Moldova’s president-elect, Maia Sandu, campaigned and won on an anti-corruption platform with few, if any, references to geopolitics. Yet, within days of her victory, one of the longest-standing and thorniest geopolitical issues that the country will continue to face under her leadership has moved to the centre stage again—the protracted conflict over Transnistria.
Sandu emphasized the need for constructive relations when meeting with Russia’s ambassador to Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov, three days after her victory. More specifically on Transnistria, she acknowledged that resolving the conflict would be impossible without Russia.
Given that Russian President Vladimir Putin had almost immediately recognized Sandu’s victory and already congratulated her a day after the elections, the early signs were promising. While there was no expectation of an imminent settlement of the almost three-decades-old conflict, neither was there a fear that the conflict would trigger a renewed deterioration in relations between Russia and Moldova.
This honeymoon period, however, was very short-lived. Ten days after her victory, Sandu mentioned in an interview with TRM1 that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria was on her agenda. Similarly, she told the BBC in an interview on 30 November, in response to a question about whether Russia would allow Moldova to join the EU, that hers was an independent and sovereign country that made its own choices. In this context, she also mentioned that “it still needs to get Russian troops out of Moldova’s territory”. This was not a very different statement from one that she had made ten days earlier in an interview with the Ukrainian Pravda when she noted, in response to a question about the status of Transnistria after its future reintegration into Moldova, that any settlement “should include the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Moldova.”
Russia’s response to this was predictable. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists at a briefing on November 27 that Russia viewed such demands as “aimed at undermining efforts to resolve the Transnistria problem by peaceful methods.” Four days later, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a news conference following the meeting of the CSTO Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow, stated that Sandu’s comment on “the need for withdrawing Russian peacekeepers … will hardly facilitate the peace settlement, and that Russia is unlikely to accept this fairly irresponsible demand.” This view was reflected within Moldova as well where outgoing president Igor Dodon insisted that the peacekeeping mission “must stay until a political solution to the Transnistrian conflict is found,” a view echoed in Transnistria as well.
The battle lines, thus, are once again clearly drawn. All sides have established their respective red lines, but with sufficient margin for (re-) interpretation. Nothing in Sandu’s statements to date suggests that she will insist on the immediate withdrawal of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria (the remnants of the Soviet and then Russian 14th Army guarding approximately 22,000 tons of mostly derelict military equipment and ammunition). Similarly, her suggestion that the multilateral peacekeeping force established under the 1992 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Moldova be transformed into an OSCE-led civilian mission is not entirely new and has never been ruled out by Moscow in principle.
Moreover, Sandu has repeatedly called for a reinvigoration of the 5+2 talks. Sandu’s support for this format should eventually lead again to more formal talks between all stakeholders which have not taken place since October 2019. This will almost be the case irrespective of Sandu’s views, given her limited powers as president and in light of the fact that the current government, led by Dodon’s Socialist Party, also remains in favour of pursuing talks in the 5+2 format as recently confirmed in a phone call between the Russian and Moldovan foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, Transnistria’s foreign minister, Vitaly Ignatyev, asserted after a meeting with the Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, Claus Neukirch, that his side, too, was “ready to resume talks in the 5+2 format without preliminary conditions”. It is also important to note in the Transnistrian context that recent parliamentary elections in the region have consolidated the grip of the Obnovlenie Party on power, after already securing the presidency in 2016. The political front of the Sheriff conglomerate that dominates almost every aspect of life in Transnistria secured 29 out of 33 seats in the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet, albeit amid allegations of vote-rigging and at a dismal turnout of just under 28%. Regardless of its democratic credentials or lack thereof, Obnovlenie, and the Sheriff business empire behind it, remain keenly interested in preserving relations with Chisinau and Brussels given that approximately 70% of all Transnistrian exports go to the EU market via Moldova under the country’s DCFTA arrangements with the EU.
Thus, the stage is set for a return to more than a decade of a simulated settlement process during which the immediate parties to the conflict—Moldova and Transnistria—can engage in talks that will occasionally result in agreements on issues that both of them consider important to resolve. The OSCE, as the principal mediator of these talks, will continue to support and sustain the 5+2 process This was made clear by the Special Representative of Albania’s OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the Transnistrian Settlement Process, Thomas Mayr-Harting, as recently as June this year. Likewise, the other international stakeholders in the process, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the EU have few incentives to derail a process that may not have resulted in an actual settlement but that certainly has contributed to a very stable status quo.
A Sandu presidency, despite the recent furore over her statements on Russian troops in Transnistria, is not going to lead to a radical break with a long-established practice of ‘small steps’ that lead precisely nowhere other than a constantly, if marginally, improving and therefore more stable status quo. Ultimately, this is the presently possible smallest common denominator on which all stakeholders inside and outside Moldova can agree. It avoids potentially destabilising outcomes while retaining the possibility of a future settlement, not least because it keeps channels of communication open between the parties and, with appropriate international support, builds and improves their capacities to engage constructively. In light of the recent violent escalation in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, this is not something to be dismissed out of hand.