There are two analytical approaches which are usually used to describe the relationship between Russia and de facto states in the post-soviet space. The first one assumes that they are simply “puppets” of Russian foreign policy and their role could be neglected in general. Within a second approach it is argued that de facto states do have their own interests but these interests are allegedly based exclusively on smuggling activities, blackmailing the international community through creating insecurity.
To deconstruct the relationship between Russia and Transnistria the patron-client relationship model seems to be more suitable and analytically neutral. This model refers to the fact that relations between a patron and a client are usually based on reciprocity, on exchange of benefits they could deliver to each other. The model clearly differs from a concept of dependency because the clients are seen as quite independent subjects. According to Shoemaker and Spanier, the relations are more client-oriented when the security situation looks favorable for the client and they become more patron-oriented when client’s threat environment deteriorates substantially. Patrons can achieve advantages in such areas as ideological orientation of the client, international solidarity in favor of external priorities of the patron state or protection of patron’s strategic interests.
In case of Transnistrian-Russian relations we see how Tiraspol’s threat environment has been deteriorating since 2006-2008. Firstly, the economic crisis in the world and more specifically in Ukraine and Russia has undermined the export potential of the break-away republic, first of all in metal industry. The crisis was particularly hurting for the Transnistrian economy because the regional authorities failed to make useful market reforms and modernization of the economy what leads to a situation when even if subsidized through a smaller gas price Transnistrian factories are hardly able to compete on the foreign markets. Secondly, in March 2006 the customs regime was changed for Transnistrian economic agents, so since that time they should register in Moldovan jurisdiction to exert their export operations. The plans of Moldova and Ukraine to establish a common border control at the Transnistrian segment of the border are meant to put under Moldova’s control the import operations of Transnistrian companies too. To import goods, they will have to provide for example respective phytosanitary certificates for food stuffs. People will have to possess Moldovan registration too to move freely across the border. In a short-term perspective, the Moldovan customs space (along with allied regulatory regimes) will most probably be fully reintegrated, so the Transnistrian authorities will be deprived of a very symbolic part of their sovereignty.
Thirdly, the Transnistrian business is not able any more to benefit seriously from smuggling activities, because EU, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania have done much to provide a full-fledged control of borders in the region. Fourthly, in the last years the status of Kuchurgan power plant which used to constitute one third of Transnistrian exports is highly undermined due to a politicization of electricity supply issues. The contract relations with the key consumer – the right bank of the Nistru river – became very unstable. The supplier is defined each year through a bidding procedure which is now organized under international scrutiny but still lacks full transparency. Since April 2017 Ukraine has been chosen as a supplier despite a threat of supply interruptions due to energy crisis in Ukraine itself. Fifthly, till 2014 Ukraine used to be a key partner for Tiraspol politically, economically and logistically. Kiev in that period of time can be even evaluated as a patron state for Transnistria too. But after the second Maidan Transnistria is seen as an eventual “beachhead for Russian aggression” despite of the fact that both Tiraspol and Moscow tended to keep the region away from the context of Ukrainian crisis. A pure economic motivation amends security and politics here: the metallurgic plant in Rîbniţa is seen now by Ukrainian business as a competitor for ferrous scrap. This was one of the reasons why Ukraine introduced a prohibitive tariff on scrap exports. Last but not least, the increased presence of the West in Moldova stimulates Chisinau to keep its uncompromising stance toward Tiraspol by claiming that no power-sharing in favor of the left bank is possible at all. It has both political and economic dimension. The latter is one of the key reasons why Tiraspol can hardly strike any deal with Chisinau whose economic elites on their part will hardly be willing to accept any special interests of economic elites from the left bank. Besides, in the context of enduring political instability in Chisinau such a deal cannot be provided with sustainable guarantees.
As a result, the economic independence of Transnistria is gradually diminishing what tremendously worsens its security environment (which should not be reduced to a military security only). Earlier Transnistria used to have a more sustainable economic fundament of its de facto statehood. For instance, before 2008 Tiraspol paid for 40-60 % of Gazprom’s gas supplies and differed not so much in this case from the right bank. As mentioned above, not only Moscow but also Kiev was a strategic partner for Tiraspol. Moscow supported Transnistria rather indirectly, through keeping its military presence in the region. That time Russia did not control the political processes in Tiraspol at all what fully manifested in 2000-2002 (when Russian cooperation with both the West and Moldovan president Voronin was obstructed by Tiraspol) or 2010-2011 (when Moscow had to use substantial resources to oust Smirnov from power). But now the situation has fully changed, so the relationship between Russia and Transnistria has become more patron-oriented. This model of relationship matured during Shevchuk’s presidency, not only due to factors mentioned above but also since Shevchuk needed an external support in front of his internal conflict with the parliament. After 2008 the Russian support has been consisting of: a) financial assistance meant to increase the pensions for the local population (for instance, about 17 million dollar in 2016); b) tolerating the fact that Tiraspol has not paid for Russian gas but resold it on the internal market (for instance, in 2015 Tiraspol consumed almost 2 billion cubic meter of gas what amounted to 350 million dollar in monetary terms); c) realizing the socially significant projects in the region, predominantly (re)construction of schools and hospitals (about 100 million dollar in 2012-2016); d) sporadic financial assistance for microfinancial stabilization or development projects. So in monetary terms Russian assistance hardly exceeds 500 million dollar per year.
Why is Russia still interested in close relationship with Transnistria despite its own economic and financial problems? For Moscow, the key benefit is still its own strategic interest. In the context of Ukrainian crisis, the Russian-Western relations deteriorated dramatically, so both sides have deep mutual mistrust. The Nistru river was one of the first geographical areas where a new type of “Cold War” emerged. On the eve of introducing a new customs regime for Transnistrian exporteurs in March 2006 it was exactly the Russian Ambassador in Moldova Nokolay Ryabov who identified a situation of a new “Cold War” in Russian-Western relations. And the situation dramatically worsened since 2014. U.S. and the EU securitized to a very high extent democratic development and territorial integrity of all countries in the Eastern neighborhood, including Moldova. In practice, it presupposes a strategy of increasing Western structural power in the region and respectively diminishing structural power of Russia there as much as possible. Such a strategy is being realized cautiously in order not to cause dramatic consequences like in Ukraine.
Therefore, Russia and the West are engaged into a symmetric confrontation, but the EU and US are advancing now in Moldova politically and economically on the preventive basis. We could provide just a few examples. Firstly, US and EU / Romania support current Moldovan authorities both politically and financially. It is taking place despite of the fact that international media and civil society in Moldova describe the political regime in Moldova as a “captured state”. It remembers the US Cold War strategy of having loyal “bad guys” in areas of strategic interest. In this sense, we could indicate the existence of patron-client relationship not only between Russia and Transnistria but also between Moldova and the West. In comparison with the US the EU policy in Moldova is driven also by normative arguments: for instance, European Union used to support also right-wing opposition of Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase. But nevertheless, the EU’s policy cannot differ much from US stance, that’s why geopolitics and normative agenda can be combined and EU’s support of the opposition is more of moral character.
Secondly, NATO and the US are currently increasing their presence in Moldova. In May 2016, military drills were organized in Moldova with the participation of 200 US soldiers. In summer this year a NATO liaison office is expected to be opened in Chisinau. As for now this fact is worrying not in military terms, but in terms of NATO’s gradual advance in Moldova, first of all by increasing its informational work to make Moldovan population more loyal to a cooperation with the Alliance. Thirdly, the European Union promotes in Moldova through the Association framework its own institutional regimes which as for now are not compatible not only with Eurasian Economic Union but also CIS Free Trade Area. In case of energy cooperation, developed in the framework of Energy Community, the EU promotes Third Energy Package (its implementation will practically deprive Gazprom of its assets in Moldovan transmission networks) and the construction of Romanian-Moldovan gas interconnector which will be finalized till 2019. To mention is also the establishment of Moldovan-Ukrainian border control at the Transnistrian segment of the border which is financed and technically implemented with the EU support.
In these circumstances both Tiraspol and Moscow are still interested in a close partnership. Tiraspol has requested Moscow’s financial assistance in an amount of 130 million dollars (what constitutes the current budget deficit of the region per year), but Russia will hardly be willing to establish a full financial protectorate over Tiraspol. Nevertheless, in a near future both sides will most probable pursue a tactics of “muddling through” without any attempts to change the geostrategic situation.
At the same time, it does not mean that Russia and Transnistria favor the status quo: now Moscow and Tiraspol promote “small steps policy”. For Russia it is a way to support somehow Igor Dodon who made the Transnistrian issue to one of his key priorities. Transnistria has been supporting this way of rapprochement with the right bank since 2011 to prevent any hurdles for its own economic agents and people. Evgeny Shevchuk at the beginning of his presidency even stated that restoration of mutual trust through “small steps” could lead to reopening discussions on political status of the region. This approach suddenly failed due to internal and external circumstances in the context of Russian-Western contradictions on Moldova’s association with the EU. Now the Transnistrian position is more rigid: no discussions on the political status. But it does not mean that if realized “small steps policy” would be unsuccessful in bringing Tiraspol back to political discussions on the status.
But currently the traditional skeptical position of Chisinau towards Transnistrian conflict settlement is getting even tougher. In face of parliamentary elections in Moldova in 2018 the Moldovan authorities began to use an old frame of alleged geopolitical competition between Russia and the West / Moldova as a political technology. As a consequence, the Moldovan-Russian relations are worsening: Chisinau rather avoids to escalate the confrontation beyond some limits, so the affront against Moscow is organized through the stories about Moldova’s officials being humiliated at the Russian border or about alleged Moscow’s footstep in assassination attempt on the leader of the Democratic Party. But indirectly Russian positions in the region are undermined through such initiatives having long-standing structural consequences as: replacement of Moldovagaz’ management, giving over the contract for Moldova’s electricity supply to a Ukrainian company, establishing the Moldovan-Ukrainian border control (which is expected to take place till the end of 2017). Russia is also responding (predominantly by supporting Igor Dodon with some symbolic gestures), but its resources are limited.