraspol have promoted the idea that no comprehensive solution of the conflict can be imagined without restoring mutual trust and abstaining from politicized unilateral actions. In this context German Foreign Minister called for swift and full implementation of confidence-building measures foreseen in the Berlin protocol (signed within 5+2 format more than a month ago) – re-connection of telecommunication networks, the apostilisation of Transnistrian university diplomas and resolution of the car license plate issue.
Meanwhile the local conditions for a progress in the conflict settlement heavily deteriorated. Firstly, no breakthrough was achieved in the framework of working groups on sectoral issues mentioned above. Transnistrian Foreign Ministry shared the information in this regard that the Moldovan side avoided substantial discussion arguing it was not provided with a proper negotiation mandate. This fact was actually confirmed by speaker of the Moldovan parliament Andrian Candu during his speech at the meeting of the Platform on consultations and parliamentary control over the country’s reintegration on July 25 (this body was created in May 2016 by a special decision of the Moldovan parliament). “Unfortunately during last 20 years no decisions were found regarding a clear legislative basis which would deliver a negotiation mandate. At our next meeting we will discuss ideas of a special status and possible actions for producing a road map for the Trasnistrian conflict settlement”, Candu said.
This situation unfolded in the context of the forthcoming presidential elections in Moldova. The current Moldovan politics has drowned in smear campaigns of leading political forces against each other, so that no strategic approach to key political issues turns out to be possible in these circumstances, to the Transnistrian issue in particular. That’s why the Moldovan negotiators have carried out a dialogue with Tiraspol, first of all being under diplomatic pressure of international mediators, but avoided to make any binding commitments.
Besides, Chisinau used the tactics which was usually applied by conflict parties when they were determined to obstruct the negotiations. This tactics can be characterized as “managed instability”. This time the story is about prohibiting the Transnistrian import of fuels without customs registration in Chisinau what was initiated by Ukraine and caused the deficit on the Transnistrian energy market. It is difficult to understand who is responsible for this unilateral action. On one side, the decision was implemented by Kiev which is now quite interested in stonewalling the Minsk agreements and applying some soft measures to exert pressure on Moscow. But on the other side, the situation with the arrest of the businessman Veaceslav Platon who has allegedly become a political threat for Vlad Plahotniuc demonstrates the fact that some coordination between Chisinau and Kiev persists.
Nevertheless we do not see a true politicization of the issue with current “blockade” neither by Tiraspol nor by Moscow. Restrictive measures towards transit of Ukrainian goods through Transnistrian territory were mentioned in statements of Transnistrian high-level officials but not implemented yet. It is quite possible that soon the sides will find a diplomatic compromise to return to status-quo.
The long-standing instability on the Dniestr hardly favors the Moldovan authorities. A progress in the Transnistrian conflict settlement is regarded by Brussels as an important sign of Moldova’s Europeanization and as a pre-condition for some additional aid. So if the Moldovan authorities will be willing to keep the positive track of their relations with the EU, IMF and other donors, some positive developments in the conflict settlement will be needed. It is telling in this sense that during his meeting with Steinmeier on July 26 Andrian Candu expressed the will of the Moldovan authorities to work out during the next parliamentary session a concept of a special status for Transnistria, transitional legislation for negotiators’ mandate as well as a road map with concrete steps to resolve the conflict. “Prospects are quite good and we hope that the next year will be a year of opportunities”, he said. Of course it could be a simulation in face of Steinmeier’s visit, but we should not forget that earlier the Moldovan side simply referred to its own quite rough legislative act on the status of Transnistria adopted in 2005 taking any further discussions for inappropriate. Besides, the normalization of relations with Tiraspol is to some extent also a pre-condition for Moldova to restore positive relationship with Russia. Currently the Moldovan delegation is visiting Moscow to discuss the Russian-Moldovan road map on trade issues. So the international context, both in the West and the East, demands from Chisinau some concrete and positive initiatives in the conflict settlement.
Besides, all the parties involved understand very well that the stalemate in the conflict resolution exists not only due to the Moldovan position, but also because of political situation in Tiraspol. In the context of forthcoming presidential elections both political camps represented by the president Shevchouk and the Supreme Council are competing now i.a. in accusing each other of close relations with Chisinau. Any substantial progress in the negotiations can be used by the current parliamentary opposition for producing subsequent information campaign against the president. For example, even the current situation with the Transnistrian import from the Ukrainian territory is interpreted by the representatives of the Supreme Council and some experts appearing at the TV-Channel TSV as an abolishment of Transnistrian statehood coordinated by Kiev and Chisinau with the Transnistrian government. That’s why it was notable that the German Foreign Minister also met with the speaker of the Transnistrian parliament Vadim Krasnoselski what is actually not necessary in terms of diplomatic protocol. Nevertheless, in face of current economic crisis in the break-away republic normalization of relations with Ukraine and Moldova is a key foreign economic priority for Tiraspol regardless of who is in power there at the moment. So in the mid-term perspective Transnistria is rather a positive (even if reserved) player in the conflict settlement than a provocateur.
The need to wait for the next year and to prepare the negotiation agenda for that was also formulated by the Russian representative in 5+2 negotiations Sergey Gubarev. The Transnistrian settlement is again unseasonable, this time predominantly due to local politics. The situation can change but it hardly happens in the second half of this year, at least if we speak about any positive trends.